Thursday, February 16, 2017

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

If you enjoyed Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, then you might like these books, television shows, and podcasts suggested by Jahren's publisher, Knopf, and our discussion group members:

Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals
Nathalia Holt, Rise of the Rocket Girls
Kay Redfield Jamison, Exuberance
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction
Helen MacDonald, H Is for Hawk
Oliver Sacks, Oaxaca Journal
Rachel Swaby, Headstrong
Jonathan Weiner, The Beak of the Finch
Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees
Louise Anderson Allen, A Bluestocking in Charleston: The Life and Career of Laura Bragg
Elizabeth A Watry, Women in Wonderland: Lives, Legends, and Legacies of Yellowstone National Park
Rachel Ignotofsky, Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World
Lauren Redniss, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout
Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire
Rachel Carson's life and works
Elizabeth Gilbert The Signature of All Things
Tracy Chevalier Remarkable Creatures

Television shows
PBS series The Botany of Desire based on the book by Michael Pollan
PBS series The National Parks: America's Best Idea written by Dayton Duncan and produced by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan

StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Monday, February 6, 2017

February Not Fiction Book Discussions

In Lab Girl by Hope Jahrenscience, as represented by her father's earth sciences lab at the community college where he taught for 42 years and where Jahren spent many happy hours as a child, is a place. Now a recognized and awarded geobiologist with a lab of her own who studies the world from a plant's perspective, Jahren says of her career, "People are like plants: They grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed--a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be." In a memoir that interweaves stories of Jahren's life in science with stories about the life cycle of plants, readers learn about the personal and professional challenges she has faced and celebrate the incremental, hard-won successes and meaningful relationships she has created along the way.

What do you think? What drew Jahren to a career in science? What circumstances and attributes helped her become successful in this career? Which of the obstacles Jahren faces along the way were attributable to her being a woman in a male-dominated field? Which were a result of her struggles with bipolar disorder? And which were simply part of a learning curve as she matured and grew into her profession? Were you surprised to learn halfway through the book, after getting to know Jahren as a successful scientist, that she has bipolar disorder? Why do you think she chose this point in the book to introduce it?

Jahren tells readers about several significant relationships in her life, those with her father, her mother, her lab partner Bill, her husband Clint, and her son. What do we learn about Jahren from these relationships, and how do they influence her life in science? What do you make of the fact that Jahren dedicates this book and everything that she writes to her mother, with whom she had a difficult relationship? And why do you think her lab partner and best friend Bill has decided that he will never read Lab Girl? Jahren feared that in choosing a career in science, she would give up other aspects of life associated with being a woman with a family. What sacrifices has she made, and has she succeeded in creating a balanced life?

While Jahren's stories about the life cycles of plants are one of the most original aspects of the book, narrative science writing for a general audience is sometimes criticized for over-simplifying and anthropomorphizing its subjects. Jahren points out that scientific writing is a highly formalized and condensed genre and that "there's still no journal where I can tell the story of how my science is done with both the heart and the hands. . . . Working in a lab for twenty years has left me with two stories: the one that I have to write, and the one that I want to." How do you feel about the way Jahren handles the two stories in the book? Does she find a good balance between the scientific and the personal? Did you equally enjoy the chapters about plants and about Jahren's life, or were you drawn to one more than the other?

Like Jahren with her blue spruce, do you have a particular tree that you remember from your childhood? Ask a question about your tree. As Jahren points out in her Prologue, "Guess what? You are now a scientist. People will tell you that you have to know math to be a scientist, or physics or chemistry. They're wrong. . . . Sure, it helps, but there will be time for that. What comes first is a question, and you're already there." Do you think you would enjoy being a student in one of Jahren's classes? Why? Does she seem similar to or different from other science teachers you have had in the past? How? In what ways is Jahren a direct descendent of Alexander von Humboldt, whom we read about in last month's book The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf? Is Jahren's story an inspiration for young women who want to pursue a career in science?

We hope you will join the discussion: Tuesday, February 7, at 6:30 p.m.; Thursday, February 16, at 11:00 a.m.; and here on the blog.

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:

  • Fact and Fiction: Literary and Scientific Cultures in Germany and Britain by Christine Lehleiter
  • 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