The President on Books and Reading

President giving a speech clipartAs one of the most literate United States Presidents, Obama discussed books with Michiko Kakutani, the chief book critic for the New York Times. In an interview as he leaves office,  Obama noted “…the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.”

Citing books he has recommended for his daughter as she prepares for college – how many have you read? –  he included:

  • The Naked and the Dead
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • The Golden Notebook 
  • The Woman Warrior
  • The Moveable Feast

From some of his favorite authors, I found a few familiar names and two new ones I might try:

  • Marilynne Robinson
  • science fiction writer, Liu Cixin (The Three-Body Problem)
  • Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies)
  • Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon)
  • V.S. Naipaul (A Bend in the River)
  • Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Junot Diaz
  • and leaders: Mandela, Martin Luther King, Churchill, Gandhi, Teddy Rossevelt, Abraham Lincoln

And he offered a clue about what he might be doing after January 20th, when a new President will be inaugurated:

“…and so in my post-presidency, in addition to training the next generation of leaders to work on issues like climate change or gun violence or criminal justice reform, my hope is to link them up with their peers who see fiction or nonfiction as an important part of that process.”

Read the full interview – here

Mary Astor’s Purple Diary – The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936

9781631490248_p0_v4_s192x300Whenever I watch old movies, I cannot resist looking up the background of the players, wondering what their lives were really like.  Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary was satisfyingly short and funny – with pictures – and  Woody Allen’s review in the New York Times piqued my interest.  Maybe he’ll turn the book into a movie?

Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary focuses on a long forgotten scandal involving the movie star well known to old movie fans for playing the deceiving foil to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and the wise mother in Meet Me in Saint Louis and Little Women. At a time when movie moguls used the casting couch for plum roles but concealed their movie stars’ indiscretions to gain approval from the “legion of decency,” Mary Astor’s love life was front page news when her diary was discovered.  Her descriptions of her many lovers became fodder for a real-life courtroom drama that could have been right out of the movies.

Sorel is well known for his political caricatures and his “unauthorized portraits”  of the famous.  No modern president or president-elect has escaped his fervor to “attack hypocrisy in high places.”  His style is easily recognized on covers for The New Yorker.

Sorel punctuates this book with a few hilarious scenes of Mary Astor as she negotiates her scandal. unknown-3 In a sideways tale of Astor’s life, Sorel includes facts about her family and background, but in his imaginary interview with the dead actress, he manages to include a funny perspective on her lovers – names old movie fans will recognize, including John Barrymore and George S. Kauffman.  At times, Sorel’s irreverent style and his tangents into his own marriages reflect a Woody Allen style with wry observations and self-deprecating humor.

I cannot imagine why Mary Astor kept an incendiary diary about her lovers; somehow written secrets always find their way out. But thanks to Sorel, it made for fun reading – like flipping through that Entertainment Weekly or People magazine in the doctor’s office.

Related Article: Woody Allen Reviews a Graphic Tale of a Scandalous Starlet

Books Not Just to Inspire Girls – Hidden Figures and Glass Universe

The promotion of women in math and science has long been a target for organizations like AAUW (American Association of University Women), STEM proponents(science, technology, engineering, math), and others – now two new books explain how women have been there all along, just without getting credit – Hidden Figures and Glass Universe.

9780062363602_p0_v2_s192x300  Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley was recently made into a movie.  I confess – I have not yet read the book, but after seeing the movie, I have it on my library reserve list – waiting with 84 prospective readers before me.  Based on the lives of real women who worked at NASA during the exciting birth of space travel, the story also reveals the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement and the indignities suffered by women today admired as geniuses.

I recently listened to a discussion by a group of women about the definition of “genius,” and sadly observed the term still seems to designate the talents of established white men.  Literature and the arts were also omitted as candidates. In Hidden Figures, the geniuses were not only women, they were black women.

9780670016952_p0_v2_s192x300The title of Glass Universe – How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars reminds me of the glass ceiling women have yet to crack in the United States – in politics anyway – and the disparity in salaries – mentioned in both books.  Dave Sobel’s book focuses on the women working under Pickering at the Harvard College Observatory and their groundbreaking work in astronomy.  Only six readers are ahead of me on this wait list – the advantage of not having the movie made yet.

Have you read these books yet?

The Wright Brothers

After someone berated me for publishing a negative review of a book being discussed the next day at one of my book clubs, I decided never to again.  In this case, I am waiting to publish after I hear what others, who may be more likely to connect with nonfiction, have to say about David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers.  To be fair to myself, I needed to write what I thought first.

Reading nonfiction often feels like reading a textbook, with dates and facts clogging the forward motion. The eerie feeling of being tested always lurked in my mind, as I blithely skipped over mathematical formula and engineering theory, intruding on McCullough’s easy storytelling style.  Overcoming the urge to stop reading several times, I did finish the book, and was glad of it.

9781476728759_p0_v3_s192x300  The history of flight and the Wright brothers clear claim to overcoming man’s resistance to air are well documented.  I too have visited the site of flight in North Carolina and wondered at the sand dunes where Wilbur may have fallen over and over until he captured the magic.  With McCullough’s version, the brothers’ story became human and relatable, and their genius revealed – creating the engineering marvel of an airplane without a degree in physics or mechanical engineering.

Avoiding their personal stories until the Epilogue, McCullough focuses on their difficulties and successes and reveals the same obstacles many overcome when  they imagine a new idea:  someone else tried to take credit, the government would not provide backing until a foreign agent became interested, money was tight and trust outside their inner circle was nonexistent.  The year in France and their contemporary and rival Alexander Bell were surprises to me, as was Wilbur’s death at a young age, and Katherine’s late marriage.

Orville died in 1948 – not so long ago – and lived to see their invention become a weapon in wars, but not long enough to witness the evolution to jets and rockets. Perhaps someday we will not even need a mechanical contraption to get us where we want to go – Star Trek’s “beam me up” facility is always a possibility.

McCullough captured the moments of innovation and creativity and grounded them with realistic sweat and problem-solving to give the Wright brothers their rightful due.  I look forward to someone writing historical fiction about Wilbur’s year in Paris.

Reading Challenges

unknownHow did I miss these?  Reading was never a challenge but a pleasure, and forced lists seem counterintuitive. But when a friend sent me a reading challenge from a library in her neighborhood, I decided to find out more about reading challenges. Maybe because it’s the season of New Year’s resolutions, but google gave me over a hundred varieties of reading challenges for the year – from  “traveling the world in books” to “reading the classics” and award winning books.

The Provincetown Library Reading Challenge  offers a prize if you finish all their categories, and I am tempted to sign up – if only to fly out to Massachusetts to pick up my reward.  If you need a little incentive to read this year, you might consider one of the twelve possibilities they recommend.  A few appealing to me include:

  1. a book you can finish in a day
  2. a book published before you were born
  3. a book that intimidates you
  4. a book you previously abandoned

unknown-1My own reading challenge might include:

  • one of the many unread books that have been gathering dust on my shelf for years
  • the Newbery Award winner for this year (but I would read that anyway so it may not be much of a challenge
  • a book recommended to me by someone I suspect didn’t really read it
  • a book from college years that I decided I didn’t need to read back then
  • a book about a place I will probably never visit
  • a book set in a place I want to go back to
  • a book that will never make the bestseller list
  • and, in honor of Provincetown, read Hugh Nissenson’s The Pilgrim

Do you have a book challenging you this year?