Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Genre Reading Group Recap - Biographies

We discussed a very broad selection of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs last evening and I really believe it could contend to be among our most lively meetings! Hearing about a person's life story seems to get back to the very roots of storytelling. Doesn't that oral tradition seem to revolve around the stories we tell about ourselves and our cultures? All in all, a GREAT book group discussion!

If this sounds interesting to you, please make plans to join us next month for the discussion of Man Booker Prize winners on June 29th at 6:30pm! The Man Booker Prize is a literary prize awarded each year to the best original full-length novel, written in the English language, by a citizen of either the Commonwealth of Nations of the Republic of Ireland.

Here is a list of the books and topics we discussed! All review material pulled from

Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez
In 2002, just months after the Taliban had been driven out of Afghanistan, Rodriguez, a hairdresser from Holland, MI, joined a small nongovernmental aid organization on a mission to the war-torn nation. That visit changed her life. In Kabul, she chronicles her efforts to help establish the country's first modern beauty school and training salon; along with music and kite-flying, hairdressing had been banned under the previous regime. This memoir offers a glimpse into a world Westerners seldom see–life behind the veil. Rodriguez was entranced with the delightful personalities that emerged when her students removed their burqas behind closed doors, but her book is also a tale of empowerment–both for her and the women.

Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line by Martha Sandweiss
During America’s Gilded Age, Clarence King was a famous geologist, friend of wealthy, famous, and powerful men. He was a larger-than-life character whose intellect and wanderlust pushed him to survey far-flung regions of the western U.S. and South America and develop an abiding appreciation of non-Western culture and people. What his family and wealthy friends did not know was that for 17 years, King lived secretly as James Todd, a black Pullman porter with a black wife and mixed-race children residing in Brooklyn. Devoted to his mother and half-siblings, restless and constantly in need of money, King relied on the largesse of his wealthy friends to help him support both families, never revealing his secret until he was near death.

Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock
In 1917, John R. Brinkley–America’s most brazen con man–introduced an outlandish surgical method for restoring fading male virility. It was all nonsense, but thousands of eager customers quickly made “Dr.” Brinkley one of America’s richest men–and a national celebrity. The great quack buster Morris Fishbein vowed to put the country’s “most daring and dangerous” charlatan out of business, yet each effort seemed only to spur Brinkley to new heights of ingenuity, and the worlds of advertising, broadcasting, and politics soon proved to be equally fertile grounds for his potent brand of flimflam.
Culminating in a decisive courtroom confrontation, Charlatan is a marvelous portrait of a boundlessly audacious rogue on the loose in an America ripe for the bamboozling.

This book took us down a road of discussion passed medical malpractice and misinformation across time and culture. It reminded me strongly of Tahir Shah's exploration of psychic surgery and miracle fish cures in the book I read for our travel literature discussion, The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Ron Jeremy: The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz by Ron Jeremy and Eric Spitznagel

He's the porn world's Everyman. Blessed with an enormous "talent" yet average looks, he's starred in more than 1,700 adult films, directed 250 of them, and over the last twenty years has become porn's biggest ambassador to the mainstream. He's appeared in 60 regular films, 14 music videos, and VH1's Surreal Life, starred in the critically acclaimed Porn star (a movie about his life), and in Being Ron Jeremy (a take off on Being John Malkovich), co-starring Andy Dick. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Ron Jeremy is a born storyteller (funny, considering he doesn't do a lot of talking in his films). He knows where all the bodies are buried, and in this outrageous autobiography he not only shows you the grave but also gives you the back story on the tombstone. Get ready for Ron Jeremy—a scandalously entertaining deep insider's view of the porn industry and its emergence into popular culture, and a delectable self-portrait of the amazingly endowed Everyman every man wanted to be.

My Own Country: A Doctor's Story by Abraham Verghese
In fall 1985 Verghese--who was born in Ethiopia of Indian parents--returned with his wife and newborn son to Johnson City, Tennessee, where he had done his internship and residence. As he watched AIDS infect the small town, he and the community learned many things from one another, including the power of compassion. An AIDS expert who initially had no patients, Verghese describes meeting gay men and then eventually others struggling with this new disease. Verghese's patients include a factory worker confronting her husband's AIDS, bisexuality, and her own HIV status and a religious couple infected via a blood transfusion attempting to keep their disease secret from their church and their children. This novelistic account, occasionally overly detailed, provides a heartfelt perspective on the American response to the spread of AIDS.

Verghese's recently published first work of fiction, Cutting for Stone, is gathering force as a literary powerhouse and book group favorite. Books currently being favorably compared to Cutting for Stone include Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains and Julie Orringer's The Invisible Bridge.

Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival by Owen Matthews
Intense loyalty, painful separation, incredible hardship, and, above all, overriding love are all in Matthews's chronicle of his family's love-hate relationship with an evolving Russia. Moscow bureau chief for Newsweek, the author ably captures both the Soviet Union of the past and the present atmosphere of the new Russia. From his grandfather's execution during the Stalinist purges in the 1930s, through his mother's and aunt's deprivations in World War II, to his own fascination with the changing Russia of the 1990s, Matthews has created a testament to how deeply a country and a people can get into your blood.

Grayson by Lynne Cox
On a clear California morning when Cox (Swimming to Antarctica) was 17 years old, she had an unusual experience that stayed with her for 30 years, creating a spiritual foundation for her personal and professional success. In this slim and crisp memoir, Cox details a morning swim off the coast of California that took an unexpected turn: returning to shore, she discovered that she was being followed by a baby gray whale that had been separated from its mother. As Cox developed a rapport with the whale, she took on the responsibility of keeping it at sea until it was reunited with its mother.

Big Russ and Me: Father and Son, Lessons of Life by Tim Russert
Veteran newsman and Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert is known for his direct and unpretentious style and in this charming memoir he explains why. Russert's father is profiled as a plainspoken World War II veteran who worked two blue-collar jobs while raising four kids in South Buffalo but the elder Russert's lessons on how to live an honest, disciplined, and ethical life are shown to be universal. Big Russ and Me, a sort of Greatest Generation meets Tuesdays with Morrie, could easily have become a sentimental pile of mush with a son wistfully recalling the wisdom of his beloved dad. But both Russerts are far too down-to-earth to let that happen and the emotional content of the book is made more direct, accessible, and palatable because of it.
Tim Russert died in June 2008.

Claiming Ground by Laura Bell
A Kentucky minister’s daughter and a pretty college grad, Bell didn’t seem destined to live alone in the high, lonesome hills of Wyoming, herding sheep and cattle. But all she could conceive of doing was to feed her hunger for horses, dogs, and open space. Writing with the restraint and precision of someone who both cherishes and distrusts language, Bell recounts her Bighorn Basin sojourn, beginning with her brash arrival in 1977, on through long, grueling horseback days of epic heat and cold, rain and snow, and bracing nights in a small sheep wagon beneath the stars. The only woman among older male herders, many bedeviled by alcohol, Bell holds her own with tenacity and grace through punishing work and annealing solitude, love, and tragedy. In finely tooled, indelible prose, Bell moves through the decades, lovingly portraying her intrepid parents, damaged husband, beautiful stepdaughters, and all the animals that opened and healed her battered heart. Now working for the Nature Conservancy, Bell has created an exquisite yet humble praise song to a “wild-knit life.”

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