My Book Group’s Choices

We’ve been reading nonfiction exclusively and in the five years we’ve been reading together we’ve ranged widely through various genres of narrative nonfiction with some great discussions. We’re serious readers! I’ve linked the titles to so you can see reviews.

Our next book is: The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

First TycoonThe First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles. Knopf, 2010.
Stiles has written a definitive biography of Vanderbilt, a pivotal figure in U.S. economic history. As a teenager living on Staten Island, Vanderbilt first went into business ferrying passengers to Manhattan in a boat borrowed from his father. From that beginning, he built an enormous empire by taking advantage of every advance in transportation that came along in the 19th century. He benefited from, and helped create, the modern idea of the corporation. Although he was apparently barely literate and not averse to throttling his business rivals, he had a sophisticated understanding of business and a powerful drive to be top dog in every arena he entered. He loved speed and often raced his carriage horses through the streets of Manhattan at breakneck speed. The fascination of this biography is in its delineation of the changes in the business and technological world in Vanderbilt’s time that allowed him to amass an incredible fortune. Vanderbilt himself is rather unappealing.

Wright BrosThe Wright Brothers by David McCullough. Simon & Schuster, 2015.
We decided to read this since we have all enjoyed other books by McCullough and we knew very little about the Wright brothers except what everyone knows about their history-making flight at Kitty Hawk. Well, now we know more, but we felt that the book was pretty light, rather superficial. I found that it falls into that genre of history-writing where the author doesn’t distinguish between important and insignificant details. Just because you have information about the most mundane aspects of the subjects’ lives, doesn’t mean you have to use it! We felt that there was information missing that would have given a fuller picture, and we particularly missed sections of explanation about the technical breakthroughs the Wrights achieved. We were quite taken with Orville and Wilbur’s work ethic: they never stopped or slowed down once they focused on winged flight. One of the most interesting aspects was how the U.S. government refused to pay attention to what the brothers were doing. Instead, they were welcomed in France, where others were actively working on developing planes. We were glad we read it, but wished McCullough had provided more depth.

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. Grove/Atlantic, 2015.
We all enjoyed MacDonald’s book, loved the gorgeous writing, and the way she trained and  bonded with the goshawk. It’s really an exceptional memoir, filled with strong emotion and beautiful nature writing.

New Jim CrowThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. The New Press, 2012.
I read this twice; once on my own and once with the group. Normally, if I’ve read a book before, I’ll just skim it in prep for the group meeting, but I was glad to have the chance to re-read Alexander’s difficult, insightful, and life-changing book. Unfortunately I had a bad cold and couldn’t be there for the discussion, but I do know that the group found it as devastating as I did. Alexander examines our current system of incarceration and the way that we’ve targeted the African-American community. At times, the book left me speechless, unable to comprehend the insidious system that we’ve developed, beginning in the Reagan years. It’s an important book for everyone to read. Shortly after I first read it, I heard Bill Keller interviewed on the radio. (Keller is a former executive editor of the NY Times.) He talked about how reading the book affected him so strongly that he joined Neil Barsky in starting The Marshall Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization to report on criminal justice issues. I immediately signed on to receive their daily news feed. It’s essential daily reading. I sent a link to a lawyer friend who works in the field of family law; she immediately subscribed.

Fierce AttachmentsFierce Attachments: A Memoir by Vivian Gornick. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005 (reprint).
This is one of my favorite memoirs and I was eager for the group to read it. I loved reading it for the third time but the reactions to the book were mixed. To me and the novelist in the group, it was a great combination of personal history, social history, and compelling writing. We have 2 psychologists and one psychiatrist in the group; they were not so happy with it; they wanted to see Gornick learn and grow. Hmm, not a point of view that I had imagined, but it was very interesting to hear them come to the book from such a different viewpoint. I know that I’m not done with Fierce Attachments; in a few years I’ll read it again.

This Changes EverythingThis Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate by Naomi Klein. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
This was a terrifying book to read: an eye-opener, maybe even a life-changing book. We know that we’ve been trashing the planet but what Klein tells us is that it isn’t enough to recycle, to put solar cells on our roofs, to attend climate change demonstrations, or even to donate to environmental groups. Our free market, highly de-regulated economy is a key villain. NAFTA and other international trade agreements have spawned international companies beholden to no one. Rob Nixon, in the New York Times Book Review called it “a book of such ambition and consequence that it is almost unreviewable.” Stunned into silence during my reading of the first few chapters, I was afraid that it was almost undiscussable. However Klein doesn’t leave us sprawled on the floor; she does see hope in a new brand of activism that emphasizes cooperation and local control. We had a great discussion and ended the evening writing to our representatives and senators about the perils of allowing free rein to the big energy companies.

Innovators IsaacsonThe Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
We enjoyed talking about Isaacson’s history of the development of computers. we were delighted that he stated with Ada Lovelace, Byron’s daughter, who had insights far beyond her time. Isaacson’s discussions about innovation, and how it’s the product of many minds also provided interesting food for thought.

Jane JacobsThe Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Random House, 1961.
What a brilliant book! Jacobs’ anger is palpable as she excoriates city planners for their blinders and inability to see how people actually live and use their cities.

Professor Madman
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
by Simon Winchester. HarperCollins, 2005.

My Beloved WorldMy Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor. Knopf/Doubleday, 2014.

Five Days at Mem'lFive Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink. Crown, 2013.

David and GoliathDavid and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown, 2013.

Heroes and HereticsHeroes and Heretics: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World by Thomas Cahill. Knopf/Doubleday, 2014.
This is a volume in Cahill’s Hinges of History series; it covers a  tumultuous period of fundamental change in Europe. Cahill focuses on personalities: da Vinci, Erasmus, Luther and other and the big issues, especially the Reformation. He spends lots of time on the corruption in the Church–financial and sexual–that led up to the Reformation. I felt that this was very much a popular overview. Shortly after, I read William Manchester’s A World Lit Only By Fire–much more content and depth.

Rachel CarsonOn a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder. Crown, 2012.
Rachel Carson was “a shy, gifted young woman who despite financial hardship and sexism somehow managed to transform a lowly job at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries into a career as an activist author.” (B&N) We found so much to talk about in Carson’s life and work and we were especially happy to be reminded of the tremendous impact Silent Spring had when it was published. Much of Carson’s personal life was  taken up with caring for family members, which she did without complaint. Despite her shyness, she was certainly aware of the value of her work and was tireless in her efforts to have her books promoted properly by her publishers. We felt that the science writing in the book was quite good; the biographical parts could have had more depth and nuance.

Monuments MenThe Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter. Little, Brown, 2013.
I wasn’t entirely happy with this book; I felt that the author had such good material to work with, but the writing didn’t do it justice. Another case of an author not able to distinguish between important and trivial material. However, the topic (the Nazi theft of art all over Europe) was fascinating, and we watched the movie The Rape of Europa, which is a documentary about the topic–quite good!

NudgeNudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Yale Univ. Press, 2008.
We had a good discussion about this one, but were not  happy with the book overall and ended up talking for too long about its shortcomings rather than its content. There were too many glib remarks that didn’t ring true. Sunstein and Thaler write about how we make choices and how our choices are badly made and don’t give us what we want. They also write about  “choice architecture; ” the way that choice can be designed so that we do make the meaningful, beneficial choices that we intend. Unfortunately, choice architecture can be used to manipulate consumer choices as well, so that subtitle about “improving decisions” is misleading. It all reminded me of Vance Packard’s 1959 book The Hidden Persuaders.

Beautiful SoulsBeautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks  and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times by Eyal Press. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2012.
I missed the discussion of this one but I did read it and found it thought provoking as did the group.

Marg FullerMargaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
We  had one of our best discussions about this book, a fascinating biography of a 19th century woman whose life was driven by a need for intellectual challenges.  See my review at:

What Money Can't BuyWhat Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013.
Since we had read Sandel’s previous book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?  we were very eager to hear what Sandel had to say on the issue of materialism and of course, he had plenty to say, making us a little uncomfortable in the process. Sandel writes about how the drive to monetize everything has moral consequences. We’ve put a price on everything and everything’s for sale, from human organs to places in line. What are the consequences to the society we live in if everything’s for sale? A great book for discussion.

Toms RiverToms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin. Random House, 2013.
This is what a friend of mine calls a “twenty minute burn book.” Every twenty minutes you need to stop reading and let off steam.  Since Toms River is in the county south of ours, we were very interested to learn more about a situation that we had followed intermittently in the newspapers. Toms River was used by chemical companies as the dumping ground for toxic waste. The companies believed that they could hide waste in this quiet Pinelands town, tout the benefits of corporate employment and taxes, and no one would catch on that the water supply and air would turn poisonous.  The water company was complicit in this travesty, as were the state government agencies who should have been policing the sites. It took years for community activists and scientists to be heard and to bring their findings to court. A good book for discussion about how to bring scientific evidence to light.

Wait till Next YearWait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Simon & Schuster. 1998.
Goodwin’s terrific  narrative skills make this memoir about her childhood in Rockville Center Long Island shine with a real sense of place, time, and character. We learn about how she developed her storytelling skills by giving her father a play-by-play account of the afternoon Dodgers’ baseball games that he missed while at work. On her block, life was lived in the street, playing games and in and out of everyone’s houses. Full disclosure–I had read this book before and encouraged the group to read it. I heard Goodwin speak years ago at an ALA conference a little while after this book came out. I had already read it and was a fan. At the end of her talk, after we had heard about the wonderful experiences she had working with LBJ on her first book and her research for the book on FDR and Eleanor (No Ordinary Time), she began to talk about her family. I realized that she was reading the last few pages of her memoir, where she’s up in the attic with her father after her mother died, and she learns for the first time the source of her father’s unusual compassion. All of a sudden, I was sobbing out loud, and I certainly wasn’t the only one in that large convention auditorium. Another example of the power of stories to move us. Read it!

Love Lives ArtistsThe Love Lives of the Artists: Five Stories of Creative Intimacy by Daniel Bullen. Counterpoint Press. 2013.
This one didn’t work out so well. We chose the book because of the good review in Kirkus and were hoping for some insight into creative partnerships. The text was turned out to be rather uninspired and only occasionally provided the kinds of insights we were looking for. The artist pairs were: Lou Andreas-Salomé and Rainer Maria Rilke, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. On to next month…

Far From TreeFar From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon. Scribner, 2013.
We found this book quite remarkable. I had read it before the group did and I suggested that we only read and discuss some of the chapters, focusing on the ones covering deafness, dwarfism, Down Syndrome, and prodigies to make it more manageable, avoiding the chapters that are so bleak and sad. We all agreed that our understanding of these issues was changed by Solomon’s writing and found the stories of the families remarkable.

Madame SecretaryMadame Secretary: A Memoir by Madeleine Albright. Miramax Books, 2003.
Albright tells her story in a very brisk, energetic style that carries the reader along from her childhood as the daughter of a Czech diplomat, refugee from the Nazis and the Communisits,  through the many political crises and controversies she encountered as US Representative to the United Nations and Secretary of State in during the Clinton presidency. We enjoyed talking about how her family and European upbringing and wartime experiences affected her adult choices, how she dealt with problems of being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, and revisiting the political crises from the 90s. Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Albright speak and enjoyed her decision to use most of the time to respond to audience questions (which were submitted beforehand). She’s still feisty and has lots to say; it was a delight to hear someone so intelligent and with such insider experience speak about foreign policy today.

Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in the Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal. Little, Brown, 2009.
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. Random House, 2012.
This book 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. Knopf, 2012.
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. Knopf, 2012.
We all enjoyed reading this book for its 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. W.W. Norton, 2012.
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. Penguin, 2004.
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. Defining MomentThis 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!