Really Cool Women\'s Book Club

Summer book picks May 29, 2015

Filed under: Nominated Books — Susan @ 1:06 pm

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel by Anthony Doerr

Benediction, Kent Haruf 

Capital Dames by Cokie Roberts

Days of Rage by Bryan Burroughs

Dissolution: A Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mystery

Funny Girl – Nick Hornsby  Her Brilliant Career:10 extraordinary women of the fifties by Rachel Cooke Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America by Edward Humes

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

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

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

The Pope and Mussolini: the secret history of Prius XI and the rise of fascism in Europe by David Kertzer

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos 

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigulup

Yes, please by Amy Poehler 

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel by Anthony Doerr

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel. In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge. Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).

Benediction, Kent Haruf 

From the beloved and best-selling author of Plainsong and Eventide comes a story of life and death, and the ties that bind, once again set out on the High Plains in Holt, Colorado. When Dad Lewis is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he and his wife, Mary, must work together to make his final days as comfortable as possible. Their daughter, Lorraine, hastens back from Denver to help look after him; her devotion softens the bitter absence of their estranged son, Frank, but this cannot be willed away and remains a palpable presence for all three of them. Next door, a young girl named Alice moves in with her grandmother and contends with the painful memories that Dad’s condition stirs up of her own mother’s death. Meanwhile, the town’s newly arrived preacher attempts to mend his strained relationships with his wife and teenaged son, a task that proves all the more challenging when he faces the disdain of his congregation after offering more than they are accustomed to getting on a Sunday morning. And throughout, an elderly widow and her middle-aged daughter do everything they can to ease the pain of their friends and neighbors. Despite the travails that each of these families faces, together they form bonds strong enough to carry them through the most difficult of times.  Bracing, sad and deeply illuminating, Benediction captures the fullness of life by representing every stage of it, including its extinction, as well as the hopes and dreams that sustain us along the way. Here Kent Haruf gives us his most indelible portrait yet of this small town and reveals, with grace and insight, the compassion, the suffering and, above all, the humanity of its inhabitants.

Capital Dames by Cokie Roberts

In this engrossing and informative companion to her New York Times bestsellers Founding Mothersand Ladies of Liberty, Cokie Roberts marks the sesquicentennial of the Civil War by offering a riveting look at Washington, D.C. and the experiences, influence, and contributions of its women during this momentous period of American history. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the small, social Southern town of Washington, D.C. found itself caught between warring sides in a four-year battle that would determine the future of the United States. After the declaration of secession, many fascinating Southern women left the city, leaving their friends—such as Adele Cutts Douglas and Elizabeth Blair Lee—to grapple with questions of safety and sanitation as the capital was transformed into an immense Union army camp and later a hospital. With their husbands, brothers, and fathers marching off to war, either on the battlefield or in the halls of Congress, the women of Washington joined the cause as well. And more women went to the Capital City to enlist as nurses, supply organizers, relief workers, and journalists. Many risked their lives making munitions in a highly flammable arsenal, toiled at the Treasury Department printing greenbacks to finance the war, and plied their needlework skills at The Navy Yard—once the sole province of men—to sew canvas gunpowder bags for the troops. Cokie Roberts chronicles these women’s increasing independence, their political empowerment, their indispensable role in keeping the Union unified through the war, and in helping heal it once the fighting was done. She concludes that the war not only changed Washington, it also forever changed the place of women. Sifting through newspaper articles, government records, and private letters and diaries—many never before published—Roberts brings the war-torn capital into focus through the lives of its formidable women.

Days of Rage by Bryan Burroughs

The Weathermen. The Symbionese Liberation Army. The FALN. The Black Liberation Army. The names seem quaint now, when not forgotten altogether. But there was a stretch of time in America, during the 1970s, when bombings by domestic underground groups were a daily occurrence. The FBI combated these groups and others as nodes in a single revolutionary underground, dedicated to the violent overthrow of the American government. The FBI’s response to the leftist revolutionary counterculture has not been treated kindly by history, and in hindsight many of its efforts seem almost comically ineffectual, if not criminal in themselves. But part of the extraordinary accomplishment of Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage is to temper those easy judgments with an understanding of just how deranged these times were, how charged with menace. Burrough re-creates an atmosphere that seems almost unbelievable just forty years later, conjuring a time of native-born radicals, most of them “nice middle-class kids,” smuggling bombs into skyscrapers and detonating them inside the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol, at a Boston courthouse and a Wall Street restaurant packed with lunchtime diners—radicals robbing dozens of banks and assassinating policemen in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta. The FBI, encouraged to do everything possible to undermine the radical underground, itself broke many laws in its attempts to bring the revolutionaries to justice—often with disastrous consequences. Benefiting from the extraordinary number of people from the underground and the FBI who speak about their experiences for the first time, Days of Rage is filled with revelations and fresh details about the major revolutionaries and their connections and about the FBI and its desperate efforts to make the bombings stop. The result is a mesmerizing book that takes us into the hearts and minds of homegrown terrorists and federal agents alike and weaves their stories into a spellbinding secret history of the 1970s.

Dissolution: A Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mystery

Murders on the grounds of a monastery, 16th-century intrigue, an unconventional sleuth-readers might wonder if this is a knock-off Name of the Rose set two centuries later, but Sansom’s debut is a compelling historical mystery in its own right, with fewer pyrotechnics and plenty of period detail. It is 1537; the English Reformation is in full swing; and Lord Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s vicar-general, is busy shutting down papist institutions. When one of his commissioners is beheaded at a remote Benedictine monastery, Cromwell dispatches a second emissary, hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake, to investigate the murder. What Shardlake and his companion, eager young Mark Poer, discover is a quietly bubbling cesspool of corruption, lust and avarice. The scope of the investigation quickly expands when a novice is poisoned and Shardlake finds the remains of a girl who served the monks in the monastery pond. Shardlake presses on by testing the alibis of the various corrupt monks, but Poer’s objectivity is compromised when he becomes involved with the girl’s successor, a bright, attractive woman named Alice Fewterer. As the investigation unfolds, Shardlake survives a murder attempt, and finally returns to London to tie his findings to higher-level intrigue. Sansom paints a vivid picture of the corruption that plagued England during the reign of Henry VIII, and the wry, rueful Shardlake is a memorable protagonist, a compassionate man committed to Cromwell’s reforms, but increasingly doubtful of the motives of his fellow reformers. With this cunningly plotted and darkly atmospheric effort, Sansom proves himself to be a promising newcomer. 

Funny Girl – Nick Hornsby 

Set in 1960’s London, Funny Girl is a lively account of the adventures of the intrepid young Sophie Straw as she navigates her transformation from provincial ingénue to television starlet amid a constellation of delightful characters. Insightful and humorous, Nick Hornby’s latest does what he does best: endears us to a cast of characters who are funny if flawed, and forces us to examine ourselves in the process.

Her Brilliant Career:10 extraordinary women of the fifties by Rachel Cooke

An exuberant group biography—”a splendidly various collection of ‘brief lives’ written with both gusto and sensitivity” (The Guardian)—that follows ten women in 1950s Britain whose pioneering lives paved the way for feminism and laid the foundation of modern women’s success. In Her Brilliant Career, Rachel Cooke goes back in time to offer an entertaining and iconoclastic look at ten women in the 1950s—pioneers whose professional careers and complicated private lives helped to create the opportunities available to today’s women. These plucky and ambitious individuals—among them a film director, a cook, an architect, an editor, an archaeologist, a race car driver—left the house, discovered the bliss of work, and ushered in the era of the working woman. Daring and independent, these remarkable unsung heroines—whose obscurity makes their accomplishments all the more astonishing and relevant —loved passionately, challenged men’s control, made their own mistakes, and took life on their own terms, breaking new ground and offering inspiration. Their individual portraits gradually form a landscape of 1950s culture, and women’s unique—and rapidly evolving—role. Before there could be a Danica Patrick, there had to be a Sheila van Damm; before there was Barbara Walters, there was Nancy Spain; before there was Kathryn Bigelow, came Muriel Box. The pioneers ofHer Brilliant Career forever changed the fabric of culture, society, and the work force. This is the Fifties, retold: vivid, surprising and, most of all, modern. Her Brilliant Career is illustrated with more than 80 black-and-white photographs.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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.

Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America by Edward Humes

Some see the 2005 case of Kitzmiller v.Dover, concerning a small-town school board’s adding an “intelligent design” (i.e., anti-Darwinian) text to the ninth-grade science curriculum, as the second Scopes trial. But whereas evolution lost in 1925, it won in 2005. Also, Kitzmiller was a federal andScopes a state case. Yet as Humes sees it, Kitzmiller won’t end the battle over evolution any more than Scopes did. That fracas, he opines, doesn’t die; it evolves. Hence, religion was central in the earlier, science in the later, trial. While thoroughly presenting the personalities and events ofKitzmiller, Humes fills in so much of the story of evolutionary theory and literalist biblical reaction to it–especially the intelligent design, originally “creationist,” then “creation science,” movement–that the book is an engrossing community drama and a character-centered, topical history-of-science primer. Humes’ clear reportorial style and sympathy for all the principals in Kitzmiller (except, perhaps, for the school board’s hired-gun lead attorney) ensure the high interest of both aspects of the book.

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

On June 8, 2010, while on a book tour for his bestselling memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens was stricken in his New York hotel room with excruciating pain in his chest and thorax. As he would later write in the first of a series of award-winning columns for Vanity Fair, he suddenly found himself being deported “from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.” Over the next eighteen months, until his death in Houston on December 15, 2011, he wrote constantly and brilliantly on politics and culture, astonishing readers with his capacity for superior work even in extremis. Throughout the course of his ordeal battling esophageal cancer, Hitchens adamantly and bravely refused the solace of religion, preferring to confront death with both eyes open. In this riveting account of his affliction, Hitchens poignantly describes the torments of illness, discusses its taboos, and explores how disease transforms experience and changes our relationship to the world around us. By turns personal and philosophical, Hitchens embraces the full panoply of human emotions as cancer invades his body and compels him to grapple with the enigma of death.

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

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-publishedMr. 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.

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

A debut psychological thriller that will forever change the way you look at other people’s lives. Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost. And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good? Compulsively readable, The Girl on the Train is an emotionally immersive, Hitchcockian thriller and an electrifying debut.

The Pope and Mussolini: the secret history of Prius XI and the rise of fascism in Europe by David Kertzer

Two leaders came to power in 1922 in Rome, Achille Ratti was elevated to the papacy as Pius XI, and Benito Mussolini was appointed Italian prime minister. How relations between them developed until the pope’s 1939 demise occupies this original history, which rests on Kertzer’s thorough research of available Vatican archives and other sources. His main line of inquiry, the degree of support Pius XI accorded to Mussolini, guides Kertzer’s narrative, which begins with Mussolini’s opportunistic about-face from anticlerical socialist to Catholic-tolerating nationalist. Papal approval during the 1920s, when Mussolini’s regime survived political crises, received its reward in 1929 with the Lateran Accords that reestablished the Vatican as an independent state. Although he finds points of conflict between Pius XI and Mussolini, Kertzer underscores affinities between the Catholic Church and the fascist state, which may arouse controversy. Was the church as acquiescent to Mussolini’s persecutions of Jews as Kertzer portrays? In any event, he adduces evidence that Pius XI seems to have regretted his tacit alliance with Mussolini. An important work of history, Kertzer’s adroit profiles of Pius and Mussolini will broaden its audience.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

An enigma wrapped inside a mystery sets up expectations that prove difficult to fulfill in Russell’s first novel, which is about first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. The enigma is Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit linguist whose messianic virtues hide his occasional doubt about his calling. The mystery is the climactic turn of events that has left him the sole survivor of a secret Jesuit expedition to the planet Rakhat and, upon his return, made him a disgrace to his faith. Suspense escalates as the narrative ping-pongs between the years 2016, when Sandoz begins assembling the team that first detects signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life, and 2060, when a Vatican inquest is convened to coax an explanation from the physically mutilated and emotionally devastated priest. A vibrant cast of characters who come to life through their intense scientific and philosophical debates help distract attention from the space-opera elements necessary to get them off the Earth. Russell brings her training as a paleoanthropologist to bear on descriptions of the Runa and Jana’ata, the two races on Rakhat whose differences are misunderstood by the Earthlings, but the aliens never come across as more than variations of primitive earthly cultures. The final revelation of the tragic human mistake that ends in Sandoz’s degradation isn’t the event for which readers have been set up. Much like the worlds it juxtaposes, this novel seems composed of two stories that fail to come together.

The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos

From the best-selling author of The Drunkard’s Walk and Subliminal, and coauthor of The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking): an account of scientific discovery from the invention of stone tools to theories of quantum physics — a history at once inspiring and entertaining. In this fascinating and illuminating work, Leonard Mlodinow guides us through the critical eras and events in the development of science, all of which, he demonstrates, were propelled forward by humankind’s collective struggle to know. From the birth of reasoning and culture to the formation of the studies of physics, chemistry, biology, and modern-day quantum physics, we come to see that much of our progress can be attributed to simple questions — why? how? — bravely asked. Mlodinow profiles some of the great philosophers, scientists, and thinkers who explored these questions — Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Lavoisier among them — and makes clear that just as science has played a key role in shaping the patterns of human thought, human subjectivity has played a key role in the evolution of science. At once authoritative and accessible, and infused with the author’s trademark wit, this deeply insightful book is a stunning tribute to humanity’s intellectual curiosity.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigulup

Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko. Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe. What Happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism’s genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution? In The Windup Girl, award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi returns to the world of “The Calorie Man” (Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award-winner, Hugo Award nominee, 2006) and “Yellow Card Man” (Hugo Award nominee, 2007) in order to address these poignant questions.

Yes, please by Amy Poehler

The funniest, smartest and frankest memoir I’ve ever read — Doug Johnstone, Books of the Year 2014 Herald Required reading for all young women — Best Books of 2014 Huffington Post A joy … [Poehler] has particularly smart advice on how to ignore the internal whispers that give rise to self-loathing; it should be piped into the girls’ changing rooms at every secondary school — Books of the Year 2014 Evening Standard [A] bristlingly intelligent, guffaw-out-loud memoir … Yes Please isn’t a scan of the comedic brain so much as it is something far better-the full exposure of Poehler’s funny and very magnanimous heart Elle Hilarious … wickedly funny and razor sharp Observer Yes Please is what happens if you take the wit of Saturday Night Live, sprinkle it with the warmth of Nora Ephron and marinade it in the spirit of the best, most empowering women’s magazine … Poehler is that rare thing: wise without being bossy, smart without making you feel a bit stupid, funny without making you wince. And her book is like sitting in your kitchen with your best friend, drinking too much wine, laughing, crying and maybe doing embarrassing mum dancing Harper’s Bazaar Half memoir, half advice column, and 100 percent wisecracking, sharp-as-hell, belly-laugh-making Poehler GQ Funny, wise, earnest, honest, spiritually ambitious … a smart and funny woman who isn’t either of those things all the time and doesn’t mind admitting it because she thinks that’s important LA Times [Amy Poehler] is simply one of the best things about the 21st century so far… one of this year’s essential reads Stylist Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the only book I care about these days: Yes Please by Amy Poehler. Amy Poehler is an American actor, comedian and writer. She is also a mighty force for good… I know you’re sick of celebrity memoirs, you’re sick of female celebrities talking about feminism, blah blah blah. Well, that’s just fine because Poehler’s book is so much more than that. Poehler is the only person in the world other than Nora Ephron who can be funny about divorce (and she is so funny about divorce), and she is definitely the only person in the world from whom I will accept sex tips (and her sex tips are great). But most of all, she’s super smart — Hadley Freeman Guardian As brilliant and hilarious and adorable as the woman herself Marie Claire Life advice, personal anecdotes and a touch of sex all beautifully handled by the warmest US comedy goddess… Actually adorable Grazia Our favourite agony aunt… Witty, real-life advice Vogue A part-memoir, part-manual mashup of inspirational career counsel and laugh-out-loud sex advice Good Housekeeping Anyone who loves Amy Poehler’s biting comedic style will love the SNL star’s autobiography… hilarious Stylist Poehler’s first book of personal stories and advice, in the vein of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?… One of America’s most beloved comics and actresses The Millions

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