Blog Archive for Uncategorized

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!

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.

 

23 Oct 2011

How to Solve Book Club Challenges

2 Comments Uncategorized

How to Solve Common Book Club
Challenges: Part I

What are some of the more difficult tasks book clubs face? Choosing what to read may top the list followed by how to organize the discussion and whether to have a leader, what to do with a disruptive member, and deciding where to meet.
There are good resources to resolve these problems, and one we suggest
is the New York Public Library Guide to Reading Groups http://www.amazon.com/Public-Library-Guide-Reading-Groups/dp/0517883570 ). But, in the next few blog posts, we will offer some of our own suggestions on ways to meet these issues head on with strategies for implementation.

Read more

20 Oct 2011

Should Book Clubs Read Joyce Carol Oates?

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

Interestingly enough, Gore Vidal told Christopher Hitchens that the three most dispiriting words in the English language were “Joyce Carol Oates”. You have to wonder if Oates’ dark view of men and her perpetual theme of the exploitation of women inspired Vidal’s remark. However, Oates generates much discussion and is not a universally loved writer of fiction.

But, you have to admire a writer who has won almost every major prize, including the National Book Award. She teaches at Princeton University, where young Jonathan Safran Foer was her student. She makes speaking appearances, and she contributes short pieces to magazines, including Narrative and the New Yorker. She’s very busy — and she produces more work (I think more than 37 novels to date) than seems humanly possible. (LA Times).

And, who is more adept at describing the dark undercurrents of adolescent sexuality? Her 2007 novel, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, centers on Rebecca, who is thrust into the world after her deranged father kills her mother and then himself with a shotgun. Rebecca’s two older brothers abandoned the family before the murder-suicide, leaving Rebecca alone in the world. Although she is taken in by her teacher who tries desperately to make a Christian out of her, the sixteen year old Rebecca winds up cleaning rooms at the George Washington Hotel. It is here that she meets Niles Tignor, a stranger that Rebecca innocently believes will marry her and carry her to a better life. Sadly, more violence awaits poor Rebecca, from which she seems unable to escape.

In her much anthologized story with a similar theme “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Joyce Carol Oates explores the turmoil that characterizes the life of another adolescent girl. The main character is a typically rebellious teenager named Connie. She is contemptuous of adult authority and decides to forego a family outing to stay home and wash her hair. Now vulnerable to danger lurking in the adult world, Arnold Friend shows up at her front door. He taunts her and threatens to kill her family if she doesn’t leave her home with him. In the end, she joins him, and the reader is all too aware of the fate that awaits her in this dark story.

So, why should women read Joyce Carol Oates? In the end, is the draw of her fiction much like that of a bad car accident–it’s just too hard not to look? This is surely an oversimplification of a woman writer who has a guaranteed place in the canon of American literature.

What do you think? What novels or short stories have you read and how did you react to them? Has your book club read any Oates? Let other smart women hear your opinion on the writer that led Vidal to make such a wicked statement.