Author Archive

06 Jul 2018

The Power of Stories and Witness:
Why the Written Word Matters

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Why the Written Word Matters
Book Reviews

“I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.” –James Baldwin

More than ever, reading is essential to understanding our world. While books offer an escape from reality, there are times when we need writers to help us decipher what is happening around us.  This summer, we are exploring fiction and non-fiction, both old and new, to find some answers. So far, some of the titles we have read in the non-fiction category include Cecile Richards Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead; Willie Parker’s Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice; and Michael Eric Dyson’s What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America.

Each one is important in its own right, and we suggest any or all of them. In particular, if you are a James Baldwin fan, you will find Dyson’s book especially interesting. It may even encourage you to go back and read Go Tell It On The Mountain or Giovanni’s Room.  If you are moved by either Richards or Parker, perhaps a re-reading of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is in order. Perhaps you read Atwood’s classic when it was released in 1984 or in the years since. But, if you have not and are watching the series on Hulu, you should get a copy.

In the 2017 edition, Atwood offers a compelling introduction: “Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lightning. It can’t happen here could not be depended on: anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances.” These thoughts and fears led her to create Offred, the heroine of The Handmaid’s Tale, and the witness of the story of her time.  Atwood says, “There’s a literary form….the literature of witness. Offred records her story as best as she can; then she hides it, trusting that it may be discovered later, by someone who is free to understand and share it.”

This is the basis for witness, a specific type of first person storytelling. Witness establishes a close and personal point of view chronicling in real-time the events of the day. On this topic, Nadine Gordimer, said, “The realization of what has happened comes from what would seem to deny reality–the transformation of events, motives, emotions and reactions, from the immediacy into the enduring significance that is meaning.” Gordimer, like Atwood and Baldwin, created records of crises that ‘raised awareness in the moment and can also serve future generations as reminders of what happens when powers corrupts civil life.’

And this is the point: Think of slave narratives such as Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Aleksandr I. Solzenitsyn’s The Gulag Achipelago, or Elie Weisel’s Night. These books are first person accounts and have the added power of witness. They were based on personal experience including the extraordinary pain and punishment they endured. For writers, that transformation can also take place with the simple act of witnessing the times, recording the way intolerance, discrimination, and unjust policies impact them and the people around them. Or, it can be an extension of what happened to them personally.

Either way, reading books that explore social, political, racial, and economic crises expands our understanding. A few more titles to consider are An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, and An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay.  Regardless of what you choose, you will be enlightened by the power of witness.

Have a good summer. And, if you want a head start, our “2018-2019 Reading List” is below.

  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  • Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
  • The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
  • Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois
  • The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
  • The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
  • An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
  • Plot Against America by Philip Roth (or another Roth novel TBD)
24 Oct 2017

On a personal note

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I fell in love with reading in the first grade. If you were well-behaved, you earned the privilege of sitting outside the classroom in a reading circle. We would take turns reading aloud, and I remember the thrill of hearing the words coming off the page and from my mouth. From that moment on, I read everything I could get my hands on.

The books I found at home were not necessarily for children. I remember reading Childbirth Without Fear, One Life: The Story of Christian Baarnard, and Babbitt (my mom had a beautiful collection of Modern Library Classics, but I was nervous about touching them). Then I got really lucky. I had a wonderful AP English teacher at Pinecrest named Mrs. Stubbs. Although we had to read specific books to prepare for the AP exam, I loved each one of them. From the experimental J.B. and Waiting for Godot to the beauty of Faulkner and Fitzgerald, the deal was sealed. I was going to spend my life with books.

I couldn’t imagine anything better than being able to declare English as a major and spend all my time in college reading and then writing about the work. It was pure delight going to Lullwater (the park where the Emory University President lived) to sit beneath big trees and daydream about what the words meant. I read and read and read. For a degree!!! Imagine that!

And not that it was a cakewalk. I had some professors that challenged me and even made me cry (one famous Southern lit expert who handed me a roll of paper towels). But I was undeterred. I  had my first female professor (Dr. McIntire) who worked tirelessly with me as I wrote my undergraduate thesis on King Lear and my favorite heroine Cordelia. She opened my eyes to the possibilities of critical thinking, reading, and interpretation.

When I studied for my masters, I really found heaven. A small group of students would sit around a seminar table with the professor unpacking the text. There was always more to learn, and I was open to it all. And part of grad school was teaching. So, at the age of 22, I was exposing college students to the books I thought would change their lives as they did mine. I continued to teach at the University of Miami, and these were the happiest years of my professional life. Ernest Gaines visited my class when we read A Lesson Before Dying… experience I will never forget. My colleagues and dear friends, Kathleen Satchell and Lois Greene (may she rest in peace), would meet regularly to discuss the stories that were on our reading lists. These meetings were the highlight of our week.

Reading and discussing the literature always went hand in hand. Now I lead a reading group, and this is my joy.  And what prompted me to go back and identify how books became so important to me was the death of one of our members. When you read together, you share your world view, your values, your hopes, dreams, and fears. You reveal so much, even though it is in the context of someone else’s story. My ladies are my family, my friends, my cherished ones. But it is with such sadness that I write these words. Although our dear friend is no longer with us, we will never sit around the table without feeling her presence. If you are lucky enough to be in a book group, take a minute to think about what the members mean to you. Consider how much you have learned from one another and the important bond that you share. This is the magic of books….the power to unite us, build unbreakable bonds, and enrich our lives.


17 Sep 2017

The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter:
A Great Start for 2017-2018

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A Great Start for 2017-2018
Book Reviews, New and Exciting, Personal Thoughts, What You Should Read

Welcome back. It has been a harrowing couple of weeks anticipating the impact of what was expected to be a Category 5 hurricane. Thank heavens we were spared the worst, but it has been difficult for so many. It is at times like this that book group communities are so vital. We realize that not only do we read together, but we also care about each other. Discussing literature is a remarkable bonding experience, and I am so grateful for all the women I have learned from over these many years. I am really looking forward to seeing all of my book friends in October when we start our season.

I just finished my second reading of The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter, and I found it as astonishing as I did the first time. That is not to say that it is a perfect book—it is not. But, its imperfections are meaningless when viewed against Corthron’s achievements.  The novel is a huge American saga, with two sets of brothers at its center. Around them swirl a multitude of characters and themes. Although the author tackles what I see as the quintessential American crisis, that of racism, it is also a brilliant examination of justice and injustice. In fact, Corthron’s novel might just be her own “Magna Carta.”

The book explores the themes of poverty, income inequality, anti-Semitism, sibling rivalry, education (segregation/integration), family, domestic abuse, drug abuse, friendship/betrayal, paternity, rape, homosexuality, interracial relationships, fate and destiny, the North and the South, and coming of age (innocence/experience). Clearly, The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter examines every issue Americans have wrestled with from 1940-2017.

So, how does an author organize an epic of this enormity? Well, she structures the book with eight big sections, not always chronological and often alternating voices. What is the effect of her structure? How does this underscore the themes?

Who is the hero of the  novel? And, what constitutes a hero in this author’s world?

What do the characters, their actions, and their cultures tell us about good and evil?

Is it possible, according to the novel, to overcome racism? If so, how?

There are two quotations at the end of the novel worthy of attention.

The first is Dwight’s: “It’s a beautiful and remarkable thing to live by our conscience….it’s pointless and indulgent to live by our guilt.”

The second is BJ’s: “But, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize how reductive it is to define an entire clan by just one event, even if that event was a cataclysm of the first order.”

How do these observations help the reader to understand the scope of the novel?

The other novels for the 2017-2018 season are:

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Outline by Rachel Cusk

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nyugen

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Our last novel has not been selected, but I think The Invisible Man would be an apt bookend for The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter.

Stay tuned for comments on each novel as the season progresses.



14 Feb 2017

A Great Year for Smart Women Readers

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One thing we know for sure, reading is a great escape. And thankfully, this has been a banner year for our book group.

We have been thrilled with our reading list, and the selections have generated exciting, relevant discussions. Probably the two most talked about books of 2016, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, did not disappoint. While they are stylistically  and thematically quite different, they both explore relationships between mothers and daughters in all their complexity. And, The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien is a compelling, fictionalized tale of Radovan Karadzic, a man found guilty of war crimes committed by the Bosnian Serb forces.  At its core is the black-haired beauty Fidelma who falls in love with a healer, who is actually this ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ in disguise. What a tour de force!

We also read Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac and Hanja Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am and Francine Prose’s A Changed Man will complete our season of great reads. Stay tuned for thoughts as we move through these titles.

Our February selection, while not a new book, was the best so far. Russell Banks’ Continental Drift is one of those books that explores all the big questions of being human and asks the reader to look at the nature of hopelessness as part of the human condition. The focus of the novel is on two central figures whose life stories are spelled out in alternating chapters. Bob (blue-collar worker from New Hampshire) and Vanise (poor and destitute on the island of Haiti) are both on a dead-end journey from completely different worlds. Yet, both are vulnerable to extreme suffering.

The author delves into the the distinctions between self-imposed suffering, sociological suffering, suffering created by man, suffering created by nature, and suffering created by circumstance. There is so much packed into this book, and the writing is genius. Continental Drift is a book for all times as it is the story of being alive in a world that generates indiscriminate pain.

A last thought: Banks uses the geographical concept of continental drift and the narrator looms above the earth looking at the great tragedies and migrations of people over the years. This device helps the reader to understand that what he exposes in his characters is representative of the dispossessed across the globe. And, I think he is also looking at what is happening in an increasingly-connected world (think Jeffrey Sachs and Thomas Friedman).

From our point of view, this is the single most important book we read this year. Not to say that is was the ‘best,’ but certainly provokes thinking that determines the kind of people we are and what we can do to make our world better. That’s why we are also strongly recommending the biography of Paul Farmer entitled Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder….it will inspire and move you to be a better person.

Click here for discussion questions on Continental Drift.

Other Smart Reads

27 Aug 2016

Exploring the Depths of Depravity:
A Little Life

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A Little Life
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: