Staying Cozy with Elkridge – for teens and adults

The photograph depicts two hands holding an open book against a colorful woolen blanket, with sunlight streaming in to illuminate the book.

By Elkridge Branch staff

Winter is a great time to curl up with a cozy read. Cold and sometimes dreary weather begs for a blanket, a hot drink, and a fire. This month, the Elkridge branch staff members have collected a list of titles to encourage you to Stay Cozy! Keep an eye on the HCLS Facebook page to see titles for all ages highlighted throughout January, and make sure to track titles for the Winter Reading Challenge. Here are just a few of those titles. 

FOR TEENS: 

The book cover depicts a blue-eyed husky above the title, with a panoramic scene under the title of a driver, dog sled, and dogs against a winter forest backdrop in muted blue and gray tones.

The History of the World in Fifty Dogs by Mackenzi Lee, illustrated by Petra Eriksson

Cozy up with canines and a large bowl of snark in The History of the World in Fifty Dogs by Mackenzi Lee, a compilation of Milkbone-sized, illustrated essays about interesting bits of human history accompanied by dogs. Dogs have won Pets in World Mythology Best in Show for millennia. While Cerberus, Anubis, and Fenrir take first place in name recognition, you can find other good dog deity stories such as Gourd Tray, a bug-turned-dog-turned-prince. I especially liked the guide dog to the underworld, Wepwawet, whose name I now consider the greatest dog name aside from Entropy. Sit, stay, and play an around-the-world game of Fetch the Friendship of doggo and hooman. 

Blazewrath Games by Amparo Ortiz

Now imagine a different sort of mutt–a sport with lineage derived from rugby, capture the flag, and Krav Maga. With magic. On dragons. Lana Torres eats, sleeps, and breathes Blazewrath. It connects her to her Papi and the golden age prior to her parents’ divorce when they lived together amid Puerto Rico’s Cayey mountains. Now, for the first time, her beloved homeland has the requisite number of dragons to play the game. Amid internal and external debates about identity and merit, pro-dragon terrorists attack. When the Dragon Knights threaten the World Cup, Lana fears it to be a Hydra. Runners do not run from the fight; they run toward it. With worldbuilding adventure at its finest, with a diverse cast of authentic LGBTQ+, POC, and disabled characters, this book enthralls.

Elatsoe by Darcy Little Badger 

One of the most engaging books I have read all year involves a ghost Springer Spaniel named Kirby and an unnamed ghost trilobite, because our Lipan Apache heroine enjoys paleontology. Elatsoe, Ellie for short, has the enviable ability to resurrect spirits. Magic, in all its multicultural glory, gore, and grace, exists, and Ellie can summon the spirits of dead animals, just like her Six-Great-Grandmother. 

The story opens with the death of her older cousin, with whom she had been close. On the way to his afterlife, his spirit pops in to see Ellie. He tells her he was murdered, who murdered him, and tasks her with seeking justice for him while protecting his widow and newborn baby. Elatsoe gets help from her parents, friends, and the stories of her ancestors, which are an ever-present, essential aspect of her life. There’s a cyclical feel to the storytelling, as if the past, present, and future are one. 

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Barnes – also available as an audiobook on CD and an ebook on OverDrive 

Dear Santa, aside from a ghost wooly mammoth, can I please have a billionaire bequeath me his entire fortune? No? Then I will follow Avery Grambs’s quest to understand why billionaire Tobias Hawthorne, a complete stranger, cut every blood relative out of his will to name Avery his heir. Sure, she’s appreciative, but also confused and curious. Raised by a single mother who treated every action and event as a game, be it chores, poverty, or cancer, Avery’s affinity for puzzles and games sends her down dangerous rabbit holes. With the help of three vastly different, handsome brothers, she unlocks truths about each member of the family. Everyone has a story, often entertaining, always suspect.

Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson – also available as an ebook on cloudLibrary

Dogs + snow = instant cozy. Fourteen-year-old Victoria Secord is angry. A local musher offered her dibs on his high-quality sled dogs. As an aspiring racer, Vicky recognizes the chance of a lifetime, but her mom has to work and apparently does not trust her daughter to drive her dog team across town alone. Vicky sneaks away with her team. Vicky is snow savvy with survival skills to rival Bear Grylls, thanks to her dad. Of course, Chris has none of these skills. Who is Chris? He’s the guy Vicky finds sprawled in the snow bleeding beside a smashed snowmobile. Actually, most household appliances possess more non-urban survival skills than Chris. Go ahead, start your worry. After Vicky administers first aid, she offers him a ride. They get lost. More fun, there’s a rising snowstorm, and by morning everything is hidden under an endless expanse of white, camouflaging all landmark vegetation. Have you started worrying yet? 

FOR ADULTS: 

The book cover photograph depicts a dark grey terrier wearing a knitted pink sweater.

The Little Book of Hygge : Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking

Hygge (pronounced hoo-ga) is the Danish word for the contentment that comes from embracing life’s simplest pleasures. Warm, inviting homes, quality time with family and close friends, and an appreciation for all things natural and handmade are just some of its components. Meik Wiking, author and CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, recommends recipes, tips for interior design, and activities to enjoy from the comfort and safety of home, and describes how an approach of feeling gratitude for the everyday has helped make the Danes some of the happiest people in the world. 

Nothing Much Happens: Cozy and Calming Stories to Soothe Your Mind and Help You Sleep by Kathryn Nicolai

Based on the beloved podcast, Nothing Much Happens proves that we never outgrow the calming magic of a cozy bedtime story. This collection of short, sensory-delighting stories will lull even the busiest mind into a restful state. In describing everyday moments of joy and beauty, these stories conjure a deep and soothing sense that all is well. The included meditation practices, recipes, and relaxation techniques nurture the body and train the mind in the habit of wellbeing that begins with a good night’s sleep. 

Sweaters for Dogs: 15 Knitting Projects to Keep Your Dog Cozy and Comfortable by Debbie Humphreys

Knitting is a trendy hobby, and what’s cuter than a dog in a sweater? Cable-knit, ribbed, chunky, turtleneck – you name it. You’ll love the fifteen knitting projects, ranked from “one paw” for a straightforward pattern to “three paws” for more complicated projects, as well as stunning photographs of adorable canine models. Whether or not you have a furry companion to keep warm this winter, you’ll enjoy looking through these fun designs.

The Elkridge Branch + DIY Education Center opened the doors of its new building in March 2018. All our staff wish that we could see you in person, but we are happy to help you discover new reads while we are apart.

Revolution or Counter-Revolution?

Black and white print of slave revolt with a man wielding a sword and disarray around a table.

“Above all, he was flabbergasted by their constant prating about liberty while continuing the enslavement of tens of thousands” 
Gerald Horne (writing about Samuel Johnson’s feelings about the colonists) 

If you’ve ever wanted more information on the events leading up to the American Revolutionary War, Gerald Horne’s got you covered. His 2014 book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, will help you fill some of those gaps.  

Horne argues that the strongest driver of the revolutionary war was the African slave trade. He further claims that the American Revolution was not, in fact, a progressive victory for the good guys, but rather a regressive counter-revolution to the constant revolutions of the rapidly growing number of enslaved Africans on the continent and in the Caribbean. Through a mountain of primary source material, Horne documents the macro- and micro-events in the mainland colonies, Jamaica, and Barbados in the years leading up to 1776. 

In my opinion, Horne’s only flaw is his love of outrageously long and convoluted sentences. Horne is clearly of the Miltonian school of prose and sometimes seems to be attempting unmatched feats of sentence length: 

Perhaps, rather than seeing these men as having novel conceptions of allegiance to London or even as ungrateful hypocrites, it might be better to see them as ‘premature’ U.S. patriots; that is, economic logic was impelling them like a swift river current toward secession; while London was seeking to restrain their business dealings driven by the luscious bounty of African enslavement, Paris and Madrid had burst the dam and were more than willing to encourage settlers’ shady bargains, and, thus, these mainland men chose not to fight this trend but embrace it, along with the pretty profits it delivered (160).

Nestled within that labyrinthine sentence is the heart of the book: colonists were driven to war with England by the economic logic of slavery. The book is well-researched, well-argued, and compelling. In many cases, Horne uses the colonists’ own words to illustrate how the immense wealth they could accumulate from the enslavement of Africans drove them to madness. Horne writes, “Africans, in short, were a major antagonist, but mainlanders were reluctant to curb the seemingly ceaseless flow of Africans who were arriving, which was raising searching questions in London about their judgment, if not their sanity” (154). In my opinion, this book provides crucial historical context and should be required reading. 

Ben’s suggested pairings: 

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Gates deals with the same theme of powerful men doing whatever they can to keep unjust systems in place.  (also available as an ebook and eaudiobook)

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates touches on many of the same themes as Horne. The sections on the “invention of racecraft” will be particularly interesting to readers of Horne’s work.  (also available as ebook and eaudiobook)

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi. Kendi’s book provides the reader with suggestions for how to move forward. (also available as ebook and eaudiobook)

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had by Rick Bass

The book cover photograph shows a black, blue-eyed, short-haired dog seated with his nose in the air, on a field of lush, bright green grass.

By Julie F.

I fall very easily for stories about humans and their pets, especially when it’s a coming-of-age story. (Think Sterling North’s Rascal or Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller, both of which author Rick Bass loved as a child, and both of which I still own in my childhood copies). Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had isn’t a coming-of-age story, as it was written when the author was in his forties, but it’s still a perceptive and moving look at how a beloved animal can open one’s eyes, create a change in perspective, and forever alter a life. Bass loved and loves every dog he has ever had – that’s clear from his touching narrative about the stray hounds he rescued, Homer and Ann, as well as his amusing recounting of how he couldn’t choose between two pointers in a subsequent litter of Colter’s full siblings (spoiler: he ends up taking both of them home).

Why is Colter “the best” of these? It’s ambiguous – Bass clearly believes that they have a mysterious but immutable bond – but it’s largely based on Colter’s growth from runt of the litter to magnificent, mature sporting dog, and the incomparable feeling Bass has when they are working in tandem to achieve their mutual goal and desire to hunt, the destiny for which he has trained Colter. I’m not a hunter, but his descriptions of what both he and Colter (presumably) felt during training and hunting are breathtaking:

“I think that in those moments, those perfect moments, when we are crossing great fields like that, an observer looking down from a mile or two above – a bird’s-eye view – would not believe that we were earthbound. I feel certain that that observer would see the two animals, man and dog, moving steadily across that prairie – one casting and weaving, the other continuing straight ahead – and would believe that they were two birds traveling in some graceful drift to some point, some location, known surely to their hearts” (95).

A beautiful ode to rural life in Montana, to the changing seasons of a dog’s life, to companionship and love and loss. If you’re a fan of Bass’s work, or just of nature writing in general, I highly recommend this book – it’s a keeper – as well as his look at the first wolf pack to attempt to settle outside of the boundaries of the national parks in Montana after reintroduction, The Ninemile Wolves. Although both are excellent, I rate this one just a little more highly because of the intense personal journey it shares with the reader. For fiction readers, Bass is also the author of several collections of short stories available at HCLS, including In the Loyal Mountains and For a Little While: New and Selected Stories, as well as an essay collection that celebrates some of his mentors, The Traveling Feast: On the Road and At the Table with My Heroes.

Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch. She loves gardening, reading, and all kinds of music.

Intimations by Zadie Smith

The book cover shows a gray hallway with slotted windows and light coming through them to land on the floor and the opposite wall, which curves away from the viewer toward a dark entryway.

By Eric L.

I recall the first time I read something in the New Yorker by Zadie Smith nearly a decade ago. It was a nonfiction story about Joni Mitchell entitled “Some Notes on Attunement: A Voyage Around Joni Mitchell.” It was a nonfiction personal reflection about how she, a woman of color, had no interest in the music of a white folk singer, who on the surface would have nothing at all in common with her despite her friends’ incredulous responses concerning her cluelessness.

Smith describes how she realized her youthful stubbornness and closed-minded self as the culprit. The essay was about her own change and growth and the change of Joni Mitchell as an artist (she is pretty great by the way). Probably much like all people that love books, artists, writers, and the like, I felt a connection to Zadie Smith. I liked her style, her attitude, and her contemplative nature. And I can certainly relate to the glib rejection of things I didn’t think were for me. I subsequently realized we’re the same age, although other than that, we are very different on the surface I may not have guessed her writing was the sort of thing I’d love, but I do.

At any rate, her new essay collection, Intimations, is a book of very short essays written just prior to and during the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. The essays include the commonplace and ordinary events of everyday life, set into a broader, more abstract context. Obviously, I have a bias in this matter, but her essays and style are perfect for this moment. Smith’s ability to relate everyday individual experiences into a much more abstract concept is nonpareil. I found the essays particularly poignant now that I miss, and have ample time to ruminate about, the quotidian things of my pre-socially distant life.

There is an essay about our desire, or our need, to fill up time with things to do. One entitled “Suffering Like Mel Gibson,” (I’m a sucker for a strange title) that is hardly at all about the actor. Instead, it’s a piece about suffering and privilege, and how we ought to consider these separately, and not discount the feelings of others. Smith even describes the moment when she recognized her own class privilege. She has a series of very short character sketches about the people in her neighborhood and their respective reactions to the looming pandemic in America. “Peonies” is a very entertaining piece about flowers, control, aging, being a woman, and the coronavirus. The penultimate essay, “Postscript: Contempt as a Virus,” is arguably the best: it begins with a description of the global pandemic, her experience in England (where she has gone after leaving New York), and “herd immunity,” then gets into the murder of George Floyd and racism as a virus we all spread and suffer. It’s a masterfully done and moving piece. All the essays are excellent, but this one alone is worth picking up the book.

Since that first essay, I’ve read almost all of her essays. However, I must admit that I liked, but did not love, her most famous fictional work, White Teeth. No matter; for me, she excels in the essay genre. I’d highly recommend Grand Union and Feel Free (which includes a great story about a library), as well.

Smith’s ability to display so much humility and not only admit, but describe in detail, her foibles and ignorance is something I really respect. Perhaps this is the very opposite of the cultural atmosphere in the United States.

Intimations is available at HCLS in print, in large print, and in eBook and eAudiobook format through OverDrive/Libby.

All royalties Smith earns from this book are donated to The Equal Justice Initiative and The COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York.

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

Photo of Kim Gordon in a subway, with duotone wash in red.

By Ben H.

“it’s hard to write about a love story with a broken heart” – Kim Gordon 

Girl in a Band is a breakup memoir and it’s a good one.  

It is also much more than a breakup memoir. It is a pretty killer Künstlerroman* (Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter is a good comparison); a brilliant memoir of place(s) (like Joan Didion’s “White Album” essay), and a behind the music for music nerds (I don’t have a good comp, but I need to keep the parallelism going). Kim Gordon was the eponymous “girl in a band” with Sonic Youth, a band that made loud noisy rock records. She was married to her bandmate, Thurston Moore, for 29 years until she learned of him having an affair. Neither the couple nor the band survived the affair. My review isn’t necessarily for the Sonic Youth fans out there, because they’ve probably already read this and devoured the middle section where Gordon highlights her favorite tracks and gives them biographical context; my review is for the people who need another reason to read a memoir about a girl in a band. 

Gordon writes beautifully about the places she’s lived. From her childhood in L.A. to her adulthood in New York to her motherhood in Massachusetts, Gordon excels at remembering tiny details and writing gorgeous descriptions of the distinct phases of her life. L.A. is a maze to be escaped and returned to; New York is chaotic and fertile like an overgrown garden; and Massachusetts is suffocating, domestic, and tense.

Gordon’s L.A. is a Janus-faced landscape of “rustic hillsides filled with twisted oak trees, scruffy and steep, with lighter-than-light California sunshine filtering through the tangles,” and flat neighborhoods of “freshly mowed green lawns camouflaging dry desert-scape…everything orderly but with its own kind of unease.” The places Gordon writes about become characters through her tapestry of vivid vignettes. For me, she does her best writing about places. If you still aren’t convinced, the vintage photographs Gordon uses for each chapter, like the one of her standing with her arms around Iggy Pop and Nick Cave, are reason enough to read this book. 

When I think of Sonic Youth, I don’t necessarily think of the awesome sheets of sound they made as a band. I think of the husky and wild vocals of Gordon. Her delivery is one of a kind. She drones. She growls. She talks. She screams. She sings. As an author, she might not possess the same kind of singular voice, but she knows how to tell a story and set a scene. At the risk of sounding adolescent, she is also very cool. Speaking of cool, Gordon references William Gibson’s thriller Pattern Recognition – she named a song after it. His cool-hunting protagonist Cayce Pollard is totally cut from the same cloth as Kim Gordon. Listen to any of the tracks off Gordon’s solo album, No Home Record, and tell me she isn’t very cool.

I won’t review the details of her relationship with Thurston Moore, but I think she does a marvelous job writing about the arc of their relationship. The passages describing them falling in love are lovely. The passages describing Thurston’s increasingly erratic behavior in Massachusetts are heartbreaking.

Kim Gordon, band aside, has led a fascinating life. My wife recommended this book to me and now I’m recommending it to you. Take a trip back in time to when CDs were the only way to listen to music and request Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation while you’re at it! 

*artist’s book about growing into maturity

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

By Cherise T.

Do you miss browsing our library shelves? Settling into a cozy chair to explore a stack of books and deciding which to check out and take home? Filling your bag with books by new authors, DVDs for that sitcom your daughter thought you’d love, CDs by a band you’ve been hearing on the radio? If so, Howard County Library System’s Bundle Bags will bring you joy, information, and entertainment. Especially with the colder weather setting in, a bag of library materials prepared just for you will brighten the day. Think about snuggling under a blanket with a new book, immersing in a compelling period drama, laughing at a romantic comedy or dancing to energizing music. Whether you want to challenge yourself and learn to knit in time for holiday gift giving or bake a great pie using recipes from a gorgeous cookbook, there’s a Bundle Bag for you. 

Save time assisting your student with a homework assignment by requesting a Bundle Bag. Just imagine, a bag filled with books about trucks, colors, and shapes. Or maybe your child is ready to add chapter books to his reading journey. Our library staff is skilled in selecting children’s and teen books ranging from educational to inspirational, from sports to fantasy to classics. The next time a family member complains of running out of things to read or watch, be reassured that help is on the way. 

Destress throughout your daily activities with some holiday music. We’ve got a Bundle Bag for that. Always wanted to try a romance novel? We’ve got a Bundle Bag for that. Relax into an audiobook about your favorite movie star or escape with a thrilling mystery. Explore true crime accounts. Check out a British television series. With a bag filled with materials, you may just find your next favorite book or movie.  

Easily complete the form for a Bundle Bag on our website. There are five age categories ranging from infant to adult. Request books or CDs/DVDs, or both. For each category requested, a library research staff member selects six items. Choose up to five categories for a total of 30 items. After selecting the bundle contents, complete the form by entering a pickup date and time as early as the second library business day and up to two weeks from the date of form submission. Bags may be picked up at any of our six branches. With one trip to the library for contactless pickup, bring home everything from board books for your grandson to Oscar-winning films for you.  

Cherise Tasker is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. When not immersed in literary fiction, Cherise can be found singing along to musical theater soundtracks. 

Bundle Up

I Like to Watch by Emily Nussbaum

Title and author copy in big black block letters with a rainbow of drop shadow behind them.

By Rebecca W.

I’m not sure if anyone else spent the end of summer comparing the lengths of their summer reading list to that of their Netflix watch history… but for me the latter is headed for a sweeping victory. In a last ditch effort to slightly even the scales, while not venturing too far from my comfort zone, I picked up I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution (also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook). In a collection of her own criticism, author and TV critic Emily Nussbaum reflects on her work from 2007 to the present. 

Nussbaum’s anthology, a personally curated selection of work from New York and The New Yorker, explores the revolution in how we view TV; from “it will rot your brain” all the way to “binge-worthy”. The book begins with an introduction by Nussman explaining how Buffy the Vampire Slayer turned her away from her doctoral studies in literature in pursuit of TV; a pursuit that, in 2016, earned her the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Now this, a mere three pages in, was about the place in the book where I was hooked. As an avid Buffy viewer, anyone who places her on the same tier as Tony Soprano has my full attention. 

Throughout her work Nussbaum continually defends TV’s place among “high-brow” art. As Nussbaum recounts her first episode of Buffy in the mid 90s, she also recalls public opinion of TV watching as shameful, an opinion that Nussbaum writes “was true not only of snobs who boasted that they ‘didn’t even own a TV’; but was true of people who liked TV.” While this view has definitely changed since the 90s, I found myself comparing the thought to my own TV habits. In the current age of television, I can simultaneously feel shameful for clicking “next episode” on my latest soapy obsession, while at the same time apologize for not keeping up with the latest hard-hitting drama. I am able to rationalize this feeling through another major theme in Nussbaum’s work. While we find ourselves in a place where acclaimed TV can be found in the same space as acclaimed films, there are a number of people left out when determining what is great TV and what is guilty pleasure. 

What I truly enjoy about this book is how Nussbaum navigates the gender, racial, and cultural biases all too common in the television industry through strong arguments, humor, and, at times, contradictions to her own thought. In the end, this book gave me a perfect end to my guilt-free-TV-binging summer. 

Becky is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the HCLS East Columbia Branch who enjoys art and everything science.

The Library is for Everyone, Part 2

The picture depicts bunting in an alley festooned with flags from different countries, with a light fixture overhead.

By Piyali C.

Many fascinating works of immigrant literature highlight various aspects of the immigrant experience, including the anonymity and loneliness that I reflected on in Monday’s post about my own experience as an immigrant who eventually discovered a welcoming community at my local library. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: (Available in print, ebook, eaudio) – New arrivals from Kolkata, India, the Ganguli family tries to create their lives in America while they miss their home. The book explores the complicated relationship first-generation immigrants have with their birth country and the country of their ancestors.

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames: (Available in print) – Beautiful yet odd, Stella Fortuna has been pursued by death her entire life. But Stella is resilient and tough. Above all things, Stella desires freedom. However, when Stella’s family emigrates to America from their village in Italy on the cusp of WWII, Stella realizes her family will deny her what she desires most at any cost, her freedom.

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok: (Available in print and ebook) – A beautiful story of Kimberly Chang, an immigrant from Hong Kong, who has to straddle two worlds, succeeding in America through hard work and fulfilling her duty to her family.

The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande (also available in ebook and eaudiobook): Reyna Grande’s powerful memoir tells us about her childhood in a remote village in Mexico where her parents left her to make a living in United States, and her illegal trek across the two countries to be reunited with her parents at age 8.

When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago: In this memoir, the author describes her childhood days in Puerto Rico, which were filled with chaos, but also love and tenderness. From a very different environment in Puerto Rico, Santiago is brought to the bewildering and confusing world of New York. In her memoir, the author chronicles her journey of overcoming adversity in a new country and finding acceptance and success.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

I Am Not Your Negro

Review by Eric L.

The title itself should take you back to a time and parlance that we, as a country of “free” citizens, should have moved past long ago. Sadly, we have not. 

I am Not Your Negro is a great introduction to James Baldwin. Filmmaker Raoul Peck worked on the project for nearly a decade (a recent article by Peck in The Atlantic entitled James Baldwin Was Right All Along is a great primer). The film offers a potent collage of civil rights era footage, recent Black Lives Matter protests, interviews, and debates that feature Baldwin speaking (captivating), as well as the narration of excerpts from an incomplete manuscript read by actor Samuel L. Jackson, tentatively entitled Remember This House.  

The 1979 manuscript concerns Baldwin’s reluctant return to America after a long sojourn in France. The nonfiction piece, a pensive essay on racism in America, details his relationship with, and observations of, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin refers to himself as a “witness” of these three titans of the civil rights movement, all murdered before the age of 40. Baldwin explicitly states that he’s not missing his native land; the impetus for his return seems out of a sense of guilt that America’s serious racial divide is an abstraction to him while living abroad.  

Baldwin succinctly states that “segregation equals apathy and ignorance,” as they are forces very difficult to overcome. His assessment of Americans’ sense of reality and the reasons for it should give us all something to contemplate. I love good writing, and Baldwin’s prose is beautiful. I believe this is why some have compared his essays to those of George Orwell (I encourage you to read his essays, too. I’m a huge fan). I would describe both as moral or political artists, and perhaps I appreciate their contemplative tone.

As a side note, Baldwin’s fictional  Another Country, included in PBS’s the Great American Read, made for a great discussion in my book group. The narrative deftly examines race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, power, and anger. The nonfiction title The Fire Next Time is comprised of two essays, one a letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew. I find them both beautifully written and compelling.  

Perhaps it’s a positive sign that the aforementioned materials are currently in high demand and hard to borrow, both in print and digitally, so just start by streaming the film on Kanopy. It is well worth your time! 

It some ways it seems odd that someone like me is writing this piece. If you met me you’d quickly realize that I’m close to the apex of privilege in America for a variety of reasons. I’m well aware of this fact, though I wasn’t always. I’d proffer that sometimes single words such as “privilege” become overused, politicized, and more importantly, lose their intent. This is precisely why we should all contemplate our world, and art is an engaging way to do so. 

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty

The author sits on a rustic bench against a green shingled wall holding a plate of food in one hand and resting the other on a small wooden bushel basket. He is dressed in a linen shirt, a beige vest, and grey pans. A cast iron skillet hangs over the upper left corner with the subtitle in it.

Review by Kristen B.

The James Beard Award-winning book, The Cooking Gene, defies categorization: part memoir, part highly researched historical account of Southern foodways, and part genealogical research into the author’s ancestry. It also includes recipes. By no means an easy book to read in its themes or storytelling, Twitty takes us on journeys throughout the American colonies with the contributions of enslaved Africans front and center. The book generally follows the history of the American South, but other bits work their way in, too. Personal experiences and family stories intersperse with long lists of ingredients found at plantation feasts. It’s like having an extremely learned docent talking about all his favorite subjects, which is a fair assessment of the situation.

Michael Twitty is a gay, black, Jewish man who interprets historical Southern cooking, particularly from the pre-Civil War era. His book recounts some of those experiences, intermingled with a wealth of knowledge about how “soul food,” that indelible American cultural touchstone, came to be. As human beings made the Middle Passage from Africa to America, food and culture naturally travelled with them. The Cooking Gene presents a fascinating dissection of slave-holding states and their regional variations, from the Chesapeake area along the Low Country of the Carolinas and Gullah-Geechee to the deep South of Louisiana and Alabama. Each area offered something new and different into the country’s cooking lexicon, and most of those old kitchens were run by slaves … some of whom were even trained in Paris to further increase the standings of the families they served.

Twitty focuses on food as a way to explain the people: yams, corn, rice, greens, tobacco, and more. As part of the food history, he also details the different eras of human commerce and wrote a sentence that stopped me cold in my tracks and that I’ve thought about ever since:

The black body was the single most valuable commodity in the American marketplace between the years 1790 and 1860 (p. 321).

The other major thread winding through this astounding book is what Twitty calls his Southern Discomfort Tour. He, with the help of genetic testing and professional genealogists, has traced more than eight generations of his family’s history in America. He located records of his ancestors’ lives along the North Carolina/Virginia border, as well as deeper into the South. He found receipts of their sales and how they were listed among assets of landowners. From his genetic testing results, he could identify which regions and tribes his family belonged to in West and Central Africa. His racial heritage also includes more than a quarter European descent, which led him to travel to London and Dublin to claim those parts of his heritage, too. I realized that Twitty’s family has been in America longer than just about anyone’s I know. Twitty pulls very few punches recounting the terrors and sordid realities of life for slaves. The genius of this book is that the author puts so much of himself into the telling that the reader must do him the respect of listening.

I learned so much, including the sheer diversity of the African population that made the Middle Passage and how – truly, in every way – African-Americans built our country. They were the field hands, builders and master craftsmen, knowledgable farmers and hunters, and yes … the cooks who fed everyone. I learned about the history of our country’s foods and about a diversity that we lack in our modern era of packaged foods and monocultures. In my family, as in so many others, food is love. The Cooking Gene is nothing short of Michael Twitty’s love letter to his culture, his family, and the foodways of the American South.

This title is available in the collection as a book, eBook, and eAudiobook, both via Overdrive and RB Digital, which has the “always available” audio as part of its Anti-Racism reading list.

If you are interested in learning more about the African-American experience and anti-racism, join us for an online conversation on Monday, July 20 with Ibram X. Kendi on “How to Be an Anti-Racist.” Registration required.

Kristen B. has worked for HCLS for more than 15 years, and currently hosts the Books on Tap discussion group at Hysteria Brewing Company. She loves reading, Orioles baseball, and baking.