Tara Westover's highly acclaimed memoir begins with her life as the youngest child (of six) of a fundmentalist Mormon family in Idaho. Her father, a survivalist and owner of a junk yard, was determined to protect his family from the dangers he perceived in the secular world outside. Westover had no birth certificate; she never attended school until she left home at 17; she survived terrible accidents and observed even worse ones befalling members of her family all without benefit of medical care.
Somehow, Westover realized the need to overcome her ignorance (credit an older brother for example and support) and leave home. She taught herself enough to take a standardized admissions test for college and did well enough to be admitted to Brigham Young University at 17. She then made it to Harvard on fellowship and then to Cambridge, England, where she received a Ph.D. in History in 2014.
She credits her leaning skills to covert study of "things I could not yet understand," in this case, her father's books about 19th century Mormon prophets. A book critic for The Guardian, Michele Dean, describes Westover's narrative style as "episodic, meditative, and repetitive." I particularly agree with the "meditative" adjective.
This memoir is being compared favorably to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Many find it superior and less ideological. Come to our discussion and share your assessment of this book.
Chapel Hill’s own Algonquin Press published The Leavers last year. The author, Lisa Ko (pictured above), won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction for this debut novel.
The story has two narrators. One is a Chinese boy who his 11 years old when the novel opens. His name is Deming Guo. The second narrator is his mother, Peilan Guo, who renames herself Polly when she first arrives in New York City as a pregnant undocumented Chinese immigrant.
Deming’s story begins when his mother abruptly disappears. He believes she has abandoned him and their makeshift family and run away to a new free life in Florida. Without his knowledge or consent, he suddenly finds himself taken away from his school and friends in the inner city Bronx by foster parents, college professors who live in a small town in upstate New York. His new life is comfortable and his adoption proceeds successfully. His new name becomes Daniel Wilkinson and the past seems to be behind him. Yet as he approaches adulthood he is adrift and unable to commit to college, as his parents want, or to music following his own inclination.
In Part Two the narrator shifts to Polly who is now living in China. We learn about her earlier life in China. The novel then continues shifting back and forth between narrators until, through a combination of accident, luck and determined search, Deming reconnects with his birth mother and little by little, the painful story of her disappearance emerges.
The story is compelling. You will learn a lot about immigrant life, ICE (the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) and the consequences of disruption by people caught in the system. The New York Times reviewer called the book “quietly sensational.”
Join us to share your own reactions.
Harvard professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt examine the current dangers to liberal democracies around the world. They analyze and describe the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America. They provide good evidence to show that democracy no longer ends in a revolution or a military coup but with a slow and steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the courts and the press, along with the erosion of long-standing political norms. Today, democracies die from an insidious slide into authoritarianism.
The authors go back to the Founding Fathers, when the Federalists of Alexander Hamilton and the Democratic-Republicans of Thomas Jefferson wanted to annihilate each other. From that fragile beginning in confrontation, America developed a system of partisan coexistence and compromise, which held until the middle of the 19th century when violence and open contempt for the rules of fair political play led to the Civil War.
Reconstruction ushered in another period of comparative political civility but at a cost of the systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans. One of the points that Levitsky and Ziblatt return to is that political parties and other gatekeepers have been essential in the past to ensure that democracy stays on course. Because of changes in cultural norms, the advent of the internet and social media, ideologically homogeneous parties no longer exist and constituencies are less inclined to seek common ground and compromise.
The authors believe the threat to our democracy is from an authoritarian president. They provide a test for proto-authoritarians and suggest that we are endangered by our current president. The central lesson of the book is that American democracy works when norms of mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance are accepted by our political leaders. They assure that the fundamental problem facing American democracy is now, as it has been in the past at various times, extreme partisan division.
This is an important book that raises central questions in scholarly fashion. Come and join a discussion of the book and the issues.
A wonderful first novel. The chapters alternate between a chorus of church mothers who speak in the collective "we" and comment on the story. They predict; they contradict; they lament; they warn; and occasionally they sympathize. They are a wonderful group and one can enjoy their company.
Interspersed with this collective commentary are the voices of three individual characters. Seventeen-year-old Nadia Turner is our heroine. We find her unmothered as her mother has committed suicide with no note of explanation; her father is grieving and cannot fill the parenting hole. Nadia is pretty and popular. She is a high school senior who has won a scholarship to the University of Michigan. However, she is also unexpectedly pregnant by Luke, a former college football star (whose career ended with a sports injury). He is the local pastor's son and another character we follow. Nadia's decision not to be a mother and to terminate the pregnancy is complicated and difficult.
We also trace the coming-of-age journeys of one other teenager -- Aubrey, Nadia's best friend who is the opposite of Nadia in many ways -- pious, plain and family-centered. The setting is a socially conservative black Christian community.
After the abortion, Nadia escapes to college and moves on with her life, but the people in her home town stay in the same place. When she returns after a number of years because of a family emergency, she confronts some of the issues she left behind.
Reviews of the book have been uniformly complimentary and positive. Mira Jacobs of the New York Times says, "Despite Bennett's thrumming plot, despite the snap of her pacing, it's the always deepening complexity of her characters that provides the book's urgency."
Algorithms -- their power, their opacity, their unintended consequences -- are in the news today. Big data from the pervasive data collection strategies used by big companies make possible decision-making and policy enforcement by impersonal rules and computer processes. The problem is, as Cathy O'Neil points out in her powerful book with the catchy title, many of the algorithms used today are based on bad data and sloppy mathematical processes and can damage people's lives. The subtitle of O'Neil's book is How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. She illustrates her points with anecdotes about such things as teacher evaluation based on student exam performance, college ranking, online ads leading people to predatory subprime loans and for-profit colleges, sentencing people convicted of crimes, setting personalized insurance rates, and Facebook's influence on its users' moods, votes, and encouragement of addictive behavior.
Cathy O'Neil is a mathematician and data scientist. She attended UC Berkeley and then received a PhD in Mathematics from Harvard in 1999. She has held faculty posts at MIT and Barnard College. She worked for four years in the finance industry including two years at a hedge fund. Her disenchantment with the world of finance led to her employment with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Two earlier books (Doing Data Science) and Being a Data Skeptic) precede this one. Weapons of Math Destruction published in 2016 was nominated for the 2016 National Book Award in Non-Fiction and has received attention and praise from social critics. Some typical comments include: "This book is wise, fierce and desperately necessary. ... Though terrifying, it's a surprisingly fun read. ... O'Neil's analysis is superb; her writing is enticing; and her findings are unsettling." Come and engage in a discussion of this book and the larger issues that it addresses.
Author Jesmyn Ward received the 2011 National Book Award for her book, Savage the Bones. The narrator of that book was a 15-year-old girl called Esch, who is poor, pregnant and unlucky. She tells herself the much-loved stories of nymphs and goddesses from Greek myths as she waits in Bois Sauvage, a mostly black Mississipi bayou town, for something to happen. Hurricane Katrina is on the horizon. In 2017 Jesmyn Ward’s new book was published to great critical acclaim. And won the 2017 National Book Award! Her new novel is also set in her fictional Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, where 13-year-old Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, lives with their grandparents, Mam and Pop. Pop tends the homestead with its goat yard, pigpen and chicken coop and tries to teach Jojo what it is to be a man. Mam is in the end stages of cancer. So, we have the strength of the first generation and the hope for the future in the third generation. The second generation, represented by Leonie, the children’s mother is another story. She is unreliable, hooked on drugs, and on her love for Michael, the white father of her two children. Michael has been incarcerated upstate at Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which still operates as in the old days like a plantation. His call to say that he’s been released sets the road trip plot in motion. Leonie insists on taking her children on the trip to get him believing/hoping that her nuclear family may become whole again. However, as a hedge, she also takes a friend, Misty, who is white and also has a drug habit. The trip is a predictable nightmare but includes many tender moments between Jojo and his sister. Against the current of the journey is Ward’s poetic writing about the weight of the past. The two unburied singers of the book’s title are a pair of restless ghosts. One is Leonie’s brother, shot by a white man (Michael’s cousin) in a hunting “accident;” the other is Richie, a 12-year-old caught stealing meat and sentenced to three years at the “old” Parchman. The novel is set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and haunted by the great Mississippi flood of 1927. Water is both liberating and part of the problem. Characters are often parched. By moving between past and present, Ward’s portrait of the three generations and their trauma shows how her characters, bruised by a brutal racist history, grapple with the past in hopes of making a viable present.
The subtitle of this book is The Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America. The author is a noted historian who is currently the William H. Chafe Professor of History at Duke University. The book was one of the ten finalists for the 2017 National Book Award.
MacLean focuses on the life work of the economist James McGill Buchanan [masked]) who received a Nobel Prize in 1986 for his public choice theory of economic and political decision making. The story MacLean tells asserts that Buchanan had a stealth plan to protect the wealthy elite from the will of the majority. She compares his ideas to those of John C. Calhoun, Vice President of the United States from[masked], who defended slavery and argued for the protection of minority property rights (especially for white Southern slave holders). MacLean documents how Buchanan's ideas and plans were adopted by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and used in their libertarian political agenda.
In addition to describing the theoretical origins of the libertarian mission to rewrite America's social contract, MacLean provides historical case studies of Buchanan's role in Virginia's response to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling to end segregated schools and of Buchanan's advisory role in Pinochet's rewriting of the Chilean constitution to restrict democratic choice and to ensure elite control of the economy.
MacLean warns that the combination of Buchanan's ideas and Koch's money threatens public education, Social Security, Medicare, the labor union movement, universal suffrage and majority rule.
Our discussion leader will be Rich Haney who says, "We will talk about Democracy in Chains to include arguments and counter-arguments by critics." Among other things, he asks, "Is MacLean right overall? Does the passage of the recent tax bill reflect success of long-term stealth campaigning by the radical right? Does her thesis or a more moderate version of it help to explain our recent political events?"
Read the book and consider the arguments. Come and discuss it with your fellow readers.
George Saunders, the highly acclaimed short story writer and essayist, has written his first novel upending all expectations of what a novel should be. It is set in 1862. President Lincoln, already tormented by the knowledge that he is responsible for the deaths of thousands of young men on the battlefields of the Civil War, loses his beloved 11-year-old son, Willie, to typhoid.
The novel begins in a cemetery near the White House where Willie has been laid to rest. Here, ghosts of the dead, invisible to the living, linger unwilling or unable to relinquish this world for the next. Their conversations and commentary, along with brief contemporary news items, make up most of the book interspersed with descriptions of Lincoln's movements to the gravesite of his dead child.
Contrary to what one might expect, the conversations of the dead are concerned with early events and earthly pleasures and provide a humor to counterbalance Lincoln's devastating sorrow.
In addition to the being named one of the ten best books of 2017, there is an audio recording of this book with a cast of 166 actors, musicians, George Saunders himself, his family and friends.
This book, written as a letter to the author's teenaged son, was published in 2015 and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer for General Non-Fiction. This work, considered by Toni Morrison to be required reading, has appeared on the New York Times Non-Fiction Best Seller list for 78 weeks and, as of today [9/13/2017] is number 5.
The book provides some autobiographical detail about Coates' younger years in Baltimore with his summary of American history in which he asserts that white supremacy in the United States is an indestructable force, one that black Americans can never evade or erase but will always struggle against.
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes frequently and powerfully about race for The Atlantic Magazine and, in addition to many other writings, has published two powerful and much-cited long articles. One is "The Case for Reparations" (June 2014 - https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/ ] and the other is "The First White President" [October 2017 - https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/the-first-white-president-ta-nehisi-coates/537909/?utm_source=fbia ].
Coates' ideas are important to understand and discuss. I propose we read the book and skim one or both of the articles for our discussion.
Named on various lists as one of the best books of the year, winner of the PEN/Faulkner award and an Oprah Book Club pick, this novel addresses marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trapdoor of the American dream through the compulsively readable story of Jende Jonga, his wife Neni, and their six-year-old son, Liomi.
At the beginning of the book, it's 2007 and Jende has arrived from Cameroon on a visitor's visa. After a stint working as a dishwasher, he lands a job as a driver for Clark Edwards, a wealthy executive working for the soon-to-be-doomed Lehman Brothers, and his family. On the strength of his prospects, Jende moves his family to New York City and seem to be on track for a green card and ultimately citizenship.
Still all is not well. His employer, although materially well off, has troubles of his own. Through overheard cell phone conversations, Jende begins to perceive serious fractures in the Edwards family.
As the story progresses, immigration proceedings don't go well, marriages falter, friendships fail, children stray, and Lehman goes bankrupt. Everyone's lives are upended in the crisis and Jende and Neni must make the best of an impossible choice.
This is the first book for this author who writes with precision and empathy and has "an uncanny ear for dialogue," as one reviewer put it.