Blog Archive for Personal Thoughts

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.

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.

15 Nov 2011

What Does Your Bookshelf Say About You?

3 Comments Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts, What You Should Read

BookshelfLeah Price, a Harvard English professor, makes interesting observations in “The Subconscious Shelf”  in Sunday’s New York Times.

According to Price, what we display on our bookshelves reflects who we are and how we think, so much in fact that some readers may deliberately place books on their shelves to project a certain image. This triggered some curious thinking not only about what we buy to fill our bookcases but what we actually read and treasure–and, in this age of the e-reader, not only what we read but how we read. What does all of this say about us as smart women readers?

“To expose a bookshelf is to compose a self,” Price writes. Think about the books you keep and consider sacrosanct. Are they the books of your childhood, college years, or those you shared with your reading group? Are there books you feel you must buy as opposed to downloading on your Kindle or i-Pad? How do you make those distinctions? And what about the book snoop…the person who loves to see what someone else is reading on a plane, train, or bus? No longer can you start a conversation with a stranger by asking, “What are you reading?” How does the emergence of technology change who we are as a community of readers?

It’s hard for this writer to think of an electronic device as a book: Reading involves paper and pen and all the responses that are generated….a conversation that unfolds in the pages between the spine, the glue, and all the markings and dog ears that are part of claiming the work as your own. When you open a book, you learn about the reader and what she valued in that text.

So, in the end, what are some books that smart women read, keep, and display? A few titles that might meet this criteria and are worth your time are:

  • Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
  • Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins
  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaajte
  • Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons
  • The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
  • and anything by Ethan Canin….especially The Palace Thief and America, America

What books have earned a place on your bookshelf? Let us hear from you.

03 Nov 2011

The Redemptive Power of Storytelling

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

There is fiction in the space between
The lines on your page of memories
Write it down but it doesn’t mean
You’re not just telling stories

–Tracy Chapman

Although Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried is ostensibly about the Vietnam War, for this reader it is really a discourse on how narratives shape our past, present, and future.

Through a series of interrelated vignettes about Alpha Company, O’Brien retells and reshapes what they experienced, especially the deaths of his comrades. Seen through the lens of the horrors of war, storytelling becomes an essential coping mechanism for the entire platoon. And for the author, it becomes critical to his sanity after the war ends. The Things They Carried is considered a “ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, and imagination,” and just a handful of writers have offered such insight on the “redemptive power of storytelling.”

In “Notes,” (one of twenty-one chapters in his book) O’Brien examines his own guilt about his fellow soldier Kiowa’s death:

By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field,and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless clarify and explain.

Ands, in “Speaking of Courage,” he writes:

I did not look on my work as therapy, and still don’t. Yet when I received Norman Bowker’s letter it occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse.

O’Brien’s book is a must read for Smart Women. It not only reminds us of the psychological, emotional, and physical costs of war but provides one of the best views of why we tell stories in the first place.

For more  on The Things They Carried as well as discussion questions for book clubs, please look at “Other Smart Reads”   http://whatsmartwomenread.com/other-smart-reads/

 

30 Oct 2011

Smart Women Aren’t Afraid of the Dark

3 Comments Book Club Notes, Personal Thoughts, Uncategorized, What You Should Read

 

Reading groups sometimes avoid certain books because members complain that they are ‘too depressing.’  Book-club-worthy novels are then summarily rejected as a result of this knee jerk response. Certainly, no one wants to sign up to be ‘depressed.’ But, the bottom line is that much of what merits a book club’s attention is dark, provocative, and upsetting, and notable authors often plumb these depths because that’s where the heart of human experience lies.

Smart women understand that it is possible to override the emotional connection to a book by hyper-engaging the intellect. Consider just a handful of noteworthy novels and their corresponding themes: A Lesson Before Dying—racial injustice ending in electrocution; Lowboy—mental illness ending in suicide; Sophie’s Choice—Nazi persecution forcing a mother to sacrifice one of her children; and The Things They Carried—war stories ending in piles of corpses and ruined psyches. Despite this radical reduction of important novels to their skeletons, each one is extraordinary and leads to a dramatic expansion of the reader’s experience far beyond everyday encounters.

And what of the scores of classics by authors ranging from Leo Tolstoy to Virginia Woolf and Henry James to Edith Wharton?  Certainly, each of these authors created a character or two that haunts the reader for a lifetime. And what of Melville’s poor Bartleby, for whom the narrator exclaims, “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” Whose life wasn’t changed by these words?

Has your reading group avoided certain titles because of the dark underbelly of human nature? If so, you might reconsider your position. Let us know what titles you have avoided or which ones you undertook and were grateful for even when met with resistance.

And, Happy Halloween…remember Smart Women Aren’t Afraid of the Dark!