Book Club Mom’s recommended biographies and memoirs

Here are twelve fascinating biographies and memoirs of important historical and influential figures, and some regular people too. I like reading all kinds of life stories and recommend these:


Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder by Claudia Kalb – an excellent collection of mini biographies of twelve famous personalities, explaining their known or likely battles with mental illness.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin – a remarkable and amusing record of Franklin’s life in America during the mid- to late 1700s.

Educated – A Memoir by Tara Westover – Westover’s account of breaking out of an isolated and abusive childhood, with a violent sibling, a controlling and paranoid father and a mother who deferred to her husband.

Helen Keller – The Story of My Life – the story of an American girl from Alabama who lost her sight and hearing as a baby and determinedly overcame these obstacles to become a writer, a social activist and an advocate for the blind and deaf.


Howard Hughes: The Untold Story by Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske – the story of a dashing billionaire inventor, pilot, and a filmmaker who used money to and control his business and personal life.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – I avoided Lab Girl at first because I am not a science person. But this memoir is for all readers. Jahren writes beautifully about her lonely childhood in Minnesota, college life and early years trying to make it as a scientist.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson – a great story about being different and making it anyway. In some ways, it is a classic success story about perseverance, but mostly, it’s a shout-out to anyone who’s not mainstream.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway – Using notes stored away for nearly thirty years, Hemingway began working on a memoir of his days in Paris, where he was part of the expatriate community of writers, artists and creative minds, known now as the “Lost Generation.” He died leaving the book unfinished, but his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, edited the manuscript and the first edition was published in 1964.


Night by Elie Wiesel – Elie Wiesel’s memoir about being sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during World War II. The New York Times calls it “a slim volume of terrifying power” and I couldn’t agree more.

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore – an in-depth look at the lives of two young men with the same name, who grew up on the same streets in Baltimore, Maryland and took two divergent paths.

Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman – a young woman from West Virginia dreams of becoming a concert violinist and gets a job playing in a prestigious touring orchestra, only to discover that the microphones are turned off. Listeners instead hear music that sounds suspiciously like the score of the popular 1997 film, Titanic.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – a young doctor at the crest of a brilliant career as a neurosurgeon and scientist, Kalanithi was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. During the short time he had left, he was determined to live a life with personal meaning, so he continued working, fathered a baby girl and wrote this book.

What biographies and memoirs have you read? What do you recommend?

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Book Review – Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

Hidden Valley Road
by
Robert Kolker

In 1945, Don and Mimi Galvin welcomed their first child into the family. They settled in Colorado Springs and, over twenty years, added eleven more children to their brood, with a final tally of ten boys and two girls. Don’s early years were in the Air Force while Mimi ran the busy household and, to outsiders, they seemed like a highly functioning, although rambunctious group. All of the kids were good-looking, tall and athletic and their proud parents felt they were living the American Dream.

But as the children grew, six of the boys would become schizophrenic while the healthy kids lived in terror of developing the same mental illness. Despite many stays at the Pueblo state hospital, Mimi was determined to care for them. In an endless cycle of psychotic breaks, debilitating medications and returns home, the Galvin house was anything but normal. The six healthy children had to fend for themselves emotionally as their mother tended to their six sick brothers.

Hidden Valley Road is a fascinating look at the Galvin family and a comprehensive study of how patients with schizophrenia have been treated during the Galvin family’s lifetime. What causes this devastating illness? Is it nature or nurture? What kinds of treatments work best and what kind of life can patients and their families expect?

There are no concrete answers or cure and what makes it even more frustrating is that each patient has a unique situation. Sometimes drugs help, sometimes they don’t and they all have undesirable side effects. Controversial electroconvulsive therapy sometimes works, but not without a cost. Research has been slow and long with many dead ends and not enough breakthroughs.

Chapters alternate between the imploding Galvin family and descriptions of different theories and treatments. Most of the family’s problems are impossible to untangle. Sibling rivalry is at its extreme and violence, abuse and chaos make the home frightening and unsafe for the healthy kids. Later chapters describe how the six healthy children, when they become adults leave the home. Some never look back. Others are conflicted and return. They all feel anger, resentment and fear of becoming like their brothers. The two youngest Galvins, sisters Margaret and Lindsay do their best to stay together. Lindsay dedicates much of her adult life to helping her brothers and keeping the family connected.

Don and Mimi spent these years in stunned denial. Mimi was especially sensitive to the idea that her children’s illnesses were her fault. One theory termed the cause as “schozophrenogenic,” a belief that domineering mothers were at the root. Later thought supports the theory that it’s not nature vs. nurture, but a combination of the two and that schizophrenia is triggered by specific life events. Other ideas believe that nutrition during pregnancy may help. Another modern belief is that psychosis exists on a spectrum that includes bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. Early intervention, talk therapy and family support are also newer ideas.

We all seem to love hearing about big families and how parents manage such large clans of kids. No one expects to have problems like this. A small piece of comfort to the healthy members of the Galvin family is that they have become an important case study. Almost all of the family members have contributed to the Human Genome Project, started in the 1980s to understand the function of every human gene.

I was thoroughly absorbed by Hidden Valley Road and learned a lot about schizophrenia and its effects on all members of a family. While a sobering story, it is very well told.

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Short reviews from 2013: Twisted, The Shoemaker’s Wife and Steve Jobs

In celebration of my 7-year blogging anniversary, here are three short reviews of books I read in 2013.


Twisted
by
Laurie Halse Anderson

This book is a little bit like a modern Catcher in the Rye and I liked it for that reason. Twisted was on our school district’s summer reading list for rising ninth graders a couple years ago. There is some mature language and content, but I think it is realistic. I think kids want to read something contemporary that has an edge to it and Anderson understands how to incorporate this element into quality writing.

In Twisted, Tyler returns to his senior year of high school, after being punished during the summer for vandalizing the school. He struggles with a poor self-image and how others, most importantly his father, perceive him. Tyler navigates through adolescence and important relationships and, like many coming-of-age stories, learns the true meaning of family and friendship.

Final scenes with his family are raw and emotional and show Anderson at her best.


The Shoemaker’s Wife
by
Adriana Trigiani

I liked this family saga of immigration, near-misses in love and brushes with greatness, with the appropriate doses of disappointment and sadness. It is a light and entertaining read. I enjoyed reading about Italy at the turn of the century and life in the Italian Alps. The author does a nice job bringing the main characters to life.

I think the author’s strengths lie in the story’s initial setting and characters. Her early descriptions of Ciro, Eduardo and their mother are moving. In addition, Trigiani’s descriptions of the Ravanelli family show warmth and devotion. It is the foundation of a really great story.

Ciro’s success as a shoemaker and his assimilation into New York life move at a believable pace. I enjoyed this part of the story much more. Despite the unlikely nature of meeting Enza on her wedding day, we all know it is coming and accept the feel-good moment.

Some other parts I like include Ciro’s relationship with Sister Teresa at the San Nicola Convent. I also like how Ciro is accepted for who he is at the convent, and how the nuns do not force him to be a believer.

An entertaining read and a great way to escape to another time and place!


Steve Jobs
by
Walter Isaacson

This biography gives us the full picture of Steve Jobs, good and bad. It is a detailed history of Jobs, his life and his creations at Apple, NeXT, Pixar and Apple again. And it’s a look at the impatient frustrations of a perfectionist who, with the genius of vision and presentation, liked to distort reality, had poor people skills and thought no rules applied to him.

I don’t know what to think of Steve Jobs. He derived his happiness from creating and was driven to do so. Isaacson shows a man who manipulated people, berated them, and often ignored his wife and children. He regularly took credit for ideas that came from his creative team and rearranged facts to benefit his point, all with no regrets. But time and again he enabled people to achieve the impossible by refusing to believe that something could not be done.  The combination of persistence and genius made him a remarkable man.

AND…Steve Jobs gave us the Mac, fonts, graphics and desktop publishing. Then he gave us the iPhone, the iPod, iTunes and music. He allowed us to re-experience the feelings we used to have in record stores as we excitedly flipped through albums and heard new music on the store speakers. Then he gave us the iPad, movies and books all with a touchscreen. He knew what we wanted, just as he said, before we knew what we wanted.

This was a very interesting read. My only negative comment is that it was sometimes repetitive, particularly on the subjects of distorted reality and Jobs’ belief in closed-end product design. I also thought the author often portrayed Jobs as too much of a beloved hero in the second half of the book, once Jobs returned to Apple. But then again, that’s when we got all these great products. And I don’t think I could live without them.

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On animals, nature, books and live feeds

Hi Everyone,

I wrote a post on our library blog today and shared live feeds of scenes of nature around the world. I’ve become fascinated with them, especially one of eagles and their babies.

I’ll share the link to that post at the bottom, but I also want to share a book I read last year, How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery. I think it ties in nicely with these nature feeds. Montgomery is the author of 28 books for children and adults and her New York Times Best Seller, The Soul of an Octopus, was a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction. I recommend How to Be a Good Creature to anyone who is interested in animals, from those in the wild to the ones curled up in your lap or at your feet.

You can check out my review here.

Click here for more information about The Soul of an Octopus.


And to see how to get to the live feeds, with more book suggestions, check out this post: Explore nature’s creatures with, live feeds, books and magazines.

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Audiobook Review – Maid by Stephanie Land

Maid
by
Stephanie Land

Rating:

This is going to be one of those reviews that goes against a popular and well-received book. But it also raises an important question that readers should consider when they’re reading a memoir.

First, though, a quick summary of Maid by Stephanie Land. It’s Land’s story of how, as a single mother, she found herself homeless and had to turn to public assistance in the form of grants, food stamps and similar programs to help her find a place to live and provide daycare while she worked. In an eye-opening explanation, she lists the programs and specific requirements she needed to meet in order to qualify. As a former coffee shop worker and part-time landscaper, she had only a high school degree and struggled to find regular work. She took on jobs cleaning houses, working for herself and also through a maid service. But for a long time, there were never enough hours for her to earn a proper living

It’s also her success story of how she was able to pick herself up and get a college degree in creative writing and eventually write this book.

I’m all for this kind of success story and that’s why I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the author.

The problem I have with the story is that the author is whiny, chippy and judgmental about the people she interacts with, including her family, who do not support her. I’m not going to get into the details about these relationships, her actions and the decisions she makes, except highlight a couple that really bugged me.

I thought her attitude towards the people in the homes she cleaned was hypercritical and downright shocking. Looking at receipts, going through papers, trying on clothes, snooping through their prescriptions, and the worst, opening up the urns of one family’s ashes and imagining how they died – that stuff is appalling. So much complaining about their bathrooms and the dirt in their homes. It was tiresome.

My other chief problem comes from a highway car accident in which the author left her daughter alone in their pulled-over car to a retrieve a toy that had gone out the window. There were many more things that rubbed me the wrong way, including major facts that were left out, that seemed to spin her story the way she wanted it.

But I want to raise a question about how readers are supposed to react to another person’s actions, when they’re put out there in a memoir, particularly the overcoming adversity type. As I said before, I like inspirational and uplifting stories and I don’t begrudge anyone’s success and happiness. As many other reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads have noted, I’m glad she dug herself out and found success. And if the book gives others in her situation the hope to do that, I’m for that.

I don’t mean to offend anyone who enjoyed reading or listening to Maid. As I said above, I’m glad she found happiness. But if readers feel something else, along with that message, something that doesn’t ring right, can’t we say so? What do you think?

To be fair, I’m sharing some positive and a couple skeptical WordPress reviews of Maid. And you can also click on these Amazon and Goodreads links for a full selection. It’s clearly the reader’s right to like the book, even though it wasn’t for me. Even Barack Obama liked the book, so what do I know?

Visit these blogs for a variety of reviews:

Becky’s Books
Hit or Miss Books
Ink Drinker Society
Arguably Alexis
The suspense is killin’ me—

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Books to Pen – Book Club Mom’s creative writing blog

Hi Everyone,

I just launched a new blog called Books to Pen, dedicated to my creative writing efforts. I posted my first piece of short fiction which you can find here. I hope you will take a look. Feedback is welcome!

https://bookstopen.wordpress.com


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Book Review: Howard Hughes: The Untold Story by Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske

Howard Hughes: The Untold Story
by
Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske

Rating:

I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know much about Howard Hughes when I opened this biography. Most of it happened before I was born and I was too young to understand what happened later in his life. But I knew his name and I had a vague knowledge of his involvement in aircraft and the movies. That was it.

Hughes had a lot going on in his life. He was a dashing billionaire inventor and pilot, ran two giant corporations, built a major airline, was a filmmaker and used his money to get and control whatever he wanted, including a shockingly long list of glamourous women.

Born in Texas in 1905, Hughes grew up an only child, smothered by his mother’s obsessive attention and fear of germs. Already different and uncomfortable around other children, he preferred to play alone in the workshop his father built for him, where he tinkered with many inventions. He became a millionaire at nineteen, when his father died and left behind a successful oil drill bit business (Hughes Tool Company). The timing of his life, his engineering genius and business instinct resulted in decades of profits in the tool, aircraft and government contract businesses. With all this going on, he plunged into movie-making and made many successful films.

But there were many things askew in Howard Hughes. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a condition that was less understood at the time and often untreated or self-treated, affected all aspects of his life. More than a dozen head injuries, a syphilis infection and an alarming drug habit no doubt contributed to an increasingly bizarre and reclusive life.

He surrounded himself with staff and security who would do anything he asked, including hunting down beautiful stars and starlets, some of them in their teens, setting them up in bugged apartments, with detectives reporting on their every move. He seduced hundreds of famous women, including Jean Harlow, Kathryn Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, married twice, and was engaged to multiple young women and girls at the same time. He declared his love to all of them and some of them bought it. Hughes’s behavior with women was glamorized at the time, but from a modern reader’s perspective, it is disturbingly predatory.

Despite these conditions, he continued to negotiate huge deals for Hughes Tool Company, Hughes Aircraft, RKO Pictures and Trans World Airlines. He was also a political contributor, sometimes to both parties and had ties to President Richard Nixon’s adversary, Democratic National Committee Chairman Larry O’Brien. It’s believed that Nixon’s interest in knowing more about O’Brien’s relationship with Hughes was one of the reasons for the Watergate break-in.

In his prime, Howard Hughes was deemed an American hero, but in his final years, he was barely lucid. And it turns out, his loyal staff had their sights on his riches and pumped him with shocking amounts of codeine and painkillers. He died at age seventy in 1976.

There is much more in this book, too much to mention and better to read first-hand. There is no question that Hughes’s unbelievable life story fits Mark Twain’s observation that “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

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Book Review: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone
by
Lori Gottlieb

Rating:

Lori Gottlieb, a writer and psychotherapist, felt crushed when the long-term relationship with her boyfriend ended abruptly. She was certain she’d been wronged and wanted to find a way out of her pain. So she found her own therapist (Wendell) and, while he was helping her, she was helping her patients with many of the same issues, all of which come from being human.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is the story of four of Gottlieb’s patients and of her own journey to better self-understanding. She explains the similarity and why she wrote the book: “Our training has taught us theories and tools and techniques, but whirring beneath our hard-earned expertise is the fact that we know just how hard it is to be a person.”

Gottlieb introduces us to her patients: John, a highly successful television writer who thinks everyone is an idiot; Charlotte, a twenty-five-year-old with anxiety and relationship issues; Julie, a thirty-something newlywed with a cancer diagnosis; and Rita, nearly seventy and considering suicide.

In chapters that connect Gottlieb’s progress with her patients’, we get to know them all. The author describes how it feels to be both patient and doctor. “Does my therapist like me?” she hopes. “Are my problems boring?” she worries. She talks about the relationships with her patients and how invested she becomes in their progress and happiness. And how they see her. What would they think if they knew that she, too, was in therapy?

As we learn more about them, we begin to see that the problems John, Charlotte, Julie, Rita and Lori have are variations of our own and based on a search for meaning in life.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is both anecdotally funny and informative about theories and methods. Gottlieb gives us insight into her own therapy by laughing at her initial awkwardness with Wendell. She shares her insecurities and obsessions over the “Boyfriend” who broke it off. And as a therapist, she describes the many professional decisions she must make, such as how to honor the confidentiality contract with patients when your paths cross, in person and through referrals. As she discusses their sessions, she shows what methods she uses to see what’s really underneath John’s anger, to show Charlotte how to break her self-destructive habits, to help Julie with a grim diagnosis and to teach Rita how to find a reason to live.

She encourages her patients to acknowledge their pain because “feeling your sadness or anxiety can also give you essential information about yourself and your world.” She emphasizes recognizing sadness and breaking free from “stepping in the same puddle,” pointing out that “most big transformations come about from the hundreds of tiny, almost imperceptible, steps we take along the way.” I like that.

I found this book highly readable and informative. By sharing her problems and relating them to her patients’, Gottlieb erases the stigma of going to therapy. Her message? We all need someone to talk to.

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Fiction or nonfiction? Twitter reading poll results

The results are in on my small Twitter poll. Eighty-seven percent of those who responded on Twitter prefer fiction over nonfiction. And I had six write-ins on my blog. One for fiction, one for nonfiction and four readers who say it’s kind of even.

Despite these results, I feel as if readers are reading more nonfiction than ever. I’ve always preferred fiction over nonfiction, but I’m reading more nonfiction than I ever did in the past.

Here are some recommended nonfiction books I’ve read since I started my blog.


The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin – I wasn’t sure I would enjoy reading this, but I was happily surprised to find Franklin’s memoir a remarkable and amusing record of time in America during the mid- to late 1700s. I also enjoyed refreshing my memory about the colonies before the American Revolution and the steps that led to independence.


Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. – Dedman was intrigued by two vacant but fully maintained mansions and two large apartments on Fifth Avenue in New York, owned by reclusive heiress, Huguette Clark. Clark, by choice, spent the last twenty years of her life in a hospital bed and gave away large amounts of money to her caretakers and advisers. When she died at age 104, who was to inherit her $300 million fortune?


Helen Keller – The Story of My Life – If you grew up in the United States, you very likely learned about Helen Keller in school.  She was an American girl from Alabama who lost her sight and hearing as a baby and determinedly overcame these obstacles to become a writer, a social activist and an advocate for the blind and deaf.


In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – Many believe that Truman Capote was the pioneer of the nonfiction novel genre. In a 1966 New York Times interview with George Plimpton, Capote explains his decision to write a book about the brutal 1959 murder of a Kansas family: “The motivating factor in my choice of material—that is, choosing to write a true account of an actual murder case—was altogether literary. The decision was based on a theory I’ve harbored since I first began to write professionally, which is well over 20 years ago. It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel,’ as I thought of it.”


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – Here’s a book I resisted reading because there was so much hype that I took a step back. I also avoided it because I am not a science person. But then my book club chose Lab Girl and I committed to reading it. So, wow. This book was excellent. Jahren writes beautifully about her lonely childhood in Minnesota, college life and early years trying to make it as a scientist.


Night by Elie Wiesel – I had read other books about the Holocaust, but never Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir about being sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during World War II. The New York Times calls it “a slim volume of terrifying power” and I couldn’t agree more. In 1944, Wiesel was deported by the Germans from his town of Sighet, Transylvania and sent by cattle train to Auschwitz and later Buchenwald. He was just a teenager. His account of this experience is a horrifying reminder of a terrible period of history.


Notes from a Public Typewriter – edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti – Here’s a quick book that is guaranteed to put you in a good mood. It’s about the owners of the Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When they set up the store, they put out a typewriter and paper for anyone to use. It wasn’t long before customers began to type random, sometimes whimsical and often heartfelt messages for all to see. Notes is a compilation of these messages.


Have you read any of these?  What are your favorite nonfiction books?

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A great reading year for fiction and nonfiction – check out these recommended reads!

Image: Pixabay

It’s been a great reading year and the perfect time to share the books I’ve enjoyed. I’m ready to curl up with a good book, are you?


Fiction

Leaving the Beach by Mary Rowen

The story of a young woman and her search for happiness. Set in the working class town of Winthrop, Massachusetts, readers get to know her in alternating time periods—in the 1970s and ‘80s as an awkward teenager and college student, and in the 1990s as a young adult.


Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Highly recommend this terrific story of complicated family dynamics. You’ll want to read it all at once to know how it works out!


Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington

Debut collection of 13 coming-of-age stories, set in Houston, and told mainly by one character. An uncensored look at a struggling population with a hopeful finish. One of Barack Obama’s Top Picks of 2019.


Nonfiction

The Beneficiary – Fortune, Misfortune, and the
Story of my Father by Janny Scott

Interesting biography of Robert Montgomery Scott, written by his daughter Janny Scott. A history, spanning four generations of a wealthy family that settled on what’s called the Main Line outside of Philadelphia.


Honor Girl – A Graphic Memoir by Maggie Thrash

Young Adult graphic memoir about the author’s coming-out experience at a summer camp in the mountains of Kentucky.


How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in
Thirteen Animals
by Sy Montgomery

The more Sy Montgomery studies animals and nature, the more she knows that humans have a lot to learn about the creatures that share our world. In this book, she describes her unique relationships with 13 animals and what they have taught her.


What good books did you read in 2019?

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