Blog Archive for Personal Thoughts

01 May 2013

The Journey Ends in Africa

No Comments Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts

As the 2012-2013 season comes to an end, we’d like to say a few things about reading world literature. We have worked our way through an extremely ambitious list (see below), and somehow maintained good spirits and enthusiasm.  We are concluding our adventure with Nadine Gordimer’s A Sport of Nature (South Africa) and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (Nigeria), and we certainly have stretched our minds through this experience.

As David Damrosch, author of How to Read World Literature writes, “Reaching back over nearly five millenia and extending today to almost every inhabited region of the globe, world literature offers its readers an unparalleled variety of literary pleasures and cultural experiences. Yet this variety also poses exceptional challenges, as we cannot expect to approach all these works with the fund of cultural knowledge that readers share with works within a single tradition.”

We have found this to be true, and perhaps this is why we are all mentally and psychologically depleted. It was really hard to read about so much suffering, pain, war, starvation, and hatred. What we do know is that reading international fiction dials up the empathy factor and creates awareness of the difficulties so many people face on a daily basis.

A few thoughts on A Sport of Nature and Things Fall Apart–The former is a sophisticated, complex, sweeping political novel which crosses the African continent. The main character is on a journey of self-discovery and constantly morphing. The latter is a local, primitive, cultural parable whose main character represents the plight of tribal life as colonialism takes hold in Nigeria. While the structure and content of these two novels couldn’t be more different, in the end they are both about the conflicts between whites and blacks in Africa.

But, the most significant difference is that both the author and main character of A Sport of Nature are white South Africans, and the author and main character of Things Fall Apart are black Nigerians. While both novels deal with race relations, the power of Things Fall Apart is infinitely stronger. We would suggest that you read both since they provide an interesting point-counterpoint to one another.

Nadine Gordimer “hailed Mr. Achebe in a review in The New York Times in 1988, calling him ‘a novelist who makes you laugh and then catch your breath in horror — a writer who has no illusions but is not disillusioned.'” The same could be said about Gordimer, but not for the same reasons. She looks at her world from 30,000 feet while Achebe’s feet are planted firmly on the ground.

  • To The End of the Land • David Grossman
  • Fiasco • Irme Kertesz
  • Hate • Tristan Garcia
  • Flaubert’s Parrot •  Julian Barnes
  • The Messenger • Yannick Haenel
  • Last Man in Tower • Aravind Adiga
  • The Hunger Angel • Herta Muller
  • A Sport of Nature • Nadine Gordimer

 

28 Mar 2013

Lean in to Literature

5 Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts

In her highly-publicized bestseller Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg seeks to understand why working women still struggle to achieve parity in positions of leadership. As the chief operating officer of Facebook, she has a good view from the top and offers practical advice for building a successful career. She writes, “Women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves…These internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention, in part because they are under our own control.”

Some readers are critical of Sandberg, claiming that her message is aimed only at those women already groomed for positions of power. However, at the core of her vision is a question at the heart of  good literature–how does a human being overcome significant challenges to find her or his place in the world?

At this time, www.whatsmartwomenread.com is revisiting one of Pearl S. Buck’s classics, Pavilion of Women. Published more than sixty years ago, the novel  follows the evolution of Madame Wu, the matriarch of an important Chinese family. Her transformation begins on her 40th birthday when she makes a conscious decision to satisfy some of her own longings. Prior to this time, Madame Wu cultivated perfection by making a fine art of managing her family and its affairs; nonetheless, she never explored her inner feelings or personal desires. Her life was relegated to ‘duty’ (not unlike most women in the 21st century who struggle to balance family, work and spiritual growth).

Madame Wu remembers the words Brother Andre (the character that serves as the catalyst for her insight) offered as she sought wisdom: “To lift a soul above its natural level is a dangerous act. Souls, like springs, have their natural resources, and to force them beyond is against nature and therefore a dangerous act…The wisdom is to weigh and judge the measure of a soul and let it live where it belongs.” This ‘weighing’ that Brother Andre speaks of is in our own hands, and we find guidance, support and encouragement from what we read (fiction and non-fiction), and though sharing our understanding of the literature with one another. This is the greatest gift of our reading groups, and the most likely explanation of their popularity with smart women.

So, we encourage our smart women readers to consider Sandberg’s book in the context of the literature we read together. Any bildungsroman (novel centered on self-development) that we explore with one another, Richard Ford’s Canada is a recent and very good example, is the best place to look for inspiration and life lessons. Let us know what novels opened your eyes to new possibilities by posting a comment.

14 Jan 2013

A Little Levity for a Change

1 Comment Personal Thoughts

If you are a whatsmartwomenread.com follower, then you know that we are immersed in a heavy duty line-up of international novels. Our last book, Fiasco by Irme Kertesz, was an extremely challenging read, and we had to remind ourselves that we picked it!

In any event, we are about half way through our demanding 2012-2013 season, and we all agree that the hard work is worthwhile. Next up is The Messenger by Yannick  Haenel. Stay tuned for our comments on this French novel about Jan Karski, the young Polish diplomat who joined the underground after escaping from a Soviet detention camp in 1939.

In the meantime, we thought we’d share something fun and a bit lighter. We attended an unusual author event on Saturday where we met a real star–Mirabelle–the main character of a delightful series of children’s books. We were the only adults without small children, but we had a wonderful time. The children who attended went crazy over Mirabelle and enjoyed listening to the author read these delightful stories.

A Boston Terrier, like the mascot of our site, we absolutely fell in love with her and her books. The author and illustrator is the talented Michael Muller. He and Mirabelle began their lives together in 2006. They live in Washington, D.C., and online at www.adventuresofmirabelle.com.

(Photo above is the author, Mirabelle, and the blogger)

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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.


20 Oct 2012

What We Talk About
When We Talk About Books

No Comments Personal Thoughts

Women love their book groups for many reasons, not the least of which being the close bonds we form through our conversations about what we read. As we reveal our points of view about the reading, we can’t help but learn so much about ourselves and one another.

Very often, when analyzing a character’s motivations, behaviors, or failures, and making judgments one way or another about what he or she chooses to do, we gain insight into our (and one another’s) moral compass, political position, religious or spiritual belief, and personal values.

So, as a reframe of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” we”d like you to consider the question, “What is it that we really talk about when we talk about books?”

In response to this question, one smart woman wrote:

“That’s a pretty loaded question! I saw this post late last night when I got home from a book group. An answer could be rather lengthy, but I will choose to comment on how enlightening a discussion can be.

Different book clubs have very different dynamics, but in general each individual person’s insights open up a new perspective on how they choose to perceive life. Over the years, my critiques of literature have become much more analytical, and I find myself always looking for something to appreciate, to admire about the work – – whether it is plot, characterization, use of language, etc.

I have generally been a rather judgmental person, and it’s a character trait I’m trying to revise; I like to think that my approach to discussing literature is showing a more optimistic and positive way of looking at the world. There is nothing better than when, at a book club meeting when someone is very critical, and after discussion with others, says “Wow, I never saw it “that way” … I’ll have to reconsider my thoughts! There may be something more to this than I realized!”. Thanks for the question; it prompted some important thoughts for me.”

While most reading groups refrain from personal revelations (which can turn a great discussion into a support group), we can’t help but reveal who we are when evaluate and analyze literature. What have you learned from your book club that you wouldn’t know if you read the book on your own? Why do you belong to a group (or groups)? Please let us hear from you by posting a comment on the top of this page.

Please make a note: On October 24 at 7:30 pm, Nathan Englander (one of whatsmartwomenreads favorite authors) will discuss his award-winning short stories at Bet Shira Congregation located at 7500 SW 120 Street, Miami. The presentation will be followed by a book signing and refreshments. For more information, call 305 271-9000.