Thursday, April 20, 2017

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

If you enjoyed Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, then you might also like these books suggested by our discussion group members:

  • Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  • Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
  • How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
  • Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
  • The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs
  • Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy by Thomas Sowell

Monday, April 3, 2017

April's Not Fiction Book Discussions

The phrase "there's no place like home" can be read in two ways. The most common reading is positive, with the suggestion that home is the most satisfying place to be. However, one could also understand the phrase to suggest that there is no place to be found that feels like home.  Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond  follows eight families in Milwaukee, WI, as they look for a place to call home and the obstacles they encounter along the way.

Desmond, a Harvard sociologist and MacArthur Genius grant recipient, spent time living in a trailer park where tenants were threatened with a mass eviction due to livability issues and in a rooming house in an urban neighborhood. He interviewed and observed the tenants and their landlords, as well as city and court officials, interweaving his own ethnographic research with statistics and studies of poverty in America. Desmond told Gillian B. White at The Atlantic,
I wanted to try to write a different poverty book, to focus on not just a place or a group of people, but a set of relationships. I thought eviction was the best way to do that. It brings landlords and judges and tenants together in this process that you can follow over time. I realized not only that we had overlooked this very central aspect of poverty, but eviction was coursing through the American city and acting as a cause, not just a condition of poverty.
Although eviction is the main topic Desmond explores, he shows us through the stories he tells that the lack of affordable housing intersects with many other social issues, such as parenting, education, employment, and addiction, as well as with race and gender. Desmond shows us with remarkable concision and empathy that these relationships are complicated.

What do you think? It is easy to judge people who get evicted as the victims of nothing but their own poor decisions. Did you feel this way before reading Evicted? Has your opinion changed after reading the book? How? Desmond uses storytelling to help us understand the larger issue of poverty and eviction. Whose story were you most drawn to and why? How do you see other social issues interacting with the lack of affordable housing in these people's lives? What responsibilities do you think landlords should have when renting their property? What risks do they take? Are profits justified in the private rental market when there is a significant lack of affordable housing? In his Epilogue, Desmond proposes solutions to the suffering caused by eviction. Do you believe that his solutions would work? Why or why not? Do you believe, as Desmond does, that access to a decent home is a basic human right? Did reading Evicted inspire you to want to help others in positions similar to those of the people in the book? If so, what do you think would help and how do you plan to get involved?

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017

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

If you enjoyed In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, then you might like these other books suggested by our discussion group members:

  • The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson
  • Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States by Bill Bryson
  • When in French: Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins
  • The essay To Speak is to Blunder by YiYun Li published in the January 2, 2017 issue
  • Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon
  • A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul
  • The writings of Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad, both of whom wrote their masterworks in English, which was not their first language.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

March Not Fiction Book Discussion

If Lab Girl is about science as a place, In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri is about language as a place. For her epigraph, Lahiri chose this quotation from Antonio Tabucchi: " . . . I needed a different language: a language that was a place of affection and reflection." A native speaker of Bengali and a well-awarded writer in English, Lahiri decided to immerse herself in Italian, moving her family to Rome and reading and writing exclusively in Italian for several years. This book is the result of her affection for that language and her reflections on her life as a writer.

Lahiri wrote it in Italian, and it is published with the English translation by Ann Goldstein on the facing page, so that readers can compare. While readers might expect a conventional travel memoir complete with rapturous descriptions of food and local color, Lahiri told Isaac Chotiner at Slate,
Everyone calls it a memoir. It's not. I've never thought of it as a memoir. It's a very different piece of writing. It came from a very different place. I was never, ever thinking of the book in those terms. I never even thought that it would be a book. When it was published in Italy last year, when it was published in Holland, in Sweden and France and other places, nobody has referred to it as a memoir. . . . When the book was published last year, I found myself talking in depth and at length about the language question. . . . The [question of whether] this is a transgressive act or not, and what it means, and the repercussions of this. There is, I think, a sort of philosophical aspect to the book, if you will. I feel that in all of the interviews I've done so far for the English edition, that has been skimmed if not totally ignored, and rather, it's more about, "What did your kids feel about going to Italy? What did your parents feel about your going to Italy? What was it like?" These more personal elements. I repeat, I don't feel that it is a memoir. It is an autobiographical work with two short stories in it as well, so it's a kind of weird mixed genre or out-of-genre kind of work.
Her language is spare and makes good use of metaphor, giving it the feel of a prose poem. She reflects on the relationship between language and a sense of belonging or exile. She considers the paradox of how her writing in Italian is both more autobiographical than her fiction about the Indian immigrant experience and yet more abstract. She asks the big question that all writers must consider at some point in their careers: "Why do I write?"

What do you think? Have you ever learned a new language and maybe even moved to a new country to live? Reflect on your experience. Did you feel a sense of exile, of being outside not just the language but also the culture? How did you cope? Explore some of the many metaphors Lahiri uses to convey her relationship to language and writing. Which did you find effective and enlightening? How would you define In Other Words? If it isn't a memoir, then what genre is it? Where would you look for it at a bookstore or library? Lahiri suggests that her book is more autobiographical because it is more abstract. How can this be true? What portrait of Lahiri emerges from her book? What is it about?

We hope you'll join the discussion: Tuesday, March 7, at 6:30 p.m. at Main Library; Thursday, March 16, at 11:00 a.m. at West Ashley Branch Library; and here on the blog.

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