We’ve been reading nonfiction exclusively and in the four years we’ve been reading together we’ve ranged widely through various genres of narrative nonfiction with some great discussions. I’ve linked the titles.
Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in the Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal
This was such a great book for discussion! We learned so much about the history of Spain from the 8th to the 15th centuries and how it affected European history for centuries after. Menocal starts by telling about the young Arab, Abd al-Rahman, who survives the massacre of his family, the Umayyad caliphs, in Damascus in 750, by their rivals,the Abbasids. Several years after this event, al-Rahman turns up in the Iberian Peninsula, or al-Andalus as it was called in Arabic. This dramatic event sets the course for the history that follows, as al-Rahman builds an empire in Cordoba known for its tolerance and rich culture. Jews and Christians participated in Arab culture, each group enriching the mix, creating art, translating the classics, and creating fabulous architecture like the Alhambra and the Mezquita in Cordoba. I was in Spain several years ago and visited some of the cities and sites mentioned so I was able to visualize much of what Menocal wrote about.
Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo, Random House, 2012.
Journalist Katherine Boo spend years following the families and individuals that are the main characters in this book. It’s a sad, shocking, compellingly readable story of a group of people who live in poverty and can’t see beyond their own misery. The adults were sure their own lives would improve if their neighbors’ lives could be made worse. The children and teenagers lived lives of quiet–and not so quiet–desperation, afraid of bleak, empty futures. Despite this tale of woe, it’s hard to put the book down because the author knows these people so well and gives us context for their actions and beliefs. Is it the legacy of the caste system in India that allows people to treat others so badly? We had a good discussion about this book. The author’s final notes at the end about method and sociology were helpful.
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster, 2005.
We’d been talking about reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals for at least a year but haven’t felt ready to take on such a long book until now. Unfortunately, I had a bad cold the night of the discussion and didn’t attend. The group loved the book and found it so engrossing that the length didn’t matter. I have to confess that I only read the first 200 pages but only because of the press of other obligations, not because of any boredom or impatience with the book. Even after 200 pages–about 25% of the book–I already feel that I know more about Lincoln’s life history, personality and philosophy than I’ve even known. Goodwin does a wonderful job of allowing events to reveal character and she’s a great storyteller. When I was a child, we used to visit my grandparents every Sunday afternoon. My father would talk politics and economics with my grandfather and my mother would talk to my grandmother–her beloved mother. As an only child, I often amused myself by browsing in my grandfather’s library. He had many books about Lincoln, a hero of his, including one called Lincoln Talks, which was filled with anecdotes, mostly humorous. I read those anecdotes many times and they gave me some sense of the man, but Goodwin puts it all together into a living, breathing portrait. I’ll finish Team of Rivals this fall, I promise!
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie turned out to be a wonderful choice. What a great story: a minor German princess becomes Empress of Russia! Catherine had an ambitious mother who used her very distant relationship with Russian royalty to push her daughter forward. The Empress Elizabeth, childless, wanted to ensure an orderly succession and needed a bride for the Grand Duke Peter, the only living grandson of Peter the Great. Catherine ingratiated herself with the tetchy and autocratic Elizabeth and put into motion the strange and unlikely sequence of events that brought her to the throne. Her marriage to the childlike, petulant Peter was unusual, to say the least. While Elizabeth was still alive, Catherine and Peter were virtual prisoners in the palace. Catherine used this time–about 15 years–to educate herself in history, politics, and philosophy. When she ascended the throne, she was clearly the smartest person in the room. I listened to this book and really appreciated the way Massie cut through the mass of court intrigue to write a compelling and coherent narrative of turbulent times, providing just enough information about European politics to help the reader understand the outside challenges. Highly recommended!
Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. Eagleman’s purpose here is to show how our conscious mind is only a small part of what’s going on in our brains: “hidden states of the brain participate in driving thought and behavior.” And again, “there is a looming chasm between what your brain knows and what your mind is capable of accessing.” According to Eagleman, our conscious mind is often the last to know what’s happening when we respond to our environment. He gives lots of compelling examples of how this plays out. But Eagleman has an agenda, which he reveals in the last few chapters, about how all this affects crime and punishment. He writes, “if choices and decisions derive from hidden mental processes, then free choice is either an illusion or, at minimum, more tightly constrained than previously considered.” We currently recognize that some mental states render the criminal blameless but Eagleman feels that criminal actions are sufficient evidence of brain abnormality. In the future, advances in neuroscience will help us understand that many criminals are incapable of acting otherwise. They need, not prison, but improved brain functioning. Hmmm. He pursues this argument so strenuously that we suspected that for him, this was the point of writing the book. We enjoyed talking about this but decided that we’ll table the psychology books for a while. It’s hard to find a book that’s balanced between accessible and rigorous.
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann. We all enjoyed reading this book for it’s aha! moments and the things we learned that should have been in our school textbooks. We always enjoy books that connect the dots, putting in perspective things that we may know as isolated incidents or events–Mann supplies the backstory and links them up. Many of us read the book with pen and paper in hand since that’s often the best way to cement the ideas we’re reading into our brains. Just a few of the things that we found fascinating: that there was trade between South America and China in the 1500s; that there was a “Little Ice Age” in Europe from 1550-1750; that the glut of silver that flowed from South America to Spain in the 1500s made it easy for Spain to go to war in Europe; that until the end of the 18th century African slaves outnumbered Europeans in England’s American holdings by 2 to 1. Mann repeatedly makes the point that 1492 was the beginning of globalization in so many areas, especially agriculture, which in turn led to massive cultural changes that we’re still experiencing today. It’s all too comprehensive and exciting to give a complete picture here: read it!
Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America by David S. Reynolds. We found this book a mixed bag. While we enjoyed reading (and talking) about the effects of Stowe’s book on American history–some historians feel that it was a proximate cause of the Civil War–we often felt that we were reading a senior thesis. There was too much information about minor personalities and too little about what made Stowe the writer she became. Despite that, it was a revelation to read about the effect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on American life before, during, and well after the Civil War, particularly its effect on the development of the theater. Some of us read–or re-read–Uncle Tom’s Cabin and found it exactly what Reynolds described: a compelling indictment of slavery that spoke to all the political, social, cultural, and religious issues of the day.
Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese. Freese became involved in environmental concerns as attorney general of the state of Minnesota, enforcing the state’s air pollution laws, and learning about coal in the process. The subtitle of the book tells all–it’s about the way we’ve used coal through the centuries to warm our hearths and pollute our cities. Despite coal’s bad name, we’ve been unable to give up our dependency. We all felt that Freese’s short, engaging history of our love-hate relationship with coal was, despite it’s age (the book was published in 2004), well worth reading. (We updated it with a recent article on coal from the Atlantic Monthly.) Not only does Freese talk about the way we’ve used coal for heat, but she brings up some interesting issues of social history.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, Scribner, 2010.
It’s not an error to call this book a biography; Mukherjee writes about the life span of cancer, i.e., its course through human history. It was first detected in ancient Egypt but the full ferocity of the disease was only unleashed as we began to live longer and poison our atmosphere and bodies with toxic chemicals, like tobacco. Mukherjee tells the story of cancer research and how it’s veered wildly from one idea to the next, one miracle drug to the next. The most interesting parts to us, dealt with the political and social influences on cancer research; the way that researchers and clinicians didn’t talk to each other for years; and the accidental nature of some important discoveries. Mukherjee tells personal stories but those stories serve to illuminate the torturous experimental work that characterizes cancer research; we learn mostly about the research. We enjoyed Emperor of All Maladies and felt enlightened; not optimistic, but maybe more realistic.
Where the Pavement Ends: One Woman’s Bicycle Trip Through Mongolia, China and Vietnam by Erika Warmbrunn, Mountaineers Books, 2001.
Warmbrunn was 27 in 1993 when she set out on this solo bicycle trip, not sure where her career was going and looking for an experience that would shake up her life. She traveled 5000 miles in eight months, from Irkutsk to Saigon. The first section, about her travels in Mongolia, is by far the most fascinating, maybe because the culture is so foreign to us, but definitely because the Mongolian people were hospitable and friendly, so she was able to make connections to people in ways that she could not as she traveled farther south into China. We were amazed by her independence and determination and found that the contrast among the cultures gave us much food for thought. Despite the fact that the political situation in all of these countries has changed, the story is timeless.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, Knopf/Doubleday, 2011
We found this to be a great combination of personal history and social history, reminding us of many things we knew but adding much we didn’t know and giving us a new perspective on this internal immigration story. Wilkerson follows three African-Americans as they make their way to northern cities as part of the huge migration (some six million) away from the Jim Crow South that took place in the first half of the twentieth century. She writes about Ida Mae Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife who left Mississippi for Chicago in 1937; George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, who left Florida for Harlem in 1945; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a doctor who left Louisiana for California in 1953. Their stories are interspersed with Wilkerson’s research about the conditions they left and the lives they found. The writing is lively, accessible, and full of drama, a great choice for book groups.
This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, Grove/Atlantic, 2000.
This is one of my favorite memoirs and a classic among literary memoirs. I was glad that everyone enjoyed it. Wolff is a great prose stylist; his writing is so evocative that you just know it’s true. The opening scene along is brilliant, with Wolff and his mother driving across the country in the early 1950s, trying to get as far away from her abusive boyfriend as they can. Near the Continental Divide, on a steep road, they witness a truck out of control and shortly come up to the spot where it went over the guardrail. The way Wolff describes his mother’s response to the accident and his own 10-year old response, immediately captures for the reader the essence of these two people; we lean back and wait contentedly for a remarkable story to unfold. I’ve always found it interesting that the book Wolff wrote next was a fictionalized version of his life carrying on from where this memoir left off. It’s interesting to think about the decisions that are involved in deciding whether we make fiction or memoir out of our lives.
Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, W.W. Norton, 2008.
This was my choice; an older titles that I thought would be fun to read after reading several women’s bios and memoirs in the past few years. Heilbrun was a pioneer in feminist literary criticism; a literature professor at Columbia Univ., the author of a series of mysteries under a pseudonym, and a wife and mother. She writes about how until recently biographies about women and memoirs by women were shaped by society’s expectations about women’s lives. What are the stories we are allowed tell to ourselves and others about our own lives? The book seemed dated to some of us, but I’m not so sure that it doesn’t speak to issues that are alive and well and in fact, it stirred up for several of us interesting personal and family history. It will be interesting to read and discuss next month’s book, This Boy’s Life, in the light of how Heilbrun talks about women’s memoirs. We also talked about Heilbrun’s personal life and her choice to commit suicide.
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, Little, Brown, 2010.
We had a great discussion about this book–everyone enjoyed it. We talked about how the sources for Cleopatra’s life are not contemporaneous accounts and were, of course, all written by men, the usual semi-reliable Roman historians, some of whom (like Plutarch), were only writing indirectly about Cleopatra as she appeared in their accounts of male Roman notables. One of the most fascinating aspects was the description of the sophisticated culture of Alexandria and the remarkable education that Cleopatra received as a royal family member. Rome was a backwater compared to Alexandria and Rome also deeply dependent on Egypt to supply grain to the Empire. This worked in Cleopatra’s favor in the complex Hellenistic political world, but, of course, she was a very sophisticated player. A good choice!
Mountains Beyond Mountains: Healing the World: the Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer by Tracey Kidder, Random, 2003.
Reading Kidder’s book about Paul Farmer and his work in Haiti was very timely, since the devastation there continues to be so heartbreaking. The clinic Farmer established in Haiti is a model of treatment and patient care, not just for its rural location in such a poor country, but for any place where people–for whatever reason–lack access to good medical care. But what really amazed us was Farmer’s ability to navigate on so many levels: to build, staff, and maintain the clinic in Haiti; to fund-raise in the US and build support for his programs in the best hospitals in Boston; to affect the WHO treatment protocols worldwide for TB; and to inspire people to join his efforts. In addition, he’s a hands-on guy, a doctor for whom contact with patients is energizing and vital. A complex, often frustrating person, we speculated that Farmer’s total lack of cynicism is one of his most significant and refreshing characteristics. Kidder, as usual, does a great, engaging job of writing about Farmer’s work and putting just enough of himself into the story that it all seems real. A treat to read.
Drawn to the Rhythm: A Passionate Life Reclaimed by Sara Hall, W.W. Norton, 2002.
This is one of my favorite memoirs; I discovered it by accident, browsing in my local library several years ago. I missed our discussion, but the rest of the group enjoyed it. Here’s what I wrote about it in my book Read On…Life Stories: Reading Lists for Every Taste: Readers will cheer through their tears as Hall reclaims her life from her psychololgically abusive husband in this insightful, absorbing memoir. One day, driving along the water with her children, Hall was struck by the grace of a solitary rower and began an early morning training regimen in a borrowed scull, going on to become a champion racer. She gained physical and mental strength, allowing her to “row my way to freedom.”
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, Knopf, 2006.
Gilbert’s writes about how our ideas about happiness–what it is and how to achieve it–are incorrectly based. He reviews the research on happiness from various fields–psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and behavioral economics–to show how misguided we are. It’s all done with a light, often jokey tone and Gilbert has devised his own experiments to prove his points. Some of us felt that there was too much of Gilbert personally in the book and the tone was too light. I think we all wanted more depth.
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, W.W. Norton, 2010.
Lewis focuses on the handful of people who bet “short,” believing that the subprime mortgage market was constructed out of whole cloth. They were, by and large, a group of misfits, lacking in social skills, but they understood that collapse was imminent. The book left us spluttering with anger over the arrogance and cupidity of the money managers who profited from this catastrophe whether they lost billions for their firms or not. Lewis claims that when the big firms went public, in the 1980s, responsibility flew out the window. People were no longer gambling with their own money. Lewis doesn’t talk much about the nature of the underlying subprime loans and how they were illegal and based on consumers being encouraged to lie on their applications. And then, of course, we all know that big business was bailed out and consumers and taxpayers were left holding the bag. Aargh. We agreed to read something more cheerful next.
Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, HarperCollins, 2010.
This was a fun read but many of us felt that it didn’t go beyond what we were aware of during the campaign–it hit the highlights without adding much additional information or insight. We did enjoy reliving the drama of the last election, especially the trials and tribulations of Hillary’s campaign. It was also good to have a chronological recap to put everything in perspective and enjoy the drama of the primaries once again. The writing style, for me, was pure New York Magazine–lots of clever adjectives and adverbs ratcheting up the pace, short paragraphs, and plenty of dialogue. John Heilemann is the political correspondent for that magazine so it’s not a surprise. It’s a fun read if you want to relive the election; just don’t expect any analysis of what happened or why.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Crown, 2010.
There’s a good reason why this book has been so popular–it’s a blend of social history and medical history, with a fascinating personal story. It’s what my friend Phil used to call a “20 minute burn book.” You read for 20 minutes then you have to stop to let the steam out of your ears. Racism and medial ethics are the burning issues. Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman living in the Baltimore area, whose cancerous cells, by their amazing replicative abilities, helped drive advances in medical science via cell research. All of our lives are better because of Henrietta Lacks’s unknowing contribution. That’s the problem; neither Lacks nor her family were aware that she was donating her cells. it wasn’t until 20 years after her death that her daughter discovered–by accident–that her mother was famous as the HeLa culture, found in labs all over the world, a source of profit for the companies that manufactured it, and the subject of conferences and controversies. Although I read the book, I couldn’t attend the discussion, but I knew that it would stimulate great discussion.
How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, Houghton Mifflin Harcout, 2007.
Groopman’s book is empowering; he reminds us that we’re medical consumers and need to evaluate our interactions with our doctors, not checking our critical faculties at the examining room door. His stories of diagnostic successes and failures illustrate the types of logical errors that doctors–and all of us–are subject to. I especially like the error of “availability” where the diagnosis fits what’s handy–how many times have doctors told us that we have “what’s going around?” How many times have we fallen into the same pattern of thought? Groopman’s an elegant writer; his medical essays often appear in the New Yorker where he’s a staff writer. (He’s also on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.) How Doctors Think is an engrossing blend of patients’ stories and medical thinking. Groopman’s other books include The Anatomy of Hope and Second Opinions.
Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult by Jayanti Tamm. See my review and interview with the author. Jayanti came to our discussion; it was wonderful to be able to ask her questions. A very memorable evening.
Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China by Philip P. Pan, Simon & Schuster, 2008.
Journalist Pan uses stories about remarkable women and men who have defied the Chineses government to fight for basic civil liberties and human rights. Their stories paint a grim picture of a country that has strayed far from Mao’s Communist vision of a society of workers. A vast, corrupt, hypocritical bureaucracy maintains order with an iron fist, re-writing history, suppressing information, and enriching itself at the expense of the peasantry. The stories of the people who stand up to the government, some with fatal consequences, are riveting and inspiring.
Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010.
Sandel teaches a wildly popular course at Harvard on justice that attracts hundreds of students each semester. In the course (and the book), Sandel discusses how the ideas of happiness, freedom, and morality have driven political philosophy. Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Aristotle, and John Rawls are some of the political theorists whose ideas are used to examine the knotty questions of the day. Sandel writes with remarkable clarity; the book is a delight to read and discuss.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson, Knopf/Doubleday, 2004.
I was alone in finding this book heavy going, mainly because I was unhappy with the writing and the ponderous tone. Single-sentence paragraphs meant to sound portentous (“of all people”), frequent use of verbs created from nouns (“nuggeted”), adjectives that didn’t match up with nouns (“garish self-confidence”), and an unrelenting sense of gloom, made me cranky every time I opened it. I wanted it to be better; there’s great material here. Larsen pairs the story of how the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago was planned and built with the story of serial killer H.H. Holmes who did his nasty work in a hotel he built near the Fairgrounds. Since the two strands of the story never intersect, the reader is asked to make the connection between the group of architects with the hubris to attempt to create a fairytale world of light and magic with the murderer who created a world of death. We did have a good discussion but wished there were more photographs of the Fair. A side note: Chicago wanted to host the Fair to show that it was a first-class city. San Francisco felt the same way about hosting the Panama Pacific Int’l Exposition in 1915–there was a need to prove to the world that the city had recovered from the devastating earthquake in 1906. Part of the fair was built on hastily filled-in land at the edge of the Marina district–when the next big earthquake struck in 1989, that neighborhood suffered some of the worst damage because the land was unstable.
Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford. Random, 2001.
This biography is not for the casual reader! Milford has read every letter, examined the lives of everyone Millay knew, painting an in depth portrait of the charismatic poet. Millay was a complex blend of childish, savvy, and self-aware–especially of her sexual appeal to men and women. Her poetry sold like hotcakes and made her the equivalent of a rock star in the 1920s and her love life, even after marriage, was quite active. Her life was indeed the candle that burned at both ends, as she wrote in her most remembered lines. It’s clear that Milford herself was smitten with Millay (who was usually known as Vincent). When she began researching the book, Millay’s sister Norma was still alive and Milford inserts accounts of her often strange–and strained–conversations with Norma, who is certainly an informant with an attitude. Milford has concentrated so intently on the details of Millay’s life, that there is almost no social or historical context to the book. It feels claustrophobic, although that may well be what Millay’s self-absorbed life was exactly like.
Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex Von Tunzelman, Picador, 2008.
See my review of this book elsewhere on this site, also a list of fiction and non-fiction about India that I have enjoyed. When I was in England 2 years ago, I had lunch in a very ordinary pub one day and found Chicken Tikka Masala on the menu. I was unaware until recently, that this may be the most popular dish in British restaurants. I find the relationship between England and India fascinating–how two countries so very different became so closely intertwined.
Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, Penguin, 2010 (pap) by Winifred Gallagher
We had high hopes for this book–the topic sounded so now–how what we pay attention to shapes our thoughts and ultimately our behavior. Gallagher reports on current research into attention issues and combines it with her own ruminations on how we organize sensory input. Although the issues were fun to discuss, we ultimately felt that the book read more like a research overview than anything else and it didn’t cover some aspects of the topic that we thought were important.
She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Crown, 2004.
Boylan’s accomplishment in this wonderful memoir is to make the reader truly understand his inner thoughts and feelings. From the time he could respond to the world around him, Boylan knew that he was in the wrong body, destined to be a woman. The memoir tells his journey to the age of 42, happily married, father of 2, a professor of literature, when biology could no longer be ignored. The book is filled with wonderful set pieces, humor, sadness, and insight.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel,Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007.
Maybe it’s not good to read 2 great books together or maybe we needed a double session to do them both justice. Bechdel’s memoir is a brilliant marriage of text and pictures, making the story of her difficult childhood so much more engrossing than it would have been with text alone. Her use of literary and mythological themes adds depth and resonance as well. Her family ran–and lived in–the local funeral home in a small Pennsylvania town, a Victorian mansion obsessively restored by her father, whose inability to express emotion marked Bechdel’s childhood like a curse. As she grows up, Bechdel comes to understand how her father differs from other fathers, and how she is different as well.
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin. Knopf/Doubleday. 2008.
In The Nine, Toobin uses significant cases to illuminate how the personalities and philosophies of the justices affect their decisions. It’s a brilliant combination of the personal, the political, and the philosophical, with some social history thrown in for good measure. Toobin covers the big issues that the Court has dealt with and will continue to address in the coming years: separation of church and state, abortion, Affirmative Action, etc. Of course, he covers the debacle in 2000 when the political biases of the Court were revealed. The book was written about the Court as it was constituted during the administration of George W. Bush, so that we’re primed to understand the consequences of the upcoming retirements. The Nine is rich in material for discussion; it touches on so many of the hot button issues of our times in such a compelling way, that I can’t recomment it strongly enough.
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan. Bloomsbury, 2002.
There’s been a flurry of books about food–what we should/shouldn’t eat, how our food is processed, how we don’t know what it is we’re eating, etc. Pollan’s a great writer on this subject and in this book he’s picked four plants illustrate aspects of the human-plant relationship, past and present. After reading the first chapter, about the apple, I finally understood why there are so many beautiful, complicated flowers in the world and how all the apples that came from Johnny Appleseed’s trees were used (not as snacks for children). In the other three chapters he discusses the tulip, marijuana, and the potato, using the four plants to discuss sweeetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. There’s lots of material for discussion here; the chapters on marijuana and potatoes are especially interesting.
The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope by Jonathan Alter. Simon & Schuster, 2007. This was the first book we read, in January, 2009, and the timing couldn’t have been better, with Obama’s inauguration coming up and the financial meltdown the biggest news item. FDR, the patrician with the common touch, didn’t really have a plan to solve the economic woes he inherited in 1933; he and his advisors made it up as they went along, abandoning efforts that didn’t look like they would bear fruit, sticking with the ones that looked like they’d work. The times were so dire that Congress was willing to pass legislation that FDR proposed without opposition or even much scrutiny–something Obama has certainly not experienced! We were startled to read that Hoover, FDR’s predecessor, tried to rope FDR into endorsing his policies in the period between Election Day and Inauguration Day. FDR wasn’t buying and Hoover became progressively more insistent and angry. By Inauguration Day (which was in March), the two men were not on speaking terms. The author, journalist Jonathan Alter, provides a journalist’s view of the man and the times–popular, entertaining, but also filled with the details that make it come alive. We had a good discussion and felt that it we were off to a good start. I was pleased, since I suggested the book!