Blog Archive for New and Exciting

18 May 2013

The Young and the Talented:
Our Next Selections for Smart Women

No Comments New and Exciting, What You Should Read

Every year our reading group selects books according to a specific theme. As you know, in 2012-2013 we read world literature, and previous seasons were organized around prize-winners, African-American and Southern fiction. This is an interesting way to choose books and may be a strategy to introduce to your own clubs.

For the 2013-2014 season we decided to direct our attention to writers under 40. This is a popular trend, and The New Yorker and Granta frequently preview these exciting and emerging authors. Many of the writers who were introduced to us in this way, Michael Chabon, Nicole Krauss, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jonathan Franzen to name a few, have gone on to impressive literary careers.

So, we are enthusiastic about next year’s line up and once again hope you will consider reading along with us starting in the fall. We provide the list to you now so you can get a jump start over the summer should any of these titles appeal to you (and we feel certain that they will). We may even dip into the list ahead of time and offer some teasers on the blog.

  • Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie
  • This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
  • Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer Dubois
  • A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
  • The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger
  • Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
  • The Russian Debutante’s Handbook by Gary Shteyngart
  • Battleborn by Clare Vaye Watkins
  • Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng
Stay tuned to whatsmartwomenread.com for reviews on these novels and more as the summer unfolds.
26 Feb 2013

The Power of Passive Resistance:
Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower

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

What happens when “Bartleby the Scrivener” meets The Lord of the Flies? As you can imagine, the results are not pretty. In Aravind Adiga’s second novel about India (The White Tiger was his first and won the Booker Prize), the reader is drawn into a world of greed and corruption and witnesses a radical breakdown in human behavior. While much of the frustration that motivates the characters’ behavior is unique to India, the frightening results are universal.

Last Man in Tower centers on the conflict of two main characters, the greedy and narcissistic real estate developer Dharmen Shah, and Masterji, a retired teacher and once esteemed resident of the Vishram Society (a co-op in Mumbai that is considered ‘pucca’ or solid and upstanding). Shah is a man obsessed with reshaping the face of India and reaping the extraordinary financial rewards. Masterji, unlike most of the residents of his building, refuses Shah’s life-changing buyout offer, a real windfall for these families. Masterji doesn’t see any value in leaving his home, and since they live in a co-op, they all have to agree or there is no deal.

As the face-off between these two men unfolds, Masterji’s neighbors grow increasingly frustrated and conspire to change Masterji’s mind. As he digs in, his fellow residents and former friends begin to despair and devise numerous plots to get Masterji to rethink his position.

Masterji becomes a classic passive resister. Although he is being ambushed by the developer, his ‘left-hand man’, and his neighbors, Masterji is convinced that he is doing the right thing. He also believes that he is standing for all the down-trodden residents of Mumbai who will ultimately be forced out of their homes (which is some cases are poles and tarps at the edge of a running sewer). However, the more he quietly and patiently ignores the pleas of his neighbors, the worse the situation becomes. And, while Masterji sees his acts as noble and honoring the memory of his deceased daughter and wife, the reader has to wonder what his real motives are as well.

The novel is compelling not only because we are anxious to see how far the group will go to change Masterji’s position but also because it explores how one person, steadfast in a point of view, can provoke dark actions. There is no established social order to turn to, neither the police, the media, nor family and friends, will stand up for Masterji. This leaves the final act in the hands of the residents of the pucca Vishram Society, and in the end, it is not so pucca after all.

Click here for discussion questions on Last Man in Tower.

 

30 Dec 2012

Gems for the New Year:
Edith Pearlman’s Short Stories

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

In the introduction to the exquisite stories found in Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, Ann Patchett writes, “What you have in your hands now is a treasure, a book you could take to a desert island knowing that every time you got to the end you could simply turn to the front cover and start it all again. It is not a collection of bus crashes, junkies, and despair. Despair is much easier to write about than self-reliance. Theses stories are an exercise in imagination and compassion…an example of what happens when talent meets discipline and stunning intelligence.”

Patchett’s remarks are spot on, and we highly recommend Pearlman’s stories. We have dipped into the collection starting with the title story and working our way through “Self-Reliance,” and then on to “Vaquita,” “If Love Were All,” “Purim Night,” “The Coat,” “Home Schooling,” and our favorite, “On Junius Bridge.”

What we love about Pearlman’s writing is her keen eye and her life affirming themes. She finds beauty in every detail and joy in the most desperate situations. Her view of the world is described as “large and compassionate, delivered through small, beautifully precise moments. Her characters inhabit terrain that all of us recognize, one defined by anxieties and longing, love and grief, loss and exultation. These quiet, elegant stories add something significant to the literary landscape.” (New York Times, January 2011)

Edith Pearlman maintains an esteemed presence in the literary world. She has earned the praise and recognition of her peers but not enough attention from readers. As Ann Patchett writes, “Binocular Vision should be the book with which Edith Pearlman takes up her rightful position as a national treasure. Put her stories beside those of John Updike and Alice Munro. That’s where they belong.”

So, for our first pick of 2013, we are wholeheartedly suggesting Binocular Vision. Consider giving it throughout the year as a gift to all the smart women you know who love fiction. We are certain that they will find the stories as enchanting and meaningful as we do.

28 Oct 2012

Nathan Englander’s Magic Carpet Ride

2 Comments New and Exciting, Personal Thoughts

Oh, what a night! WhatSmartWomenRead has attended plenty of author events, but we never had an experience quite like this.  It was a mind-blowing, gravity-defying, energy-bending glimpse into Nathan Englander’s creative process, and it was awesome to consider how such clear, coherent, and gorgeous prose comes out of his unplugged, overdrive mind.

While the typical event consists of a reading followed by questions and answers from the audience, on this evening we just listened to the author describe, in a completely unfettered, untethered way, his approach to writing. His comments came at us at lightning speed, so we are now struggling to recall exactly what we heard. But, here are a few things that stood out.

1. Englander’s absolute need to write–it is his dharma and lives within him as a force of nature. It is also abundantly clear that writing is his Valium–without it (the writing, that is), he is a man on fire.

2. All the writer needs is one reader. “The Reader” (from What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank) illustrates this point.

3. When an audience member asked the author to reveal a character’s innocence or guilt, which is ambiguous in the story “Camp Sundown,” Englander replied that readers bring their own truth to fiction. He said that the reader’s reality interacts with the author’s narrative, and it is the reader’s prerogative to make assumptions, fill in the gaps, and create his or her own story.

4. Englander spoke of the sacred moments of self-consciousness and loss of awareness. He made several references to the bicameral mind, which states that the brain is divided between one part that appears to be speaking and another part which listens and obeys. He stated that when his brain is most alive, it is spontaneously providing information to another part of his mind which records (as he types) his thoughts. For most of us, this might be more readily understood as the ‘zone’ or a form of active meditation (chop wood, carry water).

It was a wonderful, insane experience, and the audience enjoyed Englander’s great sense of humor and brilliant mind–qualities that make his work unique and appealing. If you are not familiar with his fiction, he has two short story collections (For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank) and an extraordinary novel (The Ministry of Special Cases). And, he is now in the process of transforming one of his stories, “The Twenty-seventh Man,” into a play that is opening next month at the Public Theater in New York.

On another note, Whatsmartwomenread.com is celebrating its first anniversary. We have received nearly 20,000 hits, have 337 subscribers, and 121 “Likes” on Facebook. We thank you for your support and would love to know what you like about the site and what you would like to see more of. Please email us at info@whatsmartwomenread.com with your comments.

By the way, the photo is of the blogger thanking Englander for signing her book.


03 Oct 2012

The Politics of a Mother’s Heart

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

Authors often insist that their work is an expression of their imagination, boldly denying that it is a reflection of their personal lives. David Grossman was one of those authors, but his work was transformed in 2003.

Grossman writes, “About four years ago, when my oldest son, Uri, was about to join the army, I could no longer follow my recent ways. A sense of urgency and alarm washed over me, leaving me restless. I then began writing a novel that treats directly the bleak reality in which I live. A novel that depicts how external violence and the cruelty of the general political and military reality penetrate the tender and vulnerable tissue of a single family, ultimately tearing it asunder.”

The result of Grossman’s decision is the magnificent, yet heart-wrenching novel, To the End of the Land.

In a nutshell, this is Ora’s story–a mother whose heart is broken when her son Ofer decides to re-enlist after satisfying his obligation to the army. Ora and Ofer had planned a mother-son, post-release hike in northern Israel, which they will now be unable to take. But, after she delivers Ofer to the army’s designated meeting site, she becomes manic and determines that she can betray fate if she takes the hike and stays far from home unable to receive any bad news. Ora, for all intents and purposes, kidnaps her former lover and husband’s best friend, Avram, so she doesn’t have to take the trip alone.

This novel is a post-modern journey–one in which the voyagers seek to make sense of their world and overcome significant psychological, emotional, physical, and historical challenges. In this case, Ora’s survival depends on two things: using magical thinking to keep Ofer alive and revealing his life story to his father Avram.

Ora, from the first time we meet her in the isolation ward, is torn between two men, Ilan and Avram, and her family and her homeland. Grossman’s brilliance at conflating these two elements, the personal and the political, makes this a complex,engrossing read. In the end, it is one of the finest anti-war novels ever written that never loses sight of the human heart.

We highly recommend this novel as a must read for smart women. Let us know what you think by posting a comment at the top of this page.

To read Grossman’s entire essay, “Writing in the Dark,” click here.