Blog Archive for New and Exciting

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.

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

13 Dec 2011

Making the Most of

No Comments New and Exciting

Hello Smart Women (and friends of!

Since this site and blog were launched three months ago, we have received more visitors than we could have imagined. We are so pleased and want to build on the momentum. What we have noticed, however, is that many ‘smart women’ are reading the  blog on the home page but don’t seem to be looking at “Other Smart Reads” where many great books are described and recommended (along with discussion questions).

This got us to wondering whether visitors are aware of the other features specifically designed as a reading group resource. We know how challenging it can be for book clubs to pick novels, and this was one of the reasons we created

So, when you have a chance, take a look at what our book clubs are reading this year on the “Reading List” as well as many more titles found on the “Other Smart Reads” page.

You can also suggest titles by clicking on the “Contact Us” page.

Regardless of your reason for visiting our site, we hope that you will explore all our tabs. And, please feel free to post comments. We want to know what books you love.



25 Nov 2011

Good readers can handle the truth

3 Comments New and Exciting, Personal Thoughts

Writing is hard.

Anyone who has struggled to compose a basic letter, a clear email, a good essay, or even a simple recipe knows the frustration that arises when the thoughts don’t match the words. These tasks can be grueling and unrewarding, and sometimes words float around in your head all day until you come close to what you mean. But, for those who love to write and have dedicated themselves to the practice, putting it together is joyful, exhilarating, and freeing.

Just last week, a group of book lovers listened as Nicole Krauss spoke of her passion for writing at the Miami International Book Fair. Interestingly, she said that she doesn’t write to entertain and that she strives for her novels to be authentic, alive and necessary. What resonated the most for serious readers is that she knows her audience seeks the truth–and that they can handle it.

Like Krauss, authors are often asked about the writing process. Some fascinating responses include:

  • When  I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth—Kurt Vonnegut
  • You should never write out of vengeance—Ethan Canin
  • A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost—Henry James
  • I write because I want to—John Ashberry
  • I write because I’m good at it—Flannery O’Connor
  • Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way—E.L. Doctorow
  • Good writing is about telling the truth–Anne Lamott

If you are a good reader who is curious about writers and their craft, a few books that you should take a look at are:

  • The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
  • On Writing: Memoirs of the Craft by Stephen King (this book has an excellent reading list at the end)
  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott shares a story in her book that helps her with the writing process. She recalls a time when her ten-year-old brother was immobilized by a report he had to write about birds. He was surrounded by binder paper, pencils, and unopened books, and in tears because of the huge task ahead. Her father, detecting his son’s agitation, sat down beside him and said,  “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

How conscious are you of the quality of writing when you read a good book? Do you like the ‘truth’ in your fiction as Krauss and Lamott suggest? Let us hear from you.

27 Oct 2011

Is goodness boring in fiction?

4 Comments New and Exciting, Personal Thoughts, Uncategorized

In a recent article in the Financial Times, Lionel Shriver (author of There’s Something About Kevin) writes about characters who are morally unattractive and how readers often react (or overreact) to their flaws. These characters typically have personality traits that we recognize in ourselves and therefore may provoke wholesale rejection of the novel in question. Not to be confused with the literary hero (Atticus Finch, Hester Prynne, Joe Kavalier, Jane Eyre) or anti-hero (Snopes, Ahab, Iago), the characters Shriver refers to are “difficult, complicated, maddening and remind you of people you know–who remind you, if you’re honest, of yourself.”

These defective characters (think Nathan Zuckerman) provoke the reader to make moral judgments, and by extension, perhaps of the work of fiction itself. As Shriver asks, “Is it possible to sympathize with characters, while still despairing of their misjudgements?”

Can you recall a character whose actions were so hard for you to accept that your personal feelings overshadowed the quality of the fiction? What are some examples? Let us hear from you.

And, by the way, this writer likes goodness in fiction. One recent heroine that stole my heart is Hema in Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone.