Blog Archive for Book Reviews

14 Sep 2012

Coming of Age in Richard Ford’s Canada

No Comments Book Reviews, What You Should Read

One noteworthy selection from this season’s literary line-up  is Richard Ford’s Canada, and it is certainly worth your reading group’s attention. A remarkably written, patiently drawn coming of age story, Ford’s compelling first-person narrative delves into the characters’ minds in a stunning fashion. What is even more impressive is that our speaker, Dell Parsons, tells his story when he is in his sixties yet captures the sensibility of his 15-year-old self.

Richard Ford’s novels are typically very ‘male’ (consider the Frank Bascombe trilogy of which Independence Day won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize). While Canada’s central characters are male, the prose in this graceful novel is gentle, delicate, and insightful. Consider this passage:

“I feared I’d end up knowing nothing, have nothing to rely on that could distinguish  me. I’m sure it was all an inheritance from my mother’s feelings of an unrewarded life. Though it may have also been that our parents, aswirl in the thickening confusion of their own young lives–not being made for each other, probably not physically desiring each other as they briefly had, becoming gradually only satellites of each other, and coming eventually to resent one another without completely realizing it–didn’t offer my sister and me enough to hold on to, which is what parents are supposed to do. However, blaming your parents for your life’s difficulties finally leads nowhere.”

As Dell conveys his story, we can smell and feel his fear and disappointment. Although there is much happening that might destroy his psyche (look at the impact of the family events on his twin sister), Dell is able to observe, experience, and somehow survive devastating events and maintain his equanimity. Ron Charles of The Washington Post writes, “Dell is haunted by that saddest lament–“If only”–the burden of what ruined men might have been, but he fundamentally rejects despair and cynicism in favor of what he’s learned to be true.” In the end, Dell crosses from innocence to experience intact.

We highly recommend this masterwork to our smart women readers along with the men in their lives. Let us know what you think of Canada by posting your comments on this blog.

For discussion questions, click here.

24 Aug 2012

Nathan Englander: Modern Storyteller

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

Because to a story, there is context. There is always context in life.–Free Fruit for Young Widows

If  Raymond Carver is a master storyteller who provides the most pared down snapshots of human drama, then Nathan Englander is a modern storyteller who fleshes out his narratives to provide the context for specific behaviors. Both are brilliant at crafting short narratives and engaging the reader, yet their styles are distinctive.

Englander, whose work we will be discussing in our second short story session at Books and Books, draws scenes that provide much more than just the bones. While never sacrificing form, Englander layers his fiction with history and politics to show that human behavior cannot be divorced from what is happening in the world around us.

We will focus part two of our discussion on three of Englander’s stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” “Sister Hills,” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows.” With the first, we will compare his story with Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and specifically address why Englander chose the Carver story as an inspiration.

We will also engage in conversation about the following:

  • The title story, “Sister Hills,” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows” all pivot around incidents within Jewish history, and the question of how essential stories—stories that define us, that shape both our understanding of the past and our vision of the future—are told and retold over the course of many years. What do you think Englander is suggesting about history, tradition, and storytelling itself?
  • “Sister Hills” can be read as a political allegory based on the story of a bargain struck in order to save the life of a critically ill child.  In this reading, who or what does the child represent, and what meaning can be inferred from the exchange of money? What is the relevance of the two mothers?
  • Discuss the contrast between the narrative form of “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” in which a father is lovingly recounting a story to his son, and the story’s actual substance. How does this dissonance contribute to the story’s power? What is the significance of the comment Etgar’s father makes when Etgar is twelve: “Do you want to know why I can care for a man who once beat me? Because to a story, there is context. There is always context in life.”
  • In “Free Fruit for Young Widows” Englander distinguishes between two kinds of survival, saying that Professor Tendler “made it through the camps. He walks, he breathes, and he was very close to making it out of Europe alive. But they killed him. After the war, we still lost people. They killed what was left of him in the end.”  What does he mean?

Raymond Carver and Nathan Englander use perfect language to convey loss, despair, intimacy, tenderness, shame, truth, justice, and pain and suffering all in the space of a short story. Yet, Englander is becoming more Carveresque: “Generally Englander works with a light touch, a nearly whimsical sobriety. He is more of a minimalist here, even when exploring the thickets of cognitive dissonance that flourish between faith and falsehood.” (NY Times 2/19/12)

To our ears, that sounds like the highest praise. Let us know what you think about Carver and Englander by posting a comment on our blog.

(Questions adapted from those found on the Random House website.)

 

16 Aug 2012

Raymond Carver: Master Storyteller

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

You could write a story about this ashtray, for example, and a man and a woman. But the man and the woman are always the two poles of your story. The North Pole and the South. Every story has these two poles. –A.P. Chekhov

When we sat down to write this blog we struggled with how to best describe Raymond Carver’s spare yet powerful writing style. A short story master, his work explores loss, loneliness, despair and anxiety without an ounce of sentimentality. Nothing is ever over-written. His prose strikes exactly the right notes and hits the reader with an exacting punch.  But who better to describe good writing than Carver himself? In “On Writing,” he states:

It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things–a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring–with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine….that’s the kind of writing that most interests me…..In Isaac Babel’s wonderful short story “Guy de Maupassant,” the narrator has this to say about the writing of fiction: “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.” This ought to go on a three-by-five.

With these thoughts in mind, we will explore three of Carver’s best stories next week at Books and Books: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” “Where I’m Calling From,” and “A Small Good Thing.”  Questions we will consider include:

  • Do Carver’s characters learn or grow from their experiences?
  • How do they express themselves? Do they understand their emotions and limitations?
  • Is Carver’s minimalist style appropriate for conveying his themes?
  • What kind of characters appeal to Carver and why?
  • Does Carver sympathize with the working class man and woman?
  • Is Carver using his fiction to convey a message?
  • How does he create tension?
We are looking forward to a lively discussion. If you are unable to join us, please visit the blog for a recap of the session or to post your comments.

 

 

01 Aug 2012

Summertime Short Story Fix

2 Comments Book Reviews

Summertime is perfect for short fiction, especially if you need an ‘in-between novels’ fiction fix. With this in mind, Books & Books, an independent bookstore in Coral Gables, Florida, is holding two classes (August 20 and 27) focusing on topnotch short stories.

For the first session, we will be reading from Raymond Carver’s classic collection Where I’m Calling From. Our discussion will include the title story as well as “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and “A Small, Good Thing.”

For the second session, we will read from Nathan Englander’s latest release entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. We will start with the title story and consider its connections to Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” We will also discuss “Sister Hills” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows” (which first appeared in The New Yorker).

So, if you are hungry for summer snacks instead of full meals, consider joining us for these sessions. Details can be find on the Books and Books site.

If you are not local but would like to participate, you can follow the discussion on our blog at www.whatsmartwomenread.com

 

 

02 Jul 2012

Summer Slog: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

No Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts

Last summer one of our reading groups decided to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which we abandoned after much fretting and conversation. It was just too heavy for the lighter fare most smart women look for in their summer selections. Plus, any book with 96 pages of footnotes requires the kind of dedication few of us have at any time of year.

While Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall couldn’t be more different from Infinite Jest, it is a real slog. The historical novel, to its credit, opens with flair and drama as the reader witnesses the brutal beating a young Thomas Cromwell endures from his father: “So now get up!” Walter is roaring down at him, working out where to kick him next. He lifts his head an inch or two, and moves forward, on his belly, trying to do it without exposing his hands, on which Walter enjoys stamping. “What are you, an eel?” His parent asks. He trots backward, gathers pace, and aims another kick.”

Well, it’s pretty sad when the highlight of a book comes on page 1. Even though Thomas grieves when his beloved wife and two daughters die during one of England’s summer plagues, the reader feels no pain. The narration is bogged down by detail, fact, and piles of names. Many of the characters have the same name (Thomas, Anne, Henry, Mary, Jane) and several have titles which Mantel uses interchangeably with his or her given name. This makes it nearly impossible to know who we are reading about without constantly flipping back to the five pages where she lists the ‘cast of characters’ followed by the family trees of the Tudors and the Yorks. Any time the reader gets some momentum going, the narration shifts and some confusion arises.

The novel is centered on the rise of Cromwell from son of a blacksmith to chief minister to Henry VIII, but several characters seem to compete for the main role. At times it is hard to know whether the focus is on the Archbishop of York (also known as the Cardinal and Wolsey), Henry VIII, or Anne Boylen. Midway through the 600 page tome some clarity arises, but by then the reader is simply worn out.

Summer reading should enhance our knowledge of the world and expose us to new ideas, thoughts and experiences. But, we don’t need to suffer to achieve the growth. As Richard Ford says, “I put down most books, unfinished. Most books aren’t very good, and there’s no reason they should be.” Not to say that Wolf Hall isn’t a good book. It did win the 2009 Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. It has much to recommend it, especially if you love British history. But, as a compelling narrative you can really sink your teeth into, Wolf Hall doesn’t cut it.

If you have read Wolf Hall and want to share your point of view, please provide a comment.