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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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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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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Book Club Mom’s great reads of 2019

I read some great books this year. Here’s a list of my favorites!


Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Is it good luck to survive a plane crash over the Atlantic? Most would think yes, but Scott Burroughs, after a heroic swim to safety, with four-year-old JJ Bateman clinging to his neck, may wonder. Because he will soon find himself caught between competing government agencies searching for a cause and the media’s ruthless pursuit of a story, any story, even if it’s unfounded. Winner of the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel and the 2017 International Thriller Writers Award for Best Novel.


In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Fantastic nonfiction novel, the first of its kind and considered Truman Capote’s masterpiece. The chilling depiction of a senseless 1959 murder of a Kansas family. Capote and his childhood friend, Harper Lee, went to Kansas to research the story and compiled over 8000 pages of notes. They were granted numerous interviews with the murderers, who by then, had confessed and were in jail awaiting trial. They moved to death row after their convictions, where Capote continued to interview them until their hangings. He became particularly attached to Perry Smith and related to his unhappy childhood.


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Fantastic memoir about Hope Jahren’s experiences as a scientist. Jahren’s field is plants, especially trees, and her interest in them is contagious. She explains the fascinating way in which they grow, reproduce and adapt. Jahren writes beautifully about her profession, its challenges and about her lonely childhood in Minnesota, college life and early years trying to make it as a scientist.


Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is turning 50 and he’s at the edge of a crisis: his writing career has stalled and his former lover is getting married. To guarantee he’ll be out of the country on the day of the wedding, Less accepts a string of unusual writerly engagements that take him around the world. His goal? Forget lost love and rework the novel his publisher has taken a pass on. In a comedic series of travel mishaps, Less bumbles through this symbolic journey in search of happiness. Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.


Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Set in New York during the Depression and World War II, the story begins with Anna Kerrigan as a young girl whose father has ties to organized crime. She accompanies her father on an errand and meets a mysterious man with powerful connections and won’t fully understand the impact until years later. I highly recommend Manhattan Beach to readers who like historical fiction and big stories with strong female characters.


Notes from a Public Typewriter – edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti

Guaranteed to put you in a good mood, about the Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, owned by Gustafson and his wife, Hilary. When they set up the store in 2013, they put out a typewriter, with 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. This book is the combined story of these messages.


Refugee by Alan Gratz

Terrific Young Adult historical novel about three refugee children, caught in different periods of conflict, who flee their countries in search of safety and a better life. In alternating stories, the children face unpredictable danger as they desperately try to keep their families together. Each discovers that, by being invisible, they escape many dangers, but miss chances for others to help them. Published in 2017 Refugee is now included in many middle and high school curriculums. A New York Times Notable Book, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, and both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year.


Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

Great memoir about a woman who is hired to play violin in a prestigious touring orchestra, only to discover that the microphones are turned off. What’s turned on is a $14.95 CD player from Walmart, playing a recorded version of a composer’s music, performed by other musicians. The music sounds suspiciously like, but a strategic note or two different from, the score of the popular 1997 film, Titanic.


Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Kya Clark is six years old when her mother walks out of their shack, a place hidden in the marshes of North Carolina, where racial tension and small-town prejudices are firmly in place in the nearby coastal town of Barkley Cove. Soon her father’s abusive rages drive Kya’s older siblings away, leaving only Kya and her father. Then one day it’s just Kya, known in town and shunned as the wild Marsh Girl. The story begins in 1952 and jumps to 1969, when a young man has died. In alternating chapters, readers learn Kya’s story of survival and how she becomes part of the investigation into his death.


What books were your favorites in 2019? Leave a comment and share your best!

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My Friend Anna – The True Story of a Fake Heiress by Rachel DeLoache Williams

My Friend Anna – The True Story of a Fake Heiress
by
Rachel DeLoache Williams

Rating:

In 2017, Rachel Williams, a young woman working for Vanity Fair magazine in New York, made friends with a 26-year-old woman named Anna Delvey. Delvey was living in a swank hotel and claimed to be a German heiress. The two became fast friends and Anna brought Rachel into her world, treating her to expensive restaurants, nightclubs, workouts, saunas, and pedicures. Anna claimed to be negotiating a big idea – a private art club, housed in the historic Church Missions House on Park Avenue. A couple months later, Anna invited Rachel and two others to join her on a lavish, all-expenses paid vacation in Marrakech, Morocco.

That’s where it all went south. When Anna’s credit cards didn’t work in Marrakech, she persuaded Rachel to put the charges on her own cards, including a Vanity Fair American Express expense account, assuring Rachel she’d pay her back as soon as she talked to her bank. The charges totaled over $62,000 and Anna began to drag her feet. After two months of promises (my favorite line from these conversations: “Would Bitcoin be okay?”), Rachel began to understand that she’d been conned.

My Friend Anna is the story of how Rachel, 29, dealt with being duped out of a large amount of money, which included providing authorities with information and evidence that led to Anna’s arrest. The charges were grand larceny and theft of services from Rachel and others of more than a quarter million dollars. Rachel testified at her trial and wrote this book.

This story has gawkers’ appeal. You read it because you want to know how anyone could fall for a scam like this and you’re glad it’s not you! The author fell for her friend’s tales of wealth and billion dollar trust fund. And her fatal mistake was taking out her own credit card to cover the costs of their vacation. I didn’t feel too sorry for her, however. The book deal and HBO’s purchase of the story have probably taken the sting out of this friendship gone wrong.

That said, I tore through the story and enjoyed reading how it all unraveled. I especially liked the text message exchanges, which while they were repetitive and a bit whiny, reflected Rachel’s desperate attempts to get her money back. I would have liked to know more about Anna, whose past is revealed late in the book. For most of the story, she’s an enigma.

Of course, when I finished, I wanted to see just who these people were. To round that out, here’s a good interview from ABC Nightline:

So all in all, a good, fast read, a little light on substance, but entertaining.

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Notes from a Public Typewriter – edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti

Notes from a Public Typewriter
edited by
Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti

Rating:

Here’s a quick – read-in-an-hour – book that is guaranteed to put you in a good mood. I learned about Notes from a Public Typewriter from my blogging friend Charley over at booksandbakes1 and I’m so happy I got my hands on the book!

Notes from a Public Typewriter is all about the Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, owned by Gustafson and his wife, Hilary. When they set up the store in 2013, they put out a typewriter, with paper, for anyone to use. It fit the mood of the store perfectly because Gustafson has a soft spot for old typewriters. His grandfather’s 1930s Smith Corona is on display at the register.

It wasn’t long before customers began to type random, sometimes whimsical and often heartfelt messages for all to see. This book is the combined story of these messages. From confessions and affirmations to marriage proposals and humorous ditties, Gustafson, his wife and their booksellers have seen it all. They share the best of the best in this little book. When you finish, you’ll feel a little more connected with the world.

I don’t want to share too much because the fun is in reading the messages and seeing the store for yourself! Notes from a Public Typewriter is a feel-good book you’ll want to keep on your coffee table. It would be a great gift for a friend, too!

Thank you, Charley, for telling me all about this book. Books and Bakes is one of my favorite blogs so be sure to visit and see Charley’s creative day-trip posts, book reviews and Poloroid snaps.

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Audiobook review: Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman, narrated by Cassandra Campbell

Rating:

In 1994, Piper Kerman, was a recent graduate of Smith College when she became romantically involved with a woman who was deep into a heroin smuggling scheme. Soon, out of a combination of infatuation and boredom, Piper agreed to help with the business. The ugly reality and danger of moving drugs, however, made her nervous, so she eventually broke free, moved across the country and started a new life.

Piper’s old life caught up with her, however, and in 1998 she was indicted for money laundering and drug trafficking. In 2004, after years of delays, due to other pending indictments and sentencings, Piper was ordered to report to the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury where she would serve thirteen months.

Orange Is the New Black is Piper’s memoir about her experience in this minimum security prison. Her story was published in 2010 and was adapted for Netflix in the Emmy award-winning show of the same name. Season 7, its final season, is scheduled for release on July 26.

I listened to the audiobook version, which is narrated by Cassandra Campbell, who does an excellent job adapting her voice to many characters. I thought her voice sounded familiar and that’s because Campbell is an audiobook superstar. She’s narrated over 700 titles, has won four Audie Awards and is in Audible’s Narrator Hall of Fame.

Piper’s engaging story tells of a young a privileged white woman who learns to assimilate herself in a diverse population of women. While life at Danbury is far different from anything she has experienced, she approaches it with a positive attitude and develops strong friendships with her “bunkies” and other women in the prison. Of course, she has many regular visitors from the outside, including her journalist fiancé. And she receives a lot of mail and books and remote support from her family, including plenty of money to get what she needs at the commissary.

Many of the women at Danbury are in far worse shape, serving long sentences, separated from their children, and with few visitors. Piper’s empathy seems genuine, though and, despite the differences, the women find ways to connect and support each other.

I enjoyed listening to this memoir. I’m late to the party in learning about the book and the show, but I’m glad I finally got to it.

Today, Piper Kerman is an outspoken advocate for women in prison. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her family and teaches writing in two state prisons as an Affiliate Instructor with Otterbein University.

Have you read or listened to Orange Is the New Black? Have you watched the show? I plan to watch eventually!

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Honor Girl – A Graphic Memoir by Maggie Thrash

Honor Girl – A Graphic Memoir
by
Maggie Thrash

Rating:

Honor Girl is a graphic memoir about the author’s coming-out experience at a summer camp in the mountains of Kentucky. When Maggie returns to Camp Bellflower at age fifteen, friends, traditions and camp activities are largely the same, until she meets Erin, a college-age camp counselor. Her crush is undeniable, but also frightening and confusing and Maggie makes her best effort to sort out her feelings, spending her free time at the rifle range where she is trying to earn a Distinguished Expert certification.

Rumors spread, however, when Maggie’s camper friends begin to question her relationship with Erin, subjecting Maggie to embarrassing jokes and conversations. Despite the taunts, she is surprisingly strong and her good friends are generally accepting.

The story has a coming-of-age and camp camaraderie feel to it and even readers who have never attended summer camp will ease into life in tents and canoes. The author tells her story with humor and light sarcasm, making Honor Girl an easy read, without a heavy message. And while the story is about Maggie’s feelings for another girl, its appeal is in the author’s ability to describe her experience in the same way as a traditional boy-girl crush.

I have not read many graphic novels or graphic memoirs, so this was a nice change. Like a comic book, it’s mostly illustrated dialogue, with occasional narrative. Honor Girl is a Young Adult book, but I would recommend it to any reader who likes to try different genres. As for the artwork, I did find the illustrations a little difficult to follow. They are simple drawings and it was sometimes hard for me to figure out who was who, as many of the faces are similar. All in all, however, a good (and fast) read.

Do you read graphic novels or memoirs? What are your favorites?

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