Once a month I am privileged to sit around a long table with some of the Bay Area's best and brightest women to talk about books and decide which ones to buy for our private library. We review fiction, mysteries, biography, and a wide range of nonfiction and select an average of fifteen books a month.
Nondisclosure rules prevent me from saying more about our secret book selection policies and procedures, but I think I can safely tell you that today the group proposed an especially impressive group of nonfiction books. We will not buy them all, but I want to read them all.
Any one of these would be a great nonfiction book discussion pick.
Before presenting the list, I offer a few general theories about why some of these books were chosen:
Extraordinary women like to read about other extraordinary women--both famous and infamous. Hence we have biographies of Cleopatra, Condoleezza Rice, journal keeper Phyllis Theroux and infamous socialite Lily Safra.
Books about World's Fairs are always popular--there's a lot to say about the architecture, history, new products and inventions, and perhaps a chance for romance in a magical setting far from home.
Hence the 1889 Paris World's Fair, which brought us the Eiffel Tower, is a fascinating subject--and selection number five below, Eiffel's Tower, does it justice.
It's hard, these days, to imagine the excitement and appeal of these fairs before international travel, the Internet, and television hastened the spread of new ideas and images. But the books bring us back to a more innocent time--or was it?
I would love to do a book group series called World's Fair--focusing on books about them. I got the idea after recently touring San Francisco's magnificent Mechanics Institute Library (www.milibrary.org) in which librarian Taryn Edwards told us the history of the somewhat smaller, but no less exciting library sponsored trade exhibitions that fascinated San Franciscans at the turn of the 20th century.
With Eiffel's Tower and well written fiction (E.L. Doctorow's Worlds Fair about New York City in the 1930s) and Erik Larson's nonfiction (Devil In The White City about the Chicago World's Fair of 1893) you have a great series.
But I digress.
Here is today's list. Check it out and see what would work for your group.
1) The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey
Here's the beginning of the SF Chronicle Review
Casey travels to distant oceans where mountainous waves are born, and she chases waves around the world with elite surfers, professional photographers and Sean Collins, one of the top wave predictors in the world. They arrive at reefs and beaches, known to surfers as Jaws, Teahupoo, Todos Santos, Cortes Bank - and Northern California's Ghost Tree and Mavericks - with the hope of catching a giant wave. Casey's quest is to understand the sensation of flying across the face of a gigantic wave that releases its energy as 100,000 tons of furious water, with an impact so great that the land shakes for miles.
Through the eyes of the surfers, readers get a remarkable sense of how they choose their waves, the skill that it takes to rocket across them, what happens when surfers are flung into coral reefs, pounded by tons of water, and are held under for too long.
Book group idea: Have everyone show up in Hawaiian shirts. Show film clips of big waves.
Find some here at the Maverick's (Half Moon Bay) surf site: http://www.maverickssurf.com/
2) The Dog Who Couldn't Stop Loving: How Dogs Have Captured Our Hearts for Thousands of Years by Jeffrey M. Masson (272 pages, 2010)
Masson tells the Huffington Post:
I felt impelled to write yet another book in praise of this dog, and of dogs in general, and to make yet one more attempt to get closer to the mystery of love, which seems to be embedded in the hearts of dogs.
He adds" Humans and dogs evolved together as two species who came to depend on one another. There is controversy about whether dogs have been with us for the past 120,000 years or just for 15,000 years. Whatever the number, dogs have lived with us far longer than any other domesticated animal or even domesticated plant. Small wonder that we have so much in common."
Masson says that 39 percent of American households have at least one dog.
Bring your dogs to book group. Serve them treats. Discuss.
3)Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons for Making It Work by Tim Gunn 272 pages (2010) Okay. Maybe this isn't a great book discussion book--but if you are a Project Runway fan--you won't want to miss this. Fashionista Gunn, former faculty member of the Parsons School of Design and Liz Claiborne exec, is a style mentor on the show.
Maybe you take this one on a vacation with the girls.
According to the book blurb on Amazon, you’ll learn why Tim frowns on displays of bad behavior, like the vitriolic outburst by Martha Stewart’s daughter about her mother’s name-brand merchandise. You’ll discover the downfalls of divadom as he describes Vogue’s André Leon Talley being hand-fed grapes and Anna Wintour being carried downstairs by her bodyguards. And you’ll get Tim’s view on the backstabbing by one designer on Project Runway and how it brilliantly backfired.
4) The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson 640 pages (2010)
This book is number eleven in nonfiction on The New York Times bestseller list this week, where the one sentence summary says it is about, "The Great Migration of blacks who fled the South, starting in 1915."
But this is a dry description of a book that reviewers say has great human interest as it follows the lives of three different families over the years. The author is a Pulitzer prize winner and I predict another Pulitzer Prize for this one. In fact, I would like to assign this book as my book group's long summer read for 2011
Here is the starred review from Publishers Weekly:
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man's turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners' plans to give him a "necktie party" (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by "the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn't operate in his own home town." Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's magnificent, extensively researched study of the "great migration," the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an "uncertain existence" in the North and Midwest. Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.
5)Eiffel's Tower by Jill Jones 354 pages (2009) includes photos and illustrations
Here's part of the review from the New York Times Travel Section (2009)
Ms. Jonnes does a fine job of walking us through the 1889 Paris World's Fair, where visitors were immersed in a typical late-19th-century stew of high-minded educational exhibits and cheap thrills. Arab orchestras and engine manufacturers vied for visitors’ attention with performances by singers and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, featuring Annie Oakley. You could tour the grounds by rickshaw or railroad.
Above it all, literally, was Gustave Eiffel, who entertained a cast of royals and business celebrities in his apartment at the top of the tower. One begrudging admirer was Thomas Edison, there to make sure his phonograph received constant notice.
1)Gilded Lily: Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World's Wealthiest Widows by Isabel Vincent
336 pages (2010)
The product description on Amazon tells it all:
In the early morning of December 3, 1999, Lily Safra stood shivering in her nightgown on the grounds outside her sumptuous Monte Carlo penthouse where, just hours before, her fourth husband, reclusive billionaire Edmond Safra, died in a fire. An American nurse employed by the Safra family was eventually convicted of the arson death. Overnight, Lily became one of the wealthiest widows in the world.
The Brazilian-born Lily Safra was no stranger to tragedy. In 1969, her second husband, the Brazilian multimillionaire Alfredo Monteverde, died from two gunshots to the chest. The Brazilian authorities ruled it a suicide. In 1989, her beloved eldest son and four-year-old grandson died in a car accident. But just who is Lily Safra? Despite having become a fixture in society columns for her generous charity work and lavish parties, the elegant and enigmatic widow has remained in the background.
Gilded Lily tells Lily Safra's story for the first time. Using archival sources, court documents, and interviews with childhood friends and former employees in South America, investigative journalist Isabel Vincent chronicle's Safra's rise from humble origins in Brazil to fabled wealth in London, New York, and Monaco.
Your book group can compare and contrast this book with the reporting on the Safra murder investigation and court cases, covered by Dominick Dunne in Vanity Fair from 2001 right up until his death in 2009.
2)Cleopatra: A Life by Stacey Schiff 384 pages (2010)
This book will be released on November 1st and it is already garnering rave reviews from respected historians and novelists.
"This is an astonishing, scrupulously researched, meticulously assembled retelling of one of the world's most famous lives—and it will become a classic." — Simon Winchester
"I am grateful to Stacy Schiff first of all because she can write a sentence—because she offers us her scholarship with wit, clarity, and grace.
Once again, she has done what only the best writers can do: she has made the world new, again."
— Tracy Kidder
"Stacy Schiff's meticulous research, the depth and deftness of her portrayal, have given us a Cleopatra far richer and more satisfying than the myths and fantasies that we have mistaken for true nourishment. This Cleopatra is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the history and lives of women." — Mary Gordon
Film rights to this version of Cleopatra's life have already been sold with Angelina Jolie in mind for the title role.
Book group ice breaker: Do you think Angelina Jolie will do a better job than Elizabeth Taylor in the role?
Book group activity: Wait unti the new film comes out and do a Cleopatra Festival along with the book, and the Shakespeare play, Antony and Cleoptra.
3)Condoleezza Rice: A Memoir of My Extraordinary, Ordinary Family and Me 336 pages (2010)
This is being marketed as a young adult book, but will have cross over appeal.
I am thinking mother/daughter book group.
The book will be out on October 12th--have not seen a lot of reviews yet, but the focus, as the title says, is on her family life, not her political life.
For those who need refreshing: Condoleezza Rice was the sixty-sixth U.S. secretary of state, serving under President George W. Bush and the first black woman to hold that office. She was also the first woman to serve as national security advisor. She has served as provost of Stanford University and was the Soviet and East European Affairs advisor to the president of the United States during the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Here are the first few paragraphs:
By all accounts, my parents approached the time of my birth with great anticipation. My father was certain that I'd be a boy and had worked out a deal with my mother: if the baby was a girl, she would name her, but a boy would be named John.
Mother started thinking about names for her daughter. She wanted a name that would be unique and musical. Looking to Italian musical terms for inspiration, she at first settled on Andantino. But realizing that it translated as "moving slowly," she decided that she didn't like the implications of that name. Allegro was worse because it translated as "fast," and no mother in 1954 wanted her daughter to be thought of as "fast." Finally she found the musical terms con dolce and con dolcezza, meaning "with sweetness." Deciding that an English speaker would never recognize the hard c, saying "dolci" instead of "dolche," my mother doctored the term. She settled on Condoleezza.
Meanwhile, my father prepared for John's birth. He bought a football and several other pieces of sports equipment. John was going to be an all-American running back or perhaps a linebacker.
4)The Journal Keeper by Phyllis Theroux
281 pages (2010)
Theroux is an evangelist for the power and benefits of journal keeping, and although she now lives in a small Virginia town called Ashland, she comes to the Bay Area regularly for speaking engagements and journaling workshops. In this book, based on six years of journal entries, she paints a portrait of her mother in her final years, says Linda Stankard of Bookpage.
Adds The Christian Science Monitor: Phyllis Theroux excels at closely observed and elegantly expressed portraits of domestic life that fondly recalls the tradition of E.B. White. We come to hold Ahsland as closely as a snow globe village clasped at eye leve. The best thing...is the way it leaves us hopeful--and expectant--about what will happen next.
5)Grant Wood by R Tripp Evans 402 pages (2010)
Cultural historian Evans posits that the creator of iconic painting American Gothic was a closeted gay man forced by 1930s American culture and family pressures.to hide his identity. The book suggests that we now take a second look at Grant Wood--and what his work shows about national character and gender. Pay attention, says Evans, to the undulating hills!
Here's the review from Lambda Literary:
The New York Times liked it, too:
Okay--this is not for every book group.
But bet it would do well at an art museum or gender studies program near you.
Half A Life by Darren Strauss 204 pages (2010)
A high school boy accidentally kills a classmate in a car accident and is told by her mother at the funeral that he must now live a righteous life for two people.
The story was also featured on National Public Radio's This American Life series in a 24 minute segment
Here's the review from Booklist:
Although the accident was what insurers call a “no fault fatality,” the moment Strauss’ car struck and killed his classmate Celine, a girl he hardly knew, his life was understandably changed forever. Prompted to tell his story (he first told portions on This American Life) by new fatherhood and the realization that the earth-crumbling event had occurred half his lifetime ago, Strauss takes advantage of the perhaps unfortunate ability the accident gave him to introspect and proceeds to do so for 200 pages of conversational free-form essay. Remaining well on this side of overly sentimental, Strauss deconstructs the past 18 years and views them from every vantage point; he sees his embarrassingly self-centered thoughts immediately afterward and the premature graying of his hair and stress-related stomach problems of his late twenties. “Name an experience. It’s a good bet I’ve thought of Celine while experiencing it.” Strauss already has a few well-received novels under his belt (Chang and Eng, 2000; The Real McCoy, 2002), and his turn to nonfiction of a highly personal nature, a slow-release mediation on grief, is no less symphonic. -
Another great book discussion group book for parents and teens.
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