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Old 02-24-2009, 12:13 PM
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A biography / memoir for my bookclub


I'm looking to schedule a biography or memoir for my bookclub and these are my approximate parameters:
  • Subject is either Canadian or of general, broad interest. Not someone that's primarily of interest to Americans (Presidents, etc) even if they're well known outside of America. Preferably female, since it's a women's bookclub.
  • A true, full life biography, not just a snippet, like a travelogue or the story of their participation in some war. Doesn't need to start with 'I was born at an early age', but generally covering someone's adult lifespan rather than just a few years.
  • Not a sensationalized, fictionalized or "unauthorized" biography. It should still be interesting, naturally, but because the person is interesting and the writing is good, not because of some trumped up scandalous elements a la Kitty Kelley or Andrew Morton.
  • Fewer than 500 pages, and preferably more in the 3-400 range.
  • A really good read

Anyone have any thoughts?
  #2  
Old 02-24-2009, 12:17 PM
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I'd recommend the Charles Schulz bio, "Schulz & Peanuts: A Biography."

It's longer than you're asking for, but it's a great read and the way the writer gives examples of Schulz's work and how it correlates to what's going on in his life is quite excellent. It's quite in-depth and covers his entire life from birth to death. He's not Canadian but his work is pretty ubiquitous around the world.

Last edited by GrandWino; 02-24-2009 at 12:17 PM.
  #3  
Old 02-24-2009, 02:19 PM
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The Glass Castle is a really good childhood memoir by a woman who is now a gossip columnist. I guarantee all of the ladies will love it.
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Old 02-24-2009, 03:27 PM
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I am going to recommend Bob Harris' "Prisoner of Trebekistan". It doesn't really satisfy your first bullet but nails the other four. It's not too long and is a very engaging read. On the surface it's a story of one man's quest to become a five-time Jeopardy! champion, but underneath it's really about so much more. And the way he manages to tie all the various loose threads together throughout the book is nothing short of amazing.

Hey, Alex Trebek is Canadian. Maybe it does fit all five requirements!
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Old 02-24-2009, 04:26 PM
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Oooh. I was excited about the idea of Prisoner of Trebekistan, being a Jeopardy fan myself, but it doesn't meet my super-sekrit unwritten criteria: that it be widely available in the Toronto public library. It was a really great suggestion though.
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Old 02-24-2009, 04:34 PM
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The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley was absolutely fantastic, although Malcolm isn't female he did go through a misogynistic period which might be of interest to a womens group.

I'm not sure how much interest he is going to generate for Canadians though.
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Old 02-24-2009, 04:45 PM
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West with the Night by Beryl Markham. Markham was a pilot in Kenya in the early part of the 20th Century, hung out with Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) and others. Enjoyable glimpse at a world most people never saw.
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Old 02-24-2009, 06:13 PM
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Mineko Iwasaki's autobiography, Geisha: A Life (also known as Geisha of Gion) might be good. Iwasaki was the top geisha in Japan in the 1970s but suddenly retired at age 29. Years later she was interviewed by Arthur Golden as part of the background research for Memoirs of a Geisha, but Iwasaki was so disappointed and upset by the final novel (and the Golden's failure to keep her involvement confidential) that she decided to go public with the true story of her life.
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Old 02-24-2009, 06:38 PM
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A Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls seconded

An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamieson, a psychologist w/ bipolar disorder

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher, haven't actually read this one yet, but will as soon as it comes up on my library hold

As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl by John Colapinto (Canadian!)

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford Peter Sussmann ed. A biography in letters. A very unusual life, and an introduction to the whole Mitford family if you are not familiar with them. Born into English aristocracy, ran off at 18 to be a communist and fight in the Spanish Civil War, emigrated to America, journalist, writer, a fascinating woman. Can lead to a whole series of books, as Decca wrote a memoir (haven't gotten to it yet, but I will) and so did another sister, as well as a number of thinly veiled novels by yet another.

I love memoirs. Let us know what you pick, and what the various opinions were.
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Old 02-24-2009, 06:42 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jacquilynne View Post
Oooh. I was excited about the idea of Prisoner of Trebekistan, being a Jeopardy fan myself, but it doesn't meet my super-sekrit unwritten criteria: that it be widely available in the Toronto public library. It was a really great suggestion though.
Damn! I came in to suggest that one too.
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Old 02-24-2009, 06:56 PM
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Not sure if this is exactly what you're looking for, but it's Canadian and by a woman: Red China Blues by Jan Wong. She actually spoke at my high school when I was there.
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Old 02-24-2009, 08:27 PM
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I have two to strongly recommend (even though neither person is Canadian):

-The Road from Coorain by Jil Ker Conway. Raised on an isolated ranch in Australia, Conway became a distinguished Professor and first woman President of Smith College in America. This is no dry academic story though. Her portrayal of her family members made me feel I knew them. Her struggle (sorry for the overused word) to be taken seriously as a scholar is fascinating. http://http://www.amazon.com/Road-Co...5527816&sr=8-2

-West with the Night by Beryl Markham. An English woman raised in Kenya, Markham was a contemporary of Karen Blixen and her set. Markham raised horses, but also was the first person to ever fly solo across the Atlantic from East to West. This memoir is a breath taking account of a fully lived life. http://www.amazon.com/West-with-the-...5528515&sr=1-3

Oops - I'm editing to say I just now saw that Kurilla had already mentioned the Beryl Markham book. Sorry. Well, consider it seconded.

Last edited by well he's back; 02-24-2009 at 08:30 PM.
  #13  
Old 02-24-2009, 09:37 PM
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It's a graphic novel, but Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is really really great. It's about the author's relationship with her father as she grows up, which I guess doesn't sound that exciting, but I'm not sure how to say more without ruining the plot. I read it in a course in memoirs and it was the class's favorite book.
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Old 02-24-2009, 09:42 PM
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I'd recommend Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando. Very good read, interesting life, as well-known in Canada as in the US (I think?), and not too long.
  #15  
Old 02-24-2009, 11:13 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by carlotta View Post
<snip>

As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl by John Colapinto (Canadian!)

Great and a heartbreaker

<snip>
If you've not already read it The Color of Water by James McBride is very wow.

I'm not going to add a link, you can find it easily.
  #16  
Old 02-25-2009, 07:21 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by stucco View Post
It's a graphic novel, but Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is really really great. It's about the author's relationship with her father as she grows up, which I guess doesn't sound that exciting, but I'm not sure how to say more without ruining the plot. I read it in a course in memoirs and it was the class's favorite book.
On the graphic novel front, my bookclub read Persopholis and had a really good discussion about it.

We've done other biographies - Marie Currie, Victoria Woodhull (who is fascinating, but obscure and American - but she's obscure in America).

I have a really good biography of Mary Wollstonecraft - but its objectively a little dry.
  #17  
Old 02-25-2009, 09:37 AM
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I'm working my way through the list, checking them all out, and I thought I'd post what I was determining as I looked. I hope anyone who has made a suggestion that I can't use won't take this the wrong way -- I'm very grateful for all the suggestions, and most of them sound very interesting, so I wanted you to know that I am taking each of them seriously and looking at how they'd fit. Unfortunately, some are just not quite workable for my group. Programming a bookclub is a lot of fun -- but there are a lot of aspects of choosing the books that I would never have imagined before I took it on!

Schultz & Peanuts sounds fascinating, but it's really just too long. Most my members don't check the future schedule, and by the time I post the event, they have less than a month to read the book, and anything over 500 pages is just too much.

The Glass Castle sounds like it has possibilities, though it might be a little less 'whole life' than what I'm looking for. It's also under heavy reserve at the libary -- which demonstrates that it's probably pretty good, but will be a problem for my members. I'll keep an eye on the reserves though, and if they go down significantly when the on order copies come in, that might be a workable choice.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is very short, which is nice, but he is pretty much an American figure. It's also iffy on library availability -- they have lots of copies, but they're heavily reserved.

West with the Night seems like a great prospect. It's short, female-focused, it's not focused on America, there aren't a ton of copies in the library but they're all actually *in* the library, so it shouldn't be hard for people to put holds on them.

Geisha: A Life seems like a good choice, as well. The majority of the women in my group are likely to have read, or at least heard a great deal about Memoirs of a Geisha, so there's be good opportunity for discussion there.

An Unquiet Mind sounds interesting, but is perhaps a little too interesting -- all the library copies are out and there are additional holds.

Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature is just too long, unfortunately. And still seems to be only in hardcover so would be expensive for my members who buy their books.

Wishful Drinking has the same hold problem at my library as yours -- way too many. Must be good, though!

As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl sounds really interesting -- and very available. The gender twist is neat, as well. Plus, the Canadian angle is great.

Decca sounds structurally interesting, but very long and it's very expensive, so it wouldn't work for our group.

Red China Blues sounds like a great possibility. It's short, female, Canadian, and available. Plus, Jan Wong is a person most of our group will have heard of, but she's not so super-famous that they'll know all about her.

Road from Coorain also sounds like a possibility. She ends up working in America, but she's not an obviously American figure and it doesn't seem like an obviously American story. Availability looks pretty good in the library.

Fun Home, I'll put on my list of potential graphic novels since that's another category I'd like to include for the group. I'd rather do a straight prose biography for biography month, but that still sounds interesting. It's got iffy library availability, though -- it seems that people really like this book. So much so, that they never, ever give it back. Over a third of the library's copies are marked missing! I wonder if it's like The Alchemist which, when we read it, I had to get the bookstore to get it down off a high shelf because so many people steal it.

Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando sounds like it could be pretty interesting. Meets the general criteria, though. Yeah, he's American, but his movies are well known in Canada.

The Color of Water sounds interesting. It's obviously a male author, but it sounds like the focus is on his mother, so that's good. It's solidly available, and the culture / racial situation sounds like good fodder for discussions.

Another bookclub that many of my regular members are in has already read Persepolis.

Obscure and American is likely to be okay -- I was mostly trying to avoid Presidents and Civil War heroes and such, who are really primarily of interest because they've played some role in American history.

So far my leading contenders are West with the Night, As Nature Made Him, and Red China Blues -- they both sound absolutely fascinating. Jan Wong's localness is definitely a plus, and the gender identity issues in As Nature Made Him would be great for discussion. On the other hand West with the Night definitely piqued my interest.

Last edited by jacquilynne; 02-25-2009 at 09:38 AM.
  #18  
Old 02-25-2009, 09:54 AM
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One of my favourite autobiographies is Michael Crichton's Travels which is more about Crichton's search for experiences rather than a back slapping recount of his successful career. HE jumps from one meaningful experience to another and glosses over the well known facts of his life. It may be hard to find but it is terrific reading, even if , like me, you find his fiction ho-hum.
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Old 03-03-2009, 11:05 AM
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Just as a followup, I've decided to schedule Red China Blues for the club, and have added West with the Night and As Nature Made Him to our list of possible future reads. Thanks, Dopers, for your suggestions. They were very helpful.
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Old 03-03-2009, 11:47 AM
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OK, my first suggestion is more Alaska than Canada, but still -- howsabout Two in the Far North, by Margaret Murrie? She and her husband lived in very remote parts of Alaska for most of their lives, as her biologist husband tracked caribou and she had all sorts of other adventures. The book is a mix of her memoirs and passages from the diaries she kept throughout her life. So most chapters will have her describe a particular memory and then share passages from the dairy she kept at the time. It's really cool.

The other you might consider is The Curve of Time, by Wylie Blanchet. After being widowed very young, she took her 5 kids on a boat trip up Canada's west coast, primarily in the north Strait of Juan de Fuca and points north. This was in the 50s, when lots of Indian villages still lined the coast and islands, but were completely abandoned. Really cool stuff, if you're into that sort of thing (which I am).

Both of my suggestions are kinda old-skool, really. (And West Coast.)

ETA: Oops, I see I am already too late.

Last edited by Beadalin; 03-03-2009 at 11:47 AM.
  #21  
Old 03-03-2009, 12:03 PM
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I wonder if Ken McGoogan's (a Canadian) accounting of Dr. John Rae in Fatal Passage would fit your bill?

Quote:
Fatal Passage is McGoogan’s completely absorbing account of John Rae’s incredible accomplishments and his undeserved and wholesale discreditation atthe hands of polite Victorian society. After sifting through thousands of pages of research, maps and charts, and traveling to England, Scotland and the Arcticto visit the places Rae knew, McGoogan has produced a book that reads like a fast-paced novel — a smooth synthesis of adventure story, travelogue and historical biography. Fatal Passage is a richly detailed portrait of a time when the ambitions of the Empire knew no bounds.

John Rae was an adventurous young medical doctor from Orkney who signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1833. He lived in the Canadian wilds for more than two decades, becoming legendary as a hunter and snowshoer, before he turned to exploration. Famous for what was then a unique attitude — a willingness to learn from and use the knowledge and skills of aboriginal peoples — Rae became the first European to survive an Arctic winter while living solely off the land.

One of dozens of explorers and naval men commissioned by the British Admiralty to find out what became of Sir John Franklin and his two ships, Rae returned from the Arctic to report that the most glorious expedition ever launched had ended with no survivors — and worse, that it had degenerated into cannibalism. Unwilling to accept that verdict, Victorian England not only ostracized Rae, but ignored his achievements, and credited Franklin with the discovery of the Passage.

Fatal Passage is Ken McGoogan’s brilliant vindication of John Rae’s life and rightful place in history, a book for armchair adventurers, Arctic enthusiasts, lovers of Canadian history, and all those who revel in a story of physical courage and moral integrity.

Dr. Rae was also the expedition leader for telegrahic survey from St. Paul, MN to Quesnel, BC (he actually went on all the way to Victoria, BC).

Quote:
In short, Rae’s journey was precisely what one would have expected of him. And, as one would also expect of him, he maintained his reputation as a traveler sans pareil. Travelling with wagons and Red River carts he covered the distance from Fort Garry to Fort Edmonton (some 1320 km) in thirty-four days, including stops, for an average daily distance of thirty-nine kilometres per day. He travelled the section from Lake Ste. Anne to Tete Jaune Cache, almost entirely on foot, by his own statement, in nineteen days of travelling, for an average daily distance of thirty-one and a half kilometres. And finally, he travelled a minimum distance of 450 kilometers down the Fraser River, from Tete Jaune Cache to Fort Alexandria by canoe in eight days (including a rest day at Quesnel). The contrast between his apparently effortless progress and the histrionics of Dr. Cheadle’s account of his trip with Viscount Milton along basically the same route the following year, could scarcely be greater.

Last edited by criminey.jicket; 03-03-2009 at 12:04 PM.
  #22  
Old 03-03-2009, 02:51 PM
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I know I'm late to the party but in case this pops up again in the future I'm going to offer:

Appetite for Life by Noel Riley Fitch ~ A wonderful bio on Julia Child who was simply a marvelous woman.

Now I shall poach some of these books for my own wishlist!
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