Blog Archive for What You Should Read

05 Nov 2013

The Center Cannot Hold:
Things Fall Apart and Purple Hibiscus

2 Comments Book Reviews, New and Exciting, What You Should Read

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
from “The Second Coming” by WB Yeats

Both Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus make specific reference to Yeats’s oft-quoted and powerful poem, “The Second Coming.” This naturally leads the reader to ask these questions: What exactly is falling apart in the two cultures described by Achebe and Adichie, and why is it that the ‘center cannot hold’? And, most importantly, who are the characters in these authors novels that ‘lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity’? These are complex questions, but the answers unlock the key to understanding these texts.

Let’s look first at Things Fall Apart and the clash of cultures that leads to the destruction of the Ibo way of life. The main character, Okonkwo represents the plight of tribal life as colonialism takes hold in Nigeria. He is heroic in his fight against the missionaries and wants desperately to preserve the social order of his tribe. However, that is the more ‘global’ conflict of the novel. Okonkwo also is deeply ashamed of his father who he despises for his weakness, and this obsession leads to his destruction.

In Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, the patriarch Eugene is also deeply troubled by the conflicts in his country. He advocates the return to democracy from military rule through his newspaper, The Standard, and he is devoted to the editor who risks his life to write controversial editorials. Like Okonkwo, however, he refuses to acknowledge his father who adheres to a pagan faith and refuses to let his children visit him. In fact, when Kambili brings a drawing of her grandfather into their home, Eugene beats her within an inch of her life. This hatred, like the one that consumes Okonkwo, becomes his tragic flaw and destroys the entire family.

What is remarkable and important about these novels (and all noteworthy novels, actually) is that they deal with both external (political/religious) forces and internal (family/moral) struggles. They are inextricably linked, for better or for worse, and precisely what makes a piece of fiction universal. The pain that the reader experiences as both cultures and families fall apart is real since we know from personal experience that this is the nature of being human.

And this is why we recommend that your book groups consider reading these novels together (Achebe first, then Adichie). You might also watch Chimamanda Adichie talk about Achebe at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41Na23h9-AE  

Let us know if you decide to pursue this course by posting a comment on www.whatsmartwomenread.com

 

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.

18 May 2013

The Young and the Talented:
Our Next Selections for Smart Women

No Comments New and Exciting, What You Should Read

Every year our reading group selects books according to a specific theme. As you know, in 2012-2013 we read world literature, and previous seasons were organized around prize-winners, African-American and Southern fiction. This is an interesting way to choose books and may be a strategy to introduce to your own clubs.

For the 2013-2014 season we decided to direct our attention to writers under 40. This is a popular trend, and The New Yorker and Granta frequently preview these exciting and emerging authors. Many of the writers who were introduced to us in this way, Michael Chabon, Nicole Krauss, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jonathan Franzen to name a few, have gone on to impressive literary careers.

So, we are enthusiastic about next year’s line up and once again hope you will consider reading along with us starting in the fall. We provide the list to you now so you can get a jump start over the summer should any of these titles appeal to you (and we feel certain that they will). We may even dip into the list ahead of time and offer some teasers on the blog.

  • Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie
  • This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
  • Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer Dubois
  • A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
  • The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger
  • Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
  • The Russian Debutante’s Handbook by Gary Shteyngart
  • Battleborn by Clare Vaye Watkins
  • Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng
Stay tuned to whatsmartwomenread.com for reviews on these novels and more as the summer unfolds.
26 Feb 2013

The Power of Passive Resistance:
Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower

No Comments Book Reviews, New and Exciting, What You Should Read

What happens when “Bartleby the Scrivener” meets The Lord of the Flies? As you can imagine, the results are not pretty. In Aravind Adiga’s second novel about India (The White Tiger was his first and won the Booker Prize), the reader is drawn into a world of greed and corruption and witnesses a radical breakdown in human behavior. While much of the frustration that motivates the characters’ behavior is unique to India, the frightening results are universal.

Last Man in Tower centers on the conflict of two main characters, the greedy and narcissistic real estate developer Dharmen Shah, and Masterji, a retired teacher and once esteemed resident of the Vishram Society (a co-op in Mumbai that is considered ‘pucca’ or solid and upstanding). Shah is a man obsessed with reshaping the face of India and reaping the extraordinary financial rewards. Masterji, unlike most of the residents of his building, refuses Shah’s life-changing buyout offer, a real windfall for these families. Masterji doesn’t see any value in leaving his home, and since they live in a co-op, they all have to agree or there is no deal.

As the face-off between these two men unfolds, Masterji’s neighbors grow increasingly frustrated and conspire to change Masterji’s mind. As he digs in, his fellow residents and former friends begin to despair and devise numerous plots to get Masterji to rethink his position.

Masterji becomes a classic passive resister. Although he is being ambushed by the developer, his ‘left-hand man’, and his neighbors, Masterji is convinced that he is doing the right thing. He also believes that he is standing for all the down-trodden residents of Mumbai who will ultimately be forced out of their homes (which is some cases are poles and tarps at the edge of a running sewer). However, the more he quietly and patiently ignores the pleas of his neighbors, the worse the situation becomes. And, while Masterji sees his acts as noble and honoring the memory of his deceased daughter and wife, the reader has to wonder what his real motives are as well.

The novel is compelling not only because we are anxious to see how far the group will go to change Masterji’s position but also because it explores how one person, steadfast in a point of view, can provoke dark actions. There is no established social order to turn to, neither the police, the media, nor family and friends, will stand up for Masterji. This leaves the final act in the hands of the residents of the pucca Vishram Society, and in the end, it is not so pucca after all.

Click here for discussion questions on Last Man in Tower.