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

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

September Not Fiction Book Discussions

Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker is another memoir--of sorts--written in the form of letters. Parker writes letters to men as a way of looking back at her life and the people she has encountered along the way who have made a difference in it. These men include those with whom she has had close relationships, such as her grandfather, her father, her son, her mentors, her friends and boyfriends, but also men with whom she had only a brief but significant encounter, such as a cab driver and a hospital orderly, and men she hasn't met, such as the future husband of her daughter. In a profile of Parker for LA Times, interviewer Joy Press reports that "Mary-Louise Parker never intended to write a memoir. In fact, she’s a little freaked that Dear Mr. You is being labeled as one. ‘I feel bad when people say memoir, because who writes a memoir that is only about how they were affected by one gender? The pieces are about me but also . . . not.’” Press notes, “Still, if you look closely at these letters, you’ll find a sidelong portrait of Parker, a mosaic of autobiographical shards.” We get a sense of Parker as a daughter, a mother, a friend, a romantic partner, a student, a professional actor, a writer, and a person making her way in the world.

According to an article in the Toronto Star, Parker and her agent submitted Dear Mr. You to publishers without her name attached.Unlike the publishers who read the manuscript of Dear Mr. You, we read Parker’s book knowing her as a celebrity. What do you expect from a celebrity memoir? Did Parker meet or break these expectations? Which letters stood out for you? Which surprised you? Delighted you? Disappointed you? Left you wanting more information? How does the letter format affect your perception of the stories Parker relates and of Parker herself? How would your perception of Parker and the events of her life differ if she had presented them in a more detailed, chronological, anecdotal narrative? In the profile of Parker for LA Times, Parker told interviewer Joy Press, “To me, this book is a collection of thank-you notes.” Take a moment to think: If you were tasked with writing a book like Dear Mr. You, to whom from your life would you write a thank you letter? Think especially of those people to whom you would not have said “thank you” at the time . . . Care to share?

We enjoyed the Tuesday, September 6, discussion! We hope you will join us Thursday, September 15, at 11:00 a.m. at the West Ashley Branch Library or here on the blog.

Monday, August 22, 2016

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

If you enjoyed Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, then you might also like these books recommended by our discussion group members:

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
  • Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward
  • The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs
  • One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life--A Story of Race and Family Secrets by Bliss Broyard
  • The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
  • Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family by Condoleeza Rice
  • Passing: A  Novel by Nella Larson

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

August Not Fiction Book Discussions

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a memoir written in the form of a letter from an African American father to his adolescent son. Coates describes for his son his own coming of age and awakening of consciousness to his place in American history and culture. He also expresses his concerns for his son as he makes his way through a society that is still fraught with danger for African Americans. His work challenges all readers to contemplate our country's painful history of slavery and racism and our current civil rights crisis by considering what it is like to live in America in a black body, in a culture built upon the exploitation of black bodies.

Coates chose to write his memoir in the form of a letter to his son in the tradition of James Baldwin's Letter to My Nephew in his book The Fire the Next Time. Why do you think Coates chose this literary format? What was the effect for you of reading about Coates' life and thoughts on our history and culture through the intimate format of a letter addressed to his son?

Coates writes to his son, "When I was your age, the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid" (14). The title of the book, Between the World and Me, is taken from Richard Wright's poem of the same title. How did fear shape Coates' life and view of the world? Why do you think he chose this title for his book?

Coates argues in Between the World and Me that race, which has been such an important and controversial concept in American history and culture, is a flawed concept. He says, "Race is the child of racism, not the father" (7). How does discrediting the concept of race change how we understand our past and present?

Coates uses several terms that have been important in American culture and in the civil rights movement, the Dream and the Struggle, but he complicates and questions what they mean. What do the Dream and the Struggle come to mean to Coates? What connotations did these terms have for you before reading Coates' book? Has he complicated their meaning for you?

In Between the World and Me, Coates says, "I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might fully understand the breach between the world and me. . . . the questions matter as much, perhaps more than, the answers" (115-16). While Coates sees himself as a writer rather than an activist, critics of Between the World and Me have argued that because he is so well respected, he should attempt to offer answers to and provide hope for the troubling questions surrounding America's race relations. Do you think he holds any responsibility to offer answers, solve problems, or offer hope? Why or why not?

We hope you will join the discussion of one of the most timely and talked-about books this year: Tuesday, August 2, at 6:30 p.m. at Main Library; Thursday, August 18, at 11:00 a.m. at West Ashley Branch Library; and here on the blog.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

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

If you enjoyed Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, then you might also like these podcasts, journal articles, books, and Tumblr blogs suggested by our discussion members:


  • More Perfect by Radiolab and WNYC Radio. "Supreme Court decisions shape everything from marriage and money to public safety and sex. We know these are very important decisions we should all pay attention to – but they often feel untouchable and even unknowable. Radiolab's first ever spin-off series, More Perfect, connects you to the decisions made inside the court's hallowed halls, and explains what those rulings mean for "we the people" who exist far from the bench. More Perfect bypasses the wonkiness and tells stories behind some of the court's biggest rulings."

Journal articles


  • The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court  and other titles by Jeffrey Toobin.
  • Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda Hirshman.
  • Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians V. The Supreme Court by Joyce Murdoch and Deb Price.
  • The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong.

Tumblr blogs

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

July Not Fiction Book Discussions

This month we will consider a book that grew out of a new format for biography: Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik. Ginsburg is, of course, a member of SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States), the second woman ever appointed to that court.

Like Gloria Steinem, Ginsburg has become an icon of feminism for millennials, and the book Notorious RBG had it's first incarnation in an online format millennials are very comfortable with, the microblogging and social networking website Tumblr. After Ginsburg's dissent in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (2014), in which the majority ruled that Hobby Lobby, a privately held corporation, could deny birth control coverage to employees based on its owners' religious convictions, law student Shana Knizhnik created the Tumblr as a tribute to Ginsburg. It became popular internationally, with multiple contributions of images and texts. Harper Collins approached Knizhnik with the offer to create a book based on the Tumblr and brought in Irin Carmon, a noted feminist journalist, currently a commentator for MSNBC and formerly for online feminist publication Jezebel. While the book retains the informal feel of the Tumblr with humorous images and sidebars to the text, it also maintains a narrative structure that integrates Ginsburg's professional and personal lives as well as legal commentary on her most famous dissents.

Before reading this book, how much did you know about Ruth Bader Ginsburg? How would you describe RBG--personally, socially, professionally, politically? Carmon and Knizhnik note that Ginsburg has been very insistent in her written and spoken opinions over the years that her work is not just about women’s rights, it is about women’s and men’s liberation. Explain her philosophy as you see it. Would you call RBG a feminist? Carmon and Knizhnik also emphasize RBG’s incremental approach to the advancement of women’s rights, as opposed to what Charlotte Alter, an interviewer for TIME calls “the click-bait feminism of today’s internet.” In this interview, Carmon said, “Shana and I both fear the burnout of internet outrage culture,” which is “grounded in substantive concerns” but little conversation about “how should this movement move forward for sustainable change.” Knizhnik notes that much of RBG’s success comes from “framing conversations in such a way that will not alienate people who may not yet be on board.” What do you think of RBG’s incremental approach? Is it a useful technique? Will it continue to work in today’s online media culture and political outrage culture? Why do you think RBG resonates with people, especially the millennial generation? Knizhnik overtly connects Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Notorious BIG, aka Christopher George Latore Wallace (1972-1997), who is considered one of the most influential rappers in the history of the genre that is known for violent and misogynistic lyrics. In fact, the chapter titles are from titles of songs by Notorious BIG . . . Why is this a humorous comparison? Why is it also an apt one? How would you characterize this book? Reviewers have offered many suggestions: As a biography? A scrapbook? A vision board? (Julia Carpenter, Washington Post) Fan nonfiction? A variation on a contemporary feminist website like Jezebel? (Jennifer Senior, New York Times) Some original combination? It may be lighthearted in spirit, but it also asks to be read as a serious consideration of RBG's legacy. Do you think Carmon and Knizhnik get the mix right? What are the potential advantages of this format? What are the potential drawbacks?

We hope you'll join the discussion: Tuesday, July 5, at 6:30 p.m. at Main Library; Thursday, July 21, at 11:00 a.m. at West Ashley Branch Library; and here on the blog.