Blog Archive for Book Reviews

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.

01 May 2013

The Journey Ends in Africa

No Comments Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts

As the 2012-2013 season comes to an end, we’d like to say a few things about reading world literature. We have worked our way through an extremely ambitious list (see below), and somehow maintained good spirits and enthusiasm.  We are concluding our adventure with Nadine Gordimer’s A Sport of Nature (South Africa) and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (Nigeria), and we certainly have stretched our minds through this experience.

As David Damrosch, author of How to Read World Literature writes, “Reaching back over nearly five millenia and extending today to almost every inhabited region of the globe, world literature offers its readers an unparalleled variety of literary pleasures and cultural experiences. Yet this variety also poses exceptional challenges, as we cannot expect to approach all these works with the fund of cultural knowledge that readers share with works within a single tradition.”

We have found this to be true, and perhaps this is why we are all mentally and psychologically depleted. It was really hard to read about so much suffering, pain, war, starvation, and hatred. What we do know is that reading international fiction dials up the empathy factor and creates awareness of the difficulties so many people face on a daily basis.

A few thoughts on A Sport of Nature and Things Fall Apart–The former is a sophisticated, complex, sweeping political novel which crosses the African continent. The main character is on a journey of self-discovery and constantly morphing. The latter is a local, primitive, cultural parable whose main character represents the plight of tribal life as colonialism takes hold in Nigeria. While the structure and content of these two novels couldn’t be more different, in the end they are both about the conflicts between whites and blacks in Africa.

But, the most significant difference is that both the author and main character of A Sport of Nature are white South Africans, and the author and main character of Things Fall Apart are black Nigerians. While both novels deal with race relations, the power of Things Fall Apart is infinitely stronger. We would suggest that you read both since they provide an interesting point-counterpoint to one another.

Nadine Gordimer “hailed Mr. Achebe in a review in The New York Times in 1988, calling him ‘a novelist who makes you laugh and then catch your breath in horror — a writer who has no illusions but is not disillusioned.'” The same could be said about Gordimer, but not for the same reasons. She looks at her world from 30,000 feet while Achebe’s feet are planted firmly on the ground.

  • To The End of the Land • David Grossman
  • Fiasco • Irme Kertesz
  • Hate • Tristan Garcia
  • Flaubert’s Parrot •  Julian Barnes
  • The Messenger • Yannick Haenel
  • Last Man in Tower • Aravind Adiga
  • The Hunger Angel • Herta Muller
  • A Sport of Nature • Nadine Gordimer


06 Apr 2013

The Big Read: Tim O’Brien’s
The Things They Carried

No Comments Book Reviews

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

In honor of Tim O’Brien’s keynote lecture as part of The Big Read on Tuesday, April 9, we are featuring this blog originally posted last year. For more information on The Big Read, click here.

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”

28 Mar 2013

Lean in to Literature

5 Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts

In her highly-publicized bestseller Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg seeks to understand why working women still struggle to achieve parity in positions of leadership. As the chief operating officer of Facebook, she has a good view from the top and offers practical advice for building a successful career. She writes, “Women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves…These internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention, in part because they are under our own control.”

Some readers are critical of Sandberg, claiming that her message is aimed only at those women already groomed for positions of power. However, at the core of her vision is a question at the heart of  good literature–how does a human being overcome significant challenges to find her or his place in the world?

At this time, is revisiting one of Pearl S. Buck’s classics, Pavilion of Women. Published more than sixty years ago, the novel  follows the evolution of Madame Wu, the matriarch of an important Chinese family. Her transformation begins on her 40th birthday when she makes a conscious decision to satisfy some of her own longings. Prior to this time, Madame Wu cultivated perfection by making a fine art of managing her family and its affairs; nonetheless, she never explored her inner feelings or personal desires. Her life was relegated to ‘duty’ (not unlike most women in the 21st century who struggle to balance family, work and spiritual growth).

Madame Wu remembers the words Brother Andre (the character that serves as the catalyst for her insight) offered as she sought wisdom: “To lift a soul above its natural level is a dangerous act. Souls, like springs, have their natural resources, and to force them beyond is against nature and therefore a dangerous act…The wisdom is to weigh and judge the measure of a soul and let it live where it belongs.” This ‘weighing’ that Brother Andre speaks of is in our own hands, and we find guidance, support and encouragement from what we read (fiction and non-fiction), and though sharing our understanding of the literature with one another. This is the greatest gift of our reading groups, and the most likely explanation of their popularity with smart women.

So, we encourage our smart women readers to consider Sandberg’s book in the context of the literature we read together. Any bildungsroman (novel centered on self-development) that we explore with one another, Richard Ford’s Canada is a recent and very good example, is the best place to look for inspiration and life lessons. Let us know what novels opened your eyes to new possibilities by posting a comment.

26 Feb 2013

The Power of Passive Resistance:
Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower

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

What happens when “Bartleby the Scrivener” meets The Lord of the Flies? As you can imagine, the results are not pretty. In Aravind Adiga’s second novel about India (The White Tiger was his first and won the Booker Prize), the reader is drawn into a world of greed and corruption and witnesses a radical breakdown in human behavior. While much of the frustration that motivates the characters’ behavior is unique to India, the frightening results are universal.

Last Man in Tower centers on the conflict of two main characters, the greedy and narcissistic real estate developer Dharmen Shah, and Masterji, a retired teacher and once esteemed resident of the Vishram Society (a co-op in Mumbai that is considered ‘pucca’ or solid and upstanding). Shah is a man obsessed with reshaping the face of India and reaping the extraordinary financial rewards. Masterji, unlike most of the residents of his building, refuses Shah’s life-changing buyout offer, a real windfall for these families. Masterji doesn’t see any value in leaving his home, and since they live in a co-op, they all have to agree or there is no deal.

As the face-off between these two men unfolds, Masterji’s neighbors grow increasingly frustrated and conspire to change Masterji’s mind. As he digs in, his fellow residents and former friends begin to despair and devise numerous plots to get Masterji to rethink his position.

Masterji becomes a classic passive resister. Although he is being ambushed by the developer, his ‘left-hand man’, and his neighbors, Masterji is convinced that he is doing the right thing. He also believes that he is standing for all the down-trodden residents of Mumbai who will ultimately be forced out of their homes (which is some cases are poles and tarps at the edge of a running sewer). However, the more he quietly and patiently ignores the pleas of his neighbors, the worse the situation becomes. And, while Masterji sees his acts as noble and honoring the memory of his deceased daughter and wife, the reader has to wonder what his real motives are as well.

The novel is compelling not only because we are anxious to see how far the group will go to change Masterji’s position but also because it explores how one person, steadfast in a point of view, can provoke dark actions. There is no established social order to turn to, neither the police, the media, nor family and friends, will stand up for Masterji. This leaves the final act in the hands of the residents of the pucca Vishram Society, and in the end, it is not so pucca after all.

Click here for discussion questions on Last Man in Tower.