Book Group

This year’s book group selections:

BEING MORTAL by Atul Gawande. 2015, 263 pages, Wellcome Collection. This international bestseller has been described as “Gawande’s most powerful and moving book” and has a subtitle of “Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End”. It describes how people all over the globe live, age and die and how in the USA the emphasis on pushing the boundaries of survival further each year by advances in medical treatment has changed our emphasis away from leading a good life and having a peaceful ending, to increasing life spans at any cost. Rather than being depressing, this is “wise and courageous” and “deeply moving ,,,an essential and insightful book for our lives” according to critics. If you are mortal (and we don’t know anyone who isn’t!) you will benefit greatly by learning more about how to improve your life through its various stages and its end. Gawande points out “It is not death that the very old tell me they fear. It is what happens short of death–losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life.” This book is full of real examples of emphasis on concentrating on living, rather than modes of dying.


THE SWERVE “How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt. 2011, 266 pages, Norton. This National Book Award winner is, according to Nobelist , Harold Varmus “Illuminating, entertaining, surprising and exciting.” This is a true account of how a “short, genial, cannily alert monk in his early thirties plucked a very old manuscript off a dusty shelf in a remote monastery, saw what he had discovered, and ordered it to be copied.” It was an ancient Roman poem by Lucretius that completely changed the cultural world of the 15th century from dark medieval views to the Renaissance realization that the universe functions without the aid of gods, that religious fear is damaging for human life, that pleasure and virtue are not opposites, but intertwined.” This is actually a true book of adventure that could have starred Harrison Ford or Sean Connery or our own Chair Keith Knox, who appeared on a PBS segment of Nova showing how such discoveries are still unlocking the past of Dr. Livingston writing about slave trading by tribes in 19th C Africa, and are still being made today. (Come to this year’s lectures). It covers many scenarios–Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD covering Pompeii with a snowfall of ash, while nearby Herculaneum was sealed like a tomb by lava. Imagine in the 20th century breaking through the stone there into a fairly intact house and finding “briquet logs” on a shelf. One of them drops on the floor and reveals writing inside it in ancient Greek. There are other discoveries that through time that have influenced Galileo. Freud, Darwin and Einstein and that can be traced indirectly back to the search for other manuscripts, and the spread of a new way of thinking by this formerly solitary monk. It’s history like you’ve never read it before.


BARKSKINS: A NOVEL by Annie Proulx. 2016, 736 pages, Scribner. From Annie Proulx—the Pulitzer Prize-­ and National Book Award-­winning author of “The Shipping News” and “Brokeback Mountain,” comes her masterwork: an epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic novel about the taking down of the world’s forests. In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters—barkskins. René marries a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years—their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse. “Annie Proulx’s Barkskins is remarkable not just for its length, but for its scope and ambition.


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