Reading Human Rights

You’re invited! Reading Human Rights is a monthly book discussion hosted by the Howard County Office of Human Rights & Equity and Howard County Library System. We read books that promote cultural awareness, diversity, and equity.
Tuesdays at 6:30 pm in person at the Miller Branch

The title appears in large, all caps with fire illustrating the letters. The author's name appears below in cool blue.

May 24: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
Register at bit.ly/minorfeelingshcls

Poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong fearlessly and provocatively blends memoir, cultural criticism, and history to expose fresh truths about racialized consciousness in America. Part memoir and part cultural criticism, this collection is vulnerable, humorous, and provocative—and its relentless and riveting pursuit of vital questions around family and friendship, art and politics, identity and individuality, will change the way you think about our world.

Available as a book, eBook, and eAudiobook.

A stark cover with a faded map has the title in red shadowed letters and a small gold star.

Jun 23: On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed
Register at bit.ly/juneteenthdiscuss

The essential, sweeping story of Juneteenth’s integral importance to American history, the book is told by a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and Texas native. Combining personal anecdotes with poignant facts gleaned from the annals of American history, Gordon-Reed shows how, from the earliest presence of Black people in Texas to the day in Galveston on June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of legalized slavery in the state, African-Americans played an integral role in the Texas story.

Available as a book, eBook, and eAudiobook.

The Solidarity Dividend

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee: A cover full of color blocks resolves as a diving board into swimming pool with a white boy jumping off the end and a black girl climbing the ladder.

“I’m a white male, and I am prejudiced.” In August 2016 on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, public policy expert Heather McGhee, answered the challenge presented by Garry, a caller from North Carolina. He asked, ”What can I do to change, you know, to be a better American?” The video went viral due to McGhee’s reasoned, compassionate response. Thanking the caller for being honest while acknowledging we all have prejudices, McGhee proceeded to offer advice including, “In order to be a demos that is united across lines of race and class and gender and age, we have to foster relationships. We have to get to know who one another actually is.” When McGhee’s book, The Sum of Us, was published, I was curious to learn more from her. After reading it, I especially appreciate McGhee’s insight into how the mentality of “us and them” was built and how we can break it down. 

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together describes how all ethnic and class groups suffer when racism influences government policy. McGhee researched the roots of economic disparity in the United States and explored causes and solutions from a perspective of unity rather than division. She argues that many problems with wage distribution, education, health care, housing, and environmental policy arise from the concept of a zero-sum game. When citizens perceive one racial group’s gain as another group’s loss, we cannot work for a common good. She documents how everyone loses out when racial hierarchy guides legislation. When public pools are filled with cement to circumvent enforcement of desegregation legislation, all the kids whose parents can’t afford private pools can’t go swimming. Using the concept of the public pool as a central metaphor, McGhee deconstructs how the US reached today’s level of political division and how American society can move forward, allowing all races, ethnicities, and classes to thrive. 

Of course, the idea of “what helps you, hurts me,“ goes beyond kids not being able to cool down in a pool in the summertime. The Sum of Us carefully traces trade union busting, healthcare access gaps, rising costs of public colleges, and the sub-prime mortgage crisis back to racial profiling. The resulting wage stagnation, benefit cuts, student debt, and foreclosures affected all racial groups.  

McGhee’s empathy raises The Sum of Us to a higher level than some other books I’ve read on similar topics. For example, as a self-proclaimed data nerd, she clearly explains the economics of the 2007-2010 financial crisis but then goes beyond the numbers to show, “what was risky wasn’t the borrower; it was the loan.” I gained understanding not only of the economics of the crisis, but the societal toll. Although predatory loan practices were initially targeted at low-income Blacks, later, the loans were pitched to everyone, regardless of their credit status. Many borrowers were eligible for prime mortgages but were manipulated to accept sub-prime mortgages because of the financial bonanza for the lender. McGhee presents this as yet another situation where racism eventually hurt everyone. 

McGhee has coined the phrase “Solidarity Dividend” for the benefits arising from communities collaborating across the racial divide. From minimum wage increases to investment in affordable housing development to improvement in air and water quality, the Solidarity Dividend boosts the economy while enhancing quality of life. “Getting white support to address those different levels of need, and to acknowledge the racism that caused these differences, is never easy – particularly when the zero-sum mental model turns every concession into a threat of loss,” McGhee writes. The Sum of Us demands to be read both for the well-researched documentation of the past and the message for our future.  

By the way, Heather and Garry, a disabled Navy veteran, built a friendship. Garry continues to work on understanding racism and realigning his own thinking. 

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. 

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

A spoon overflowing with pills, one of them red, sits above the title where "Empire of Pain" appears in bold red lettering.

By Rebecca W.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2019 roughly 48,000 deaths were attributed to synthetic opioid overdose, and more than 10 million people reported abusing prescription opioids. While many of us have heard, for years, reports of the devastating consequences of opioid abuse, one side of this story only recently hitting the media revolves around the Sackler family. In his book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Patrick Radden Keefe takes a pointed look at the Sackler family and their role in the current opioid epidemic. While this book is not the first of its kind, Keefe reports on the family at a time when numerous lawsuits against the family’s company, Purdue Pharma, have brought to light compelling and abundant evidence of the direct impact the family had on the current epidemic and the lack of responsibility the family has taken.

What I found most interesting about this book was Keefe’s decision to devote nearly a third of the book to Arthur Sackler. While the family patriarch could be considered the father of pharmaceutical marketing, he is very much removed, if related at all, to the modern Sackler family and Purdue Pharma. Arthur Sackler, the eldest of three brothers born to immigrant parents in early 20th-century Brooklyn, made a name for himself through his pharmaceutical ad agency’s marketing of the tranquilizing drug Valium (also know as Diazepam). Valium’s creator, Roche, and Sackler made Valium one of the most-prescribed drugs to date, earning a fortune well into the hundreds of thousands in the process. Today, there is a well-established history of abuse and over-prescription of the drug.

While this portion of the book is certainly an interesting read, it does not directly pertain to the current Sackler family machinations, with Arthur’s heir selling shares of the original company to other family members well before the development of the company’s flagship drug, Oxycontin. While an argument can be made that Arthur more or less created the playbook that future Sacklers would use to enhance their empire, I feel there was another reason Keefe devoted such length to Arthur’s story. When reading the story of Arthur’s life, I saw blatant ethical missteps fueled by greed. However, when I began reading about the modern-day Sacklers, I found myself looking back on Arthur’s story, suddenly seeming like a tip-toe over the line of ethical practice. When looking at corruption that deals with billions of dollars, millions of people, and high-level corporate practices, keeping your perspective can be challenging. For me, the knowledge of Arthur’s story, and how my thoughts changed around it throughout the book, helped me maintain my perspective when trying to follow a story with details at a higher level then my understanding.

If you are someone who has followed the story of the Sackler family, recently finished watching ‘Dopesick’, or just learned of the Sacklers, I would highly recommended reading (or, like me, listening) to this book.

Learn more about the Opioid Epidemic in the US and MD here.

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

Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy by Martin Indyk

Below title in red block letters, the cover shows a black and white photo of a young Henry Kissinger gesturing off the page. His suit blends into the black background.

by Tony B.

Foreign policy is rightfully in the collective conscious right now. Martin Indyk’s newest work Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomac takes an insider’s look into the mind and methods of one of the godfathers of foreign policy, Henry Kissinger. The book serves as an academic and personal review of Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic expertise in the Middle East, specifically his work in the peace negotiations from the Yom Kippur War forward. Indyk’s analysis is that Kissinger’s performance was brilliant for his vision, strategy, and understanding of history. While Kissinger was by no means flawless, his understanding of the delicate balances of power, willingness to take risks, and Machiavellian understanding of his own influence made him the master of the game.

Master of the Game is richly detailed, with sources pulled from American, Arab, and Israeli sources, as well as eight personal interviews with Kissinger himself. I was struck by how Indyk captured a lot of Kissinger’s personal style of dealing with foreign counterparts and patterns of thought from those interviews. For example, Kissinger said that he missed Golda Meir’s stubbornness once Yitzhak Rabin’s government was sworn in. In this regard, the book provides highly desirable insight into Kissinger’s diplomatic thinking.

The author is an accomplished Middle Eastern statesman in his own right, both as special assistant to President Clinton and envoy to President Obama for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from 2013-2014. In serving in these diplomatic circles, Indyk has met, worked, and formed a relationship with his subject. These combined experiences make for a unique and well-informed assessment of Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic triumphs. Master of the Game deftly incorporates personal reflection and academic research of Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic efforts. Plentiful, factual citation meets anecdote and lived experiences to bring a personal understanding to Kissinger’s Realpolitik.

Tony is a Customer Service Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He is a history student at UMGC and enjoys not quite finishing books and falling down Wikipedia rabbit holes.

Losing Eden by Lucy Jones

A circle filled with the white "negative" space of different sorts of ferms and plants against a green and red background sits above the title and author.

by Ben H.

What can a casual reader take away from Lucy Jones’s 2020 book Losing Eden: Our Fundamental Need for the Natural World and its Ability to Heal Body and Soul? I’d like to say I’m not just a casual reader, but I am. Losing Eden isn’t as entertaining as Rhythm of War, as helpful as The Korean Vegan (I can’t stop making the spicy and crunchy garlic tofu!), or as cathartic as rewatching The Return of the King. But, it’s totally worth your while!

Losing Eden is informative, thought-provoking, and well researched. I found inspiration in its pages. I found it comforting and distressing. Sometimes it’s comforting to read a whole book about how the world is hurtling toward disaster instead of dozens of headlines, short articles, op-eds, and social media posts. Reading Losing Eden made me feel like Ethan Hawke in First Reformed, except I have a daughter and I don’t pour Pepto-Bismol in my whiskey.

Losing Eden is glued together with memoir paste, but it’s mostly an academic, research-based treatise on the importance of time spent outdoors, the immense value of plants and animals, and the urgent need to protect the natural world. Jones uses climate change, mental health, socio-economics, and racial equity as reasons to care about this green world. She also references dozens, if not hundreds, of studies, books, and research projects running the gamut from the social effects of green space in Chicago to the importance of the Białowieża Forest, a primeval area in Poland and Belarus. 

She cites Robert Pyle’s theory of the extinction of experience. Pyle’s general idea is that the less we interact with nature, the less we will care about it. Extinction leads to extinction of experience and then to more extinction. Jones writes, “Over the past fifty years the populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish have fallen by 60 percent worldwide.” Passages like that are distressing.  

Jones explores the possible emotional impact of spending time outdoors. The answer might be in the dirt. A bacteria found in dirt, mycobacterium vaccae, has been linked to increased happiness. In 2004, oncologist Mary O’Brien created, “a serum that contained M. vaccae, a species of bacteria found in soil.” It did not have the desired effect, a cure for cancer, “but, strangely, those who received the immunization reported feeling happier.” Dr. Christopher Lowry was separately working on a similar research project and found that ,“mice injected with the bacterium exhibited fewer anxiety- or fear-like behaviour and were 50 percent less likely to have stress-induced colitis.” It’s dangerous to label nature as a panacea for mental health issues, but I think Jones makes a compelling argument, while being careful not to stray into an irresponsible reliance on nature as a magical cure.  

Jones also mentions chronic inflammation and its connection with mental health. She writes, “people with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and other neuropsychiatric disorders have been found to have higher levels of inflammation biomarkers.” Cytokines are a biomarker for inflammation, and “studies show that just two hours In a forest can significantly lower cytokine levels in the blood, soothing inflammation. This could partly be caused by exposure to important microorganisms.” If you’ve never heard of shinrin-yoku, this book is for you.

She also approaches the topic from a socioeconomic angle. She writes that “people in lower socio-economic groups or from racial and ethnic minorities usually have less access to green space and parks than those who are white and affluent.” She traces this issue back to the 17th century and the enclosure acts in England: “the practice of enclosing land from the British people began in earnest with the passing of over 5,200 Enclosure Acts between 1604 and 1914, which fenced off 6.8 million acres of previously common land.” I particularly loved this part of her book because the enclosure acts were an integral part of my thesis on pastoral poetry. If you’re ever in the UMBC library, check out: “Borrowed Weeds: Courtiers in Disguise in Renaissance Pastoral.” I guarantee you’ll be the first person to ever check it out.  

Jones saved one of her most compelling arguments for last. She cites the research of Professor Rich Mitchell from the University of Glasgow. His idea of “equigenesis” is full of real-world applications. The basic idea is that “If an environment is equigenic, it may reduce the gap between the rich and the poor by weakening the link between socio-economic inequality and health inequality.” Prof. Mitchell realized that the massive changes needed to address inequity weren’t going to happen, so he searched for other solutions. A 2015 study looking at more than 20,000 people in 34 European countries showed that, “access to nature was the one characteristic that reduced socio-economic inequality in mental well-being (by 40 percent).” 

Her evidence is compelling. Jones accumulated loads of research and attacked the question from many angles. I had a lot of takeaways from her book. I should definitely encourage my daughter to play in the dirt. I should garden. I should spend time outdoors. Should I buy a chicken to diversify my microbiota like Jones did? Maybe? 

I’ll definitely encourage my daughter to continue to watch squirrels, look for the moon during the day, and watch for chubby hawks in the trees.  

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).

A Tale of Two Real Housewives Books 

Light blue cover with gold type where the the O's have been replaced with fruit and a diamond.

by Emily B.

Over the past few years, Real Housewives of New York has become one of my go-to comfort shows. Is the premise of the show a bit shallow? Maybe it is, at least on the surface. Following a group of wealthy women who’ve been identified as “housewives” does sound vapid at first glance, but watch the show and you’ll realize there’s a lot more to it. We watch as the Housewives support and quarrel with each other, marriages dissolve, Housewives run into trouble with the law, Housewives embark on new business ventures. Once you dig deeper, Real Housewives provides an almost anthropological peek into the lives and relationships of women across the country – from Beverly Hills, CA to Potomac, MD.  

In 2021, fans of Bravo’s Real Housewives franchises were in luck – two insider accounts detailing the franchises’ histories were released. Only one of these books (Dave Quinn’s account) had the official blessing of Bravo executives, which led to a bit of drama, not unlike the shows!  

Dave Quinn’s Not All Diamonds and Rosé (also requestable as an ebook from Libby/OverDrive) is a fun and invigorating trip down memory lane for Housewives fans. It reads like one of the end-of-the-season reunions on the shows, when all the ladies gather to rehash big arguments and drama in hopes of resolving any unfinished business. Quinn dedicates a chapter to each franchise and guides us through the most memorable scenes. With constant commentary from the Housewives themselves, secrets are revealed and new perspectives are offered on some of the most iconic moments.  

Bright blue cover features simple illustrations of various characters from the show, with Andy Cohen sitting inside the O.

Brian Moylan’s The Housewives (also available in ebook and eaudiobook format from Libby/OverDrive) doesn’t offer quite as many juicy tidbits as Not All Diamonds and Rosé, but it’s no fault of Moylan’s. He wasn’t willing to bend to Bravo’s rules for the book and, thus, the Housewives were asked not to speak with him. This book, however, excels in its examinations of the fanbase and their perspectives. One of the most interesting chapters details a fan-attended Vicki Gunvalson weekend trip to Puerto Vallerta, where Moylan details his interactions with fellow super fans and Vicki herself. Moylan peppers in lists detailing essential episodes for first-time viewers as well as his ranking of Housewife-released dance singles.  

I highly recommend both of these books to any Real Housewives fan or to anyone curious to take a peek behind the scenes of a long-running reality franchise.  

Emily is an Instructor & Research Specialist at the Central Branch. She enjoys reading, listening to music, and re-watching old seasons of Survivor.  

The Early Days of Television

The cover of When Women Invented Television is set against a yellow background with black and white pictures of Betty White, Hazel Scott, Irna Phillips, and Gertrude Berg.

By Peter N.

Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg! 

In Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s When Women Invented Television, she talks about the early days of television and the rise of popular TV programs that defined what America was watching for decades to come. But four women in particular were TV powerhouses who foretold the coming of modern-day television personalities we have come to love, such as Ellen DeGeneres or Oprah, and sitcoms such as The Golden Girls. They were among the first of television’s pioneers during the transition from radio to television as America’s most popular medium of entertainment. 

There once was a woman by the name of Gertrude Berg, and what a woman she was! She was the creator behind the much-lauded radio show The Rise of the Goldbergs, an NBC radio show showcasing the lives of a Jewish family living in the Bronx and cared for by their matriarch Molly Goldberg, as played by Gertrude Berg. After years of high ratings on radio, she worked tirelessly to bring her show to a fledgling new medium called television, and when she succeeded there was no stopping her. At its peak, The Goldbergs was dominating the airwaves, and much if not all the credit goes to the woman behind it all, Molly Goldberg…I mean, Gertrude Berg. She was creator, writer, and star behind her hit show and nothing could stop her. What she accomplished in a time when patriarchal views and traditional family values were taking hold is nothing short of astounding.  

It’s Time to Say Hello Again… 

Ah, Betty White. What can I say about Betty White that hasn’t already been said countless times? Sadly, at the time of this post, she will have gone to that great TV studio in the sky to join her husband, Allen Ludden. Betty White was made for television. From her early days on KLAC hosting with Al Jarvis for 5.5 hours a day, to being the main lead on the sitcom Life with Elizabeth, to hosting her own talk show, The Betty White Show, she was unstoppable. Her infectious smile, dimples, and radiant personality won over countless millions, and at one time she was having to turn jobs away because she was working too much! She loved to work and one could say that show business was the love of her life. She fought against prejudice against her during the early days of television as a single woman not trying to settle down and have a family. Through it all, she would continue to be invited into the living rooms of her legion of fans for years to come.  

The Guiding Light 

Irna Phillips was the guiding (pun intended) force behind The Guiding Light, the longest running soap opera on television. Its earliest incarnation was as a popular radio show, which is why Irna Phillips knew that it would be just what television needed. Working tirelessly for years along with raising two adopted children and doing the best that she could possibly do, she finally was able to bring her show to TV. She was not only a single mother of two children when it was believed families should have a mother and a father, but with the success of The Guiding Light, she became the figurative mother of the soap opera genre in a time when that genre was still very much maligned. Her works have reverberated through daytime television through her own shows as well as mentoring Agnes Dixon, creator of many other long-running soap operas. This was a woman who tried not to let anything stand in the way of bringing her creation to life. 

The Hazel Scott Show 

In a time when racial segregation was still running rampant, Hazel Scott managed to become one of the first African American people to headline their own show on network television. Already an accomplished musician and used to playing to large crowds, she brought her talent to The Hazel Scott Show to great reception and ratings. Her television career was cut short when she was targeted by the infamous publication Red Channels, which listed suspected communists in various areas of entertainment. She bravely defended herself, but she could not recover her TV career. However, she persevered and returned to her roots as a musician and touring. Her TV stint was brief but powerful all the same.  

These four women were astonishing and it was a pleasure to read about their accomplishments, their legacy, and the effects they’ve had on popular culture. One can only imagine what they could have done had they not been impeded by the politics of their era.

When Women Invented Television is available in print and as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby.  

Peter is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch and is continually grateful to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz not only for pioneering methods of television production that enabled generations to experience the brilliance of early television, but also for taking the chance on a small sci-fi show that still endures 50 years later.  

Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

The image shows two characters as mirror images of one another , one in yellow shorts with no shirt and arms outstretched, the other in a blue shirt and blue rolled-up pants, clutching the gem of the pants. Both are up to mid-calf in blue-green water; the "reflected" person has a green-gold forest in the background.

By Ash B. 

When I started working here at the library, my favorite section to get acquainted with was the graphic novel section. One reason for this was the rate at which I could find LGBTQ representation; I’ve joked with friends and colleagues that sometimes I feel I have a ‘sixth sense’ for intuitively knowing whether an artist is queer based on their art style or the design of the book’s cover.  

Sometimes there are subtle clues about the book’s content, and sometimes there is something overtly LGBTQ-related about the cover, title, or summary. Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe (pronouns: e/em/eir) falls into the latter category on all counts. As soon as I heard the title alone, I knew I needed to read it. 

Gender Queer is a memoir, formatted as a graphic novel, that recounts Kobabe’s experiences regarding gender and sexuality throughout eir childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. At its core, it is a book that addresses what it means, in Kobabe’s personal experience, to be nonbinary, queer, and asexual. As e explains in a Washington Post op-ed, Kobabe primarily wrote this as a way of explaining eir nonbinary identity to eir parents and extended family. However, Kobabe’s story has reached much farther than that, garnering praise from readers, reviewers, and the American Library Association (ALA). 

In my opinion, as a nonbinary reader, Gender Queer is so remarkable because there is nothing else quite like it. Through a talented combination of text and illustration, Kobabe addresses complex intersections of gender and sexuality with such specificity that I was honestly blown away. Never before I had felt so seen and understood by a piece of media. One of my favorite passages addresses the struggle to achieve a balance of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ gender expression when society is set on placing you on one side of the gender binary. I truly don’t have the words to fully express how meaningful this is to me… so let me share a brief anecdote instead: 

Around the time I was re-reading the book to prepare for this review, one of my (fellow nonbinary) friends texted me regarding a conflict they felt over an article of clothing they wanted to buy because they were concerned it would be read as ‘too feminine.’ Within our text conversation, I sent my friend two panels from the book.  

My friend’s response? They related so much that they started crying in the bathroom on their lunch break at work.

Representation matters. 

Even for those of us within the LGBTQ community who have come to terms with our identities, have community support, and hold privilege (whether it be whiteness, financial stability, ability, etc.) that improves our overall life outcomes – it is still hard to exist in a heteronormative society structured around the gender binary. At best, it is exhausting and invalidating, which still takes a hit to one’s mental health.  

Now imagine being a young person who lacks community support, lacks independence, and is questioning or struggling with accepting their identity. 

Books such as Gender Queer not only educate – they provide invaluable support to queer, trans, and questioning readers who need to see affirming, accurate, and nuanced representation. When we say these books can be a lifeline for readers, that’s not an empty statement; suicidality is significantly higher amongst LGBTQ youth, especially those who are trans, in comparison to their non-LGBTQ counterparts. 

Unfortunately, in the past year there has been a national surge – including in Howard County – in attempted censorship of LGBTQ books in school classrooms and media centers. Gender Queer has been one of the most controversial titles due to its frank discussion of (queer) sexuality and, to a lesser extent, gender dysphoria.  

This trend – the challenging and banning of books that contain content regarding sex, LGBTQ identity, or both – is not new. What is new is the influential role of social media and the internet, which allows far-reaching communication between book challengers and can create even more oppositional fervor towards the books that they have deemed “obscene,” “pornographic,” and so on. 

One of the problems with this overall pattern, however, is it increases divisiveness in public discourse. Parents, students, educators, librarians, and policymakers need to discuss these topics with the nuance, open-mindedness, and compassion necessary to truly educate and uplift youth. Instead, we are faced with a proliferation of outrage that doesn’t “protect” anyone – least of all LGBTQ youth. 

Some opponents are unapologetic in their homophobic and transphobic motivations, quite literally demonizing anything they hear is LGBTQ-related. (Do I need to explain further why these messages are extremely harmful to LGBTQ folks?) Other opponents claim they have no problem with queer-affirming books, but take issue with the books that contain passages regarding sex. I can understand where these folks are coming from – however, I would push back against the idea that teens need to be shielded from the type of “sexual content” that is in Gender Queer. This book isn’t meant to titillate – it is meant to inform, based on Kobabe’s own experiences of adolescence and young adulthood. 

So, before jumping to the conclusion that this book is inappropriate for high schoolers, consider Kobabe’s perspective: 

“It’s very hard to hear people say ‘This book is not appropriate to young people’ when it’s like, I was a young person for whom this book would have been not only appropriate, but so, so necessary. There are a lot of people who are questioning their gender, questioning their sexuality and having a real hard time finding honest accounts of somebody else on the same journey. There are people for whom this is vital and for whom this could maybe even be lifesaving.” 

Kobabe’s work gives language to some of the complexities that lie at the intersections of gender and sexuality. And with representation of asexuality and nonbinary genders still in short supply, Gender Queer is a much-needed addition. Mainstream narratives about LGBT people in the past few decades have often represented people who have “always known” they were transgender or “knew since they were three years old” that they were gay. But many of us do not have that experience. Many of us are in the dark about our true selves, until someone shines a light on all the possibilities of what queer existence can look like. Gender Queer has and will continue to have that positive impact on teens and adults alike.  

I hope this review will encourage you to see the value in this book for a variety of readers, LGBTQ or not. I urge you to read the book for yourself – and truly reflect on it. Print copies of Gender Queer: A Memoir can be requested to borrow here.  

Want to skip the waitlist? Your HCLS account also grants you access to the eBook version of Gender Queer on hoopla, a platform that allows titles to be streamed immediately or downloaded to devices for offline enjoyment later. For assistance with hoopla, view the tutorial on our website, visit your local branch, or reach out to us with your questions. 

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. This time of year, they are especially fond of reading while cuddling with their golden retriever and sipping hot cocoa or tea.

Book Discussion: Night by Elie Wiesel

The cover of the book shows a hazy, abstract blue-grey background, with the author's name and "Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize" on a beige field in the middle, with a strand of barbed wire running between.

by Rabbi Fuller

Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor in addition to a prolific author and Nobel laureate. Reading Night for the second time (I first read it many moons ago when I was in college) reminded me both of the horrific things he and his fellow prisoners suffered at the hands of the Nazis during World War II, and of that lesson from The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. How much of Wiesel’s memoir could I trust? I learned from reading The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe that everyone’s memory of events is imperfect. How does that help or hinder us from learning about a Nobel Prize winner and human rights advocate’s experience when we read his first book, Night

As we just recently passed the 80th anniversary of America’s entrance into that war on December 7, 1941, we are closer and closer to the time when no eyewitnesses to the Holocaust will be alive anymore. Thankfully, there is now an entire genre of books detailing and remembering the experiences of many survivors of the Holocaust. Though the stories are all different, the one theme that comes through almost all of them is the incomprehensible brutality and inhumanity the Germans perpetrated on 6 million Jews simply because they were Jewish, and countless others for being gay, Roma, communists, or anything else the Nazis didn’t like. 

Night is a symbol of all the darkness that the victims of the Holocaust felt. The fear, the hunger, the horrid conditions, the not knowing what any minute or hour or day might bring. The lack of hope, and the lack of trust even in your fellow prisoners. In some ways, it’s amazing that any of them survived. 

But in Wiesel’s life, I think that Night represents something else as well – his doubt of his faith. Wiesel makes it clear that he grew up as a religious Jew in Sighet, Romania, and that family and religion were two of the most important things to him. Yet as he witnessed the Holocaust, his faith began to leave him. Those who are avid fans of his writings will find these struggles throughout many of his books, and how he resolves it as well. But in Night, he makes clear how his faith is failing in a particularly gruesome scene. The Nazis have just hanged three victims, one of them just a boy (for those of you who wonder why, does it matter? That’s the kind of “night” all the prisoners had to deal with). The two older men die quickly from asphyxiation, but the boy, who doesn’t weigh much, dangles from his noose for a while before finally succumbing. Wiesel reports, “Behind me, I heard the same man asking “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…” 

After working through his theological crisis, Wiesel went on to become a professor, a father, and a strong voice and advocate for human rights everywhere. That’s what earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, “for being a messenger to mankind: his message is one of peace, atonement and dignity.” The lesson we should all take from this is that no matter the hardships we may face, or how palpable the darkness we feel may seem, we can overcome and do great things with our lives. 

Holocaust Remembrance Day Book Group is discussing Night by Elie Wiesel, with the conversation led by Rabbi Fuller. Join us online January 27 at 6:30 pm. Register.

Rabbi Gordon Fuller is an independently ordained rabbi who grew up in Detroit but has lived in many other places. He moved to Columbia, MD in 2015 to be near children and grandchildren.

Rabbi Gordy worked in Jewish education for 20+ years before being ordained and has co-authored two books. He is as passionate about pluralism and the environment as he is about his family and the Jewish peoplehood.

Lawrence Lanahan and The Lines Between Us

Stylized black and white drawing of typical Baltimore rowhouses frame the title.

By Holly L.

Journalist Lawrence Lanahan’s 2019 book The Lines Between Us: Two Families and a Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide opens with two epigraphs:

It’s in the way their curtains open and close.

“Respectable Street,” XTC

I don’t even have to do nothing to you.

“Big Brother,” Stevie Wonder

The first line comes from English post-punk band XTC’s 1981 song about what songwriter and frontman Andy Partridge considered “the hypocrisy of living in a so-called respectable neighborhood. It’s all talk behind twitching curtains.” The second lyric is from a track from Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album Talking Book. In the song, Wonder takes the white establishment (Big Brother) to task for only coming to the ghetto “to visit me ‘round election time.” He continues his indictment – “I don’t even have to do nothin’ to you” because, from offenses ranging from criminal neglect of its black citizens to having “killed all our leaders…you’ll cause your own country to fall.”

It is fitting that Lanahan chose these words and these voices to begin this story, as his narrative weaves together multiple perspectives but most closely follows the criss-crossing threads of two individuals, one black and one white.

Nicole Smith is a young black woman living with her family in a West Baltimore rowhome owned by her mother, Melinda. When we meet Nicole, she is twenty-five and is contemplating the crossing of a line—leaving her neighborhood (and family and community) behind in search of security and opportunity for herself and her six-year-old son, Joe. Though she is enrolled in Baltimore City Community College and is on a waitlist for affordable housing in the city, Nicole seems to be on an existential treadmill, running but getting nowhere fast. She’s heard of a place called Columbia, a planned community in Howard County, with a reputation for good schools, plenty of jobs, and safe streets. Could she make it there?

Mark Lange is a white man raised in the Baltimore suburbs who, after a spiritual reckoning in his late teens, embarks on a path of service informed by the teachings of Mississippi civil rights activist and Christian minister John M. Perkins, who argued that those who wanted to help communities in need must live among them. As Mark’s story begins to be told, he feels a gravitational pull from his comfortable suburban life in Bel Air toward Sandtown, a West Baltimore neighborhood where his best friend Alan Tibbels, a like-minded white Christian with a mission of racial reconciliation, relocated with his family. If he moves, would Mark prove to be just another “white savior” looking to appease his own guilt? Or would be able to form meaningful relationships and help foster change in an impoverished community?

In this meticulously researched book, Lanahan alternates the fascinating tales of Nicole and Joe with the complicated history of Baltimore’s segregation and the resulting devastating impact on its black communities. Having its genesis as a year-long multi-media series on inequality in the Baltimore area broadcast from September 28, 2012 to October 4, 2013 on WYPR, Maryland Public Radio, the depth and breadth of Lanahan’s reporting is detailed to an almost dizzying degree. But just when a reader’s brain might start to get overwhelmed by the minutiae of historical detail (as mine sometimes did), my attention would come swiftly back into focus as the humanity of Nicole and Mark’s stories propelled me through the book. The Lines Between Us should be required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the institutional forces that shape inequality in our region and for those whose understanding of their neighbor might require them to cross a line. And isn’t that most of us?

Join us: Author Works with Lawrence Lanahan
Wednesday, January 12 from 7 – 8:30 pm
In person, HCLS Central Branch
Register at bit.ly/3pFTq3y

To learn more about the historical policies of redlining, visit the interactive exhibit currently at Central Branch. Undesign the Redline explores the history of structural racism and inequality, how these designs compounded each other from 1938 Redlining maps until today, and the national and local impacts. Join a guided tour on Wednesdays at 11 am and Saturdays at 2 pm.

Holly L. is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch. She enjoys knitting and appreciates an audiobook with a good narrator.