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 http://www.pattismith.net/intro.html.

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.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

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

If you enjoyed The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, then you might also like these books suggested by our discussion group members:

  • Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
  • Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
  • The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey 

October West Ashley Branch Not Fiction Book Discussion Cancelled

Charleston County Public Library's West Ashley Branch in South Windermere remains closed due to flood damage sustained during Hurricane Matthew. The Not Fiction Book Discussion scheduled for Thursday, October 20, has been cancelled.  The branch will reopen Tuesday, November 1.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

October Not Fiction Book Discussions

This month we read The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a biography of "one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science: the 'gene,' the fundamental unit of heredity, and the basic unit of all biological information."

Mukherjee traces the history of the idea of the gene all the way back to its origins with Aristotle, Gregor Mendel, and Charles Darwin; through its dark manipulation in its early days by eugenicists; through the discovery of its essential action and form by James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin; to the technological ability to "read," "write," and "map" it with the Human Genome Project and the rapidly developing ability to "edit" it. He ends ultimately with the open-ended ethical questions raised by these abilities.

Which of the many philosophers, naturalists, and scientists who have contributed to our understanding of the gene did you find interesting? Why do you think some individuals' work was unnoticed or unrecognized at the time, such as Mendel's discovery of heredity and Franklin's work on the structure of DNA?

The genetic code is universal, but its variations are myriad. Our understanding of the gene alters our understanding of essential current political and cultural issues concerning race, sexuality, gender identity, sexual preference, intelligence, temperament, and free will. Mukherjee cautions throughout his book that the danger of the idea of the gene lies in our ability to rightly understand and use it: "The genome is only a mirror for the breadth or narrowness of human imagination. It is Narcissus reflected." What do you think? How has our understanding of the gene changed the political, cultural, and legal landscape of the world? Would it be better to limit or audit scientific research to prevent information being used to support morally questionable ideas? Or should unlimited scientific research be allowed and encouraged? What do you think our future will look like if we are unlimited in our ability to alter the human genome? According to a recent article on NPR's Morning Edition, developmental biologist Fredrik Lanner of Sweden has become the first researcher known to attempt to modify the genes of healthy human embryos in order to learn more about how genes regulate early embryonic development, with possible interventions in cases of infertility and miscarriage. What are the most pressing moral and ethical questions posed by current genetic research?

Mukerjee weaves in his own family's story throughout the book, showing the effects of severe mental illness on his uncles and nephew and the emotional repercussions for the whole family. How has his personal story helped you to understand the relevance of genetics to everyday life? Has reading The Gene made you reflect on yourself--your physical characteristics, your temperament, your health--and your own family's story?

We hope you will join the discussion: Tuesday, October 4, at 6:30 p.m. at Main Library; Thursday, October 20, at 11:00 a.m. at West Ashley Branch Library; and here on the blog.

Friday, September 16, 2016

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

If you enjoyed Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker, then you might also like these books and films suggested by discussion group members, some for their use of the epistolary format or focus on letters as historical documents and some for their use of verse form or extremely short form:

  • Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love by Dava Sobel
  • Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore
  • 84, Charing Cross Road book by Helene Hanff and movie with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins
  • Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
  • The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis
  • Art and the Intellect by Harold Taylor
  • The Lake House movie with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves
  • Brown Girl, Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
  • The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis
  • Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams