Category: Book Discussion (page 1 of 3)

March 8, 2017 –
Book Discussion:
Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS
Joby Warrick

isisWINNER OF THE 2016 PULITZER PRIZE FOR GENERAL NONFICTION

“A Best Book of 2015”—The New York Times

In a thrilling dramatic narrative, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Joby Warrick traces how the strain of militant Islam behind ISIS first arose in a remote Jordanian prison and spread with the unwitting aid of two American presidents. Drawing on unique high-level access to CIA and Jordanian sources, Warrick weaves gripping, moment-by-moment operational details with the perspectives of diplomats and spies, generals and heads of state, many of whom foresaw a menace worse than al Qaeda and tried desperately to stop it. Black Flags is a brilliant and definitive history that reveals the long arc of today’s most dangerous extremist threat.

Recommended by Harris Hester
Discussion leader: David Mace

February 8, 2017 –
Book Discussion
The Innovators
How a Group Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

Walter Isaacson

innovatorsFollowing his blockbuster biography of Steve Jobs, The Innovators is Walter Isaacson’s revealing story of the people who created the computer and the Internet. It is destined to be the standard history of the digital revolution and an indispensable guide to how innovation really happens. What were the talents that allowed certain inventors and entrepreneurs to turn their visionary ideas into disruptive realities? What led to their creative leaps? Why did some succeed and others fail? In his masterly saga, Isaacson begins with Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, who pioneered computer programming in the 1840s. He explores the fascinating personalities that created our current digital revolution, such as Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Robert Noyce, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee, and Larry Page. This is the story of how their minds worked and what made them so inventive. It’s also a narrative of how their ability to collaborate and master the art of teamwork made them even more creative. For an era that seeks to foster innovation, creativity, and teamwork, The Innovators shows how.

Discussion leader: Gary Banks

April 2, 2017
Book Discussion:
A Hero of France
Alan Furst

Alan Furst goeherofrances to war: Occupied Paris for the first time since Red Gold (1999 pub), Furst has set this novel during the war itself, instead of on the eve of the war. Members of the French Resistance network young and old, aristocrats and schoolteachers, defiant heroes and ordinary people all engaged in clandestine actions in the cause of freedom. From the secret hotels and Nazi-infested nightclubs of Paris to the villages of Rouen and Orleans. An action-packed story of romance, intrigue, spies, bravery, and air battles.

Discussion leader: Bert von Stuelpnagle

January 11, 2017
Hillbilly Elegy
J.D.Vance

hillbillyFrom a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck. The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility. But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history. A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

Discussion leader: John Wolcott

Gentlemen–Hillbilly Elegy is an extremely important book, perhaps more because so many pundits are liberally quoting it than might truly be the case–and therein lies an intriguing paradox. However, Elegy is extraordinarily well-written (the pages fly by) and relates an absorbing, disturbing, yet at times uplifting story set in Appalachia, referred to by politicians, some sympathetically, others, condescendingly, as the Rust Belt. Our discussion will be both lively and provocative.

Once you’ve put the book down (but not before), please read the attached book review from The New Yorker. I’ve read a number of others, and none comes close. It’s so good that you could almost skip the book, but again, the book is so well crafted that you shouldn’t miss it. The article also refers to several other sources that might be worth a look.

New Yorker – Hillbilly Elegy

See you all January 11. In the meantime, Happy Holidays and a Wonderful New Year, speaking of which, make reading Hillbilly Elegy your first New Year’s Resolution!

–John

December 14, 2016 –
Book Discussion
The Last Hurrah
Edwin O’Connor

last-hurrah“We’re living in a sensitive age, Cuke, and I’m not altogether sure you’re fully attuned to it.” So says Irish-American politician Frank Skeffington—a cynical, corrupt 1950s mayor, and also an old-school gentleman who looks after the constituents of his New England city and enjoys their unwavering loyalty in return. But in our age of dynasties, mercurial social sensitivities, and politicians making love to the camera, Skeffington might as well be talking to us.

Not quite a roman á clef of notorious Boston mayor James Michael Curley, The Last Hurrahtells the story of Skeffington’s final campaign as witnessed through the eyes of his nephew, who learns a great deal about politics as he follows his uncle to fundraisers, wakes, and into smoke-filled rooms, ultimately coming—almost against his will—to admire the man. Adapted into a 1958 film starring Spencer Tracy and directed by John Ford (and which Curley tried to keep from being made), Edwin O’Connor’s opus reveals politics as it really is, and big cities as they really were. An expansive, humorous novel offering deep insight into the Irish-American experience and the ever-changing nature of the political machine, The Last Hurrah reveals political truths still true today: what the cameras capture is just the smiling face of the sometimes sordid business of giving the people what they want.

Discussion Leader: David Mace

November 9, 2016 –
Book Discussion
Destiny of the Republic
Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President

Candice Millard

destinyoftherepublicThe extraordinary New York Times bestselling account of James Garfield’s rise from poverty to the American presidency, and the dramatic history of his assassination and legacy, from bestselling author of The River of Doubt, Candice Millard.

James Abram Garfield was one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president. Born into abject poverty, he rose to become a wunderkind scholar, a Civil War hero, a renowned congressman, and a reluctant presidential candidate who took on the nation’s corrupt political establishment. But four months after Garfield’s inauguration in 1881, he was shot in the back by a deranged office-seeker named Charles Guiteau. Garfield survived the attack, but become the object of bitter, behind-the-scenes struggles for power—over his administration, over the nation’s future, and, hauntingly, over his medical care. Meticulously researched, epic in scope, and pulsating with an intimate human focus and high-velocity narrative drive, The Destiny of the Republic brings alive a forgotten chapter of U.S. history.

Discussion leader: Joe Spain

October 12, 2016 –
Book Discussion
Alibaba
The House That Jack Ma Built

Duncan Clark

alibaba-coverAn engrossing, insider’s account of how a teacher built one of the world’s most valuable companies—rivaling Walmart & Amazon—and forever reshaped the global economy.
In just a decade and half Jack Ma, a man from modest beginnings who started out as an English teacher, founded and built Alibaba into one of the world’s largest companies, an e-commerce empire on which hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers depend. Alibaba’s $25 billion IPO in 2014 was the largest global IPO ever. A Rockefeller of his age who is courted by CEOs and Presidents around the world, Jack is an icon for China’s booming private sector and the gatekeeper to hundreds of millions of middle class consumers.
Duncan Clark first met Jack in 1999 in the small apartment where Jack founded Alibaba. Granted unprecedented access to a wealth of new material including exclusive interviews, Clark draws on his own experience as an early advisor to Alibaba and two decades in China chronicling the Internet’s impact on the country to create an authoritative, compelling narrative account of Alibaba’s rise.
How did Jack overcome his humble origins and early failures to achieve massive success with Alibaba? How did he outsmart rival entrepreneurs from China and Silicon Valley? Can Alibaba maintain its 80% market share? As it forges ahead into finance and entertainment, are there limits to Alibaba’s ambitions? How does the Chinese government view its rise? Will Alibaba expand further overseas, including in the U.S.?
Clark tells Alibaba’s tale in the context of China’s momentous economic and social changes, illuminating an unlikely corporate titan as never before.

November 11, 2015, 12:30 pm — Book Discussion Group Meeting
The Girl on the Train
by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train is a mystery and suspense novel by Paula Hawkins. It follows the lives of three women – Rachel, Anna, and Megan – and the events surrounding Megan’s murder, ultimately bringing the lives of the three women together.

But what really makes The Girl on the Train such a gripping novel is Hawkins’ remarkable understanding of the limits of human knowledge, and the degree to which memory and imagination can become confused.

New York Times Best Seller list for 35 weeks and counting. “Nothing is more addicting than The Girl on the Train”.–Vanity Fair

October 14, 2015, 12:30 pm — Book Discussion Group Meeting
Redeployment
by Phil Klay

Our next book selection is Redeployment, by Phil Klay

Winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction · Winner of the John Leonard First Book Prize · Selected as one of the best books of the year by The New York Times Book ReviewTimeNewsweekThe Washington Post Book World, Amazon, and more

Phil Klay’s Redeployment takes readers to the frontlines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking us to understand what happened there, and what happened to the soldiers who returned.  Interwoven with themes of brutality and faith, guilt and fear, helplessness and survival, the characters in these stories struggle to make meaning out of chaos.

In “Redeployment”, a soldier who has had to shoot dogs because they were eating human corpses must learn what it is like to return to domestic life in suburbia, surrounded by people “who have no idea where Fallujah is, where three members of your platoon died.”  In “After Action Report”, a Lance Corporal seeks expiation for a killing he didn’t commit, in order that his best friend will be unburdened.  A Morturary Affairs Marine tells about his experiences collecting remains—of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers both.  A chaplain sees his understanding of Christianity, and his ability to provide solace through religion, tested by the actions of a ferocious Colonel.  And in the darkly comic “Money as a Weapons System”, a young Foreign Service Officer is given the absurd task of helping Iraqis improve their lives by teaching them to play baseball.  These stories reveal the intricate combination of monotony, bureaucracy, comradeship and violence that make up a soldier’s daily life at war, and the isolation, remorse, and despair that can accompany a soldier’s homecoming.

Redeployment is poised to become a classic in the tradition of war writing.  Across nations and continents, Klay sets in devastating relief the two worlds a soldier inhabits: one of extremes and one of loss.  Written with a hard-eyed realism and stunning emotional depth, this work marks Phil Klay as one of the most talented new voices of his generation.

September 9, 2015, 12:30 pm — Book Discussion Group Meeting
The Coroner’s Lunch
by Colin Cotterill

The Coroner's LunchLaos is an impoverished, landlocked socialist republic in southeast Asia, bordering with the more dominant nations of China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. The Coroner’s Lunch is set in 1976, a year after the end of a long civil war that resulted in the Soviet-backed communist Pathet Lao coming to power.

The protagonist of this wonderful book is Siri Paiboun, a doctor and a widower who, rather than being able to enjoy a peaceful retirement at the age of 72, is made the country’s only coroner. One of the many delights of this book about ordinary people’s experiences of living under the communist regime are the small everyday acts of subversion and rebellion that avoid the notice of the unimaginative authorities but cause a liberating sense of personal triumph that sustains people through each day.

Siri has been a communist ever since his student days in France, but only because of the woman he loved and subsequently married. Although perceived by the authorities as a safe pair of hands, Siri in fact is a detached observer of the soulless regime.

One of the many pleasures of this delightful novel is the life Siri has made in his hospital lab with his two co-workers: Drui, a spinster who reads out-of-date fashion magazines and looks after her ill mother; and Mr Geung, a man considered “simple” (he has Down’s syndrome). The collaboration and relationship between these three in their working and, occasionally, personal lives is a subtle yet sharp portrait of how the human spirit can prevail against the most deadening official dictates and the most extreme poverty of resources.

Turning to the actual plot, Siri is faced with two baffling and dangerous cases. One concerns Mrs Nitnoy, the wife of a senior government official, who has died mysteriously while at a Women’s Union meeting. Another concerns the bodies of three men who have been discovered at the bottom of the sea, tied to rusty bombshells. Siri’s professional attitude leads him to dig into these obscure deaths against the desires of officialdom to the extent of endangering himself. He also feels driven to continue because of his spiritual visitors and the final rest that will be brought to them by the knowledge of how they met their ends.

Book Discussion Group Meeting on April 8, 2015 at 12:30 at the Darien Library to discuss “ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE” by Anthony Doerr

51765Ptvm+L._AA160_NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST.  From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious work about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. ( 25 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list)

Discussion Leader: John Podkowsky.  A list of discussion questions was previously circulated.

DMA May selection: AGENT STORM by  Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister

Agent Storm is the remarkable memoir of a Danish convert-turned-extremist who managed not only to infiltrate al Qaeda’s ranks but would later become one of West’s most valued human intelligence assets in the war on terrorism. As a true spy-story, this book brings you incredibly close to what it actually takes to be an extremist and get into a terrorist group while balancing loyalty and treachery in the world of intelligence. Essential reading for everyone interested in how the war on terrorism is actually fought in the shadows.”
“Agent Storm opens a unique window onto bleak interlocking landscapes—the radicalization of European Muslims that has now been energized by the Syrian civil war, the leadership and organization of global jihad, and the twilight struggle waged by western intelligence agencies against an elusive and implacable enemy.”

Discussion Leader:  John Podkowsky

Book available at the Darien Library the second week of April; Discussion date:  May 13.

Book Club Discussion – February 11, 2015
“Americanah” is a novel by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that tells the story of a young Nigerian woman who emigrates to the United States for a university education and stays for work.

 

09peedSUB-articleInlineWhat’s the difference between an African-American and an American-African? From such a distinction springs a deep-seated discussion of race in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel, “Americanah.” Adichie, born in Nigeria but now living both in her homeland and in the United States, is an extraordinarily self-aware thinker and writer, possessing the ability to lambaste society without sneering or patronizing or polemicizing. For her, it seems no great feat to balance high-literary intentions with broad social critique. “Americanah” examines blackness in America, Nigeria and Britain, but it’s also a steady-handed dissection of the universal human experience — a platitude made fresh by the accuracy of Adichie’s observations.

So an African-American is a black person with long generational lines in the United States, most likely with slave ancestors. She might write poetry about “Mother Africa,” but she’s pleased to be from a country that gives international aid rather than from one that receives it. An American-African is an African newly emigrated to the United States. In her native country, she didn’t realize she was black — she fit that description only after she landed in America. In college, the African-American joins the Black Student Union, while the American-African signs up with the African Students Association.

Adichie understands that such fine-grained differentiations don’t penetrate the minds of many Americans. This is why a lot of people here, when thinking of race and class, instinctively speak of “blacks and poor whites,” not “poor blacks and poor whites.” Many of Adichie’s best observations regard nuances of language. When people are reluctant to say “racist,” they say “racially charged.” The phrase “beautiful woman,” when enunciated in certain tones by certain haughty white women, undoubtedly means “ordinary-looking black woman.” Adichie’s characters aren’t, in fact, black. They’re “sable” or “gingerbread” or “caramel.” Sometimes their skin is so dark it has “an undertone of blueberries.”

Plot

As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fell in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu departs for the United States to study. Through her experiences in relationships and studies, she struggles with the experience of racism in American culture, and the many varieties of racial distinctions. Obinze, son of a professor, had hoped to join her in the US but he is refused a visa after 9/11. He goes to London, entering illegally, and enters an undocumented life.

Years later, Obinze has returned to Nigeria and become a wealthy man as a property developer in the newly democratic country. Ifemelu gained success staying in the United States, where she became known for her blog about race in America, entitled “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black”. When Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, the two have to make tough decisions after reviving their relationship.

Reception

The book was well-received by critics, who especially noted its range across different societies and reflection of global tensions. The New York Times said, “‘Americanah’ examines blackness in America, Nigeria and Britain, but it’s also a steady-handed dissection of the universal human experience — a platitude made fresh by the accuracy of Adichie’s observations.”] The reviewer concludes, “Americanah” is witheringly trenchant and hugely empathetic, both worldly and geographically precise, a novel that holds the discomfiting realities of our times fearlessly before us. It never feels false.”

Awards:

  • Selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review.
  • 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award(Fiction).
  • Shortlisted for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction of the United Kingdom.

Book Group discussion meeting February 11th, 12:30 p.m. at the Darien Library Discussion Leader: Sunil Saksena

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