RWB October Book Club

RWB BOOK CLUB October 2017

We  undertook Biographies. Immediately (as is always the case with this group) discussion was spirited.  Our understanding of the genre expanded far beyond  the first modern biography, Boswell’s 1791 LIFE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON.

Bob made the case for the biography of an era, NIXONLAND. Nixon himself hardly shows up in the first 400 pages. The author used every last morselette of research he ever did so portions of it felt leaden. But anything you want to know about the watershed Democratic Convention in Chicago, 1968, it’s here.

And Jes brought up books that serve as biographies of whole industries, Mark Kurlansky’s well regarded COD, and SALT, and his new one about paper, PAGES.

Another hybrid of the biography form is Victoria’s selection: Ginger Strand’s intriguing dual biography of the Vonnegut brothers during WWII. THE BROTHERS VONNEGUT: SCIENCE AND FICTION IN THE HOUSE OF MAGIC which sounds like a fascinating read. Lisa’s contribution was also of a scientific variety, WIZARD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF NIKOLA TESLA.

Dual biographies are another new hybrid, such as Pam’s choice, Annette Gordon-Reed’s THOMAS JEFFERSON AND SALLY HEMMINGS: AN AMERICAN CONTROVERSY. I recently very much admired THE AMBULANCE DRIVERS about Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos during World War I and after. And another interesting multi-biography THEY ALL BEHAVED BADLY (wonderful title) about the whole crew who accompanied Hemingway to Pamplona from which he created THE SUN ALSO RISES. (All these people, by the way, wrote copious memoirs of their own.)

Can a serious historical novel double for a biography? Yes! Said Frances, touting Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL and the novels of Phillipa Gregory for another, offered by Pam, as well as the novels of Ken Follett. In fact a great historical novel can breathe such vivacity into long ago lives that the reader often walks away with a much more vivid sense of the person and the era.

(Librarian Linda however reminded us that historical novels don’t have an index that allows the reader to quickly return to the material if necessary, and they don’t have a bibliography or notes at the end where the reader, if interested, can check the sources. As it happens both Linda and I are great source checkers, curiosity if nothing else.)

We all agreed that the trinity of first rate American biographers includes Doris Kearns Goodwin (TEAM OF RIVALS about Lincoln’s cabinet) Ron Chernow (he of the famous HAMILITON and his new book GRANT) and David McCullough (TRUMAN) writers whose work is always well written, well researched and rewarding.

Some biographies just have undeniable charm. Victoria offered the recent BEATRIX POTTER’S GARDENING LIFE by Marta MacDowell. Some biographies tackle philosophical/political questions. As an anthropologist Carol is very conscious of who has the right to write the stories. She cited NISA: THE LIFE OF A BOTSWANAN WOMAN, and for Cuban color, (always essential) ONE DAY IN DECEMBER by Celia Sanchez.

For myself, I have been reading biographies since I was a child. There used to be a whole series, the Landmark Series for children, biographies of famous Americans. On jaunts to the library with my mom, Peggy K. Johnson, I went through nearly all of those. Biography was always my mother’s favorite genre. My father was never interested in books, and so she used to share with me, the oldest kid, the stories and lives she’d read. To this day when she’s not writing her own memoirs, my mom still loves biographies. She no longer has to go to the library. I buy them for her and read them after she is done, including the recent Philbrick tome, VALIANT AMBITION, a life of Benedict Arnold.

The first grown-up biography I read at age twelve was Esther Forbes’ long ago Pulitzer Prize winner PAUL REVERE AND THE WORLD HE LIVED IN. The phrase “the world he lived in” fanned my interest, hoping to be plunged into the 18th century for which, even then, I had a special affection. I once thought I would be a biographer rather than a novelist, but I haven’t the scholarly wherewithal. As a historical novelist I get to read a lot, but can equally use imagination to create the proverbial “world he lived in.”    

The Red Wheelbarrow Writers Book Club meets again Sunday November 12th at 4 pm at the Pickford film center. November’s topic: FOOD. Yum.

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