Blog Archive for Book Reviews

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.

02 Jan 2014

Happy New Year!

No Comments Book Reviews
We can't smile or laugh often enough.  This story shared by LeeRoy Garrett should get your week off to a perfect start:One morning, the husband returns the boat to their lakeside cottage after several hours of fishing and decides to take a nap.Although not familiar with the lake, the wife decides to take the boat out. She motors out a short distance, anchors, puts her feet up, and begins to read her book. The peace and solitude are magnificent.Along comes a Fish and Game Warden in his boat.He pulls up alongside the woman and says, 'Good morning, Ma'am. What are you doing?''Reading a book,' she replies, (thinking, 'Isn't that obvious?').'You're in a Restricted Fishing Area,' he informs her.'I'm sorry, officer, but I'm not fishing. I'm reading.''Yes, but I see you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment. I'll have to take you in and write you up.''If you do that, I'll have to charge you with sexual assault,' says the woman.'But I haven't even touched you,' says the Game Warden.'That's true, but you have all the equipment..For all I know you could start at any moment.''Have a nice day ma'am,' and he left.MORAL:Never argue with a woman who reads.It's likely she can also think.

A dear friend who lives in Rome sent this delightful anecdote to us. We had to share with our whatsmartwomenread friends.

One morning, the husband returns the boat to their lakeside cottage after several hours of fishing and decides to take a nap. Although not familiar with the lake, the wife decides to take the boat out. She motors out a short distance, anchors, puts her feet up, and begins to read her book. The peace and solitude are magnificent.

Along comes a Fish and Game Warden in his boat. He pulls up alongside the woman and says, “Good morning, Ma’am. What are you doing?” “Reading a book,” she replies, (thinking, ‘Isn’t that obvious?’).

“You’re in a Restricted Fishing Area,” he informs her. “I’m sorry, officer, but I’m not fishing. I’m reading.”

“Yes, but I see you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment. I’ll have to take you in and write you up.” “If you do that, I’ll have to charge you with sexual assault,” says the woman.

“But I haven’t even touched you,” says the Game Warden. “That’s true, but you have all the equipment… For all I know you could start at any moment.” “Have a nice day ma’am,” and he left.

MORAL: Never argue with a woman who reads. It’s likely she can also think.
05 Nov 2013

The Center Cannot Hold:
Things Fall Apart and Purple Hibiscus

2 Comments Book Reviews, New and Exciting, What You Should Read

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
from “The Second Coming” by WB Yeats

Both Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus make specific reference to Yeats’s oft-quoted and powerful poem, “The Second Coming.” This naturally leads the reader to ask these questions: What exactly is falling apart in the two cultures described by Achebe and Adichie, and why is it that the ‘center cannot hold’? And, most importantly, who are the characters in these authors novels that ‘lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity’? These are complex questions, but the answers unlock the key to understanding these texts.

Let’s look first at Things Fall Apart and the clash of cultures that leads to the destruction of the Ibo way of life. The main character, Okonkwo represents the plight of tribal life as colonialism takes hold in Nigeria. He is heroic in his fight against the missionaries and wants desperately to preserve the social order of his tribe. However, that is the more ‘global’ conflict of the novel. Okonkwo also is deeply ashamed of his father who he despises for his weakness, and this obsession leads to his destruction.

In Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, the patriarch Eugene is also deeply troubled by the conflicts in his country. He advocates the return to democracy from military rule through his newspaper, The Standard, and he is devoted to the editor who risks his life to write controversial editorials. Like Okonkwo, however, he refuses to acknowledge his father who adheres to a pagan faith and refuses to let his children visit him. In fact, when Kambili brings a drawing of her grandfather into their home, Eugene beats her within an inch of her life. This hatred, like the one that consumes Okonkwo, becomes his tragic flaw and destroys the entire family.

What is remarkable and important about these novels (and all noteworthy novels, actually) is that they deal with both external (political/religious) forces and internal (family/moral) struggles. They are inextricably linked, for better or for worse, and precisely what makes a piece of fiction universal. The pain that the reader experiences as both cultures and families fall apart is real since we know from personal experience that this is the nature of being human.

And this is why we recommend that your book groups consider reading these novels together (Achebe first, then Adichie). You might also watch Chimamanda Adichie talk about Achebe at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41Na23h9-AE  

Let us know if you decide to pursue this course by posting a comment on www.whatsmartwomenread.com

 

30 Sep 2013

Vladimir Girshkin: Wimp or Rogue?

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

El_Arco_de_su_vida__2Vladimir Girshkin, the main character of Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, has been described as a modern day rogue. One critic suggested that the novel was written “in the tradition of narrative that Sir Walter Scott once dubbed ‘a romance of roguery, inviting the audience to identify with a central character branded the underdog and yet who is simultaneously–subversively–in charge, living by his wits as he makes his gloriously unfettered way in an unwelcoming world.'” This genre is also referred to as the picaresque.

Based on the characteristics of the picaresque novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook meets most of the criteria:

  • The protaganist is of low character and social class, rarely holding a job and gets by with wit or cunning.
  • The novel is held together by a series of loosely connected adventures or episodes.
  • There is little if any character development in the main character.
  • Circumstances may change but rarely result in a change of heart.
  • Satire may be a prominent element.
  • The behavior of a picaresque hero or rogue stops just short of criminality.
  • Carefree or immoral rascality positions the picaresque hero as a sympathetic outsider, untouched by the false rules of society.

It is much easier to appreciate Shtenyngart’s novel (and his writing) if considered with these elements in mind. Vladimir can be trying as a protagonist; he engages in so much absurd behavior that the reader often loses interest in him and his ambitions. He wanders willy nilly across the globe, at times escaping, at times hiding, and every now and then, searching. But the problem for this reader is that it becomes too easy not to care about Vladimir. Not because he lacks maturity, insight, or wisdom but because he has no core values. Even as he escapes from his problems, he just lands into a whole new bundle of them.

So, the answer to the question, is Vladimir Girshkin a wimp or a rogue–that’s for you to decide. Let us know what you think of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook by posting a comment on the blog. Our next book for the season is Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie. We invite you to read this novel along with us.

19 Jul 2013

The Botany of Desire:
An Exploration of Consciousness

1 Comment Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts, What You Should Read

OlivetreeandbranchesAs promised, this summer whatsmartwomenread is dipping into some non-fiction. Our first selection, Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, turned out to be a winner. Who would imagine that a slim volume about the apple, tulip, cannabis, and potato would make for such interesting reading?  Pollan’s observations are wonderful, especially those focused on the co-evolutionary relationship between man and plant.

His examples look at our uses for plants–the apple for sweetness, tulip for beauty, cannabis for intoxication, and potato for nourishment. However, he also has the reader consider the possibility that plants use humans for their survival. More than anything, the author’s enthusiasm for his subject is contagious–even his meditations on the potato (although you may not want to eat them anymore!).

All four sections contain details that surprise the reader (Johnny Appleseed brought the apple to the new world not for notions of health and wholesomeness but for the gift of alcohol). But the section that we found most compelling was the one on cannabis,what he deems a “useful tool for exploring consciousness.” This psychoactive plant “teaches us what lies on the other side,” “where our materialistic understanding of the brain stops–at least for the time being, but possibly forever.”

Pollan writes: “By disabling our moment-by-moment memory, which is ever pulling us off the astounding frontier of the present and throwing us back onto the mapped byways of the past, the cannabinoids open a space for something nearer to direct experience.” Pollan also talks about the value of forgetting, which is “vastly underrated as a mental operation….For it is only by forgetting that we ever really drop the thread of time and approach the experience of living in the present moment, so elusive in ordinary hours.”

According to The New York Times, ”The Botany of Desire is full of such moments — moments when the thickets of rhetoric and supposition clear, and the reader stumbles onto a thesis as elegant and orderly as an apple orchard. If the sum total isn’t quite ‘a natural history of the human imagination,’ as Pollan hopes, it manages to deliver — without threat of jail time — what mind-altering plants have always promised: “New ways of looking at things, and, occasionally, whole new mental constructs.” It restores “a kind of innocence to our perceptions of the world.”

If you are looking for a book that will expose you to unusual yet fascinating ideas, then check out The Botany of Desire. You won’t be disappointed.