Biographies: a hit or a miss
Posted by: Misha Stone
Finding discussable memoirs and biographies for your book group can be a challenge. They pose all kinds of problems. The quality of the writing, how a group feels about an individual, and how well a biographer deals with the historical details and source material all come into play. And again, the aim is to find discussable books—books that have provocative content, subtleties in theme or execution. Being that my group has focused primarily on fiction over the years, a book group that focuses on memoir and biography might have a different perspective. But I think that no book quite fails or “klunks,” as I like to say, than a bad biography.
Let me share some good, bad and middling. A couple of years ago, before he became a Presidential candidate, my group discussed Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from my Father. Obama is a remarkably good writer, and he doesn’t over-tell so there was a lot to talk about. As is often the case, a group member’s personal experiences were enlightening to the discussion. She had also lived in Hawaii and when she had first heard about the school that Obama had gone to there, she had assumed he was one of the haughty rich types on the island that always lorded it over everyone else. When she learned that he had grown up poor and what it had taken to get him into that school, her perspective changed. The mention of that school, which meant nothing to me when I read the book, took on a new dimension. Some parts of his memoir were more compelling than others, but overall it went over well .
One biography that I think partially klunked was Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia by Janet Wallach. Gertrude Bell was a fascinating woman whose work in the Middle East is legendary. But the book itself was a bit dry. It didn’t bring the history or the woman to life as fully as it could have. In turn, the discussion was a bit hampered by the limitations of the book.
I facilitated a discussion for a colleague’s book group while she was on vacation for a biography that I really love: The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Sisters by Mary S. Lovell. I am absolutely enthralled by the stories of the Mitfords; I find them alluring and fascinating, so I thought that this book would be a sure-fire win. No dice. Surprisingly, most of the group didn’t understand what the fuss was about them. Inexplicably, the compelling political and social issues of their time did not make for great discussion. It was a sore disappointment. Of course, maybe it could have been my facilitation. Don’t all group leaders worry about that?