Instead of a book, I chose a theme: any biography or autobiography of a woman. Which led to a wonderful summer evening talking with the remarkable women from my book club(s) about our picks at BPYC. More than one observed how many more biographies seem to be available at bookstores and on library shelves about men. Yet women are the ones doing most of the reading these days. Go figure.
Here are some of the titles we talked about:
Oprah by Kitty Kelly: Both Laura and Kaarina admitted they weren’t going to finish this one. The author didn’t seem to have anything nice to say about one of the most successful women in America today. The book disclosed one sordid story after another: Oprah's teen pregnancy, how her father isn’t really her biological father, how she stalked past boyfriends... it was so unbalanced it left both our readers feeling “a little bit dirty.” Perhaps since this unauthorized biography recounts what others have said and written, Kitty doesn't need to worry about a libel suit.
Keeping Peace by Mary Pipher: The subtitle is Confessions of the Worst Buddhist in the World. Pat said this appealed because it fit in with her current studies while on sabbatical, but also and perhaps more importantly, because the book itself wasn’t overly long. The autobiography is written by the author of Reviving Ophelia, who recounts how the fame and bookselling tours that accompanied her time on the bestseller list contributed to a breakdown. Meditation helped her regain her mental health. The book delves into her daily practice.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot : Nicki said she would recommend this book, and those of us who had already had the pleasure agreed it was a worthwhile read. What struck Nicki most was how Henrietta’s family was not fully informed about the consequences of their decisions. Discussion quickly turned to the history and nature of informed consent. Things have come a long way in the past 100 years, but sometimes the subjects of these studies really don’t have the capacity or educational background to understand what’s printed on the forms they are signing.
Politics of Equality by Agnes Macphail: Deborah’s choice was in part driven by the name of the Toronto street where she lives. Our first female Member of Parliament (elected in Ontario 1921), Agnes wasn’t so much an advocate for women’s rights as she was for human rights. Outspoken about the two party system and prison reform, she dedicated her life to her causes. Although Macphail never married she had
Nellie McClung by Charlotte Grey: Nicolette chose this installment from the Extraordinary Canadians series. Although Macphail and McClung were contemporaries they lived in different provinces. McClung was for women's suffrage, temperance and sterilization of the feeble-minded. She presided over a mock parliament and proclaimed: If men were all so intelligent as these representatives of the downtrodden sex seem to be it might not do any harm to give them the vote. But all men are not so intelligent. There is no use giving men votes. They wouldn't use them. They would let them spoil and go to waste. Then again, some men would vote too much...Giving men the vote would unsettle the home....The modesty of our men, which we reverence, forbids us giving them the vote. Men's place is on the farm...It may be that I am old-fashioned. I may be wrong. After all, men may be human. Perhaps the time may come when men may vote with the women--but in the meantime, be of good cheer. Advocate and Educate.
The Sum of Our Days by Isabelle Allende: Miriam's pick featured the autobiography of a favourite storyteller. This is Allende's third memoir and it goes into some detail about the cast of characters in her own life. From Miriam's reaction, this didn't seem to resonate as much as the author's tales of magic realism.
Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff: I picked this book because I was intrigued by the cover that depicts the back of a woman’s head, her hair woven with pearls. Most first-hand accounts from Cleopatra have been destroyed, along with statues bearing her likeness. It was standard operating practice for conquerors of the day to erase the previous rule. From the image of Cleopatra on surviving coins, we can tell she wasn’t a remarkable beauty. This Pulitzer-winning author uses other sources to puzzle together the life of the last great Empress of Egypt. Cleopatra’s intelligence, charm, political savvy, and incredible wealth were among the charms that attracted both Caesar and Marc Anthony to the woman who would bear their children. I was surprised to learn she was a contemporary of Herod and lived within the half-century before Christ. I didn’t realize ancient Egypt and ancient Rome were so clearly adjacent to new testament times.