Biography/Non-fiction Book Club
The Biography and Nonfiction Book Club meets the second Sunday of each month (unless re-scheduled because of holidays/weather). We meet at the North Branch of the Peoria Public Library, 3001 West Grand Parkway, from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m. For more information, please call Roberta Koscielski at 309-497-2186. New members are always welcome!
Bourbon Empire: the Past and Future of America’s Whiskey
Unraveling the many myths and misconceptions surrounding America’s most iconic spirit, Bourbon Empire traces a history that spans frontier rebellion, Gilded Age corruption, and the magic of Madison Avenue. Whiskey has profoundly influenced America’s political, economic, and cultural destiny, just as those same factors have inspired the evolution and unique flavor of the whiskey itself. Taking readers behind the curtain of an enchanting—and sometimes exasperating—industry, this book crackles with attitude and commentary about taste, choice, and history. Few products better embody the United States, or American business, than bourbon. A tale of innovation, success, downfall, and resurrection, Bourbon Empire is an exploration of the spirit in all its unique forms, creating an indelible portrait of both bourbon and the people who make it.
January 8 Warrick, Joby Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS
Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.
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.
February 12 Putnam, Robert D Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
It’s the American dream: get a good education, work hard, buy a house, and achieve prosperity and success. This is the America we believe in—a nation of opportunity, constrained only by ability and effort. But during the last twenty-five years we have seen a disturbing “opportunity gap” emerge. Americans have always believed in equality of opportunity, the idea that all kids, regardless of their family background, should have a decent chance to improve their lot in life. Now, this central tenet of the American dream seems no longer true or at the least, much less true than it was.
Robert Putnam offers a personal but also authoritative look at this new American crisis. Putnam begins with his high school class of 1959 in Port Clinton, Ohio. By and large the vast majority of those students—“our kids”—went on to lives better than those of their parents. But their children and grandchildren have had harder lives amid diminishing prospects. Putnam tells the tale of lessening opportunity through poignant life stories of rich and poor kids from cities and suburbs across the country, drawing on a formidable body of research done especially for this book.
Our Kids is a rare combination of individual testimony and rigorous evidence. Putnam provides a disturbing account of the American dream that should initiate a deep examination of the future of our country. (Peoria Reads 2017 tie-in title)
March 12 Ellis, Joseph J. The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789
In The Quartet, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Joseph Ellis tells the unexpected story of America’s second great founding and of the men most responsible—Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, John Jay, and James Madison: why the thirteen colonies, having just fought off the imposition of a distant centralized governing power, would decide to subordinate themselves anew. These men, with the help of Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris, shaped the contours of American history by diagnosing the systemic dysfunctions created by the Articles of Confederation, manipulating the political process to force the calling of the Constitutional Convention, conspiring to set the agenda in Philadelphia, orchestrating the debate in the state ratifying conventions, and, finally, drafting the Bill of Rights to assure state compliance with the constitutional settlement, created the new republic. Ellis gives us a dramatic portrait of one of the most crucial and misconstrued periods in American history: the years between the end of the Revolution and the formation of the federal government.
The Quartet unmasks a myth, and in its place presents an even more compelling truth—one that lies at the heart of understanding the creation of the United States of America.
April 9 Gessen, Masha Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
The Man Without a Face is the chilling account of how a low- level, small-minded KGB operative ascended to the Russian presidency and, in an astonishingly short time, destroyed years of progress and made his country once more a threat to her own people and to the world.
Handpicked as a successor by the "family" surrounding an ailing and increasingly unpopular Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin seemed like a perfect choice for the oligarchy to shape according to its own designs. Suddenly the boy who had stood in the shadows, dreaming of ruling the world, was a public figure, and his popularity soared. Russia and an infatuated West were determined to see the progressive leader of their dreams, even as he seized control of media, sent political rivals and critics into exile or to the grave, and smashed the country's fragile electoral system, concentrating power in the hands of his cronies.
As a journalist living in Moscow, Masha Gessen experienced this history firsthand, and for The Man Without a Face she has drawn on information and sources no other writer has tapped. Her account of how a "faceless" man maneuvered his way into absolute-and absolutely corrupt-power has the makings of a classic of narrative nonfiction.
May 21 Hirshman, Linda Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg Joined the Supreme Court and Changed the World
The relationship between Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—Republican and Democrat, Christian and Jew, western rancher’s daughter and Brooklyn girl—transcends party, religion, region, and culture. Strengthened by each other’s presence, these groundbreaking judges, the first and second to serve on the highest court in the land, have transformed the Constitution and America itself, making it a more equal place for all women.
Linda Hirshman’s dual biography includes revealing stories of how these trailblazers fought for their own recognition in a male-dominated profession—battles that would ultimately benefit every American woman. She also makes clear how these two justices have shaped the legal framework of modern feminism, including employment discrimination, abortion, affirmative action, sexual harassment, and many other issues crucial to women’s lives.
Sisters-in-Law combines legal detail with warm personal anecdotes that bring these very different women into focus as never before. Meticulously researched and compellingly told, it is an authoritative account of our changing law and culture, and a moving story of a remarkable friendship.
June 11 Garimara, Doris Pilkington The Rabbit Proof Fence
This extraordinary story of courage and faith is based on the actual experiences of three girls who fled from the repressive life of Moore River Native Settlement, following along the rabbit-proof fence back to their homelands. Assimilationist policy dictated that these girls be taken from their kin and their homes in order to be made white. Settlement life was unbearable with its chains and padlocks, barred windows, hard cold beds, and horrible food. Solitary confinement was doled out as regular punishment. The girls were not even allowed to speak their language. Of all the journeys made since white people set foot on Australian soil, the journey made by these girls born of Aboriginal mothers and white fathers speaks something to everyone.
July 9 Byrne, Paula Kick: The True Story of JFK’s Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth
Encouraged to be “winners” from a young age, Rose and Joe Kennedy’s children were the embodiment of ambitious, wholesome Americanism. Yet even within this ebullient group of overachievers, the fourth Kennedy child, the irrepressible Kathleen, stood out. Lively, charismatic, extremely clever, and blessed with graceful athleticism and a sunny disposition, the alluring socialite fondly known as Kick was a firecracker who effortlessly made friends and stole hearts.
Moving across the Atlantic when her father was appointed as the ambassador to Great Britain in 1938, Kick—the “nicest Kennedy”—quickly became the family’s star. Despite making little effort to fit into British high society, she charmed everyone from the beau monde to Fleet Street with her unconventional attitude and easygoing humor. Growing increasingly independent, Kick would also shock and alienate her devout family by falling in love and marrying the scion of a virulently anti-Catholic family— William Cavendish, the heir apparent of the Duke of Devonshire and Chatsworth. But the marriage would last only a few months; Billy was killed in combat in 1944, just four years before Kick’s own unexpected death in an airplane crash at twenty-eight.
Paula Byrne recounts this remarkable young woman’s life in detail as never before, from her work at the Washington Times-Herald and volunteerism for the Red Cross in wartime England; to her love of politics and astute, opinionated observations; to her decision to renounce her faith for the man she loved. Sympathetic and compelling, Kick shines a spotlight on this feisty and unique Kennedy long relegated to the shadows of her legendary family’s history.
August 13 Matteson, John The Lives of Margaret Fuller: A Biography
A brilliant writer and a fiery social critic, Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) was perhaps the most famous American woman of her generation. Outspoken and quick-witted, idealistic and adventurous, she became the leading female figure in the transcendentalist movement, wrote a celebrated column of literary and social commentary for Horace Greeley’s newspaper, and served as the first foreign correspondent for an American newspaper. While living in Europe she fell in love with an Italian nobleman, with whom she became pregnant out of wedlock. In 1848 she joined the fight for Italian independence and, the following year, reported on the struggle while nursing the wounded within range of enemy cannons. Amid all these strivings and achievements, she authored the first great work of American feminism: Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Despite her brilliance, however, Fuller suffered from self-doubt and was plagued by ill health. John Matteson captures Fuller’s longing to become ever better, reflected by the changing lives she led.
September 10 Oates, Joyce Carol The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age
The Lost Landscape is Joyce Carol Oates’ vivid chronicle of her hardscrabble childhood in rural western New York State. From memories of her relatives, to those of a charming bond with a special red hen on her family farm; from her first friendships to her earliest experiences with death, The Lost Landscape is a powerful evocation of the romance of childhood, and its indelible influence on the woman and the writer she would become.
In this exceptionally candid, moving, and richly reflective account, Oates explores the world through the eyes of her younger self, an imaginative girl eager to tell stories about the world and the people she meets. While reading Alice in Wonderland changed a young Joyce forever and inspired her to view life as a series of endless adventures, growing up on a farm taught her harsh lessons about sacrifice, hard work, and loss. With searing detail and an acutely perceptive eye, Oates renders her memories and emotions with exquisite precision, transporting us to a forgotten place and time—the lost landscape of her youth, reminding us of the forgotten landscapes of our own earliest lives.
October 8 Hoffman, David E. Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal
While driving out of the American embassy in Moscow on the evening of February 16, 1978, the chief of the CIA’s Moscow station heard a knock on his car window. A man on the curb handed him an envelope whose contents stunned U.S. intelligence: details of top-secret Soviet research and developments in military technology that were totally unknown to the United States. In the years that followed, the man, Adolf Tolkachev, an engineer in a Soviet military design bureau, used his high-level access to hand over tens of thousands of pages of technical secrets. His revelations allowed America to reshape its weapons systems to defeat Soviet radar on the ground and in the air, giving the United States near total superiority in the skies over Europe.
One of the most valuable spies to work for the United States in the four decades of global confrontation with the Soviet Union, Tolkachev took enormous personal risks—but so did the Americans. Using spy cameras and secret codes as well as face-to-face meetings in parks and on street corners, Tolkachev and his handlers succeeded for years in eluding the feared KGB in its own backyard, until the day came when a shocking betrayal put them all at risk.
Drawing on previously secret documents obtained from the CIA and on interviews with participants, David Hoffman has created an unprecedented and poignant portrait of Tolkachev, a man motivated by the depredations of the Soviet state to master the craft of spying against his own country. Stirring, unpredictable, and at times unbearably tense, this is a brilliant feat of reporting that unfolds like an espionage thriller.
November 12 Freedman, Paul Ten Restaurants That Changed America
Combining a historian’s rigor with a foodie’s palate, Ten Restaurants That Changed America reveals how the history of our restaurants reflects nothing less than the history of America itself. Whether charting the rise of our love affair with Chinese food through San Francisco’s fabled The Mandarin, evoking the richness of Italian food through Mamma Leone’s, or chronicling the rise and fall of French haute cuisine through Henri Soulé’s Le Pavillon, food historian Paul Freedman uses each restaurant to tell a wider story of race and class, immigration and assimilation. Freedman also treats us to a scintillating history of the then-revolutionary Schrafft’s, a chain of convivial lunch spots that catered to women, and that bygone favorite, Howard Johnson’s, which pioneered midcentury, on-the-road dining, only to be swept aside by McDonald's. Lavishly designed with more than 100 photographs and images, including original menus, Ten Restaurants That Changed America is a significant and highly entertaining social history.
December 10 Stevenson, Bryan Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.
Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of justice.