Blog Archive for Book Club Notes

21 Mar 2012

Book Club Challenges: Part III

No Comments Book Club Notes, Personal Thoughts

The novel is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. –Annie Murphy Paul

If reading fiction is the ideal way to “enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings,” then belonging to a book club is the quintessential social experience. Smart women grow through the exploration of what we are reading while we deepen our bonds with one another.

Yet, the success of a reading group depends on the goodwill of its members. It is important to listen, to engage, and to respect one another as we work together to gain greater understandings of the fiction at hand.

Maintaining this positive experience is sometimes a challenge, so we offer a few suggestions:

  1. Set aside social time. We are always eager to see one another and catch up on what’s been happening in each other’s lives. However, this may overshadow the reason we are meeting—to discuss a specific book. So, the best approach is to begin each meeting with a dedicated social time (say twenty to thirty minutes). Then, when you sit to discuss the book, you can maintain your focus. Make a commitment to this clear demarcation between social and discussion time. And, as a courtesy to one another, arrive at your meetings on time.
  2. Read with a purpose. While you are reading, ask yourself questions. What is the book about? What are the significant themes? Which characters are compelling and why? Does the work have flaws? Write some of your thoughts and take them to your meeting. Be prepared and take your reading seriously (this also means finishing the book before the discussion).
  3. Select books in advance. How does your book club select the readings? Do you pick one book at a time or do you establish a list for your season? Is your group flexible and encourage reading that you wouldn’t ordinarily select, or do you limit yourselves to contemporary fiction, as an example? Is the purpose of reading as a group more social or intellectual, and does this impact the books you pick? Regardless of your response, it makes good sense to follow some kind of model. This eliminates the need to spend much of your time talking about what you are going to read and allows you to dedicate your meeting to the book you are currently reviewing. It is helpful to appoint one member as “the keeper of the list,” and this person can document new titles for the next round of selections.
  4. Pick a moderator. Some groups hire a facilitator to keep the discussion on track. But, you can do this yourselves. For each discussion, identify one group member who will prepare the questions and lead the conversation. The moderator also is responsible for keeping the group focused and minimizing sidebar conversations.
  5. Be kind to each other. Challenges will arise in our book clubs. Some members will dominate a discussion, arrive late, or insist on a particular point of view. Some will fail to read or finish the book. Be open and truthful with one another when these issues arise. Be direct and address your concerns kindly and clearly in the best interest of maintaining a healthy group dynamic.
We are interested in issues that have arisen in your reading groups. Please share with us by clicking on ‘comment’ at the top of this blog.

I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.–John Burroughs

13 Mar 2012

Making Sense of Julian Barnes’ Ending

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

The New York Times critic Liesl Schillinger writes, “In The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes reveals crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden. He has honed their edges, and polished them to a high gleam.” Also of The New York Times, Geoff Dyer suggests, “Any extreme expression of opinion about The Sense of an Ending seems inappropriate. It isn’t terrible, it is just so average.”

So how does a smart woman reconcile such divergent points of view? This is one of the more fascinating questions that many reading groups deal with when discussing fiction. Ultimately, how we feel about any work is based on our own reactions and impressions, and in the case of The Sense of an Ending, we would more likely agree with Dyer’s position than Schillinger’s. And for one specific reason: This mostly strong novel is compromised by a convoluted ending.

An accessible and fairly short book, there is much to recommend it. The novel teases out an interesting theme: Is it better to live a meaningless life or to commit a meaningful suicide? Early in the story, a young classmate named Robson commits suicide ostensibly because his girlfriend is pregnant. His suicide note reads, “Sorry, Mum.” This gives rise to a compelling conversation led mostly by Adrian who quotes Camus: “Suicide was the only true philosophical question.”

In his own suicide note, Adrian writes, “Life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; that the thinking person has the philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision.” Clearly, this is heavy stuff, not to mention the novel’s other themes of history, time, and memory.

The characters are finely drawn and the story line is solid, but in addition to the issues with the ending there are problems with the reliability of the narrator, Tony Webster. He asks, “Who was it who said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient–it’s not useful–to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.” If the narrator is continually filling in the blanks without any certainty, where does that leave the poor reader?

While the novel is flawed, we would still recommend it as a good selection for reading groups. There is much to discuss, and the writing (as reflected by some of the passages above) is quite good. And, Julian Barnes did win the Man Booker Prize in 2011 for this work.

By the way, one of our reading groups will meet to discuss this book on Saturday. If you are interested, discussion questions will be found under Other Smart Reads.

08 Feb 2012

Rethinking The Marriage Plot: A 21st Century Choice or Still a Cultural Imperative

No Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, New and Exciting, Personal Thoughts, What You Should Read

In The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides third novel following The Virgin Suicides (1993) and Middlesex (2002), the author both deconstructs and reconstructs a theme of great interest to smart women—the ongoing value and prevalence of marriage in our culture.

As a literary device (seen in novels and film), the marriage plot centers on ‘the courtship rituals between a man and woman and the obstacles that the potential couple faces on the way to the nuptial payoff.’ In the novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, as well as Edith Wharton and Henry James, the marriage plot is used not only as a device for advancing the plot, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for providing social commentary on marriage itself.

Following the traditions of the marriage plot, Eugenides provides an interesting reconsideration of the importance of marriage in the 20th century (more precisely at Brown in the early 80s). He does this quite cleverly by creating three characters, Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus, who inevitably form a love triangle. Early on, Mitchell declares, “‘I’m going to marry this girl!’ The knowledge went through him like electricity, a feeling of destiny.” But you have to stay tuned to see what actually happens.

What is interesting, however, is that Madeleine is a burgeoning Austen scholar (a Janeist) who is writing her honors thesis on the marriage plot. So, while finding her own academic voice, she is also exploring her own ideas of love and marriage. What becomes evident to her as the novel unfolds is that she faces many of the same historical and social struggles in determining what path to take on her personal and professional journey.

In the end, what makes The Marriage Plot a worthwhile read for smart women is its lively, fresh take on an established story line. And, although the author provides us with an authentic marriage plot for our times, the bottom line is that the desire to build intimacy and form a lifelong partnership is as powerful now as it was in Jane Austen’s day. Surely there are differences, yet marriage is alive and well in 2012.  And if Eugenides is right, it will be around for a long time to come.

10 Jan 2012

More Thoughts on The Submission

No Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, New and Exciting

The Tomba Cecilia Metela

As promised, here are some additional thoughts on Amy Waldman’s The Submission. Our book club discussion on this novel was among our liveliest, and we agreed that this is an outstanding work of contemporary fiction. We found the characters authentic and their conflicts generated much important thinking for the reader.

Our conversation centered primarily on Mo, Claire, Asma, and Sean, and if their behavior was consistent with what they believed to be their core values. In the case of Mo and Claire, the actions they take find them both alone and isolated twenty years after the contest. It is hard to know, however, if their lives would have wound up much differently had they not found themselves in the 9/11 maelstrom. Asma and Sean, on the other hand, took more dramatic action: Asma loses her life, Sean loses his family–but they both fulfill a need to be true to themselves.

This novel forces the thoughtful reader to confront her own biases and challenge herself to ask the hard questions. And as Tom Junod of Esquire magazine writes:

The Submission is not a religious novel but rather a secular one that takes religion very seriously. It is not a political novel but rather a novel about the ongoing redefinition of the place where politics starts. It is a novel of large public concern, and yet what it suggests is that over the last decade “the public” in America has just become an excuse for “the private” to hold sway — for people to submit to impulses they didn’t know they had. It is a portrait of a country almost terrifyingly free and at the same time endlessly involved in the task its title describes: either trying to get up off its knees or fall down to them.”

Indeed, The Submission does force these questions and unsettles the reader in an important and significant way, and that is precisely why this is a must read for smart women.

If you haven’t read the novel yet, the descriptions below give you a good sense of the cast as provided by the author on her site

Mohammed Khan: The Architect

Every day brought more proof that the attackers were Muslims, seeking the martyr’s straight shot to paradise—and so Mo braced for suspicion as he returned to the theater under construction. A few days later he realized that the difference wasn’t in how he was being treated but in how he was behaving. Customarily brusque on work sites, he had become gingerly, polite, careful to give no cause for alarm or criticism. He didn’t like this new, more cautious avatar, whose efforts at accommodation hinted at some feeling of guilt, yet he couldn’t quite shake him. Read more

03 Nov 2011

The Redemptive Power of Storytelling

No Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts, Uncategorized, What You Should Read

There is fiction in the space between
The lines on your page of memories
Write it down but it doesn’t mean
You’re not just telling stories

–Tracy Chapman

Although Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried is ostensibly about the Vietnam War, for this reader it is really a discourse on how narratives shape our past, present, and future.

Through a series of interrelated vignettes about Alpha Company, O’Brien retells and reshapes what they experienced, especially the deaths of his comrades. Seen through the lens of the horrors of war, storytelling becomes an essential coping mechanism for the entire platoon. And for the author, it becomes critical to his sanity after the war ends. The Things They Carried is considered a “ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, and imagination,” and just a handful of writers have offered such insight on the “redemptive power of storytelling.”

In “Notes,” (one of twenty-one chapters in his book) O’Brien examines his own guilt about his fellow soldier Kiowa’s death:

By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field,and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless clarify and explain.

Ands, in “Speaking of Courage,” he writes:

I did not look on my work as therapy, and still don’t. Yet when I received Norman Bowker’s letter it occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse.

O’Brien’s book is a must read for Smart Women. It not only reminds us of the psychological, emotional, and physical costs of war but provides one of the best views of why we tell stories in the first place.

For more  on The Things They Carried as well as discussion questions for book clubs, please look at “Other Smart Reads”