13 Mar 2014

A Young Author to Watch
and Her Must-Read Novel

Post a Comment Book Club Notes, Personal Thoughts, What You Should Read

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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.

 

 

13 Jan 2014

Can The Circle Be Unbroken?

Post a Comment Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts, What You Should Read

GrotesquesfromVillaD'Estepen&ink1If you have qualms about the pervasive effects of social media, then Dave Eggers’ The Circle will heighten your suspicions. In this fast paced, disturbing look at the inevitable intrusion of all things internet into our lives,  your worst fears are realized. And, the fact that the novel never veers toward science fiction makes the narrative all the more real.

Is it too late to recover our privacy? Is there a value to transparency? These are the central and haunting questions of the The Circle and perhaps our entire generation. We are passionate Dave Eggers fans…his remarkable books, which include A Heartbreaking Work of  Staggering GenuisWhat is the WhatZeitoun, and A Hologram for the King always capture the imagination while delving into important current issues. If you haven’t read his work, the time is now.

Mae, the main character of The Circle, is a vulnerable young woman who lands a coveted job in the exciting tech world. She is moving up the ladder fast and dazzled by her increasing power. However, she intuitively understands the need for solitude and finds peace in kayaking to the middle of a bay in Northern California in the company of the harbor seals. This is her retreat–where she goes to solve problems and understand the complexities of life. Once the Circle’s “SeeChange” cameras are installed at her favorite rental spot, Mae is discovered using a kayak without permission. The leaders of The Circle are notified, and they confront Mae with a teachable moment described as ‘the perfectibility of human beings.’

The corporate mantra is “All that happens must be known;” thus, Mae’s attempt to kayak secretively is viewed as going against another one of the Circle’s views: “Privacy is theft.” The leaders accuse Mae, and anyone who wants to keep a secret, of trying “to impede the unimpeachable improvement of the world.” But, Eggers is really asking, “Do we have a right to disappear?”, “Is is okay to be tracked from birth to death?”, and “Are we even conscious of the insidious effects of technology, even the ones we are opting into of our own volition?”

This novel is an absolute must-read for you and your book groups. The discussions will be provocative, timely, and important. We highly recommend this novel as well as others by Dave Eggers.

Did you know that by clicking on the art that adorns this page you can view it in a larger, more splendid format? Try and enjoy this pen and ink by Jose Grave de Peralta.

02 Jan 2014

Happy New Year!

Post a Comment Book Reviews
We can't smile or laugh often enough.  This story shared by LeeRoy Garrett should get your week off to a perfect start:One morning, the husband returns the boat to their lakeside cottage after several hours of fishing and decides to take a nap.Although not familiar with the lake, the wife decides to take the boat out. She motors out a short distance, anchors, puts her feet up, and begins to read her book. The peace and solitude are magnificent.Along comes a Fish and Game Warden in his boat.He pulls up alongside the woman and says, 'Good morning, Ma'am. What are you doing?''Reading a book,' she replies, (thinking, 'Isn't that obvious?').'You're in a Restricted Fishing Area,' he informs her.'I'm sorry, officer, but I'm not fishing. I'm reading.''Yes, but I see you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment. I'll have to take you in and write you up.''If you do that, I'll have to charge you with sexual assault,' says the woman.'But I haven't even touched you,' says the Game Warden.'That's true, but you have all the equipment..For all I know you could start at any moment.''Have a nice day ma'am,' and he left.MORAL:Never argue with a woman who reads.It's likely she can also think.

A dear friend who lives in Rome sent this delightful anecdote to us. We had to share with our whatsmartwomenread friends.

One morning, the husband returns the boat to their lakeside cottage after several hours of fishing and decides to take a nap. Although not familiar with the lake, the wife decides to take the boat out. She motors out a short distance, anchors, puts her feet up, and begins to read her book. The peace and solitude are magnificent.

Along comes a Fish and Game Warden in his boat. He pulls up alongside the woman and says, “Good morning, Ma’am. What are you doing?” “Reading a book,” she replies, (thinking, ‘Isn’t that obvious?’).

“You’re in a Restricted Fishing Area,” he informs her. “I’m sorry, officer, but I’m not fishing. I’m reading.”

“Yes, but I see you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment. I’ll have to take you in and write you up.” “If you do that, I’ll have to charge you with sexual assault,” says the woman.

“But I haven’t even touched you,” says the Game Warden. “That’s true, but you have all the equipment… For all I know you could start at any moment.” “Have a nice day ma’am,” and he left.

MORAL: Never argue with a woman who reads. It’s likely she can also think.
02 Dec 2013

Another Good Reason
to Read Literary Fiction

2 Comments Personal Thoughts, What You Should Read

DuomodiSienaApr2013A recent article published in Science made an interesting distinction between two types of fiction: “Readerly–such as most popular genre fiction–is intended to entertain their most passive readers. Writerly–or literary texts–engage their readers creatively as writers.” In other words, literary fiction requires active participation and encourages ‘a vibrant discourse with the author and the characters.’

The researchers move beyond this distinction in their study. They hypothesize, and subsequently establish, that because literary fiction “is replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration,” readers develop a greater capacity to understand the emotions of others.

This is quite a benefit for readers of literary fiction and may also explain why book groups are so popular. Not only do the members explore the fiction independently, the interaction with other readers reinforces the connection with the text. Perhaps a future study could examine the heightened empathy of readers who participate in book clubs. In the meantime, it is worth reading the study and sharing the findings with your groups (citation is below).

We took the opportunity to examine the study in tandem with our conversation of Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light. This novel is a writerly text and offers the reader multiple opportunities for engagement. The characters are compelling and interesting, and the setting is remarkable. While there is much despair in this small seaside village in Haiti, Danticat’s prose is beautiful and hopeful.

Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote, “The perennial subjects in Danticat’s fiction and nonfiction—the weight of Haiti’s violent history, its extreme poverty and the diaspora that they have created—are addressed indirectly, through the stories of Claire and her family and neighbors in this small town where everyone knows everybody else. There is something fablelike about these tales; the reader is made acutely aware of the patterns of loss and redemption, cruelty and vengeance that thread their way through these characters’ lives, and the roles that luck and choice play in shaping their fate . . . Writing with lyrical economy and precision, Danticat recounts [their] stories in crystalline prose that underscores the parallels in their lives.”

We highly recommend Danticat’s latest novel as well as her earlier fiction. She makes an important contribution to contemporary literature. Let us know what you think of the Science article and the novel by posting a comment on our blog.

*David Comer Kidd And Emanuele Castano. Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of MindScience, October 2013

05 Nov 2013

The Center Cannot Hold:
Things Fall Apart and Purple Hibiscus

Post a Comment Book Reviews, New and Exciting, What You Should Read

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
from “The Second Coming” by WB Yeats

Both Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus make specific reference to Yeats’s oft-quoted and powerful poem, “The Second Coming.” This naturally leads the reader to ask these questions: What exactly is falling apart in the two cultures described by Achebe and Adichie, and why is it that the ‘center cannot hold’? And, most importantly, who are the characters in these authors novels that ‘lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity’? These are complex questions, but the answers unlock the key to understanding these texts.

Let’s look first at Things Fall Apart and the clash of cultures that leads to the destruction of the Ibo way of life. The main character, Okonkwo represents the plight of tribal life as colonialism takes hold in Nigeria. He is heroic in his fight against the missionaries and wants desperately to preserve the social order of his tribe. However, that is the more ‘global’ conflict of the novel. Okonkwo also is deeply ashamed of his father who he despises for his weakness, and this obsession leads to his destruction.

In Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, the patriarch Eugene is also deeply troubled by the conflicts in his country. He advocates the return to democracy from military rule through his newspaper, The Standard, and he is devoted to the editor who risks his life to write controversial editorials. Like Okonkwo, however, he refuses to acknowledge his father who adheres to a pagan faith and refuses to let his children visit him. In fact, when Kambili brings a drawing of her grandfather into their home, Eugene beats her within an inch of her life. This hatred, like the one that consumes Okonkwo, becomes his tragic flaw and destroys the entire family.

What is remarkable and important about these novels (and all noteworthy novels, actually) is that they deal with both external (political/religious) forces and internal (family/moral) struggles. They are inextricably linked, for better or for worse, and precisely what makes a piece of fiction universal. The pain that the reader experiences as both cultures and families fall apart is real since we know from personal experience that this is the nature of being human.

And this is why we recommend that your book groups consider reading these novels together (Achebe first, then Adichie). You might also watch Chimamanda Adichie talk about Achebe at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41Na23h9-AE  

Let us know if you decide to pursue this course by posting a comment on www.whatsmartwomenread.com