The Finer Things Club: Biographies and Memoirs

By Amanda Pagan, Children's Librarian
September 30, 2020
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)

Afternoon tea party. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection. NYPL Digital Collections. Image ID: 5023618

In the spirit of The Finer Things Club, we bring you a new list of titles that are perfect for those who are looking to expand their book club beyond novels. The club was first presented to TV audiences by office workers Pam Beasley, Toby Flenderson, and Oscar Martinez in the season 4 episode 10 episode “Branch Wars” of the American version of The Office. Initially the formation of the club was the B plot of the overall episode, yet the concept is so charming we cannot get enough of it!

At its core, The Finer Things Club is a way to celebrate books, art, and culture in a “very civilized way.” The three office mates meet once a month to discuss their chosen book over a lunch where "there is no paper, no plastic and no work talk allowed." Their meals are made to match their novel’s setting and are served on real china with real cutlery. 

Now there is no reason why our patrons cannot put together their own Finer Things Club. All you need to do is put together a group of friends, pick a novel, and coordinate a date where you can share your thoughts and a meal together. If meeting together in person is an issue, then switch to a virtual meeting! Have fun preparing your meals on your own, or order in something new from a restaurant you have never tried before. If all else fails, you cannot go wrong with tea and pastries! Check out our resources below for recipe ideas!

We encourage our patrons to expand their horizons by exploring experiences outside of their own, so here we have gathered a list of biographies and memoirs that are perfect for thoughtful discussions. 

If you are looking for novels, check out my previous blog post The Finer Things Club: Classic Literature by Authors of Color.

Biographies and Memoirs

A House of My Own: Stories From My Life by Sandra Cisneros

From the Chicago neighborhoods where she grew up and set her groundbreaking The House on Mango Street to her abode in Mexico, in a region where "my ancestors lived for centuries," the places Sandra Cisneros has lived have provided inspiration for her now-classic works of fiction and poetry. But a house of her own, where she could truly take root, has eluded her. With this collection—spanning nearly three decades, and including never-before-published work—Cisneros has come home at last.

 

 

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston ; edited and with an introduction by Deborah G. Plant

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation's history. Hurston was there to record Cudjo's firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.

 

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education. On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, when she was fifteen, she almost paid the ultimate price. She was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, and few expected her to survive. Instead, Malala's miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine: The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, which are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. 

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of. 

Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster by Stephen L. Carter

Best-selling author Stephen L. Carter delves into his past and retrieves the inspiring story of his grandmother’s extraordinary life. She was Black and a woman and a prosecutor, a graduate of Smith College and the granddaughter of slaves, as dazzlingly unlikely a combination as one could imagine in New York of the 1930s—and without the strategy she devised, Lucky Luciano, the most powerful Mafia boss in history, would never have been convicted. When special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey selected 20 lawyers to help him clean up the city’s underworld, she was the only member of his team who was not a white male. 

 

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

The Little House books, for all the hardships they describe, are paeans to the pioneer spirit, portraying it as triumphant against all odds. But Wilder’s real life was harder and grittier than that, a story of relentless struggle, rootlessness, and poverty. It was only in her sixties, after losing nearly everything in the Great Depression, that she turned to children’s books, recasting her hardscrabble childhood as a celebratory vision of homesteading—and achieving fame and fortune in the process, in one of the most astonishing rags-to-riches episodes in American letters.

Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford

If F. Scott Fitzgerald was the hero of the Jazz Age, Edna St. Vincent Millay, as flamboyant in her love affairs as she was in her art, was its heroine. The first woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize, Millay was dazzling in the performance of herself. Her voice was likened to an instrument of seduction and her impact on crowds, and on men, was legendary. Yet beneath her studied act, all was not well. Milford calls her book "a family romance"—for the love between the three Millay sisters and their mother was so deep as to be dangerous. As a family, they were like real-life Little Women, with a touch of Mommie Dearest.

 

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

A harrowing memoir about one of the darkest periods in American history. Born a free man in New York, Solomon Northup was abducted in Washington, D.C., in 1841 and spent the next twelve years of his life in captivity as a slave on a Louisiana cotton plantation. After his rescue, he published this exceptionally vivid and detailed account of slave life--perhaps the best written of all the slave narratives. It became an immediate bestseller and today is recognized for its unusual insight and eloquence as one of the very few portraits of American slavery produced by someone as educated as Solomon Northup, or by someone with the dual perspective of having been both a free man and a slave.

 

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane's bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he'd been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde by Alexis De Veaux

During her lifetime, Audre Lorde (1934-1992), author of the landmark Cancer Journals, created a mythic identity for herself that retains its vitality to this day. Drawing from the private archives of the poet's estate and numerous interviews, Alexis De Veaux demystifies Lorde's iconic status, charting her conservative childhood in Harlem; her early marriage to a white, gay man with whom she had two children; her emergence as an outspoken black feminist lesbian; and her canonization as a seminal poet of American literature.

When I Was Puerto Rican: A Memoir by Esmeralda Santiago

The author's story begins in rural Puerto Rico, where her warring parents and seven siblings led a life of uproar, but one full of love and tenderness as well. Growing up, Esmeralda learned the proper way to eat a guava, the sound of the tree frogs in the mango groves at night, the taste of the delectable sausage called morcilla, and the formula for ushering a dead baby's soul to heaven. But just when Esmeralda seemed to have learned everything, she was taken to New York City, where the rules - and the language - were bewilderingly different. How Esmeralda overcame adversity, won acceptance to New York City's High School of Performing Arts, and then went on to Harvard, where she graduated with highest honors, is a record of a tremendous journey by a truly remarkable woman.

Recipes

 

Have trouble reading standard print? Many of these titles are available in formats for patrons with print disabilities.

Staff picks are chosen by NYPL staff members and are not intended to be comprehensive lists. We'd love to hear your ideas too, so leave a comment and tell us what you’d recommend. And check out our Staff Picks browse tool for more recommendations!

Summaries provided via NYPL’s catalog, which draws from multiple sources. Click through to each book’s title for more.