Arts & Culture

Book Reviews: September 2016

The latest from Rafael Alvarez, Rabia Chaudry, and John Barth.

The Baltimore Love Project

Rafael Alvarez, with photographs by Sean Scheidt (self-published)

It’s likely you’ve encountered at least one, with its painted black fingers gesturing to you, spreading a message everyone understands. Since 2008, murals depicting hands that spell “LOVE” have sprung up on 20 walls around Baltimore, thanks to the creativity of mural artist Michael Owen and the strategic negotiating of his partner in the project, Scott Burkholder. This book chronicles their journey in finding walls to paint and obtaining approval from property owners. But it also takes the reader beyond descriptions of the murals’ locations and explores what their effect has been—from altering lives to physically changing the surrounding communities, and even affecting Burkholder and Owen’s relationship. Alvarez’s poignant, intimate prose also highlights the history of murals in Baltimore, including the 1970s-era Beautiful Walls project and the more recent Open Walls. And Scheidt’s stunning photographs strike the right tone, showcasing people and neighborhoods authentically. This piece of Baltimore spreads the love, just as Owen and Burkholder intended.

Adnan’s Story

Rabia Chaudry (St. Martin’s Press)

This confusing, enveloping, and at times infuriating murder case had listeners of the podcast Serial wondering for weeks, “Who killed Hae Min Lee?” And even almost two years after the start of Serial, we still don’t know, as the man convicted of the crime—Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed—was granted a new trial on June 30. This book takes us beyond Serial to examine what this case has done to Syed’s life and the lives of those close to him who maintain his innocence. (If you felt Serial left Lee out of the narrative, this isn’t the place to find her story.) Family friend Chaudry—who has her own podcast devoted to investigating what she believes are wrongful convictions—takes us through the events leading up to the disappearance on Jan. 13, 1999, presenting the evidence of the case, how Serial got involved, and the Syed family’s mission to overturn the verdict. Chaudry’s words make room for passages penned by Syed, and together they draw back the curtain on what life is like for Muslim residents of Northwest Baltimore and what it is like to be part of a high-profile murder case. It’s a riveting read that will draw you deep into its depths.

See our full interview with writer Rabia Chaudry.

John Barth: A Body of Words

Edited by Gabrielle Dean and Charles B. Harris (Dalkey Archive Press)

It’s no secret that John Barth is a giant of the literary world. One of the best writers “we’ve ever had,” according to The New York Times Book Review, he’s a two-time finalist and 1973 winner of The National Book Award, and author of the brilliantly experimental The Sot-Weed Factor and Chimera. We get to claim Barth as one of our own, as he is a Cambridge resident (and native) and was a professor in The Writing Seminars at The Johns Hopkins University from 1973 until his retirement in 1995. And as this anthology of essays describes, behind the guise of literary genius was a kind, thoughtful, inspiring professor who encouraged students to call him “Jack” and looked after them “beyond anything expected of him,” writes former student John Balaban. That anecdote illustrates what this collection of essays (including one by our own John Lewis, Baltimore editor at large) does best—it takes us from the publishing house to the classroom, illuminating a treasured literary mind and showing his grace and brilliance in intimate detail.