Blog Archive for December, 2011

22 Dec 2011

Finding Meaning Susan Sontag’s Way

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How far beneath the surface of a novel does the reader have to plunge to find its meaning? Susan Sontag, preeminent woman of 20th century letters, says not far at all. In fact, she rails against excavating fiction and writes, “The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys: it digs ‘behind’ the text, to find a sub-text…To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world–in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.'”

If we agree with Sontag, then how is a smart woman and  a competent reader to explore a novel, understand its meanings, discuss its qualities, and form judgments about its style and content, without excavating it?

This is a question we often face in book club conversations when it becomes easy to drift from the novel and impose our own interpretations.

Let’s approach this challenge through one of Sontag’s own novels, In America, which we are now reading with our book clubs. In America, is not only about an actress and her art form but also the attitudes of the new, burgeoning “America.” Actually, it is only in America that our Maryna could be both an actress in her life and on the stage.

First, Sontag delights us with her remarks about America, and these observations require no interpretation:

  • In America no one could refuse the often unlovely imperatives of progress.
  • I give thanks to America, a country insane enough to declare the pursuit of happiness to be an inalienable right.
  • The American is someone who is always leaving everything behind.
  • America never disappoints.
  • What is paramount in America is the personal calendar, the personal journey. My  birthday, my life, my happiness.  (Indeed, this is the perfect creed for Maryna and why she loves America.)
  • Yes, I am becoming quite American: I would much prefer to have  a happy ending.
Second, and more complex, is understanding the main characters.  Maryna, Bogdan, and Ryszard, all seek to define themselves and struggle with authenticity. The only one who seems to conquer this quest is Maryna, since she is unapologetic about her choices. However, this is where the problem of ‘excavation’ arises. How much of Bogdan’s repressed sexuality are we supposed to factor into our understanding of his behavior? And, with Ryszard (the writer), are we to believe he is ‘living’ or ‘observing’ to gather material for his work?
This blogger enjoys the questions and plays with the answers. In the end, there is only one thing to say: It is what it is!

And on that note, www.whatsmartwomenread.com wishes all of you the happiest of holidays and  a new year filled with great reads!

 

13 Dec 2011

Making the Most of whatsmartwomenread.com

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Hello Smart Women (and friends of whatsmartwomenread.com)!

Since this site and blog were launched three months ago, we have received more visitors than we could have imagined. We are so pleased and want to build on the momentum. What we have noticed, however, is that many ‘smart women’ are reading the  blog on the home page but don’t seem to be looking at “Other Smart Reads” where many great books are described and recommended (along with discussion questions).

This got us to wondering whether visitors are aware of the other features specifically designed as a reading group resource. We know how challenging it can be for book clubs to pick novels, and this was one of the reasons we created www.whatsmartwomenread.com.

So, when you have a chance, take a look at what our book clubs are reading this year on the “Reading List” as well as many more titles found on the “Other Smart Reads” page.

You can also suggest titles by clicking on the “Contact Us” page.

Regardless of your reason for visiting our site, we hope that you will explore all our tabs. And, please feel free to post comments. We want to know what books you love.

 

 

07 Dec 2011

Book Club Challenges Part II:
Critics, Prize Winners, and Top Ten Lists

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In an earlier”Book Club Challenges” blog, we spoke about abandoning a book when a reading group, for one reason or another, doesn’t want to finish it. This happened when we chose David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and much debate ensued before we agreed to put it aside. In this blog, we would like to address another book club conundrum: how much stock should we place in the critics, prize winners, and ‘top ten’ lists?

How often has your book club been guided by a wonderful review or a Booker Prize winner (could be Pulitzer or National Book Award) only to discover that the title was generally disliked by your members? How much influence should smart women afford to what are considered esteemed novels, and how should the conversation be handled when a winner turns out to be a loser?

Just this month, our groups read The Death of the Adversary by Hans Kielson and Rabbit is Rich by John Updike. In the case of the former, the New York Times wrote:

For busy, harried or distractible readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I’ll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: “The Death of the Adversary” is a masterpiece, and Hans Keilson is a genius.

Our group agreed that The Death of the Adversary was extraordinary, worthwhile, and led to an excellent discussion; however, we would not have stated the case quite as strongly and did not consider the novel as a masterpiece.

Rabbit is Rich is quite another story. Our group absolutely loved it. They agreed with the critics and looked back to a review published in the New York Times when the novel was released. John Leonard made the observation that “Harry is also America, going down the rabbit hole.” This comment  testifies to the strength of Updike’s characterization of the All-American Harry Angstrom as well as his commentary on the political, social, and economic climate of the early 1980s. Nonetheless, Updike had his critics. Reviewers found the sex incessant (yes, it is) and the novel often wandering from its center. But, all in all, it is a fun read and holding up thirty years after publication.

So, at this time of year, when everyone is releasing the Critic’s Choice and Top Ten list, readers are again confronted with who to trust. How much weight does your reading group place in these recommendations? Are you generally pleased with the choices? Post your comment on the blog so others can hear your point of view.