Blog Archive for Personal Thoughts

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

 
27 Aug 2016

Exploring the Depths of Depravity:
A Little Life

No Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts

MosesHanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is the equivalent of literary waterboarding: Be prepared for an onslaught of descriptions that will leave you in a state of perpetual despair. Although critically acclaimed, and with good reason, there are questions about this novel that are too great to overlook. The most pressing one is whether a foundling can suffer for fifteen years without encountering one righteous, empathetic, astute human being….someone who could detect the terrifying circumstances the main character, Jude St. Francis, endures and barely escapes. And then, how is it that his destiny is so completely upended by the good fortune of friendship and love? This is the balance on which everything in A Little Life depends. But, in the end, no amount of kindness and compassion can undo the gravity of the harm inflicted on Jude. (SPOILER ALERT: If you have not finished the book, you may want to wait before reading the rest of this blog.)

One of the challenges for this reader is whether it is truly possible that all the Brothers in the monastery are cruel, that all the counselors and boys in the group home are sadistic, that every trucker can look beyond the boy sitting beside him and see only sexual exploitation? And finally, how is it possible that after all of this, Jude winds up imprisoned by the most cruel of all men, the ostensible psychiatrist Dr. Traylor, who after destroying his spirit and soul, crushes his body with his car? Any one of the aforementioned circumstances would have broken Jude, but why the piling on of victimization? What is the author’s point in layering abuse after abuse? This is a hard question to answer, but perhaps some clues are found in the penultimate section “Dear Comrade.”

After many cycles of what Jude calls a ‘piece of pantomime,’ in which he is coerced into eating, sleeping, and pretending that he wants to live, the big question of the novel finally comes into focus. Jude asks: “He had always wondered why he, why so many others, went on living at all; it had been so difficult to convince himself at times, and yet so many people, lived in misery he couldn’t fathom, with deprivations and illnesses that were obscene in their extremity. And yet on and on they went. So was the determination to keep living not a choice at all, but an evolutionary implementation? Was there something in the mind itself….that prevented human from doing what logic so often argued they should? And yet that instinct wasn’t infallible–he had overcome it once. But what happened to it after? Had it weakened or become more resilient? Was his life even his to choose to live any longer?”

So, while A Little Life is hard to bear (and at times perhaps a bit long-winded), its themes are profound. This is a great novel about the impact of cruelty and the reality that there are hopeless cases. But, A Little Life reminds us, as Willem says before he dies, “I know my life’s meaningful because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.”

 

For discussion questions click here: http://whatsmartwomenread.com/books/a-little-life/

 

25 Feb 2016

How To Be Both: Neither Here Nor There

No Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts

GrotesquesfromVillaD'Estepen&ink1When was the last time you read a book and felt like you couldn’t penetrate the text? With all the press commemorating the twenty-year anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, those of us who just couldn’t read the book are wondering why a free association, stream of consciousness, 900 page novel with more than 200 pages of footnotes continues to be held in such high regard. As for our ambitious reading group that ventures far outside the literary comfort zone, it was the only novel in many years that we abandoned.

In Tom Bissell’s essay in the New York Times Book Review, he posits four theories why Infinite Jest “still feels so transcendentally, electrically alive.” These theories, in a nutshell, suggest that 1) Art must have a higher purpose than mere entertainment, 2) Infinite Jest is a genuinely groundbreaking novel of language and surpasses almost every novel written in the last century in this regard, 3)  “Infinite Jest” is a peerlessly gripping novel of character, and 4)  “Infinite Jest” is unquestionably the novel of its generation.

Perhaps Infinite Jest meets all four criteria, but where does that leave the reader? If a novel is inaccessible and written for a tiny audience (or perhaps just for the author’s pleasure), should we feel compelled to read it and beat ourselves up if we can’t make sense of it?

This question, to a somewhat lesser degree, came up with our most recent selection, Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and winner of the Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction, the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize, the 2014 Costa Novel Award, and Saltire Literary Book of the Year Award. The novel was issued in two editions, one with the contemporary story of a young girl (George) mourning the death of her mother as one narrative and the other with the painter Francesco del Cossa as its protagonist. The two sections are connected thematically through the art world, and concepts of gender, power, and justice are explored. While most of our readers preferred the edition with George’s section first, some of us just couldn’t play along with Ali Smith’s game.

In the end, the question remains: Why do we read? Is it to experience an intellectual challenge with form and explore new ways of telling stories? Certainly. But there is also something to be said about being carried away by a novel that is beautifully written and literally unique yet doesn’t require constant reexamination of the text. If you love to read for distraction, enjoyment, immersion, education, enlightenment, expansion, or empathy, then perhaps a novel like My Name is Lucy Barton will excite your imagination. It certainly met our criteria as did A Partial History of Lost Causes and All the Light We Cannot See. If  you haven’t read these novels, then you might consider them for your reading groups.

Our next book, which we will blog about in a few weeks, is Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

For discussion questions on How to Be Both click here.

13 Mar 2014

A Young Author to Watch
and Her Must-Read Novel

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

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Over the last six months we have enjoyed some wonderful novels that are ideal for your reading groups. We have specifically explored writers under the age of forty, including Gary Shteyngart, Claire Vaye Watkins, Junot Diaz, and Chimamanda Adichie. They all make unique and meaningful statements reflecting their generation’s worldview, but the real standout is Jennifer Dubois.

Her novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, delves headlong into the big question of mortality, and the difficulty of facing a challenge when you know it’s a lost cause. This conundrum is framed literally through Aleksandr, a chess prodigy who has to cope with loss and humiliation in numerous public matches. It is developed much more philosophically through Irina, a thirty-year-old woman struggling to deal with her diagnosis of Huntington’s disease. All of this  is framed against the backdrop of Russia from 1979-2007. The politics and history add to the sense of terror and futility that so brilliantly underscore the novel.

The catalyst for the story is a letter Irina finds that her father, whose memory and motor skills were destroyed by Huntington’s, wrote to Aleksandr asking how he faces a chess match when he knew from the beginning he would lose: “When you find yourself playing such a game….what is the proper way to proceed? What story do you tell yourself when that enormous certainty is upon you and you scrape against the edges of your own self?’ To confront her own mortality, and to avoid having her mother and boyfriend watch her deteriorate, she goes to Russia  to get an answer for her father and for herself.

What follows is nothing short of life changing for Irina, Aleksandr, and, perhaps most importantly, the reader. After all, books teach us how to live, and sometimes even what we should do before we die. A Partial History of Lost Causes does all that and more. The writing is beautiful, and you will find yourself lingering over words, phrases, and ideas like, “Nothing makes a person materialistic like severe deprivation,” “I am not ready to die. I am not even bored of the fact that the world is round,” and “You look like somebody who feels sorrier for yourself than is strictly necessary.” We highly recommend Dubois’ novel and eagerly anticipate her next book.