Arts & Culture

Book Reviews: March 2016

The latest from Rafael Alvarez, Lauren R. Silberman, and Lester K. Spence.

Crabtown, USA
Rafael Alvarez (Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing)

It’s obvious from the start of Crabtown, USA that Alvarez lost his heart to Baltimore years ago—in fact, the title of his first chapter is “My Beloved,” and he’s not talking about a woman. Encased in these 441 pages is a love letter to his home city, though it’s far from a typical one. Alvarez—who has authored several books about his native neighborhood of Highlandtown, and made a national name for himself as a writer for The Wire—doesn’t just wax nostalgic in these essays about Charm City’s majesty, but finds poetry in her flaws and shortcomings. He writes about street drunks and the outcome of Bethlehem Steel’s departure with the same pen that he uses to offer odes to Joseph Conrad and Edgar Allan Poe. He transforms the seemingly ordinary into historical relics to be relished—the Baltimore hon, narrow alleys, even the humble deviled egg. And throughout, he sprinkles his experiences with characters who embody the true spirit of the city, from former rewrite colleagues at The Sun to a woman who played piano at neighborhood watering holes for most of her 86 years. Alvarez’s enthusiasm is contagious, and by the end, you’ll want to walk the harbor, or stroll the streets of Fells, just to soak up the essence of Charm City.

Wild Women of Maryland
Lauren R. Silberman (The History Press)

One was known as the “limping lady,” a spy who stole secrets, despite having lost her lower left leg. Another led the movement for civil rights in Cambridge, enduring arrests and rioting in her quest for equality. And still another was among the first women to visit Antarctica, where she lived for a year in the 1940s during a research expedition. These are some of Silberman’s wild women of Maryland, dames who bucked the status quo to live lives of adventure, danger, and trailblazing. You’ve heard of some—Harriet Tubman, for instance, or Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor—but Silberman also shares stories of women who are missing from the often-male-dominated history books. These are women tried as witches during the 17th century, for example, as well as suffragettes and World War II-era female aviators. (Divine even makes an appearance.) Silberman, an author who is also deputy director for Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater, showcases their stories in well-researched detail. During Women’s History Month, this book is a good reminder for all of us, regardless of gender, that anything is possible when you stand out from the pack and live life on your own terms.

See our interview with writer Lauren B. Silberman.

Knocking the Hustle
Lester K. Spence (Punctum Books)

You don’t have to look far in hip hop culture to find references to the “hustle”—the constant grind that is necessary to find success on the street, and in the music industry. But in Spence’s eyes, that mentality demonstrates an unfortunate turn in pop culture and politics. Instead of highlighting power and control, it shows “black men who are forced to work incessantly with no way out,” he writes. In his well-researched and enlightening book, Spence, an associate professor of political science and Africana studies at The Johns Hopkins University, argues that’s a consequence of a shift toward the neoliberal, which favors free-market capitalism. He says the move away from the structure and protection of unions and other workers rights groups, for example, is responsible for vast wage inequality, and has contributed to widening gaps in education and opportunities for blacks. Spence turns his microscope on Baltimore, as well as other urban areas, and his thought-provoking opinion is a welcome change in a debate where the arguments are tried and true.