Thursday, August 17, 2017

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

If you enjoyed A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations by Juliet Nicolson, then you might also enjoy these other books and television shows recommended by our discussion group members:

Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson by Nigel Nicolson
Portrait of a Marriage Masterpiece drama with Janet McTeer, David Haig, and Cathryn Harrison
Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
The Land, The Garden, and the Your Garden books by Vita Sackville-West
Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden by Virginia Nicolson and Quentin Bell
Them: A Memoir of Parents by Francine Du Plessix Gray
The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
Downtown Abbey Masterpiece television series
Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates PBS television series

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

August Not Fiction Book Discussions


A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations by Juliet Nicolson explores the nature of time and memory in the life of a family. It is a reflection on the experience of being a woman and a daughter. And it is an ode to place and the importance of a family home.

Juliet Nicolson presents what at first appears to be a straightforward chronological history of the women in her family, looking back to her great-great grandmother Pepita and forward to her own granddaughter Imogen. Nicolson, a descendant of an upper-class British family of writers and publishers that included Bloomsbury novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West, notes that "The habit of writing down the story of our lives has long been a tradition in our family. . . . Having reached a middle point in my life when I began to find it as tempting to look backwards as forwards, I, too, wanted to explore those generations that preceded me." What she discovers is that the collective stories in a family may reveal complicated patterns and truths that can offer past generations forgiveness and future generations hope as they learn from the mistakes of their predecessors and find the courage to change.

Nicolson discovers patterns of dependence imposed by history on the lives of women, but also patterns more personal and familial. She documents a history of secrets, jealousy, fear of intimacy, lack of self-worth, addiction, and infidelity and how these behaviors are learned and repeated within the family. She also explores the nature of privilege and is curious "to see how they would respond to the charge of privilege. . . . I wondered if wealth and class always amounted to privilege in a broader sense." Throughout the generations, the solace of home, in the form of two great British houses, Knole and Sissinghurst, remains constant. Nicolson acknowledges the impossible task of the writer of memoir and history, that "In part, this book is an attempt to overcome the fugitive nature of time and, in many cases, the transitory nature of love."

What do you think? Considering how much has already been written about Nicolson's family, why did she want to write her own memoir? What does it add to the history of this family, class, and culture? Which of the women, and especially their mother-daughter relationships, did you find most interesting? And what about the men in these women's lives? What role did they play? To what extent were the unfortunate patterns in these women's lives the result of their time and place in history, and to what extent were they the result of their own personalities and choices? How did their wealth and class affect their lives? What is it like to be a daughter? Is it unique and different from being a son? What do Knole and Sissinghurst represent to the women who loved these great houses? Have you done any genealogical research about your family? If you were going to write a history and memoir about your family, what would you choose for your focus and organization?

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

Friday, July 21, 2017

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

If you enjoyed The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar, then you might also enjoy these books about "exile and estrangement" recommended by Hisham Matar in an interview with John Williams for the New York Times:


  • The Day of Judgement by Salvatore Satta
  • Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
  • Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys


You might also like these books recommended by our discussion group members:


  • The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon
  • Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
  • Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  • Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig
  • Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View by Stanley Milgram
  • Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt
  • One Generation After by Eli Wiesel
  • House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid
  • The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz


Friday, July 7, 2017

July Not Fiction Book Discussions

In his memoir The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, Hisham Matar tells readers the intertwined stories of his father Jaballa Matar, a leading dissident in Libya under Muammar el-Qaddafi, and his fierce love of country and culture; his father's kidnapping and imprisonment in 1990 for his political activities; and his own return to Libya in 2012 after the fall of the Qaddafi regime to try to discover his father's fate. Jaballa was kidnapped when Hisham was only nineteen years old, and Hisham would never see his father again. The narrative takes readers simultaneously both back in time to Libya's past and Hisham's childhood memories of his father, and forward in time as he makes the journey to Libya, reunites with family, and pursues the answers to his questions about his father's fate.

His memoir attempts to answer the question, "What do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?" It is both a narrative history of Libya and a personal statement of loss, love, grief, and the possibility of consolation. In an interview for the New York Times, John Williams asked Matar, "You spoke to former prisoners, including your own uncle, as part of your research. What was the most surprising thing you learned from them?" He replied, "I learnt something about the power of stories, and how through them we can travel through time and share, at least in our imaginations, former aspects of ourselves. Most of all, I learnt that we can endure great suffering and survive, mostly intact yet altered."

What do you think? Why did Hisham Matar write The Return as a memoir even though he had already written two semiautobiographical novels, In The Country of Men, from the point of view of a nine-year-old boy, and Anatomy of a Disappearance, from the point of view of a teenaged boy, about these same events? Describe his organizational structure in The Return, his use of time and place. What is the effect on you as a reader? And what about his tone, his attitude toward his subject and toward us as his readers? Matar alludes to many other writers who address the experience of exile and to classic literary examples of father and son relationships. What do these references add to Matar's story? In a review of The Return for The Washington Post, Tara Bahrampour notes, "In a book that does not shy away from painful details, the event it hinges on--his father's arrest--is strikingly absent." Why do you think that Matar made this narrative decision? Why did he delay his return to Libya after the fall of the Qaddafi regime, even contemplating the "immaculate idea" of never returning? Why does he ultimately decide to go?  In an article for the New Yorker June 6 and 13, 2016 Issue about childhood reading titled The Book, Matar tells of the book that most influenced him, one that he has never read and of which he does not even know the author or the title: 
I don’t remember what the passages read aloud were about, exactly. What I do remember is that they relayed the intimate thoughts of a man, one suffering from an unkind or shameful emotion, such as fear or jealousy or cowardice, feelings that are complicated to admit to, particularly for a man. But the honesty of the writing, its ability to capture such fluid and vague adjustments, was in itself brave and generous, the opposite of the emotion being described. I also remember being filled with wonder at the way words could be so precise and patient, illustrating, as they progressed, what even the boy I was then somehow knew: that there exists at once a tragic and marvellous distance between consciousness and reality. Given the books that had been read to me, this couldn’t have been the first time that I encountered such writing, but, for some reason, on this occasion I registered its full impact on me. What struck me, too, was the new silence that the passages left in their wake. They created, at least temporarily, among these political men, who seemed to me to function under the solid weight of certainty, a resonant moment of doubt.
Do you see any correspondences between Matar’s description of this influential book and its effect on him and his own writing choices in The ReturnCan his title, The Return, be read in several different ways? What did you learn about the Arab world, its history, culture, and current political situation, from reading The Return?

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

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Reminder: Main Library July Not Fiction Book Discussion date

Just a friendly reminder that the July Main Library Not Fiction Book Discussion of The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar will be Tuesday, July 11, at 6:30 p.m.. All Charleston County Public Library branches will be closed for the July 4 holiday.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

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

If you enjoyed Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance, then you might also like these books suggested our discussion group members:

  • The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs
  • Dreams from My Father: A Memoir of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama
  • Coal Miner's Daughter by Loretta Lynn
  • The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
  • Son of a Gun: A Memoir by Justin St. Germain
  • Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III


And by The Booklist Reader reviewer Karen Kleckner Keefe in her article Pride and Poverty: Beyond Hillbilly Elegy:

  • All Over But the Shoutin‘ by Rick Bragg
  • Belonging: A Culture of Place by bel hooks
  • Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.—How the Working Poor Became Big Business by Gary Rivlin
  • Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray
  • Creeker: A Woman’s Journey by Linda Scott DeRosier
  • Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War by Joe Bageant
  • The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  • Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado
  • Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City by Javier Auyero
  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee
  • The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
  • Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in Boom-Time America by Barbara Ehrenreich
  • No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home by Chris Offutt
  • Poor People by William T. Vollmann
  • Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
  • Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington
  • $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer
  • White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg
  • The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler



Tuesday, June 6, 2017

June's Not Fiction Book Discussions

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance explores the culture of white, working class, Scots-Irish Greater Appalachia--"hillbilly" culture--as both a physical and a psychosocial place. Vance, who grew up in Kentucky and Ohio in the 1980s and 90s, overcame a childhood of poverty and familial instability, becoming a Marine and eventually graduating from Yale Law School. He found himself wondering why there weren't more people like him at places like Yale, people from working-class backgrounds living the American Dream of an upwardly mobile life. What he discovered is a region and a culture in crisis as manufacturing jobs that provided a living wage become harder and harder to find. Vance told Isaac Chotiner of Slate, "This macroeconomic thing was happening but there was also this cultural and communal disconnect that was happening. To understand the problem you had to understand both sides of it." And so he wrote Hillbilly Elegy as a memoir to show "what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It's about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It's about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it." What he found is a socially and culturally isolated group that demonstrates a "learned helplessness," an "emotional poverty" that increasingly looks like despair. Vance asks an essential question of "hillbillies like me," and, by implication, of American culture at large: "How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? . . . Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?"

What do you think? To what combination of causes does Vance attribute the crisis he sees in his community? How do the people in Vance's life demonstrate both learned helplessness and personal responsibility? What are the positive values of hillbilly culture? To what does Vance attribute his escape from the cycle of poverty, addiction, and violence in which many people in his family and community are trapped? Why is he uneasy with his own rapid upward mobility? Does he seem to make an emotional journey out of his own anger and confusion along with his physical journey out of Appalachia? What does Hillbilly Elegy add to the national conversation about poverty and its related socio-cultural problems? To the current political conversation? Does it suggest any solutions? Does Vance seem to be more liberal, conservative, libertarian, or some other slant entirely in his social and political views? If your life experiences, cultural background, and social and political views differ from Vance's, did you find Hillbilly Elegy difficult and/or enlightening to read?

For more insight into Hillbilly Elegy, read Compassion, and Criticism, for the White Working Class: A conversation with Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, an interview at Slate with Isaac Chotiner.

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