Blog Archive for Personal Thoughts

13 Jan 2014

Can The Circle Be Unbroken?

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

GrotesquesfromVillaD'Estepen&ink1If you have qualms about the pervasive effects of social media, then Dave Eggers’ The Circle will heighten your suspicions. In this fast paced, disturbing look at the inevitable intrusion of all things internet into our lives,  your worst fears are realized. And, the fact that the novel never veers toward science fiction makes the narrative all the more real.

Is it too late to recover our privacy? Is there a value to transparency? These are the central and haunting questions of the The Circle and perhaps our entire generation. We are passionate Dave Eggers fans…his remarkable books, which include A Heartbreaking Work of  Staggering GenuisWhat is the WhatZeitoun, and A Hologram for the King always capture the imagination while delving into important current issues. If you haven’t read his work, the time is now.

Mae, the main character of The Circle, is a vulnerable young woman who lands a coveted job in the exciting tech world. She is moving up the ladder fast and dazzled by her increasing power. However, she intuitively understands the need for solitude and finds peace in kayaking to the middle of a bay in Northern California in the company of the harbor seals. This is her retreat–where she goes to solve problems and understand the complexities of life. Once the Circle’s “SeeChange” cameras are installed at her favorite rental spot, Mae is discovered using a kayak without permission. The leaders of The Circle are notified, and they confront Mae with a teachable moment described as ‘the perfectibility of human beings.’

The corporate mantra is “All that happens must be known;” thus, Mae’s attempt to kayak secretively is viewed as going against another one of the Circle’s views: “Privacy is theft.” The leaders accuse Mae, and anyone who wants to keep a secret, of trying “to impede the unimpeachable improvement of the world.” But, Eggers is really asking, “Do we have a right to disappear?”, “Is is okay to be tracked from birth to death?”, and “Are we even conscious of the insidious effects of technology, even the ones we are opting into of our own volition?”

This novel is an absolute must-read for you and your book groups. The discussions will be provocative, timely, and important. We highly recommend this novel as well as others by Dave Eggers.

Did you know that by clicking on the art that adorns this page you can view it in a larger, more splendid format? Try and enjoy this pen and ink by Jose Grave de Peralta.

02 Dec 2013

Another Good Reason
to Read Literary Fiction

2 Comments Personal Thoughts, What You Should Read

DuomodiSienaApr2013A recent article published in Science made an interesting distinction between two types of fiction: “Readerly–such as most popular genre fiction–is intended to entertain their most passive readers. Writerly–or literary texts–engage their readers creatively as writers.” In other words, literary fiction requires active participation and encourages ‘a vibrant discourse with the author and the characters.’

The researchers move beyond this distinction in their study. They hypothesize, and subsequently establish, that because literary fiction “is replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration,” readers develop a greater capacity to understand the emotions of others.

This is quite a benefit for readers of literary fiction and may also explain why book groups are so popular. Not only do the members explore the fiction independently, the interaction with other readers reinforces the connection with the text. Perhaps a future study could examine the heightened empathy of readers who participate in book clubs. In the meantime, it is worth reading the study and sharing the findings with your groups (citation is below).

We took the opportunity to examine the study in tandem with our conversation of Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light. This novel is a writerly text and offers the reader multiple opportunities for engagement. The characters are compelling and interesting, and the setting is remarkable. While there is much despair in this small seaside village in Haiti, Danticat’s prose is beautiful and hopeful.

Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote, “The perennial subjects in Danticat’s fiction and nonfiction—the weight of Haiti’s violent history, its extreme poverty and the diaspora that they have created—are addressed indirectly, through the stories of Claire and her family and neighbors in this small town where everyone knows everybody else. There is something fablelike about these tales; the reader is made acutely aware of the patterns of loss and redemption, cruelty and vengeance that thread their way through these characters’ lives, and the roles that luck and choice play in shaping their fate . . . Writing with lyrical economy and precision, Danticat recounts [their] stories in crystalline prose that underscores the parallels in their lives.”

We highly recommend Danticat’s latest novel as well as her earlier fiction. She makes an important contribution to contemporary literature. Let us know what you think of the Science article and the novel by posting a comment on our blog.

*David Comer Kidd And Emanuele Castano. Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of MindScience, October 2013

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.

19 Jul 2013

The Botany of Desire:
An Exploration of Consciousness

1 Comment Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts, What You Should Read

OlivetreeandbranchesAs promised, this summer whatsmartwomenread is dipping into some non-fiction. Our first selection, Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, turned out to be a winner. Who would imagine that a slim volume about the apple, tulip, cannabis, and potato would make for such interesting reading?  Pollan’s observations are wonderful, especially those focused on the co-evolutionary relationship between man and plant.

His examples look at our uses for plants–the apple for sweetness, tulip for beauty, cannabis for intoxication, and potato for nourishment. However, he also has the reader consider the possibility that plants use humans for their survival. More than anything, the author’s enthusiasm for his subject is contagious–even his meditations on the potato (although you may not want to eat them anymore!).

All four sections contain details that surprise the reader (Johnny Appleseed brought the apple to the new world not for notions of health and wholesomeness but for the gift of alcohol). But the section that we found most compelling was the one on cannabis,what he deems a “useful tool for exploring consciousness.” This psychoactive plant “teaches us what lies on the other side,” “where our materialistic understanding of the brain stops–at least for the time being, but possibly forever.”

Pollan writes: “By disabling our moment-by-moment memory, which is ever pulling us off the astounding frontier of the present and throwing us back onto the mapped byways of the past, the cannabinoids open a space for something nearer to direct experience.” Pollan also talks about the value of forgetting, which is “vastly underrated as a mental operation….For it is only by forgetting that we ever really drop the thread of time and approach the experience of living in the present moment, so elusive in ordinary hours.”

According to The New York Times, ”The Botany of Desire is full of such moments — moments when the thickets of rhetoric and supposition clear, and the reader stumbles onto a thesis as elegant and orderly as an apple orchard. If the sum total isn’t quite ‘a natural history of the human imagination,’ as Pollan hopes, it manages to deliver — without threat of jail time — what mind-altering plants have always promised: “New ways of looking at things, and, occasionally, whole new mental constructs.” It restores “a kind of innocence to our perceptions of the world.”

If you are looking for a book that will expose you to unusual yet fascinating ideas, then check out The Botany of Desire. You won’t be disappointed.

21 Jun 2013

The Value of Non-Fiction
for the Literary Mind

No Comments Personal Thoughts

As you know, whatsmartwomenread.com focuses on high-quality literary fiction. However, most good readers sprinkle in a bit of non-fiction for balance. Finding the best selections can sometimes be a challenge, but a recent 60 Minutes interview with Bill Gates provided a great source.

It turns out that Gates is a voracious reader–in fact, he keeps a canvas bag (the size for carrying firewood) filled with the books he wants to read. And, he blogs about them.

His site, www.thegatesnotes.com/Books is incredible. Of course it is well-done and easy to navigate, but more importantly, it is a treasure trove of non-fiction along with Gates’ comments about his reading.

The titles are fascinating: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (which is a whatsmartwomenread.com selection); Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder (we highly recommend this amazing biography of Paul Farmer); The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee;  and dozens more.

Here are what he calls his “Ten Books that Made Me Think.”

  1. The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined by Steven Pinker
  2. Deng Xiaoping by Ezra Vogel
  3. The Quest by Daniel Yergin
  4. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
  5. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
  6. One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World? by Gordon Conway
  7. A World-Class Education by Vivien Stewart
  8. Academically Adrift by Richard Arum & Joshipa Roksa
  9. This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Carmen Reinhart & Kenneth Rogoff
  10. The City that Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control by Franklin Zimring

It’s really unbelievable that a man that is in the process of eradicating childhood diseases around the world has time to read the newspaper let alone piles of books. But part of intellectual growth depends on staying current. That’s the inherent value of non-fiction and why we are not only directing you to www.thegatesnotes.com but also offering a few non-fiction suggestions of our own. For summer reading, you might consider:

  • A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
  • Great Books by David Denby
  • The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
  • To Repair the World by Paul Farmer
Let us know what non-fiction selections appeal to you and what you plan to read this summer to balance imagination with fact.