27 Aug 2016

Exploring the Depths of Depravity:
A Little Life

Post a Comment Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts

MosesHanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is the equivalent of literary waterboarding: Be prepared for an onslaught of descriptions that will leave you in a state of perpetual despair. Although critically acclaimed, and with good reason, there are questions about this novel that are too great to overlook. The most pressing one is whether a foundling can suffer for fifteen years without encountering one righteous, empathetic, astute human being….someone who could detect the terrifying circumstances the main character, Jude St. Francis, endures and barely escapes. And then, how is it that his destiny is so completely upended by the good fortune of friendship and love? This is the balance on which everything in A Little Life depends. But, in the end, no amount of kindness and compassion can undo the gravity of the harm inflicted on Jude. (SPOILER ALERT: If you have not finished the book, you may want to wait before reading the rest of this blog.)

One of the challenges for this reader is whether it is truly possible that all the Brothers in the monastery are cruel, that all the counselors and boys in the group home are sadistic, that every trucker can look beyond the boy sitting beside him and see only sexual exploitation? And finally, how is it possible that after all of this, Jude winds up imprisoned by the most cruel of all men, the ostensible psychiatrist Dr. Traylor, who after destroying his spirit and soul, crushes his body with his car? Any one of the aforementioned circumstances would have broken Jude, but why the piling on of victimization? What is the author’s point in layering abuse after abuse? This is a hard question to answer, but perhaps some clues are found in the penultimate section “Dear Comrade.”

After many cycles of what Jude calls a ‘piece of pantomime,’ in which he is coerced into eating, sleeping, and pretending that he wants to live, the big question of the novel finally comes into focus. Jude asks: “He had always wondered why he, why so many others, went on living at all; it had been so difficult to convince himself at times, and yet so many people, lived in misery he couldn’t fathom, with deprivations and illnesses that were obscene in their extremity. And yet on and on they went. So was the determination to keep living not a choice at all, but an evolutionary implementation? Was there something in the mind itself….that prevented human from doing what logic so often argued they should? And yet that instinct wasn’t infallible–he had overcome it once. But what happened to it after? Had it weakened or become more resilient? Was his life even his to choose to live any longer?”

So, while A Little Life is hard to bear (and at times perhaps a bit long-winded), its themes are profound. This is a great novel about the impact of cruelty and the reality that there are hopeless cases. But, A Little Life reminds us, as Willem says before he dies, “I know my life’s meaningful because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.”


For discussion questions click here: http://whatsmartwomenread.com/books/a-little-life/


25 Feb 2016

How To Be Both: Neither Here Nor There

Post a Comment Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts

GrotesquesfromVillaD'Estepen&ink1When was the last time you read a book and felt like you couldn’t penetrate the text? With all the press commemorating the twenty-year anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, those of us who just couldn’t read the book are wondering why a free association, stream of consciousness, 900 page novel with more than 200 pages of footnotes continues to be held in such high regard. As for our ambitious reading group that ventures far outside the literary comfort zone, it was the only novel in many years that we abandoned.

In Tom Bissell’s essay in the New York Times Book Review, he posits four theories why Infinite Jest “still feels so transcendentally, electrically alive.” These theories, in a nutshell, suggest that 1) Art must have a higher purpose than mere entertainment, 2) Infinite Jest is a genuinely groundbreaking novel of language and surpasses almost every novel written in the last century in this regard, 3)  “Infinite Jest” is a peerlessly gripping novel of character, and 4)  “Infinite Jest” is unquestionably the novel of its generation.

Perhaps Infinite Jest meets all four criteria, but where does that leave the reader? If a novel is inaccessible and written for a tiny audience (or perhaps just for the author’s pleasure), should we feel compelled to read it and beat ourselves up if we can’t make sense of it?

This question, to a somewhat lesser degree, came up with our most recent selection, Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and winner of the Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction, the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize, the 2014 Costa Novel Award, and Saltire Literary Book of the Year Award. The novel was issued in two editions, one with the contemporary story of a young girl (George) mourning the death of her mother as one narrative and the other with the painter Francesco del Cossa as its protagonist. The two sections are connected thematically through the art world, and concepts of gender, power, and justice are explored. While most of our readers preferred the edition with George’s section first, some of us just couldn’t play along with Ali Smith’s game.

In the end, the question remains: Why do we read? Is it to experience an intellectual challenge with form and explore new ways of telling stories? Certainly. But there is also something to be said about being carried away by a novel that is beautifully written and literally unique yet doesn’t require constant reexamination of the text. If you love to read for distraction, enjoyment, immersion, education, enlightenment, expansion, or empathy, then perhaps a novel like My Name is Lucy Barton will excite your imagination. It certainly met our criteria as did A Partial History of Lost Causes and All the Light We Cannot See. If  you haven’t read these novels, then you might consider them for your reading groups.

Our next book, which we will blog about in a few weeks, is Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

For discussion questions on How to Be Both click here.

13 Dec 2015

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout: One of The New York Times “Ten Best of 2015”

Post a Comment Book Reviews, New and Exciting

Like the entire town of Dickens, I was my father’s child, a product of my environment, and nothing more. Dickens was me. And I was my father. Problem is, they both disappeared from my life, first my dad, then my hometown, and I suddenly had no idea who I was, and no clue how to become myself.

These lines represent the serious underpinnings of what The New York Times described as “this year’s most cheerfully outrageous satire that takes as its subject a young black man’s desire to segregate his local school and to reinstate slavery in his home–before careening off to consider almost 400 years of black survival in America….Beatty’s novel is a fearless, multicultural pot almost too hot to touch.”

But, make sure not to drink too much coffee before starting this manic, exuberant, and disturbing novel. The writer’s energy is palpable as is his piling on of allusions and references to just about everything cultural, philosophical, historical, political, and intellectual. The pace is dizzying but captivating, and your mind will travel through the rampages of American history and its legacy of racism in a way no other author has achieved. Indeed, this is a satire. Yet, like all great satires, the medium is the message. Keep your eyes wide open for Beatty’s truth–it will remind you that even justice is not blind.

For discussion questions on Paul Beatty’s The Sellout click here


15 May 2015

Reading List 2015-2016
and Summer Suggestions

Post a Comment Book Reviews

2015-01-0817.36.04We have completed our year of classics and found that it was wonderful revisiting many of the novels we read years ago. Our final book, Willa Cather’s My Antonia, was thoroughly enjoyable. We especially appreciated the voice of the novel and how it reflected much of Cather’s own life. If you haven’t read My Antonia, you might consider it for your reading group as well. It is a real treasure, especially its depiction of strong women.

Looking ahead to next year, we have decided to focus on contemporary fiction (published since 2013). Here are our selections and a few more that you might consider for summer reading:

  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • The Wisdom of Perversity by Rafael Yglesias
  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon by Anthony Marra
  • How to be Both by Ali Smith
  • Euphoria by Lily King
  • The Whites by Richard Price
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty
  • The Discrete Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa

A few for summer reading include:

  • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
  • The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
  • An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Although it doesn’t fall into the contemporary fiction category since 2013, first up on our list is Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter. It’s been sitting on the bookshelf for far too long and has now made it to the top of the list. We will be blogging about it this summer. Happy Reading!

06 Feb 2015

The Novel that Ruined Her Life:
Mary McCarthy’s The Group

Post a Comment Book Reviews

Street_scene_SultanahmetWhen smart women discuss Mary McCarthy’s The Group, the question of whether things have changed takes center stage. In her novel, McCarthy explores sex, contraception, fidelity, marriage, and financial independence through the lives of eight Vassar graduates (class of 1933); however, much of what the characters face in the novel are issues for women in the 21st century. In some ways, The Group seems dated. But, for the most part, McCarthy’s novel is relevant and continues to be an important book.

Consider the scene when Dottie is trying to decide what to do with her newly-acquired contraceptive device. Her lover, who has made it very clear that their relationship would be purely sexual, told her she could leave it at his apartment. However, she is unable to reach him and finds herself in a predicament: “…even if he got her message, he would never come tonight. There seemed to be only one thing left to do. Hoping she was unobserved, she slipped the contraceptive equipment under the bench she was sitting on and began to walk as swiftly as she could, without attracting attention.” While the issue of contraception is no longer so complex, the fact that her lover dictates the conditions remains true.

Interestingly, Mary McCarthy stated that The Group ruined her life. Yet it was a man (like the character Harald in the novel) who displays his narcissism and sexism while missing the entire point of the book. In his scathing essay (1963) Norman Mailer writes, “She is simply not a good enough woman to write a major novel; not yet; she has failed, she has failed from the center out, she failed out of vanity, the accumulated vanity of being over-praised through the years for too little and so being pleased with herself for too little…. she failed out of snobbery—if compassion for her characters is beginning to stir at last in this book, she can still not approve of anyone who is incapable of performing the small act exquisitely well; she failed by an act of the imagination; she is, when all is said, a bit of a duncey broad herself, there is something cockeyed in her vision and self-satisfied in her demands and this contributes to the failure of her style. The long unbroken paragraphs settle in like bricks. They are all too equal to one another—it is the wrong book in which to lose one’s place; there is even mild physical boredom in the act of reading as if one were watching a wall being stacked up rather than seeing the metamorphosis of a creature.”

Mailer’s review says more about him than about Mary McCarthy. While her novel is not perfect, it is well-written and important. It is a compelling read and an important reminder of where women were eighty years ago, and what remains to be conquered. The author had no way of knowing what power women would claim in the 21st century, yet the novel is prescient is many ways. We strongly recommend The Group and promise it will make for lively and significant discussion.

For questions on The Group, click here http://whatsmartwomenread.com/books/the-group/