What does a publisher at the world’s biggest publishing house read for pleasure? (And how does she find the time?) Jane von Mehren is the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Trade Paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group. Every now and then, she’ll be featuring her favorite reads in her Reader’s Circle column, Jane’s Bookshelf—books that she thinks you’ll love, whether you read them solo or with your club! And if you’re on Twitter, you can follower her tweets at @janeatrandom.
One of the things I love about reading nonfiction is that it allows me to enter the lives of people from different times and places – and to be inspired by them. How could you not be moved by Frank McCourt’s ANGELA’S ASHES with its searing details of poverty and familial love? Have you ever heard of George Dawson, a man who learned to read at the age of 98? Reading his story in LIFE IS SO GOOD is to take a journey through the 20th century as he lived it. And how could you not cheer for Debbie Rodriguez and the girls of THE KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL? I doubt many of us would have had the determination to go half way around the world to change others’ lives as Rodriguez did.
And it isn’t just personal memoirs that offer us inspiring stories. Laura Hillenbrand’s UNBROKEN recounts the life of Louis Zamperini – incorrigible teenager, Olympic athlete, World War II POW – and his incredible journey into extremity. Along with Louis’s story, she offers us a slice of history, which makes our reading experience that much richer. Like Hillenbrand’s first book SEABISCUIT, Elizabeth Letts’s THE EIGHTY-DOLLAR CHAMPION tells the story of a horse that held America spellbound. Snowman, who was rescued from a truck bound for the slaughterhouse, went on to climb to the very top of the show jumping circuit and become a beacon of hope during the Cold War era.
Biographies of famous men and women provide intimate portraits of the call to greatness: think of Robert Massie’s CATHERINE THE GREAT, Walter Isaacson’s STEVE JOBS, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s NO ORDINARY TIME about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II, or Douglas Brinkley’s WHEELS FOR THE WORLD about Henry Ford and his founding of the Ford Motor Company. The richness of each of these works lies partly in the biographer’s ability to show us that these men and women are human like you and me, with faults and weakness that exist alongside their brilliance. And that duality, I promise you, provides for much to discuss, even debate, with your fellow book club members.
As I thought about these books, it struck me that they share a common thread: they are at heart about bravery. They are about trying something new, withstanding pain or hardship, or finding a way to succeed in the face of tremendous odds. These are themes that run through many of my favorite novels as well, which I was reminded of by Tara Conklin’s THE HOUSE GIRL, a debut novel that I just finished reading and loved (it will be published next February by William Morrow). The book interweaves the stories of two women – Josephine, a slave who attempts to escape from her master, and Lina, a corporate lawyer who discovers Josephine’s story as part of her quest to find a lead plaintiff for a slavery reparations case – who make choices that put them in danger, but also require them to figure out how to be true to themselves.
What are your favorite inspirational stories? What kind of bravery inspires you most?