Blog Archive for Book Club Notes

30 Oct 2011

Smart Women Aren’t Afraid of the Dark

3 Comments Book Club Notes, Personal Thoughts, Uncategorized, What You Should Read

 

Reading groups sometimes avoid certain books because members complain that they are ‘too depressing.’  Book-club-worthy novels are then summarily rejected as a result of this knee jerk response. Certainly, no one wants to sign up to be ‘depressed.’ But, the bottom line is that much of what merits a book club’s attention is dark, provocative, and upsetting, and notable authors often plumb these depths because that’s where the heart of human experience lies.

Smart women understand that it is possible to override the emotional connection to a book by hyper-engaging the intellect. Consider just a handful of noteworthy novels and their corresponding themes: A Lesson Before Dying—racial injustice ending in electrocution; Lowboy—mental illness ending in suicide; Sophie’s Choice—Nazi persecution forcing a mother to sacrifice one of her children; and The Things They Carried—war stories ending in piles of corpses and ruined psyches. Despite this radical reduction of important novels to their skeletons, each one is extraordinary and leads to a dramatic expansion of the reader’s experience far beyond everyday encounters.

And what of the scores of classics by authors ranging from Leo Tolstoy to Virginia Woolf and Henry James to Edith Wharton?  Certainly, each of these authors created a character or two that haunts the reader for a lifetime. And what of Melville’s poor Bartleby, for whom the narrator exclaims, “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” Whose life wasn’t changed by these words?

Has your reading group avoided certain titles because of the dark underbelly of human nature? If so, you might reconsider your position. Let us know what titles you have avoided or which ones you undertook and were grateful for even when met with resistance.

And, Happy Halloween…remember Smart Women Aren’t Afraid of the Dark!

20 Oct 2011

Should Book Clubs Read Joyce Carol Oates?

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

Interestingly enough, Gore Vidal told Christopher Hitchens that the three most dispiriting words in the English language were “Joyce Carol Oates”. You have to wonder if Oates’ dark view of men and her perpetual theme of the exploitation of women inspired Vidal’s remark. However, Oates generates much discussion and is not a universally loved writer of fiction.

But, you have to admire a writer who has won almost every major prize, including the National Book Award. She teaches at Princeton University, where young Jonathan Safran Foer was her student. She makes speaking appearances, and she contributes short pieces to magazines, including Narrative and the New Yorker. She’s very busy — and she produces more work (I think more than 37 novels to date) than seems humanly possible. (LA Times).

And, who is more adept at describing the dark undercurrents of adolescent sexuality? Her 2007 novel, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, centers on Rebecca, who is thrust into the world after her deranged father kills her mother and then himself with a shotgun. Rebecca’s two older brothers abandoned the family before the murder-suicide, leaving Rebecca alone in the world. Although she is taken in by her teacher who tries desperately to make a Christian out of her, the sixteen year old Rebecca winds up cleaning rooms at the George Washington Hotel. It is here that she meets Niles Tignor, a stranger that Rebecca innocently believes will marry her and carry her to a better life. Sadly, more violence awaits poor Rebecca, from which she seems unable to escape.

In her much anthologized story with a similar theme “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Joyce Carol Oates explores the turmoil that characterizes the life of another adolescent girl. The main character is a typically rebellious teenager named Connie. She is contemptuous of adult authority and decides to forego a family outing to stay home and wash her hair. Now vulnerable to danger lurking in the adult world, Arnold Friend shows up at her front door. He taunts her and threatens to kill her family if she doesn’t leave her home with him. In the end, she joins him, and the reader is all too aware of the fate that awaits her in this dark story.

So, why should women read Joyce Carol Oates? In the end, is the draw of her fiction much like that of a bad car accident–it’s just too hard not to look? This is surely an oversimplification of a woman writer who has a guaranteed place in the canon of American literature.

What do you think? What novels or short stories have you read and how did you react to them? Has your book club read any Oates? Let other smart women hear your opinion on the writer that led Vidal to make such a wicked statement.

06 Oct 2011

A Book Lover’s Conundrum

1 Comment Book Club Notes

What does it mean to be a responsible reader? And, when is it okay to put a book aside because it just isn’t working for you?

Our book club had to confront these questions this summer as we tried to plow through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. We made the commitment to read the book at our final session of the season. We knew that it would take the better part of the summer to get through it, but we really wanted to tackle the 1,000 pages and see why it is considered one of the best contemporary novels. But, sometime in July, email messages started going back and forth.

One of our members, a dedicated and very smart reader, wrote: “I would be relieved to not feel obligated to continue reading Infinite Jest. It is so depressing. Sometimes it’s just easier to stop. I find myself reading 20-30 pages and then going on to read something else and then going back to it out of obligation. It’s difficult, like listening to stream of consciousness from someone not quite sane and personally distasteful to me. I keep hoping it will get better for me but after your reply to me I realize I am not alone in my reaction to the book.”

Last night, when we reconvened for our 2011-2012 season, we discussed what our aversion to this book means and, as a responsible reader, when it is ok to put aside a book without finishing it. In the end, we decided that if reading feels too much like work and that sitting with a book brings about feelings of dread, then these are clear signs that it is time to change course.

What do you think? When have you decided to put a book aside? Let’s hear what you have to say about this book lover’s conundrum.