Really Cool Women\'s Book Club

Next 3 books, location and dates May 27, 2014

Filed under: dates and places — Susan @ 9:04 pm

The votes are in!

5 Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink at JoLynne’s house on July 10th

After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey at Ann’s house on August 21st

The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry at Marci’s condo on October 2nd

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Time to Vote May 23, 2014

Filed under: Nominated Books — Susan @ 11:08 pm

Please choose 3 titles from the following books. You can vote on survey monkey using this link.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/8S83X6B

5 Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

*Starred Review* As the floodwaters rose after Hurricane Katrina, patients, staff, and families who sheltered in New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital faced a crisis far worse than the storm itself. Without power, an evacuation plan, or strong leadership, caregiving became chaotic, and exhausted doctors and nurses found it difficult to make even the simplest decisions. And, when it came to making the hardest decisions, some of them seem to have failed. A number of the patients deemed least likely to survive were injected with lethal combinations of drugs—even as the evacuation finally began in earnest. Fink, a Pulitzer Prize winner for her reporting on Memorial in the New York Times Magazine, offers a stunning re-creation of the storm, its aftermath, and the investigation that followed (one doctor and two nurses were charged with second-degree murder but acquitted by a grand jury). She evenhandedly compels readers to consider larger questions, not just of ethics but race, resources, history, and what constitutes the greater good, while humanizing the countless smaller tragedies that make up the whole. And, crucially, she provides context, relating how other hospitals fared in similar situations. Both a breathtaking read and an essential book for understanding how people behave in times of crisis. –Keir Graff

After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey

Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2013: In 1970, when Hainey was six, his uncle showed up to say that his father had collapsed and died alone in the street on Chicago’s North Side. Being out at dawn wasn’t unusual for the elder Hainey, the Night Slot Man at the Chicago Sun Times who vetted every stitch of copy before it went to press. But as Hainey grew up and became a journalist himself, he checked his dad’s obits and realized they didn’t align. This is the story of his obsession with uncovering the real story of his father’s death, how he broke through a wall of secrecy, and made startling revelations about the kind of man his dad had been–as a reporter, husband, and father. It’s about how the truth transformed Hainey’s relationships with his living family, especially his mother. Unfolding like a good novel with the gathering momentum of a mystery, Hainey’s memoir explores the transgressions we’ll willingly forgive to finally know someone, even after they’re long gone. —Mari Malcolm

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

 

*Starred Review* To the women in the hair-braiding salon, Ifemelu seems to have everything a Nigerian immigrant in America could desire, but the culture shock, hardships, and racism she’s endured have left her feeling like she has “cement in her soul.” Smart, irreverent, and outspoken, she reluctantly left Nigeria on a college scholarship. Her aunty Uju, the pampered mistress of a general in Lagos, is now struggling on her own in the U.S., trying to secure her medical license. Ifemelu’s discouraging job search brings on desperation and depression until a babysitting gig leads to a cashmere-and-champagne romance with a wealthy white man. Astonished at the labyrinthine racial strictures she’s confronted with, Ifemelu, defining herself as a “Non-American Black,” launches an audacious, provocative, and instantly popular blog in which she explores what she calls Racial Disorder Syndrome. Meanwhile, her abandoned true love, Obinze, is suffering his own cold miseries as an unwanted African in London. MacArthur fellow Adichie (The Thing around Your Neck, 2009) is a word-by-word virtuoso with a sure grasp of social conundrums in Nigeria, East Coast America, and England; an omnivorous eye for resonant detail; a gift for authentic characters; pyrotechnic wit; and deep humanitarianism. Americanah is a courageous, world-class novel about independence, integrity, community, and love and what it takes to become a “full human being.” –Donna Seaman

 

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore

*Starred Review* Award-winning historian, Harvard professor, and New Yorker staff writer Lepore, whose The Mansion of Happiness (2012) was a Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction finalist, was intrigued to learn that Benjamin Franklin and his youngest sister, Jane, were so close they were called Benny and Jenny. Renowned, world-traveling brother and obscure, homebound sister exchanged loving, newsy, bantering letters for more than 60 years. Most of his were preserved, while three decades’ worth of hers disappeared. This near-erasure, along with the gender bias that determined the vast differences in the siblings’ education, opportunities, and experiences, become as much a focus in this zestfully rigorous portrait as Jane herself. The most poignant artifact Lepore unearthed was Jane’s handmade “Book of Ages,” recording the birth of her 12 children and, excruciatingly, the eventual deaths of all but one of them. In spite of the tragedies she endured, Jane’s surviving letters are “gabby, frank, and vexed,” the correspondence of a smart, witty, hardworking woman who “loved best books about ideas,” reveled in gossip, expressed “impolite” opinions on religion and politics, and shared piquant observations of the struggle for American independence. By restoring Jane so vividly to the historical record, Lepore also provides a fresh, personal perspective on Benjamin. And so extraordinarily demanding was her research, even the appendixes in Lepore’s vibrantly enlightening biography are dramatic. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Lepore’s stature grows with each book, and this first telling of a remarkable American story, supported by a national tour and generous print run, is destined for an even greater readership. –Donna Seaman.

 

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

 

British novelist Gaiman (American Gods; Stardust) and his long-time accomplice McKean (collaborators on a number of Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels as well as The Day I Swapped My Dad for 2 Goldfish) spin an electrifyingly creepy tale likely to haunt young readers for many moons. After Coraline and her parents move into an old house, Coraline asks her mother about a mysterious locked door. Her mother unlocks it to reveal that it leads nowhere: “When they turned the house into flats, they simply bricked it up,” her mother explains. But something about the door attracts the girl, and when she later unlocks it herself, the bricks have disappeared. Through the door, she travels a dark corridor (which smells “like something very old and very slow”) into a world that eerily mimics her own, but with sinister differences. “I’m your other mother,” announces a woman who looks like Coraline’s mother, except “her eyes were big black buttons.” Coraline eventually makes it back to her real home only to find that her parents are missing–they’re trapped in the shadowy other world, of course, and it’s up to their scrappy daughter to save them. Gaiman twines his taut tale with a menacing tone and crisp prose fraught with memorable imagery (“Her other mother’s hand scuttled off Coraline’s shoulder like a frightened spider”), yet keeps the narrative just this side of terrifying. The imagery adds layers of psychological complexity (the button eyes of the characters in the other world vs. the heroine’s increasing ability to distinguish between what is real and what is not; elements of Coraline’s dreams that inform her waking decisions). McKean’s scratchy, angular drawings, reminiscent of Victorian etchings, add an ominous edge that helps ensure this book will be a real bedtime-buster. Ages 8-up.

 

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang

 

Her original first name was considered too inconsequential to enter in the court registry, yet she became the most powerful woman in 19th-century China. Born in 1835 to a prominent Manchu family, Cixi was chosen in 1852 by the young Chinese Emperor Xianfeng as one of his concubines. Literate, politically aware, and graceful rather than beautiful, Cixi was not Xianfeng’s favorite, but she delivered his firstborn son in 1856. When the emperor died in 1861, he bequeathed his title to this son, with regents to oversee his reign. Cixi did not trust these men to competently rule China, so she conspired with Empress Zhen, her close friend and the deceased emperor’s first wife, to orchestrate a coup. Memoirist Chang (Wild Swans) melds her deep knowledge of Chinese history with deft storytelling to unravel the empress dowager’s behind-the-throne efforts to “Make China Strong” by developing international trade, building railroads and utilities, expanding education, and constructing a modern military. Cixi’s actions and methods were at times controversial, and in 1898 she thwarted an assassination attempt sanctioned by Emperor Guangxu, her adopted son. Cixi’s power only increased after this, and she finally exacted revenge on Guangxu just before her death in 1908. .

 

Gulp by Mary Roach

*Starred Review* In her latest rollicking foray into taboo, icky, and underappreciated aspects of the human body, best-selling science writer Roach takes readers on a wild ride down the alimentary canal. Not that the author of Stiff (2003), Bonk (2008), and Packing for Mars (2010) ever takes a direct route anywhere. No, voraciously curious and intrepid Roach zips off in whatever direction her ardor for research and irrepressible instinct for the wonderfully weird lead her. She begins this hilarious, mind-expanding inquiry into eating, digestion, and elimination with the symbiosis between smell and taste, guided by an olfactorily gifted “sensory analyst,” then profiles Horace Fletcher, proponent of a rigorous chewing routine known as “Fletcherizing” practiced by Henry James and Franz Kafka. We learn more than one can imagine about saliva and our passion for crispy and crunchy foods. Given Roach’s fascination with what we find disgusting, scientific obsessions and bizarre experiments, and horrifying things we do to ourselves, the stories get stranger as she proceeds down the body. Roach interviews a prison inmate about “rectal smuggling” (including cell phones), tells tales of flatulence, and reveals the truth about Elvis Presley’s fatal megacolon. For all her irreverence, Roach marvels over the fine-tuned workings and “wisdom” of the human body, and readers will delight in her exuberant energy, audacity, and wit. –Donna Seaman

LEAN IN: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg with Nell Scovell

 

 *Starred Review* If Facebook COO (and first-time author) Sandberg succeeds, it will be because she’s made us mad—and more than willing to act. With no small amount of self-deprecating humor, a massive quantity of facts and research, plus a liberal dose of very personal anecdotes, Sandberg forces each one of us—woman and man—to reexamine ourselves at work and in life, using a unique filter. Are we more concerned about being liked than succeeding? Do we think of our career as a series of upward ladders rather than a jungle gym? Do our authentic selves—and honesty—show up in business? In short, every single undoing of a woman’s career is examined thoughtfully and with twenty-first-century gentleness and exposed with recommended remedies. Her colleagues act as advocates for her theme: lean in, or take a risk and drive change for us all. And though there are no solutions offered, except in the formation of communities around the country and (we hope!) around the world, there’s tremendous reenergy in feeling that, thanks to Sandberg, the world just might be a different place. –Barbara Jacobs

 

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

 

*StarredReview* In a radical departure from her Jackson Brodie mystery series, Atkinson delivers a wildly inventive novel about Ursula Todd, born in 1910 and doomed to die and be reborn over and over again. She drowns, falls off a roof, and is beaten to death by an abusive husband but is always reborn back into the same loving family, sometimes with the knowledge that allows her to escape past poor decisions, sometimes not. As Atkinson subtly delineates all the pathways a life or a country might take, she also delivers a harrowing set piece on the Blitz as Ursula, working as a warden on a rescue team, encounters horrifying tableaux encompassing mangled bodies and whole families covered in ash, preserved just like the victims of Pompeii. Alternately mournful and celebratory, deeply empathic and scathingly funny, Atkinson shows what it is like to face the horrors of war and yet still find the determination to go on, with her wholly British characters often reducing the Third Reich to “a fuss.” From her deeply human characters to her comical dialogue to her meticulous plotting, Atkinson is working at the very top of her game. An audacious, thought-provoking novel from one of our most talented writers. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Atkinson’s publisher is pulling out all the stops in marketing her latest, which will no doubt draw in many new readers in addition to her Jackson Brodie fans. –Joanne Wilkinson

 

Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn

 

Malcolm Craig becomes chair of the board awarding his country’s top literary honor, the Elysian Prize. In describing what ensues, noted British novelist St. Aubyn takes on the publishing industry and the horse-trading and ax-grinding among authors, critics, and hangers-on surrounding such awards, including the popular (and promiscuous) Katherine Burns, whose novel is overlooked in favor of a cookbook mistakenly sent for consideration by its publisher; interpreted by some as a new form of modern fiction, it makes the short list. Not wanting to read much himself, Craig is joined by judges Jo Cross (whose major criterion is “relevance”), Vanessa Shaw (“good writing”), Penny Feathers (former mistress of the elderly corporate sponsor), and actor Tobias Benedict. “Young writers were the future,” Craig muses, or “would be if they were still around and being published.” As a novel about the ephemeral nature of book awards, Lost for Words may itself be ephemeral, but along the way, St. Aubyn offers a hearty satire, full of laughs and groans, with snippets from the candidates, including the novel wot u starin at, an unsparing look at Glasgow low life, which bookies (the gambling kind) make the favorite. –Mark Levin

Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance by Carla Kaplan

 

Starred Review* Frustrated by the lack of information about the strong-minded white women who played intriguing, often vexing roles in the Harlem Renaissance and who were known collectively as Miss Anne, Kaplan (Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, 2002) took up the challenge and through arduous research reclaimed astonishing and provocative lives. She presents six indelible portraits of taboo-breakers who were reviled as “either monstrous or insane” for their involvement in African American culture. Each biography is shaped by Kaplan’s vivid scene-setting, historical perspective, psychological sensitivity, narrative panache, and frank analysis of the virulent sexism and racism of 1920s America and the confluence in Harlem of grim social conundrums and a spectacular creative flowering. Kaplan’s audacious, contrary and tragic subjects include Texan Josephine Cogdell Schuyler, a spitfire journalist who married the controversial African American newspaper editor and writer, George Schuyler; Charlotte Osgood Mason, who established herself as a meddlesome patron of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Alain Locke, “one of the chief architects of the Harlem Renaissance”; and scandalous steamship heiress Nancy Cunard, who, to the surprise of nearly everyone, edited the era’s “most comprehensive anthology of black life.” Kaplan’s meticulously documented and intrepid history of Miss Anne encompasses a unique vantage on the complexities of race and gender and a dramatic study in paradox. –Donna Seaman

 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel by Robin Sloan

Amazon Best Books of the Month, October 2012 (Debut Spotlight)Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an old school mystery set firmly in tech-loving, modern day San Francisco. Clay Jannon (former web designer) lands a job at a bookstore with very few patrons and even fewer purchases. His curiosity leads him to the discovery of a larger conspiracy at play, one exciting enough to rope in his best friend (CEO at a startup) and love interest (works at Google). As Clay and company unravel the puzzles of Mr. Penumbra’s book shop, the story turns into a sort of nerdy heist, with real-life gadgets, secret societies, and a lot of things to say about the past, present, and future of reading. Sloan originally self-published Mr. Penumbra as a short story through Kindle Direct Publishing, before expanding it to its current form with a traditional print publisher–a fitting trajectory for a fast, fun story that has so wholly and enthusiastically embraced the tension between the digital and analog books. –Kevin Nguyen

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn

 

THE FIRST PATRICK MELROSE NOVEL. At his mother’s family house in the south of France, Patrick Melrose has the run of a magical garden. Bravely imaginative and self-sufficient, five-year-old Patrick encounters the volatile lives of adults with care. His father, David, rules with considered cruelty, and Eleanor, his mother, has retreated into drink. They are expecting guests for dinner. But this afternoon is unlike the chain of summer days before, and the shocking events that precede the guests’ arrival tear Patrick’s world in two. This title was originally published, along with Bad News and Some Hope, as part of a 3-book package, also called Some Hope.

 

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

 

I dare you not to fall in love with Ready Player One. And I mean head over heels in love–the way you fall for someone who is smart, feisty, and who can effortlessly finish your favorite movie lines, music lyrics, or literature quotes before they come out of your mouth.

Ready Player One expertly mines a copious vein of 1980s pop culture, catapulting the reader on a light-speed adventure in an advanced but backward-looking future.

The story is set in a near-term future in which the new, new form of the Internet is a realistic virtual multi-verse called the OASIS. Most human interaction takes place via goggles and gloves in millions of unique worlds, including the boring (and free) “public education” world from which our teenage protagonist must escape.

Our unlikely hero is an overweight trailer park kid who goes by Wade Watts in real life, and “Parzival” to his best friends and mortal enemies–all of whom he interacts with virtually. Just like the Arthurian knight that is his namesake, young Wade is on a quest for an incredible treasure guarded by mythical creatures. Specifically, the creator of the OASIS and richest man on the planet, James Halliday, stipulated in his will that his fortune be given to the first person who can find an “Easter egg” hidden somewhere in the OASIS. The catch? Every devilishly complex clue on this treasure hunt is rooted in an intimate knowledge of 1980s pop culture.

This leaves the people of the future hilariously obsessed with every aspect of the 1980s. The setup is particularly brilliant, because Ernie Cline seems to have a laser-beam knowledge of (and warm, fuzzy love for) every pop song, arcade game, and giant robot produced in the last thirty years. Seriously, this is a guy who owns and regularly drives a 1982 DeLorean that has been mocked up to look exactly like the time-traveling car in Back to the Future, complete with a glowing flux capacitor.

But Ready Player One isn’t just a fanboy’s wet dream. Real villains are lurking, threatening our hero with death in their ruthless hunt for the treasure. Worse, these corporate baddies are posers with no love for the game – they have movie dialogue piped in via radio earpieces, use bots to cheat at arcade games like JOUST, and don’t hesitate to terrorize or murder people in the real world to achieve their aims inside the OASIS.

As the book climaxes, a mega-battle unfolds with sobering life-or-death stakes, yet soldiered entirely by exciting and downright fun pop-culture icons. The bad guys are piloting a ferocious Mechagodzilla. Our good guy has to leave his X-Wing fighter aboard his private flotilla so that he can pilot an authentic Ultraman recreation. And how do you not grin when someone dons a pair of virtual Chuck Taylor All Stars that bestow the power of flight?

Cline is fearless and he lets his imagination soar, yet this pop scenery could easily come off as so much fluff. Instead, Cline keeps the stakes high throughout, and the epic treasure hunt structure (complete with an evolving high-score list) keeps the action intense. The plot unfolds with constant acceleration, never slowing down or sagging in the middle, to create a thrilling ride with a fulfilling ending.

Best of all, the book captures the aura of the manifold worlds it depicts. If Ready Player One were a living room, it would be wood-panelled. If it were shoes, it would be high-tops. And if it were a song, well, it would have to be Eye of the Tiger.

The Burglary by Betty Medsger

In 1971, somebody burgled an FBI office in Pennsylvania, stole secret files, and sent them to journalists. One of the recipients, Medsger revisits the story because she has discovered who the burglars were (the FBI never identified them). Organized by a college teacher, they were a small group of academics and students whose act Medsger recounts with sympathy for their audacity and antiwar motivations. In discursive detail, Medsger recounts the protester-burglars’ movements, from casing the building to publicizing the purloined documents (with interludes of their worries about their fates if caught), and follows the course of the futile FBI investigation into the caper. Besides dramatizating the incident, Medsger pursues its historical significance—the documents’ revelation of extensive domestic surveillance by the FBI—into the congressional investigations of the 1970s. Medsger also discusses J. Edgar Hoover’s appointment in 1924 and NSA activities in the present. Though it could have been more tightly organized, this work encapsulates an important event of interest to readers of the history of the antiwar movement. –Gilbert Taylor

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt’s latest novel clocks in at an unwieldy 784 pages. The story begins with an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum that kills narrator Theo Decker’s beloved mother and results in his unlikely possession of a Dutch masterwork called The Goldfinch. Shootouts, gangsters, pillowcases, storage lockers, and the black market for art all play parts in the ensuing life of the painting in Theo’s care. With the same flair for suspense that made The Secret History (1992) such a masterpiece, The Goldfinch features the pulp of a typical bildungsroman—Theo’s dissolution into teenage delinquency and climb back out, his passionate friendship with the very funny Boris, his obsession with Pippa (a girl he first encounters minutes before the explosion)—but the painting is the novel’s secret heart. Theo’s fate hinges on the painting, and both take on depth as it steers Theo’s life. Some sentences are clunky (suddenly and meanwhile abound), metaphors are repetitive (Theo’s mother is compared to birds three times in 10 pages), and plot points are overly coincidental (as if inspired by TV), but there’s a bewitching urgency to the narration that’s impossible to resist. Theo is magnetic, perhaps because of his well-meaning criminality. The Goldfinch is a pleasure to read; with more economy to the brushstrokes, it might have been great.

The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry

 

In this delightfully erudite, charming and soundly pedagogical guide to poetic form, British actor (narrator of the Harry Potter movies, among other roles), novelist and secret poet Fry leads the reader through a series of lessons on meter, rhythm, rhyme and stanza length and reveals the structural logic of every imaginable poetic form, including the haiku, the ballad, the ode and the sonnet. Writing poetry, like any hobby, should be fun, Fry claims, and while talent is inborn, technique can be learned. Inviting readers to study the wealth of choices of form available in the world’s major poetic traditions, Fry himself pens intentionally vapid yet entertaining poems that demonstrate each form’s rules and patterning, and ends each lesson with wittily devised exercises for readers. Fry rails against the dumbing down of verse in a section subtitled “Stephen gets all cross”: “It is as if we have been encouraged to believe that form is a kind of fascism and that to acquire knowledge is to drive a jackboot into the face of those poor souls who are too incurious, dull-witted or idle to find out what poetry can be.” Fry has created an invaluable and highly enjoyable reference book on poetic form, which deserves to achieve widespread academic adoption, despite or even because of its saucy and Anglocentric tone. (Aug. 17)

The Hippopotamus