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/

 

31 Oct 2014

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

Post a Comment Book Reviews

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.