Blog Archive for Book Club Notes

05 Dec 2012

It’s Hard to Blog About Hate

No Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, What You Should Read

Hate: A Romance is our third international novel on this year’s reading list. So far we have worked our way through David Grossman (To the End of the Land) and Julian Barnes (Flaubert’s Parrot), and now find ourselves wrestling with a young French writer and philosopher named Tristan Garcia. (If you are interested, our next international novel is Fiasco by the Hungarian Irme Kertesz.)

In Hate: A Romance, Garcia develops four characters through whom he weaves the themes of love, sex, violence, hate, and death. The result is an extremely disturbing yet original novel, and readers may find the subject matter hard to take. But, there is also much to learn. After all, we read to explore boundaries beyond what we know, and sometimes it requires us to peer through a darkened window.

Told through the voice of a ‘straight’ journalist named Liz, the story centers on political and personal struggles as AIDS wreaks havoc on an emerging and newly-liberated gay community in Paris. Our main characters, Will and Doume, exploit the AIDS crisis to both carry out individual vendettas and advance political agendas. It is a complicated tale, layered with ideas about commitment, liberation, and activism. Garcia says, “It seemed to me that, as time passed, the memories, the intimate writings of those who had participated in the chronology of gay liberation, the subsequent arrival of the AIDS virus, and the political ruptures that accompanied them step-by-step, weren’t enough anymore–it needed an aspect of fiction.” Hate: A Romance is the fruit of that vision.

The novel’s style is journalistic and a fast read, yet is contains powerful bits of philosophy. In the concluding section, Liz offers reflections on her life and the men with whom she shares this literary stage. One such observation is, “Our origin reveals itself only slowly to be our destiny, and with some weariness, some relief, some fright, we come to understand it. The way we understand it depends on the way we first wanted not to understand it, and to be free.” Her point, which is underscored by the love-hate paradigm that dominates the narrative, is that only through the exploration of opposing tensions can we understand the meaning of our lives.

While the smart women in our group engaged in an intense and significant discussion about this novel, it was a challenge to get to the heart of the matter. So not only was it tough to talk about Hate: A Romance, it is also very hard to blog about! Nonetheless, it is a novel smart women might consider for their reading groups  if you want to read outside of the box.


02 Jul 2012

Summer Slog: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

No Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts

Last summer one of our reading groups decided to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which we abandoned after much fretting and conversation. It was just too heavy for the lighter fare most smart women look for in their summer selections. Plus, any book with 96 pages of footnotes requires the kind of dedication few of us have at any time of year.

While Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall couldn’t be more different from Infinite Jest, it is a real slog. The historical novel, to its credit, opens with flair and drama as the reader witnesses the brutal beating a young Thomas Cromwell endures from his father: “So now get up!” Walter is roaring down at him, working out where to kick him next. He lifts his head an inch or two, and moves forward, on his belly, trying to do it without exposing his hands, on which Walter enjoys stamping. “What are you, an eel?” His parent asks. He trots backward, gathers pace, and aims another kick.”

Well, it’s pretty sad when the highlight of a book comes on page 1. Even though Thomas grieves when his beloved wife and two daughters die during one of England’s summer plagues, the reader feels no pain. The narration is bogged down by detail, fact, and piles of names. Many of the characters have the same name (Thomas, Anne, Henry, Mary, Jane) and several have titles which Mantel uses interchangeably with his or her given name. This makes it nearly impossible to know who we are reading about without constantly flipping back to the five pages where she lists the ‘cast of characters’ followed by the family trees of the Tudors and the Yorks. Any time the reader gets some momentum going, the narration shifts and some confusion arises.

The novel is centered on the rise of Cromwell from son of a blacksmith to chief minister to Henry VIII, but several characters seem to compete for the main role. At times it is hard to know whether the focus is on the Archbishop of York (also known as the Cardinal and Wolsey), Henry VIII, or Anne Boylen. Midway through the 600 page tome some clarity arises, but by then the reader is simply worn out.

Summer reading should enhance our knowledge of the world and expose us to new ideas, thoughts and experiences. But, we don’t need to suffer to achieve the growth. As Richard Ford says, “I put down most books, unfinished. Most books aren’t very good, and there’s no reason they should be.” Not to say that Wolf Hall isn’t a good book. It did win the 2009 Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. It has much to recommend it, especially if you love British history. But, as a compelling narrative you can really sink your teeth into, Wolf Hall doesn’t cut it.

If you have read Wolf Hall and want to share your point of view, please provide a comment.

15 May 2012

Book Club Challenges: Part IV

2 Comments Book Club Notes, New and Exciting

Reading a wonderful novel can transport you anywhere in the world….and it’s even more enjoyable when the trip is shared with friends. This is one of the main reasons book clubs thrive, despite the challenges we sometimes face.

An ongoing issue is what book to choose. There are so many approaches–some groups let the host decide; some decide as a group; some limit their reading to fiction or non-fiction; some even ‘cook the book’ and eat according to the novel’s theme.

Regardless of approach, we love reading together.

One of our book clubs picks a theme each year and decides on all of the novels at the end of our season. In the past we have read contemporary fiction, African-American and southern, and this past year we chose prize-winning authors (we always try to find balance between the genders).

We are very excited about next year’s theme: international authors. We worked hard to find eight of the best books from around the world and chose the following:

  • To The End of the Land by David Grossman (Israel)
  • Fiasco by Irme Kertesz (Hungary)
  • Hate by Tristan Garcia (France)
  • Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes(Great Britain)
  • The Messenger by Yannick Haenel (France)
  • Last Man in Tower by Arivind Adiga (India)
  • The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller (Germany)
  • A Sport of Nature by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)

We also considered novels by Roberto Bolano (Chile), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), Tahmina Anam (Bangladesh), Haruki Murakami (Japan), Phillipe Claudel (France), and Tash Aw (Malaysia). It was difficult making our decisions since all of the authors are accomplished and worthy of our time.

Although our meetings resume in the fall, we thought we would share our list with all our smart women readers. This way you can get a head start during the summer if you’d like.

Please let us know if you’ve read any of these and have thoughts to share.

“What writers need to do is remind people of how complicated everything is. Rather than simplify as news headlines, sound bites, and political speechifiers do, our responsibility is to pose difficult questions and not take sides. Novels aren’t how-to books. The point is not to make examples out of characters, but to try to capture people’s inner lives.”– Rosellen Brown

02 May 2012

The Personal Meets The Political:
Nadine Gordimer’s The House Gun

2 Comments Book Club Notes, What You Should Read

Violence is the common hell of all who are associated with it.  –The House Gun

What happens when an upper-middle class, white South African family becomes the victim of violence? What happens when that violence is perpetuated by a member of their own family? How do a successful, community-minded physician and her religious, corporate husband cope when they discover that their only son, an architect, committed murder? And last, how do they deal with their son’s selection of a black man in post-apartheid South Africa to represent him? These questions form the core of Nadine Gordimer’s extraordinary novel, The House Gun, a must-read for smart women.

Our group wrestled with these issues last night at our monthly meeting, and the conversation was spirited.  Much of the discussion centered on the difficulties Claudia and Harald faced coming to terms with the truth about their son, Duncan. Not only does he murder one of his roommates, they discover that Duncan’s act was a crime of passion committed when he discovered his girlfriend and ex-male lover having sex on their communal sofa. (By the way, this is not a spoiler. All this is revealed in the opening pages of the novel.)

Much of how they deal with this painful tragedy reflects their sense of personal responsibility, wondering where they might have gone wrong. Their guilt is compounded by the post-apartheid world in which they live and their response to Duncan’s lawyer Hamilton Motsamai. While trying to wrap their heads around the news that shattered their life, they also confront their biases. “She’s (Claudia) not one of those doctors who touch black skin indiscriminately along with white, but retain liberal prejudices against the intellectual capacities of blacks. Yet she is questioning, and he is; in the muck in which they are stewing now, where murder is done, old prejudices still writhe to the surface.”

We were so dazzled by Gordimer’s writing and subject matter that we added A Sport of Nature to our 2012-2013 reading list. If you haven’t discovered this Nobel Prize winning author, then don’t wait any longer. There are many rewards to be found on her pages. This book that was unanimously applauded by our reading group, and we are certain it will be well-received by yours as well.

(By the way, discussion questions can be found under “Other Smart Reads.”)




11 Apr 2012

Are Women Writers Taken Seriously?

No Comments Book Club Notes, Personal Thoughts

Annie Dillard wrote, “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then–and only then–it is handed to you.” Writers, both male and female, know this. The process can be a mean, exhausting task, but it’s part of the job description.

Interestingly enough, Dillard does not discriminate between male and female authors in The Writing Life; on the contrary, she draws liberally on the experiences of all writers as she describes their sometimes grueling challenges. Nonetheless, many smart women readers seek balance in their authors, trying to spend equal time with writers from both genders.

One of our reading groups this year made a conscious decision to read only prize winning authors, eight in all, four men and four women. We are nearing the end of our journey with only Nadine Gordimer left on the roster, and none of our women disappointed us (Didion, Sontag, and Oates were the others). So, when we read Meg Wolitzer’s essay, “The Second Shelf: Are there different rules for men and women in the world of literary fiction?” we took note of her questions.

Wolitzer begins her essay by asking: “If The Marriage Plot had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention?” It’s a good question, but considering that Eugenides draws on Jane Austen, a women writer who is taken seriously, it’s hard to answer anything but ‘yes.’ And if you have read Amy Waldman’s The Submission or Nicole Krauss’s History of Love or Great House (just to name a few recent titles), then you know that there are serious, well-received contemporary women authors.

Yet, Wolitzer makes an interesting point: “The top tier of literary fiction–where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters into the public imagination and current conversation–tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male.” What do you think? Is there a gender bias in literary fiction and how a work is received? Let us hear from you.