Blog Archive for Book Club Notes

27 Aug 2016

Exploring the Depths of Depravity:
A Little Life

No Comments 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: http://whatsmartwomenread.com/books/a-little-life/

 

25 Feb 2016

How To Be Both: Neither Here Nor There

No Comments 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 Mar 2014

A Young Author to Watch
and Her Must-Read Novel

No Comments 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?

No Comments 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.

28 Mar 2013

Lean in to Literature

5 Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts

In her highly-publicized bestseller Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg seeks to understand why working women still struggle to achieve parity in positions of leadership. As the chief operating officer of Facebook, she has a good view from the top and offers practical advice for building a successful career. She writes, “Women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves…These internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention, in part because they are under our own control.”

Some readers are critical of Sandberg, claiming that her message is aimed only at those women already groomed for positions of power. However, at the core of her vision is a question at the heart of  good literature–how does a human being overcome significant challenges to find her or his place in the world?

At this time, www.whatsmartwomenread.com is revisiting one of Pearl S. Buck’s classics, Pavilion of Women. Published more than sixty years ago, the novel  follows the evolution of Madame Wu, the matriarch of an important Chinese family. Her transformation begins on her 40th birthday when she makes a conscious decision to satisfy some of her own longings. Prior to this time, Madame Wu cultivated perfection by making a fine art of managing her family and its affairs; nonetheless, she never explored her inner feelings or personal desires. Her life was relegated to ‘duty’ (not unlike most women in the 21st century who struggle to balance family, work and spiritual growth).

Madame Wu remembers the words Brother Andre (the character that serves as the catalyst for her insight) offered as she sought wisdom: “To lift a soul above its natural level is a dangerous act. Souls, like springs, have their natural resources, and to force them beyond is against nature and therefore a dangerous act…The wisdom is to weigh and judge the measure of a soul and let it live where it belongs.” This ‘weighing’ that Brother Andre speaks of is in our own hands, and we find guidance, support and encouragement from what we read (fiction and non-fiction), and though sharing our understanding of the literature with one another. This is the greatest gift of our reading groups, and the most likely explanation of their popularity with smart women.

So, we encourage our smart women readers to consider Sandberg’s book in the context of the literature we read together. Any bildungsroman (novel centered on self-development) that we explore with one another, Richard Ford’s Canada is a recent and very good example, is the best place to look for inspiration and life lessons. Let us know what novels opened your eyes to new possibilities by posting a comment.