Blog Archive for What You Should Read

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

 
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.

 

 

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