Blog Archive for Book Reviews

21 Feb 2012

Smart Women and Literary Judgment

3 Comments Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts, What You Should Read

“The older I get, the more I’m convinced that a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character.” This is a curious remark coming from Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections and Freedom) who himself has been the subject of much discussion. (Bear in mind that Franzen called Michiko Kakutani, the esteemed book critic, “the stupidest person in New York City.”) Nonetheless, Franzen’s point is worth exploring, which he does brilliantly in his New Yorker essay “A Rooting Interest.”

For smart women, it is a compelling question: Do we have to like a character to appreciate a work of fiction? And, do our feelings about an author have anything to do with forming a literary judgment? In honor of Edith Wharton’s 150th birthday, this is a good question to consider since both the writer and her characters have stimulated great conversations.

At the heart of Franzen’s exploration  is whether or not a reader can be sympathetic to characters created by an author for whom they may have a negative predisposition. (Again, remember the brouhaha when Franzen rejected Oprah’s invitation to her show? Then again, did anyone have sympathy for the characters in The Corrections?) In the essay, Franzen focuses primarily on Edith Wharton who was well known for her arrogance. Franzen provides two examples: “She was the kind of lady who fired off a high-toned complaint to the owner of a shop where a clerk refused to lend her an umbrella,” and an image recounted by her biographer (RWB Lewis) where Wharton is “writing in bed after breakfast and tossing the completed pages on the floor, to be sorted and typed up by her secretary.”

But where the essay gets interesting is when Franzen delves into the question of whether a reader has to like or sympathize with a character to like the novel itself. He compares the sympathetic Lily Bart (The House of Mirth) to the highly unsympathetic Undine Spragg (The Custom of the Country). Lily Bart is “an angel of grace and sensitivity and lovability. Undine Spragg is the spoiled, ignorant, shallow, amoral and staggeringly selfish product of the economically booming American hinterland.”

If you’ve read both novels (which if  you haven’t you  must!), you might agree that The Custom of the Country is the more powerful, more memorable, and definitely the juicier of the two.  This is where we think Franzen answers his own question—a reader does not have to like either the author or the character to absolutely love a book. And based on the enduring power of Edith Wharton, ‘liking’ doesn’t seem to have much to do with it. What smart women need is an authentic experience that speaks to her in a distinct literary voice. Do you agree? Let us hear from you.

08 Feb 2012

Rethinking The Marriage Plot: A 21st Century Choice or Still a Cultural Imperative

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

In The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides third novel following The Virgin Suicides (1993) and Middlesex (2002), the author both deconstructs and reconstructs a theme of great interest to smart women—the ongoing value and prevalence of marriage in our culture.

As a literary device (seen in novels and film), the marriage plot centers on ‘the courtship rituals between a man and woman and the obstacles that the potential couple faces on the way to the nuptial payoff.’ In the novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, as well as Edith Wharton and Henry James, the marriage plot is used not only as a device for advancing the plot, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for providing social commentary on marriage itself.

Following the traditions of the marriage plot, Eugenides provides an interesting reconsideration of the importance of marriage in the 20th century (more precisely at Brown in the early 80s). He does this quite cleverly by creating three characters, Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus, who inevitably form a love triangle. Early on, Mitchell declares, “‘I’m going to marry this girl!’ The knowledge went through him like electricity, a feeling of destiny.” But you have to stay tuned to see what actually happens.

What is interesting, however, is that Madeleine is a burgeoning Austen scholar (a Janeist) who is writing her honors thesis on the marriage plot. So, while finding her own academic voice, she is also exploring her own ideas of love and marriage. What becomes evident to her as the novel unfolds is that she faces many of the same historical and social struggles in determining what path to take on her personal and professional journey.

In the end, what makes The Marriage Plot a worthwhile read for smart women is its lively, fresh take on an established story line. And, although the author provides us with an authentic marriage plot for our times, the bottom line is that the desire to build intimacy and form a lifelong partnership is as powerful now as it was in Jane Austen’s day. Surely there are differences, yet marriage is alive and well in 2012.  And if Eugenides is right, it will be around for a long time to come.

29 Jan 2012

Smart Women Should Consider Saul Bellow

No Comments Book Reviews

We are always looking for the book it is necessary to read next– Saul Bellow

One of our book clubs decided to limit our 2011-2012 selections to prize winning authors. The result is an ambitious reading list including Susan Sontag, John Updike, Nadine Gordimer, and of course, Saul Bellow. While some of our conversations involve why these authors won the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and most notably, the Nobel Prize, we also wondered whether the form and content of these works remain relevant in the 21st century.

In the case of Saul Bellow, the answer would be a resounding yes. The universal questions that Bellow’s characters wrestle with, and in the case of Humboldt’s Gift and its highly-energized narrator Charlie Citrine, include the soul, death, money, and culture.

According to a Los Angeles Times review published in 2009, “Humboldt’s Gift, is both a crazy mess of a novel and an abiding testament to the vital exuberance of Saul Bellow’s genius.” And in Jeffrey Eugenides smart introduction to the Penquin edition, he writes that Bellow “elevated language and, by doing so, reversed the spirit’s atrophy. That’s what reading Bellow feels like. What makes Bellow’s prose better than just about anyone else’s is that it is touched, in every clause, by enlightenment.”

Sentences like, “Ah Humboldt had been great—handsome, high-spirited, buoyant, ingenious, electrical noble. To be with him made you feel the sweetness of life. We used to discuss the loftiest things….to talk to him was sustaining, nourishing,” excite and draw the read into the meditations of Charlie Citrine. In fact, these meditations take the form of a conversation with the reader until the end of the novel when Charlie formally says goodbye to Humboldt.

For this blogger, what makes Humboldt’s Gift  a ‘must read’ is the humanity of  its narrator. He lives in the real world, one that we know and also struggle to understand. He makes mistakes and chides himself—his regrets speak to all of our regrets especially those relating to love and friendship. But on his sofa, Charlie explores what makes our lives worthwhile and wrestles with how we might discipline ourselves to make the right choices at the right time.

If you haven’t read Humboldt’s Gift, you should consider it for your book club. It’s not a fast read, but it’s great fun while seizing the serious questions about the meaning of life. We all have a little of Charlie Citrine in us, and in the end, that’s a good thing.

20 Jan 2012

Why Smart Women Read Fiction

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Why do you read fiction?

There are many answers, and when posed to a very smart woman in a recent conversation, she said, “I read to be amazed, to connect, to learn, to feel.” Yet her answers reflect only one aspect of a larger issue presented in Garth Risk Hallberg’s recent New York Times magazine article entitled, “Why Write Novels at All,” which focuses more on the reasons authors write than on why we read.

But, these two activities are intertwined—after all, authors need a raison d’etre to write if we are to have anything to read.

In his essay, Hallberg identifies a group of emerging authors that he labels ‘Le Conversazioni’ since they formed a core group at a 2006 literary conference in Italy. Writers he mentions include Nathan Englander (an absolute favorite of this blogger—consider his The Ministry of Special Cases for your book club), Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Jeffrey Eugenides. More specifically, Hallberg looks at how they use their craft to justify the existence of fiction. The essayist’s view is that, “The deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness… a sign that you are not alone,” and he offers a few examples from La Conversazioni :

If a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of other’s identifying with our own.—David Foster Wallace

Simply to be recognized for what I was, simply not be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.—Jonathan Franzen

These reflections are just a part of the puzzle. Many of us read beyond the need ‘to resist loneliness.’ Something closer to the truth emerges at the end of the essay when Hallberg brings in a 2000-year-old theory about the purpose of art—to delight and instruct. For most smart women, those of us who engage in conscious, deliberate, active reading for whatever reasons are important to us, we want to feel joy and we want to learn, experience something important beyond what is available to us in our daily lives. And this, we believe, is why smart women read fiction.

Please post a comment and let us know why you read. For this blogger, to be delighted and instructed is a great start.

10 Jan 2012

More Thoughts on The Submission

No Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, New and Exciting

The Tomba Cecilia Metela

As promised, here are some additional thoughts on Amy Waldman’s The Submission. Our book club discussion on this novel was among our liveliest, and we agreed that this is an outstanding work of contemporary fiction. We found the characters authentic and their conflicts generated much important thinking for the reader.

Our conversation centered primarily on Mo, Claire, Asma, and Sean, and if their behavior was consistent with what they believed to be their core values. In the case of Mo and Claire, the actions they take find them both alone and isolated twenty years after the contest. It is hard to know, however, if their lives would have wound up much differently had they not found themselves in the 9/11 maelstrom. Asma and Sean, on the other hand, took more dramatic action: Asma loses her life, Sean loses his family–but they both fulfill a need to be true to themselves.

This novel forces the thoughtful reader to confront her own biases and challenge herself to ask the hard questions. And as Tom Junod of Esquire magazine writes:

The Submission is not a religious novel but rather a secular one that takes religion very seriously. It is not a political novel but rather a novel about the ongoing redefinition of the place where politics starts. It is a novel of large public concern, and yet what it suggests is that over the last decade “the public” in America has just become an excuse for “the private” to hold sway — for people to submit to impulses they didn’t know they had. It is a portrait of a country almost terrifyingly free and at the same time endlessly involved in the task its title describes: either trying to get up off its knees or fall down to them.”

Indeed, The Submission does force these questions and unsettles the reader in an important and significant way, and that is precisely why this is a must read for smart women.

If you haven’t read the novel yet, the descriptions below give you a good sense of the cast as provided by the author on her site

Mohammed Khan: The Architect

Every day brought more proof that the attackers were Muslims, seeking the martyr’s straight shot to paradise—and so Mo braced for suspicion as he returned to the theater under construction. A few days later he realized that the difference wasn’t in how he was being treated but in how he was behaving. Customarily brusque on work sites, he had become gingerly, polite, careful to give no cause for alarm or criticism. He didn’t like this new, more cautious avatar, whose efforts at accommodation hinted at some feeling of guilt, yet he couldn’t quite shake him. Read more