06 Feb 2015

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

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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/


31 Oct 2014

Sister Carrie and Lucky Jim:
Two Classics with Nothing in Common

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Street_scene_SultanahmetWe have just completed reading our second novel in this year’s line up of classics. The first, Sister Carrie, is a character study of a young woman coming to the big city (Chicago and then New York) in the early 1900s. The title character is interesting to watch as she evolves, and while the setting is a century old, the themes feel relevant. Carrie’s transformation occurs primarily through her interactions with men who take care of her, but ultimately she learns how to stand on her own.

Carrie’s maturation process is developed with an adept hand by Theodore Dreiser, one of the best writers of his era. Although the writing feels dated and at times heavy-handed, this book stands the test of time. Other novels of this period, including Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, show how the city environment functions and challenges a character’s sense of free will and influences many writers that follow.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, is widely-praised for its humorous account of academia in the 1950s. Christopher Hitchen’s writes that this “comic masterpiece may be the funniest book of the past half century.” Like Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, much of the character development in Lucky Jim resonates with today’s reader. However, unlike Dreiser’s novel, Lucky Jim is a slog and the British humor is hard to grasp for an American reader. At first we felt that we were missing something; but, as we plodded along, it became clear that this character study is simply dull. Although there are bright spots in the story, if we were to recommend classics for your reading group, Lucky Jim would not be so lucky.

Our next novel is Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. We hope you will read along with us as we explore the classics, for better or worse.

14 Aug 2014

Back in the Saddle
After Long Summer Break

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El_emperador_Arco_victorioso_ACQUARELLO_2The summer is an ideal time to regroup and recharge. We used these months to do quite a bit of reading and prepare for the 2014-2015 book club season. Some of the books we chose for summer reading were quite good, while others didn’t hit the mark. The ones we believe would be ideal reading group selections are Tinkers by Paul Harding, The Round House by Louise Erdrich, Indignation by Philip Roth, and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

While we are big Dave Eggers’ fans,  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius  didn’t thrill us. Unlike his other books (Zeitoun, A Hologram for the King, What is the What, and The Circle), his memoir didn’t have the weight of his social and political commentaries. But, it did shed light on his personality and why he chooses many of his subjects. Another novel that was a bit disappointing was In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen. If you want to delve into his work, read The Snow Leopard or Shadow Country.

Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life by Michael Dirda was the standout selection of the summer. A slim volume of non-fiction, it put so much of what we read and why we engage in this activity into perspective. We highly recommend that this book be included in your reading lists as it will add so much to your understanding of fiction and life.

As promised, here is the fall line-up for one of our reading groups. If you recall, last year we focused on young writers under 40. This year we are reading classics (loosely defined as we are including some contemporary authors).

  •  Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
  • Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
  • The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • The Group by Mary McCarthy
  • Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth
  • Blue Angel by Francine Prose
  • My Antonia by Willa Cather

We invite you to read along with us and post comments as we share our impressions of these novels.



20 May 2014

What’s On Your Summer Reading List?

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Frequently, our day-to-day conversations include the question, “What’s your book club reading?” In a recent New York Times column, James Atlas writes that nearly five million Americans gather every few weeks in someone’s living room to discuss books.

“Reading is a solitary act, an experience of interiority. To read a book is to burst the confines of one’s consciousness and enter another world,” Atlas says. However, the real excitement occurs when we gather to share our reactions to what we have read and experienced in that other world. And, the connections that are established in a book club are unique.

For this reason, it’s always bittersweet when the book club season comes to an end. While this frees us up to read whatever we like, there is a certain camaraderie that we miss. We have quite an ambitious line-up for the 2014-2015 season, and some of us might get a head start (the list will be the subject of our next blog). But for those who would like a respite from required reading, here are a few titles we have on our summer list:

  • Transatlantic by Colum McCann
  • The Round House by Louise Erdrich
  • Tinkers by Paul Harding
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
  • The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie
  • Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life by Michael Dirda (non-fiction)
  • The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore (non-fiction)

If you have interesting books on your summer reading list, please let us know.

13 Mar 2014

A Young Author to Watch
and Her Must-Read Novel

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Over the last six months we have enjoyed some wonderful novels that are ideal for your reading groups. We have specifically explored writers under the age of forty, including Gary Shteyngart, Claire Vaye Watkins, Junot Diaz, and Chimamanda Adichie. They all make unique and meaningful statements reflecting their generation’s worldview, but the real standout is Jennifer Dubois.

Her novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, delves headlong into the big question of mortality, and the difficulty of facing a challenge when you know it’s a lost cause. This conundrum is framed literally through Aleksandr, a chess prodigy who has to cope with loss and humiliation in numerous public matches. It is developed much more philosophically through Irina, a thirty-year-old woman struggling to deal with her diagnosis of Huntington’s disease. All of this  is framed against the backdrop of Russia from 1979-2007. The politics and history add to the sense of terror and futility that so brilliantly underscore the novel.

The catalyst for the story is a letter Irina finds that her father, whose memory and motor skills were destroyed by Huntington’s, wrote to Aleksandr asking how he faces a chess match when he knew from the beginning he would lose: “When you find yourself playing such a game….what is the proper way to proceed? What story do you tell yourself when that enormous certainty is upon you and you scrape against the edges of your own self?’ To confront her own mortality, and to avoid having her mother and boyfriend watch her deteriorate, she goes to Russia  to get an answer for her father and for herself.

What follows is nothing short of life changing for Irina, Aleksandr, and, perhaps most importantly, the reader. After all, books teach us how to live, and sometimes even what we should do before we die. A Partial History of Lost Causes does all that and more. The writing is beautiful, and you will find yourself lingering over words, phrases, and ideas like, “Nothing makes a person materialistic like severe deprivation,” “I am not ready to die. I am not even bored of the fact that the world is round,” and “You look like somebody who feels sorrier for yourself than is strictly necessary.” We highly recommend Dubois’ novel and eagerly anticipate her next book.