Thursday, January 19, 2017

Readalikes: If you enjoyed January's selection . . .

If you enjoyed The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World by Andrea Wulf, then you might also enjoy these books--and it's quite a long list this month!--suggested by our discussion group members:

  • Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species by Sean B. Carroll
  • Darwin: Portrait of a Genius by Paul Johnson
  • Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum by Richard Fortey
  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann
  • The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold
  • Meander: East to West, Indirectly, Along a Turkish River by Jeremy Seal
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin
  • The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley
  • The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, a Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History by Darrin Lunde
  • The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candace Millard
  • The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
  • The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
  • Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna by David King
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye-View of the World and Second Nature: A Gardener's Education by Michael Pollan 
  • The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds, The Moon by Whale Light: And Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians, and Whales, and The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us by Diane Ackerman
  • Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
  • The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
And Wendell Berry's many novels, essay collections, and poetry collections

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

January Not Fiction Book Discussions

Our first book of 2017, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World by Andrea Wulf, helps us understand how we came to see the universe as we do today, as an interconnected whole, a web of life, upon which humans can have a large and potentially devastating impact. Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was one of the last great polymaths, a holistic and synthetic thinker whose work as a scientist, explorer, writer, and public figure gave us insight into the connections between climate, geography, vegetation, agriculture, and industry that became the foundations of many of today's natural sciences and the modern environmental movement. The list of people he knew and influenced reads like a who's who list of the 19th century: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Simon Bolivar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and others. Yet, as Wulf points out, today Humboldt himself is nearly forgotten, even as his insistence that knowledge and wonder should be paired may be more important than ever in facing the effect of the Anthropocene on our planet.

What do you think? What did you know about Humboldt before reading The Invention of Nature? How much of your worldview do you think Humboldt's ideas helped to shape? To what degree had you taken this worldview for granted? What characteristics made Humboldt not only successful in his own career but also influential on other scientists, artists, and writers? One of the most interesting things about Humboldt's life was how influential his ideas were and how beloved a figure he became, not just to other scientists, but also to the general public. Today we celebrate actors, musicians, and sports figures more so than scientists. Why do you think this is? In her Epilogue, Wulf notes that we should care about Humboldt and his ideas because of his insight "that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination. . . . This connection between knowledge, art and poetry, between science and emotions--the 'deeply-seated bond', as Humboldt called it--is more important than ever before. Humboldt was driven by a sense of wonder for the natural world--a sense of wonder that might help us today realize that we will protect only what we love." How do you think we can create and maintain a sense of wonder for the natural world? What policies, educational strategies, and public programs could we implement?

We hope you will join the discussion of one of the bestselling and most awarded books in recent years: Tuesday, January 3, at 6:30 p.m. at Main Library; Thursday, January 19, at 11:00 a.m. at West Ashley Branch Library; and here on the blog.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Not Fiction Book Discussion Titles for 2017

2017 is fast approaching, and along with it, a new list of recent nonfiction books for us to discuss.

The titles, posted on the right, have a loose connecting theme of place and time--how we know where and when--and who--we are. They investigate our sometimes contradictory desires to belong and to leave, to prevent change and to find out what-if. They capture the large view--our planet as a vast web of connections--and the small--a single blade of grass or a precise moment of time and light rendered in paint. They take us home and to work, through history and deep into culture. They explore family ties and friendship, places beloved and haunted. And our last book even considers our fascination with time travel.

Choose one and settle in for some cozy holiday reading. We hope to see you at the discussions next year.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Readalikes: If you enjoyed December's selection . . .

If you enjoyed M Train by Patti Smith, then you might also like these books suggested by our discussion group members: My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, and City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg. And of course, you should read all of the books and authors Patti Smith alludes to in M Train, as well as her first autobiography, Just Kids.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

December Not Fiction Book Discussions

“All I needed for the mind was to be led to new stations. All I needed for the heart was to visit a place of greater storms.”
--Patti Smith

We conclude our year of reading memoirs and biographies with M Train by Patti Smith. Our authors' topics--family, race, history, travel, ambition, vocation and avocation, longing and belonging, loss and mortality--reflected lives lived passionately in the present and recollected with hope and consolation. Smith says books are "portals of the world." When we pass through them, we can vicariously live lives we might otherwise have never known.

In M Train, we experience a recent year in the life of the "godmother of punk" who has the soul of a Romantic poet. Smith begins her narrative with a statement made by a figure from her dreams: "It's not so easy writing about nothing. . . . But we keep on going, he continued, fostering all kinds of crazy hopes. To redeem the lost, some sliver of personal revelation." Guided by her prose and photographs, we follow her pilgrimage among cafes, hotels, the houses and graves of beloved authors and artists, and fluidly through time from present to past to dream time. We get sometimes oblique, sometimes head-on and painfully honest glimpses of Smith's own great loves and losses. Along with her, we experience the simple consolation of a good cup of black coffee, a favorite detective show. Most importantly, we learn about Smith's truest calling as an author, one easy to overlook in the glare of her fame as a rock musician. She fills her own story with allusions to the stories of others, saying, "Writers and their process. Writers and their books. I cannot assume the reader will be familiar with them all, but in the end is the reader familiar with me? Does the reader wish to be so? I can only hope, as I offer my world on a platter filled with allusions. As one held by the stuffed bear in Tolstoy's house, an oval platter that was once overflowing with the names of callers, infamous and obscure, small carte de visite, many among the many."

What do you think? In the end, are you familiar with Smith? Did you find that you have any interests and experiences, hopes and consolations in common with her? What has been your truest calling in life? What pilgrimages have you made? What have you lost? What remains?

We hope you will join the discussion: Tuesday, December 6, at 6:30 p.m. at Main Library; Thursday, December 15, at 11:00 a.m. at West Ashley Branch Library; and here on the blog.

Keep up with Patti Smith at

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Readalikes: If you enjoyed November's selection . . .

If you enjoyed Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir by Carrie Brownstein, then you might also like these books, films, and bands recommended by our discussion group members:

Girl in a Band: A Memoir by Kim Gordon
Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin
Bossypants by Tina Fey

Films/TV shows
Almost Famous written and directed by Cameron Crowe
This is Spinal Tap directed by Rob Reiner
Portlandia produced and acted by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen

Sonic Youth
Pearl Jam
Bikini Kill
The Ramones

Monday, October 31, 2016

November Not Fiction Book Discussions

Several of the memoirs we have read this year address the search for vocation and avocation, feelings of longing and belonging. Sally Mann found her place in the world through photography, William Finnegan through surfing, Gloria Steinem through community organizing, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg through law. In Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A MemoirCarrie Brownstein explores how she found hers through music.

Brownstein is a guitarist in the group Sleater-Kinney, originally formed with guitarist Corin Tucker and eventually drummer Janet Weiss in the 1990s in Olympia, WA. Inspired by the feminist punk movement known as Riot Grrrl, Brownstein and Sleater-Kinney explore both personal and political topics, especially traditional gender roles and expectations. Like most musicians, Brownstein began her career as a fan with a longing to be part of a cohesive group and to be seen. She describes with insight and self-deprecating humor how her childhood in a family that was essentially uneasy with itself--her mother struggled with disordered eating and her father with his sexual orientation--led her to look outside herself at first for a sense of identity and belonging, performing to get attention. Eventually, over years of writing, performing, touring, managing the interpersonal dynamics of a band, and even, after over ten years and seven albums together, breaking up this band that had come to feel like her refuge and true home, Brownstein's performance becomes an expression of her complete and true self. She says, "I've always felt unclaimed. This is the story of the ways I created a territory, something more than just an archipelago of identities, something that could steady me, somewhere that I belonged." Sleater-Kinney reunited in 2014, after a six-year hiatus.

What do you think? Maybe you've never been (or wanted to be) in a punk band, one that music critic Greil Marcus called "the best rock band in the world" . . . but can you identify with Brownstein's quest for a sense of a cohesive identity, one that merges the inner experience of the dynamic, multifaceted self with the outer performance of the self we share in our family and professional lives? What is your passion in life? When did you discover it, and how did it help you to find and understand your place in the world? Was it a smooth process, or, like Brownstein, did your sense of self and belonging in the world evolve with uncertainty and sometimes even feelings of being lost or in despair?

Often who we become is strongly influenced by our time and place in the world. How did the Pacific Northwest of the 1990s help to shape Brownstein's search for self and the sound and lyrics of Sleater-Kinney? Are you surprised that Brownstein is still being asked what it feels like to be a woman in a band? That Spin magazine was more interested in her romantic relationship with Corin Tucker than in the music itself?

Brownstein is also a writer and performer in the television show Portlandia, a gently satirical portrayal of Portland, OR, and hipster culture. Do you see any connections in content or style between Sleater-Kinney, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, and Portlandia?

Watch Brownstein, Tucker, and Weiss perform Modern Girl, the song from which Brownstein drew the title of her memoir. How do you interpret the song?

We hope you will join the discussion: Tuesday, November 1, at 6:30 p.m. at Main Library; Thursday, November 17, at 11:00 a.m. at West Ashley Branch Library; and here on the blog.