Blog Archive for New and Exciting

17 Sep 2017

The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter:
A Great Start for 2017-2018

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

Welcome back. It has been a harrowing couple of weeks anticipating the impact of what was expected to be a Category 5 hurricane. Thank heavens we were spared the worst, but it has been difficult for so many. It is at times like this that book group communities are so vital. We realize that not only do we read together, but we also care about each other. Discussing literature is a remarkable bonding experience, and I am so grateful for all the women I have learned from over these many years. I am really looking forward to seeing all of my book friends in October when we start our season.

I just finished my second reading of The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter, and I found it as astonishing as I did the first time. That is not to say that it is a perfect book—it is not. But, its imperfections are meaningless when viewed against Corthron’s achievements.  The novel is a huge American saga, with two sets of brothers at its center. Around them swirl a multitude of characters and themes. Although the author tackles what I see as the quintessential American crisis, that of racism, it is also a brilliant examination of justice and injustice. In fact, Corthron’s novel might just be her own “Magna Carta.”

The book explores the themes of poverty, income inequality, anti-Semitism, sibling rivalry, education (segregation/integration), family, domestic abuse, drug abuse, friendship/betrayal, paternity, rape, homosexuality, interracial relationships, fate and destiny, the North and the South, and coming of age (innocence/experience). Clearly, The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter examines every issue Americans have wrestled with from 1940-2017.

So, how does an author organize an epic of this enormity? Well, she structures the book with eight big sections, not always chronological and often alternating voices. What is the effect of her structure? How does this underscore the themes?

Who is the hero of the  novel? And, what constitutes a hero in this author’s world?

What do the characters, their actions, and their cultures tell us about good and evil?

Is it possible, according to the novel, to overcome racism? If so, how?

There are two quotations at the end of the novel worthy of attention.

The first is Dwight’s: “It’s a beautiful and remarkable thing to live by our conscience….it’s pointless and indulgent to live by our guilt.”

The second is BJ’s: “But, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize how reductive it is to define an entire clan by just one event, even if that event was a cataclysm of the first order.”

How do these observations help the reader to understand the scope of the novel?

The other novels for the 2017-2018 season are:

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Outline by Rachel Cusk

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nyugen

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Our last novel has not been selected, but I think The Invisible Man would be an apt bookend for The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter.

Stay tuned for comments on each novel as the season progresses.

 

 

14 Feb 2017

A Great Year for Smart Women Readers

No Comments New and Exciting, Personal Thoughts, What You Should Read

One thing we know for sure, reading is a great escape. And thankfully, this has been a banner year for our book group.

We have been thrilled with our reading list, and the selections have generated exciting, relevant discussions. Probably the two most talked about books of 2016, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, did not disappoint. While they are stylistically  and thematically quite different, they both explore relationships between mothers and daughters in all their complexity. And, The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien is a compelling, fictionalized tale of Radovan Karadzic, a man found guilty of war crimes committed by the Bosnian Serb forces.  At its core is the black-haired beauty Fidelma who falls in love with a healer, who is actually this ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ in disguise. What a tour de force!

We also read Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac and Hanja Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am and Francine Prose’s A Changed Man will complete our season of great reads. Stay tuned for thoughts as we move through these titles.

Our February selection, while not a new book, was the best so far. Russell Banks’ Continental Drift is one of those books that explores all the big questions of being human and asks the reader to look at the nature of hopelessness as part of the human condition. The focus of the novel is on two central figures whose life stories are spelled out in alternating chapters. Bob (blue-collar worker from New Hampshire) and Vanise (poor and destitute on the island of Haiti) are both on a dead-end journey from completely different worlds. Yet, both are vulnerable to extreme suffering.

The author delves into the the distinctions between self-imposed suffering, sociological suffering, suffering created by man, suffering created by nature, and suffering created by circumstance. There is so much packed into this book, and the writing is genius. Continental Drift is a book for all times as it is the story of being alive in a world that generates indiscriminate pain.

A last thought: Banks uses the geographical concept of continental drift and the narrator looms above the earth looking at the great tragedies and migrations of people over the years. This device helps the reader to understand that what he exposes in his characters is representative of the dispossessed across the globe. And, I think he is also looking at what is happening in an increasingly-connected world (think Jeffrey Sachs and Thomas Friedman).

From our point of view, this is the single most important book we read this year. Not to say that is was the ‘best,’ but certainly provokes thinking that determines the kind of people we are and what we can do to make our world better. That’s why we are also strongly recommending the biography of Paul Farmer entitled Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder….it will inspire and move you to be a better person.

Click here for discussion questions on Continental Drift.

Other Smart Reads

 
13 Dec 2015

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout: One of The New York Times “Ten Best of 2015”

No Comments Book Reviews, New and Exciting

Like the entire town of Dickens, I was my father’s child, a product of my environment, and nothing more. Dickens was me. And I was my father. Problem is, they both disappeared from my life, first my dad, then my hometown, and I suddenly had no idea who I was, and no clue how to become myself.

These lines represent the serious underpinnings of what The New York Times described as “this year’s most cheerfully outrageous satire that takes as its subject a young black man’s desire to segregate his local school and to reinstate slavery in his home–before careening off to consider almost 400 years of black survival in America….Beatty’s novel is a fearless, multicultural pot almost too hot to touch.”

But, make sure not to drink too much coffee before starting this manic, exuberant, and disturbing novel. The writer’s energy is palpable as is his piling on of allusions and references to just about everything cultural, philosophical, historical, political, and intellectual. The pace is dizzying but captivating, and your mind will travel through the rampages of American history and its legacy of racism in a way no other author has achieved. Indeed, this is a satire. Yet, like all great satires, the medium is the message. Keep your eyes wide open for Beatty’s truth–it will remind you that even justice is not blind.

For discussion questions on Paul Beatty’s The Sellout click here

 

05 Nov 2013

The Center Cannot Hold:
Things Fall Apart and Purple Hibiscus

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

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
from “The Second Coming” by WB Yeats

Both Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus make specific reference to Yeats’s oft-quoted and powerful poem, “The Second Coming.” This naturally leads the reader to ask these questions: What exactly is falling apart in the two cultures described by Achebe and Adichie, and why is it that the ‘center cannot hold’? And, most importantly, who are the characters in these authors novels that ‘lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity’? These are complex questions, but the answers unlock the key to understanding these texts.

Let’s look first at Things Fall Apart and the clash of cultures that leads to the destruction of the Ibo way of life. The main character, Okonkwo represents the plight of tribal life as colonialism takes hold in Nigeria. He is heroic in his fight against the missionaries and wants desperately to preserve the social order of his tribe. However, that is the more ‘global’ conflict of the novel. Okonkwo also is deeply ashamed of his father who he despises for his weakness, and this obsession leads to his destruction.

In Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, the patriarch Eugene is also deeply troubled by the conflicts in his country. He advocates the return to democracy from military rule through his newspaper, The Standard, and he is devoted to the editor who risks his life to write controversial editorials. Like Okonkwo, however, he refuses to acknowledge his father who adheres to a pagan faith and refuses to let his children visit him. In fact, when Kambili brings a drawing of her grandfather into their home, Eugene beats her within an inch of her life. This hatred, like the one that consumes Okonkwo, becomes his tragic flaw and destroys the entire family.

What is remarkable and important about these novels (and all noteworthy novels, actually) is that they deal with both external (political/religious) forces and internal (family/moral) struggles. They are inextricably linked, for better or for worse, and precisely what makes a piece of fiction universal. The pain that the reader experiences as both cultures and families fall apart is real since we know from personal experience that this is the nature of being human.

And this is why we recommend that your book groups consider reading these novels together (Achebe first, then Adichie). You might also watch Chimamanda Adichie talk about Achebe at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41Na23h9-AE  

Let us know if you decide to pursue this course by posting a comment on www.whatsmartwomenread.com

 

30 Sep 2013

Vladimir Girshkin: Wimp or Rogue?

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

El_Arco_de_su_vida__2Vladimir Girshkin, the main character of Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, has been described as a modern day rogue. One critic suggested that the novel was written “in the tradition of narrative that Sir Walter Scott once dubbed ‘a romance of roguery, inviting the audience to identify with a central character branded the underdog and yet who is simultaneously–subversively–in charge, living by his wits as he makes his gloriously unfettered way in an unwelcoming world.'” This genre is also referred to as the picaresque.

Based on the characteristics of the picaresque novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook meets most of the criteria:

  • The protaganist is of low character and social class, rarely holding a job and gets by with wit or cunning.
  • The novel is held together by a series of loosely connected adventures or episodes.
  • There is little if any character development in the main character.
  • Circumstances may change but rarely result in a change of heart.
  • Satire may be a prominent element.
  • The behavior of a picaresque hero or rogue stops just short of criminality.
  • Carefree or immoral rascality positions the picaresque hero as a sympathetic outsider, untouched by the false rules of society.

It is much easier to appreciate Shtenyngart’s novel (and his writing) if considered with these elements in mind. Vladimir can be trying as a protagonist; he engages in so much absurd behavior that the reader often loses interest in him and his ambitions. He wanders willy nilly across the globe, at times escaping, at times hiding, and every now and then, searching. But the problem for this reader is that it becomes too easy not to care about Vladimir. Not because he lacks maturity, insight, or wisdom but because he has no core values. Even as he escapes from his problems, he just lands into a whole new bundle of them.

So, the answer to the question, is Vladimir Girshkin a wimp or a rogue–that’s for you to decide. Let us know what you think of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook by posting a comment on the blog. Our next book for the season is Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie. We invite you to read this novel along with us.