Monday, July 30, 2012

Fascinating biographies

I find people’s lives fascinating.  I love to read biographies, autobiographies and memoirs.  

What is the difference between the three you may be wondering?

It can be confusing but in very simple terms, a biography is an account of someone’s life (deceased or living, a portion of or their entire life) written by another person (biographer).   An autobiography on the other hand is an accounting of that person’s life up to that point, either written by the subject or sometimes with a collaborator.  A memoir (written by the author) involves a portion of the author’s life as it relates to specific events such as the people they know, experiences they’d had or the places they’ve been.  

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is an example of a biography (an authorized biography in this case).  Jobs, who died on October 5, 2011, cooperated with the book (which was published less than three weeks after his death) & is based on more than forty interviews with Jobs conducted over two years, as well as interviews with more than a hundred family members, friends, adversaries, competitors, and colleagues.  Jobs supported the book because he knew people would be writing about him and his legacy at Apple, and he wanted to make sure his version of events was on record.  Another concern was his hope that his children would know him better.  Jobs was a volatile leader whose passion for excellence could turn quickly into abusiveness towards anything he saw as less than excellent.  He speaks honestly about the people he worked with and competed against. Those interviewed provide a candid view of the passions, perfectionism, obsessions, and craving for control that shaped his approach to business and the innovative products that resulted.  Some of the most interesting passages in the book are those in which Isaacson directly engages Jobs with personal questions unrelated to his career.  I especially enjoyed those sections and others pertaining to his family life particularly insightful
Another biography that readers might enjoy is Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  Hillenbrand tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a World War II prisoner of war survivor, whose wild youth seemed to predict a future life of crime.  His talents as a runner, however, changed all that, leading him to the 1936 Olympics and to the University of Southern California, where he was a track team star.  Hoping to return to the 1940 Olympics, his dream ended when he became a B-24 crewman in the U.S. Army Air Force.  When his plane went down in the Pacific in 1943, he spent 47 days in a life raft, then was picked up by a Japanese ship and survived starvation and torture for two years in labor camps.  Upon his return to the States, he was a physical and mental wreck and his life spiraled out of control, drinking heavily to forget and obsessed with vengeance.  With encouragement from his wife, however, he was saved by the influence of Billy Graham and was able to turn his life around, devoting himself to inspirational speeches and founding boys’ camps.  In telling Zamperini’s story, Hillenbrand tells the story of thousands whose suffering has mostly been forgotten.  It is a story of tremendous heroism and courage amidst tremendous suffering.   It is a story that leaves you questioning man’s inhumanity to man.

Please join us for the Monday, November 19, Book Chat to continue the discussion on Unbroken.

I love history through the eyes of those who lived it. Studying history is made so much more interesting by reading about a person’s life and I especially enjoy reading about women’s lives in history.  A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson and Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage are two examples.  Although both titles definitely give some history and insights of each First Lady’s life including their marriage, for the most part both books center around the political lives of their husbands. However, it’s enlightening to see the part that they played in history.  Yes, Rachel was still technically married to her first husband when she married Jackson and Abigail did indeed ask John “to remember the ladies.”  

If you prefer contemporary biographies, some that I can recommend are Cronkite, Mike Wallace, a Life and Elizabeth, the Queen: Life of a ModernMonarch.

In future blogs, I will recommend some autobiographies and memoirs.   In the meantime, I challenge you to take a break from fiction and discover why truth can be stranger (and yes, more interesting) than fiction.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Sometimes all it takes is a new perspective…

The library is filled with a variety of biographies, autobiographies and true stories. Reading the stories of others’ lives helps us to learn new things, gain a new perspective, understand a time period or just lose ourselves in someone else’s life for a few minutes. There’s a whole world open to you through the magic of reading!

In Andy Andrews’ book, The Noticer, Mr. Jones asks him if he reads. Andy replies that he reads mostly magazines and stuff. Mr. Jones hands him a book on Winston Churchill, on Will Rogers, and on George Washington Carver. When Andy asks why he would want to read history books, Mr. Jones assures him that they are not history books but adventure stories. Biographies represent stories of success, failure, romance, intrigue, tragedy and triumph, and it is all true! Getting away from a situation and looking at it with fresh eyes can often help you get your life straight, help you learn new things and improve your situation, according to Mr. Jones. The author tells other stories of people who encountered Mr. Jones and changed their perspective and then their lives. Biographies give you a chance to see the world through another pair of eyes.

Cheryl Strayed was in a bad place in her life. Her mother had died suddenly; her marriage had dissolved; her family scattered. She decided to regroup by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail- alone. In her book, Wild – from Lost to Foundon the Pacific Crest Trail, she describes the 1100-mile hike across some of the most treacherous landscape, both physically and mentally. For Cheryl, the hike helped her gain perspective, work through her grief and bad life choices, and allow her to heal. You will laugh; you will cry; your feet will cry out in sympathetic pain as she hikes hundreds of miles in shoes that are one size too small. The people she meets, the places she sees, and the adventure can be enjoyed from your armchair. There are also bears, rattlesnakes, and tiny black frogs she meets along the way. You will laugh when the bear runs - but in the same direction she is going. You will cry as she remembers the final days with her mother. The book has been chosen as the first book on Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 where you can find a reading guide and lots of other extras about the book.

Seal of God is a young man’s coming of age story but so much more. Chad Williams was that boy that had to be the best at everything- the ace at t-ball, the skateboarder in the Hollywood commercials. He had to excel at each new thing until he got bored and moved on to the next big thing. He decides he wants to be a Navy Seal. His parents contact Scott Helvenson, a former Seal. Chad details the grueling training Scott put him through to prepare him for boot camp. Scott returned to security duty in Iraq. Nineteen days before Chad entered Navy Boot Camp, Scott Helvenson was brutally killed in action in Iraq. For Chad, this made it personal; he wanted to train to be the best Seal he could be. And he did, but it all changed one night at a revival meeting at his parent’s church. Chad details the intense training to become a Seal, the hazing, the persecution among his peers, and the events that led him to the life he lives today.

Even closer to home, Jenny Smith of Adairsville shares her struggle to understand today’s hard times in conjunction with a life of faith in Seriously God?: I’m Doing Everything I Know to Do and It’s Not
Working,  Facing foreclosure, tightened budgets and family crisis; Jenny uses her story and biblical scripture to show how she met God in her daily life in this devotional study. It is an inspirational look at a family facing the challenges many of us are facing in today’s failing economy with courage and fortitude. It is about gaining a new perspective on life.

Some other recommended biographies and true stories:
Girl on the Rocks by Katie Brown
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
A Captain’s Duty by Richard Phillips
Seal Target Geronimo by Chuck Pfarrer

Or the DVDs:
Act of Valor
Men of Honor
Eat, Pray, Love
Into the Wild
The Wildest Dream: Conquering Everest

Monday, July 2, 2012

Novels that Go Bump in the Night: Psychological Suspense

While most psychological suspense novels have a crime or a mystery as the plot, they also mix in an element of horror.  You’re not quite sure who is insane and who just has major psychological issues.  I have read some really good psychological suspense novels lately that really make you question not only the characters sanity but how reliable is the narrator.   So if you’re looking for mystery or crime novels that can give you a little scare or make you uneasy, try some of these.

What a rollercoaster ride!  If you like dark twisted stories that seem torn from the headlines then try the new novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  To the outside world, Nick and Amy seem like they have the perfect marriage until Amy disappears on their 5th anniversary, and there are obvious signs of a struggle.  Like a Lifetime movie, Nick and Amy’s marriage is far from perfect with secrets and well-hidden obsessions.  Nick’s creepy smile, odd behavior, and lies make him the perfect suspect.  In he-said, she-said fashion, the novel alternates from Nick’s point of view to Amy’s disturbing diary.  Flynn’s writing will keep you hooked as the plot twists and turns into to an ever tightening spiral of heart-pounding suspense until the final creepy ending.  As the reader knows what happened halfway through the book, Flynn’s novel is less about solving the crime; it is about the dark paths that love, obsession, and marriage can take.

Another good book about a twisted relationship is HeartSick by Chelsea Cain. Five years ago, Detective Archie Sheridan was kidnapped, tortured, and then released by beautiful serial killer Gretchen Lowell.  Gretchen turns herself in and continues to psychologically torture Archie by slowly releasing names and burial places of her victims if only Archie visits her every week in prison.  Now addicted to painkillers, divorced, and haunted by his unwilling attraction to Gretchen, Archie is called upon once more when another monster starts killing young teenage girls.  A reporter, Susan Ward, is allowed to profile Archie as he tries to catch this new serial killer.  Gretchen, however, is never far from the story, and a deadly game begins with Gretchen pulling the strings.  A thrilling start to the Gretchen and Archie series with enough twists and turns to make this a really “sick” book.

In a small village in Ireland, 3 children go missing; only 1 is found, gripping a tree in terror, covered in blood, and he has no memory of what happened to him.  This is how In the Woods by Tana French begins.  Now that found child, Rob Ryan, has grown up and is a detective on Dublin’s Murder Squad, still with no memory of the traumatic events of that long ago day.  Rob and his partner, Cassie Maddox, catch a case that hurls him right back to that small village as a 12 year old girl is found murdered and placed on a stone altar.  The case has strange and chilling ties to the older case, and Rob is hiding his connection to the older case from his bosses and the town.  Part psychological thriller and part police procedure, the books pacing and tone allow the reader to feel Rob’s and Cassie’s emotions as their lives come off the rails. 

Other recommended psychological suspense
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith  
The Likeness by Tana French
Sweetheart by Chelsea Cain
The Breaker by Minette Walters
Die for You by Lisa Unger