Blog Archive for Book Reviews

25 May 2012

A Source of Stillness:
Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding

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The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.–Aparicio Rodriguez

If you are a smart woman looking for a wonderful summer book (now available in paperback for those who still like to hold their fiction) then here’s our pick. While this is not a light read, it is just perfect for the dog days ahead.

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach’s remarkable novel, takes place at Westish College, “that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin.” This is the ideal backdrop for a tender coming of age story, but that is just a small part of the sweeping novel Harbach creates. But what is really so compelling and unusual is that this is actually several stories of initiation linked by one zen-like character named Owen Dunne (called “Buddha” by his friends).

Circling Owen is his roommate Henry, Henry’s mentor Mike, and Mike’s girlfriend, Pella Affenlight. To complicate matters a bit, Pella is the college president’s daughter, and the college president (Guert Affenlight) falls in love with Owen.

And should you need a touch more enticing, Westish has an unusual backstory. Inspired by a lecture Guert finds ‘tucked between two brittle magazines’  in the Westish library in 1969 authored by none other than Herman Melville, the school’s mascot becomes a whale and the athletic teams are named The Harpooners.  And, while Westish is landlocked, a statue of Herman Melville graces the campus and gazes out toward Lake Michigan. (Guert’ s Harvard dissertation on “the homosocial and the homoerotic in 19th-century American letters,” becomes an influential book titled “The Sperm-Squeezers.”)

The introduction of Melville, and Moby Dick in particular, provides a philosophical point-counterpoint between monomania and principles from The Art of Fielding (a book within the book) such as, “There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to Thoughtless Being.” This in turn, ties together all the strivings of the main characters–self discovery and the ability to build relationships with one another. The reader witnesses and vicariously experiences a lot of growth in this novel.

Our reading group loved the book and could have spent hours discussing it. There are many layers of meaning, all beautifully conceived and conveyed to the reader. Let us know if you have read The Art of Fielding and what you think. And, keep in mind that this book is about baseball in the same way Moby Dick is about whaling.

 

 

19 Apr 2012

Much Ado About the Pulitzer

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If you’ve been reading the news these last few days, then you are aware of the brouhaha over the failure to award a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. No one doubts that there must have been at least one worthy novel (we can think of a few), yet the controversy is interesting.

Ann Patchett is upset with the Pulitzer committee and writes, “Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings.”

This is true, and smart women are aware of this. We also know that when a book is honored with a prize (Booker, Pulitzer, National Book Award), this doesn’t necessarily mean that we agree that it was the right choice or that we want to read it. It is just a guidepost indicating what has been recognized and we may want to consider it.

But, the good news is that numerous titles have been floated in the press as potential contenders. This gives us the chance to explore what may not have been on our literary radar. We will definitely look into Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin, and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. Another well-received 2012 title, The Art of Fielding, is already on our list and will be the subject of a forthcoming blog.

Although Patchett concludes, “The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction,” a prize isn’t necessarily what creates a buzz about a new book. Fifty Shades of Grey is the hottest (no pun intended) book at the moment, and surely it won’t be a finalist for the Pulitzer.

 

 

30 Mar 2012

What We Talk About When
We Talk About Books

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Smart women love to read, and our solitary reading experiences are enhanced when we discuss literature as a community. While we explore fundamentals such as character, theme, plot and style, our conversations really come to life when we examine an author’s attitude toward his or her subject.

In two powerful, incisive short stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” Raymond Carver and Nathan Englander respectively give us startling, provocative views of love and marriage. These works expose a truth about the most intimate of relationships—that while they can be deeply satisfying, there are also unspoken, darker understandings that surface under certain circumstances (and these authors create the precise situations for these to unfold).

What we might suggest as a book club ‘assignment’ would be to read these two stories side by side and ask why Englander chooses to build a story upon Carver’s theme and structure. He follows Carver’s patterns quite closely with a clear intention. Your group can consider:

  • What are the similarities and differences between the two?
  • What are the authors saying, and what does Englander add to Carver’s classic story?
  • How do they present the ideas of love and marriage, and how are these emotions tied up with issues of power, control, and the ‘truth’?

What we think you might discover is that what we talk about when we talk about books is also much more complex than just what is on the page. As many women will attest, we learn so much about one another through our explorations of fiction that it is impossible to limit our discussion to the book even when we discipline ourselves to stay on the topic. Infused in every comment about a text is a smart woman’s point of view, which reveals who she is, what she believes, and where she stands. This is the heart and soul of a book club.

So, take a look at the Carver and Englander. See what you think about these couples sitting around a table draining bottles of gin and vodka (and in Englander’s story, smoking a fair amount of pot). What happens when they loosen their collars a bit and get into the hard facts of life and love? And ultimately, how are we transformed by our own talks about books?

Perhaps there’s a story here.

 

13 Mar 2012

Making Sense of Julian Barnes’ Ending

No Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, What You Should Read

The New York Times critic Liesl Schillinger writes, “In The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes reveals crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden. He has honed their edges, and polished them to a high gleam.” Also of The New York Times, Geoff Dyer suggests, “Any extreme expression of opinion about The Sense of an Ending seems inappropriate. It isn’t terrible, it is just so average.”

So how does a smart woman reconcile such divergent points of view? This is one of the more fascinating questions that many reading groups deal with when discussing fiction. Ultimately, how we feel about any work is based on our own reactions and impressions, and in the case of The Sense of an Ending, we would more likely agree with Dyer’s position than Schillinger’s. And for one specific reason: This mostly strong novel is compromised by a convoluted ending.

An accessible and fairly short book, there is much to recommend it. The novel teases out an interesting theme: Is it better to live a meaningless life or to commit a meaningful suicide? Early in the story, a young classmate named Robson commits suicide ostensibly because his girlfriend is pregnant. His suicide note reads, “Sorry, Mum.” This gives rise to a compelling conversation led mostly by Adrian who quotes Camus: “Suicide was the only true philosophical question.”

In his own suicide note, Adrian writes, “Life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; that the thinking person has the philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision.” Clearly, this is heavy stuff, not to mention the novel’s other themes of history, time, and memory.

The characters are finely drawn and the story line is solid, but in addition to the issues with the ending there are problems with the reliability of the narrator, Tony Webster. He asks, “Who was it who said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient–it’s not useful–to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.” If the narrator is continually filling in the blanks without any certainty, where does that leave the poor reader?

While the novel is flawed, we would still recommend it as a good selection for reading groups. There is much to discuss, and the writing (as reflected by some of the passages above) is quite good. And, Julian Barnes did win the Man Booker Prize in 2011 for this work.

By the way, one of our reading groups will meet to discuss this book on Saturday. If you are interested, discussion questions will be found under Other Smart Reads.

06 Mar 2012

Ethan Canin: A ‘Top Ten’ Author
For Smart Women

No Comments Book Reviews, What You Should Read

If you haven’t read Ethan Canin’s fiction, then you are really missing something.

Starting with his first collection of short stories “The Emperor of the Air” through his most recent novel, America America, Canin has displayed a profound understanding of human nature. He has the gift of translating the most universal character flaws into perfect, compelling, and moving narratives. Canin is so good that you can read the same story over and over and still be joyfully elevated or emotionally stricken.

From the first time we taught “Carnival Dog, Buyer of Diamonds” to university students (who loved the story as much as we did), we were absolutely mesmerized by this author’s talent. It feels as if he has lived each of the character’s lives and gives you access into their hearts and souls. His writing is honest, clear, and most astoundingly wise. What more could a smart woman ask for?

This month one of our groups read The Palace Thief (check out Other Smart Reads for discussion questions)–a most brilliant set of four stories. Each one is spectacular in its own right, but our favorites are “Batorsag and Szerelem” and the title story. “Batorsag and Szerelem” is one of sibling rivalry unlike any other we have read, and it is hard not to recognize ourselves in this powerful family story.

“The Palace Thief”” centers on a teacher who overestimates his importance and comes to recognize his place in the world through his interaction with the boys at his boarding school. The main character, Mr. Hundert, dedicates his life to teaching and confesses, “That school was my life.”

Later in the story, when he is reunited with several of his best students, he reflects: “Oh, how little we understand of men if we think that their childhood slights are forgotten!” Canin’s insight into the human condition and his recurring statement that ‘character is destiny,’ and ‘the die is cast’ brings classic beliefs to the modern day.

On behalf of all smart women, we anxiously await Canin’s next novel…it will surely be a gift.

By the way, the beautiful drawings that adorn the site are gifts from our dear friend and most gifted artist from Rome, Jose Grave de Peralta. To learn more about him and his work, please visit www.otoroazul.com