Blog Archive for Book Reviews

24 Oct 2017

On a personal note

No Comments Book Reviews

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…..an 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

No Comments 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.

 

 

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 Dec 2015

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout: One of The New York Times “Ten Best of 2015”

No Comments Book Reviews, New and Exciting

Like the entire town of Dickens, I was my father’s child, a product of my environment, and nothing more. Dickens was me. And I was my father. Problem is, they both disappeared from my life, first my dad, then my hometown, and I suddenly had no idea who I was, and no clue how to become myself.

These lines represent the serious underpinnings of what The New York Times described as “this year’s most cheerfully outrageous satire that takes as its subject a young black man’s desire to segregate his local school and to reinstate slavery in his home–before careening off to consider almost 400 years of black survival in America….Beatty’s novel is a fearless, multicultural pot almost too hot to touch.”

But, make sure not to drink too much coffee before starting this manic, exuberant, and disturbing novel. The writer’s energy is palpable as is his piling on of allusions and references to just about everything cultural, philosophical, historical, political, and intellectual. The pace is dizzying but captivating, and your mind will travel through the rampages of American history and its legacy of racism in a way no other author has achieved. Indeed, this is a satire. Yet, like all great satires, the medium is the message. Keep your eyes wide open for Beatty’s truth–it will remind you that even justice is not blind.

For discussion questions on Paul Beatty’s The Sellout click here