Blog Archive for Book Reviews

03 Jan 2012

Your First Smart Book Club Read for 2012

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If your book club is looking for a compelling, provocative, stirring, and relevant read for 2012, then Amy Waldman’s The Submission should be on the top of your list.

Not since Let the Great World Spin has this blogger read a “New York” novel as interesting as this one. And, as you read The Submission, you will find yourself questioning your own principles, values, and biases while you are simultaneously challenged to understand those of the characters. Quite simply, The Submission is a great book.

Essentially, the novel opens when a group of New Yorkers are selecting the finalist for the 9/11 memorial only to discover that the winner is an American Muslim. This revelation is the catalyst for community-wide debate and chaos, much of it instigated by self-serving journalists and politicians. Caught in the fray is the memorial’s designer as well as other ‘survivors’ of the attacks.

One reviewer writes, “In this deeply humane novel, the breadth of Amy Waldman’s cast of characters is matched by her startling ability to conjure their perspectives. A striking portrait of a fractured city striving to make itself whole, The Submission is a piercing and resonant novel by an important new talent.”

We wholeheartedly agree.

Let us know if you have read The Submission and what you think. Our reading group will be discussing it on Friday, January 6, and another blog will follow the meeting. Reading group discussion questions can be found by clicking on Other Smart Reads.

Happy New Year to all.

22 Dec 2011

Finding Meaning Susan Sontag’s Way

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How far beneath the surface of a novel does the reader have to plunge to find its meaning? Susan Sontag, preeminent woman of 20th century letters, says not far at all. In fact, she rails against excavating fiction and writes, “The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys: it digs ‘behind’ the text, to find a sub-text…To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world–in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.'”

If we agree with Sontag, then how is a smart woman and  a competent reader to explore a novel, understand its meanings, discuss its qualities, and form judgments about its style and content, without excavating it?

This is a question we often face in book club conversations when it becomes easy to drift from the novel and impose our own interpretations.

Let’s approach this challenge through one of Sontag’s own novels, In America, which we are now reading with our book clubs. In America, is not only about an actress and her art form but also the attitudes of the new, burgeoning “America.” Actually, it is only in America that our Maryna could be both an actress in her life and on the stage.

First, Sontag delights us with her remarks about America, and these observations require no interpretation:

  • In America no one could refuse the often unlovely imperatives of progress.
  • I give thanks to America, a country insane enough to declare the pursuit of happiness to be an inalienable right.
  • The American is someone who is always leaving everything behind.
  • America never disappoints.
  • What is paramount in America is the personal calendar, the personal journey. My  birthday, my life, my happiness.  (Indeed, this is the perfect creed for Maryna and why she loves America.)
  • Yes, I am becoming quite American: I would much prefer to have  a happy ending.
Second, and more complex, is understanding the main characters.  Maryna, Bogdan, and Ryszard, all seek to define themselves and struggle with authenticity. The only one who seems to conquer this quest is Maryna, since she is unapologetic about her choices. However, this is where the problem of ‘excavation’ arises. How much of Bogdan’s repressed sexuality are we supposed to factor into our understanding of his behavior? And, with Ryszard (the writer), are we to believe he is ‘living’ or ‘observing’ to gather material for his work?
This blogger enjoys the questions and plays with the answers. In the end, there is only one thing to say: It is what it is!

And on that note, wishes all of you the happiest of holidays and  a new year filled with great reads!


07 Dec 2011

Book Club Challenges Part II:
Critics, Prize Winners, and Top Ten Lists

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In an earlier”Book Club Challenges” blog, we spoke about abandoning a book when a reading group, for one reason or another, doesn’t want to finish it. This happened when we chose David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and much debate ensued before we agreed to put it aside. In this blog, we would like to address another book club conundrum: how much stock should we place in the critics, prize winners, and ‘top ten’ lists?

How often has your book club been guided by a wonderful review or a Booker Prize winner (could be Pulitzer or National Book Award) only to discover that the title was generally disliked by your members? How much influence should smart women afford to what are considered esteemed novels, and how should the conversation be handled when a winner turns out to be a loser?

Just this month, our groups read The Death of the Adversary by Hans Kielson and Rabbit is Rich by John Updike. In the case of the former, the New York Times wrote:

For busy, harried or distractible readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I’ll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: “The Death of the Adversary” is a masterpiece, and Hans Keilson is a genius.

Our group agreed that The Death of the Adversary was extraordinary, worthwhile, and led to an excellent discussion; however, we would not have stated the case quite as strongly and did not consider the novel as a masterpiece.

Rabbit is Rich is quite another story. Our group absolutely loved it. They agreed with the critics and looked back to a review published in the New York Times when the novel was released. John Leonard made the observation that “Harry is also America, going down the rabbit hole.” This comment  testifies to the strength of Updike’s characterization of the All-American Harry Angstrom as well as his commentary on the political, social, and economic climate of the early 1980s. Nonetheless, Updike had his critics. Reviewers found the sex incessant (yes, it is) and the novel often wandering from its center. But, all in all, it is a fun read and holding up thirty years after publication.

So, at this time of year, when everyone is releasing the Critic’s Choice and Top Ten list, readers are again confronted with who to trust. How much weight does your reading group place in these recommendations? Are you generally pleased with the choices? Post your comment on the blog so others can hear your point of view.


15 Nov 2011

What Does Your Bookshelf Say About You?

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

BookshelfLeah Price, a Harvard English professor, makes interesting observations in “The Subconscious Shelf”  in Sunday’s New York Times.

According to Price, what we display on our bookshelves reflects who we are and how we think, so much in fact that some readers may deliberately place books on their shelves to project a certain image. This triggered some curious thinking not only about what we buy to fill our bookcases but what we actually read and treasure–and, in this age of the e-reader, not only what we read but how we read. What does all of this say about us as smart women readers?

“To expose a bookshelf is to compose a self,” Price writes. Think about the books you keep and consider sacrosanct. Are they the books of your childhood, college years, or those you shared with your reading group? Are there books you feel you must buy as opposed to downloading on your Kindle or i-Pad? How do you make those distinctions? And what about the book snoop…the person who loves to see what someone else is reading on a plane, train, or bus? No longer can you start a conversation with a stranger by asking, “What are you reading?” How does the emergence of technology change who we are as a community of readers?

It’s hard for this writer to think of an electronic device as a book: Reading involves paper and pen and all the responses that are generated….a conversation that unfolds in the pages between the spine, the glue, and all the markings and dog ears that are part of claiming the work as your own. When you open a book, you learn about the reader and what she valued in that text.

So, in the end, what are some books that smart women read, keep, and display? A few titles that might meet this criteria and are worth your time are:

  • Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
  • Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins
  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaajte
  • Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons
  • The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
  • and anything by Ethan Canin….especially The Palace Thief and America, America

What books have earned a place on your bookshelf? Let us hear from you.

03 Nov 2011

The Redemptive Power of Storytelling

No Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts, Uncategorized, What You Should Read

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

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”