Blog Archive for What You Should Read

14 Sep 2012

Coming of Age in Richard Ford’s Canada

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One noteworthy selection from this season’s literary line-up  is Richard Ford’s Canada, and it is certainly worth your reading group’s attention. A remarkably written, patiently drawn coming of age story, Ford’s compelling first-person narrative delves into the characters’ minds in a stunning fashion. What is even more impressive is that our speaker, Dell Parsons, tells his story when he is in his sixties yet captures the sensibility of his 15-year-old self.

Richard Ford’s novels are typically very ‘male’ (consider the Frank Bascombe trilogy of which Independence Day won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize). While Canada’s central characters are male, the prose in this graceful novel is gentle, delicate, and insightful. Consider this passage:

“I feared I’d end up knowing nothing, have nothing to rely on that could distinguish  me. I’m sure it was all an inheritance from my mother’s feelings of an unrewarded life. Though it may have also been that our parents, aswirl in the thickening confusion of their own young lives–not being made for each other, probably not physically desiring each other as they briefly had, becoming gradually only satellites of each other, and coming eventually to resent one another without completely realizing it–didn’t offer my sister and me enough to hold on to, which is what parents are supposed to do. However, blaming your parents for your life’s difficulties finally leads nowhere.”

As Dell conveys his story, we can smell and feel his fear and disappointment. Although there is much happening that might destroy his psyche (look at the impact of the family events on his twin sister), Dell is able to observe, experience, and somehow survive devastating events and maintain his equanimity. Ron Charles of The Washington Post writes, “Dell is haunted by that saddest lament–“If only”–the burden of what ruined men might have been, but he fundamentally rejects despair and cynicism in favor of what he’s learned to be true.” In the end, Dell crosses from innocence to experience intact.

We highly recommend this masterwork to our smart women readers along with the men in their lives. Let us know what you think of Canada by posting your comments on this blog.

For discussion questions, click here.

04 Sep 2012

Getting Ready For 2012-2013:
This Year’s Literary Line-Up

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“Life without literature is a life reduced to penury. It expands you in every possible way. It illuminates what you’re doing. It shows you possibilities you haven’t thought of. It enables you to live the lives of other people than yourself. It broadens you, it makes you more human. It makes life more enjoyable.”

This remark, made by M.H. Abrams in a fabulous interview marking the 50th anniversary of The Norton Anthology of English Literature (you may remember this text from your college days), describes what smart women know–that a life filled with reading is expansive and joyful.  Even more, sharing our thoughts and experiences of literature with one another leads to greater understanding and growth.

With these thoughts in mind, we are thrilled to provide the selections for this year’s literary line-up. Each title will be the subject of at least one blog post and questions will also be available. So, if your book club is looking for some great reads, then you might choose one of these.

  • 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
  • The Last Flight of Jose Luis Balboa • Gonzalo Barr
  • Canada • Richard Ford
  • Binocular Vision • Edith Pearlman
  • A Hologram for the King • Dave Eggers
  • Hikikomori and the Rental Sister • Jeff Backhaus

This is an ambitious, exciting list guaranteed to provoke, inspire, and stimulate amazing conversations. We are looking forward to a great year ahead and hope all our readers will share their thoughts on these books.

24 Aug 2012

Nathan Englander: Modern Storyteller

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Because to a story, there is context. There is always context in life.–Free Fruit for Young Widows

If  Raymond Carver is a master storyteller who provides the most pared down snapshots of human drama, then Nathan Englander is a modern storyteller who fleshes out his narratives to provide the context for specific behaviors. Both are brilliant at crafting short narratives and engaging the reader, yet their styles are distinctive.

Englander, whose work we will be discussing in our second short story session at Books and Books, draws scenes that provide much more than just the bones. While never sacrificing form, Englander layers his fiction with history and politics to show that human behavior cannot be divorced from what is happening in the world around us.

We will focus part two of our discussion on three of Englander’s stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” “Sister Hills,” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows.” With the first, we will compare his story with Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and specifically address why Englander chose the Carver story as an inspiration.

We will also engage in conversation about the following:

  • The title story, “Sister Hills,” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows” all pivot around incidents within Jewish history, and the question of how essential stories—stories that define us, that shape both our understanding of the past and our vision of the future—are told and retold over the course of many years. What do you think Englander is suggesting about history, tradition, and storytelling itself?
  • “Sister Hills” can be read as a political allegory based on the story of a bargain struck in order to save the life of a critically ill child.  In this reading, who or what does the child represent, and what meaning can be inferred from the exchange of money? What is the relevance of the two mothers?
  • Discuss the contrast between the narrative form of “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” in which a father is lovingly recounting a story to his son, and the story’s actual substance. How does this dissonance contribute to the story’s power? What is the significance of the comment Etgar’s father makes when Etgar is twelve: “Do you want to know why I can care for a man who once beat me? Because to a story, there is context. There is always context in life.”
  • In “Free Fruit for Young Widows” Englander distinguishes between two kinds of survival, saying that Professor Tendler “made it through the camps. He walks, he breathes, and he was very close to making it out of Europe alive. But they killed him. After the war, we still lost people. They killed what was left of him in the end.”  What does he mean?

Raymond Carver and Nathan Englander use perfect language to convey loss, despair, intimacy, tenderness, shame, truth, justice, and pain and suffering all in the space of a short story. Yet, Englander is becoming more Carveresque: “Generally Englander works with a light touch, a nearly whimsical sobriety. He is more of a minimalist here, even when exploring the thickets of cognitive dissonance that flourish between faith and falsehood.” (NY Times 2/19/12)

To our ears, that sounds like the highest praise. Let us know what you think about Carver and Englander by posting a comment on our blog.

(Questions adapted from those found on the Random House website.)


16 Aug 2012

Raymond Carver: Master Storyteller

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You could write a story about this ashtray, for example, and a man and a woman. But the man and the woman are always the two poles of your story. The North Pole and the South. Every story has these two poles. –A.P. Chekhov

When we sat down to write this blog we struggled with how to best describe Raymond Carver’s spare yet powerful writing style. A short story master, his work explores loss, loneliness, despair and anxiety without an ounce of sentimentality. Nothing is ever over-written. His prose strikes exactly the right notes and hits the reader with an exacting punch.  But who better to describe good writing than Carver himself? In “On Writing,” he states:

It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things–a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring–with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine….that’s the kind of writing that most interests me…..In Isaac Babel’s wonderful short story “Guy de Maupassant,” the narrator has this to say about the writing of fiction: “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.” This ought to go on a three-by-five.

With these thoughts in mind, we will explore three of Carver’s best stories next week at Books and Books: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” “Where I’m Calling From,” and “A Small Good Thing.”  Questions we will consider include:

  • Do Carver’s characters learn or grow from their experiences?
  • How do they express themselves? Do they understand their emotions and limitations?
  • Is Carver’s minimalist style appropriate for conveying his themes?
  • What kind of characters appeal to Carver and why?
  • Does Carver sympathize with the working class man and woman?
  • Is Carver using his fiction to convey a message?
  • How does he create tension?
We are looking forward to a lively discussion. If you are unable to join us, please visit the blog for a recap of the session or to post your comments.



05 Jun 2012

Short Stories: Simply Perfect for Summer

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A recent New York Times story entitled “New Under the Sun: Books for Basking,” provided several wonderful titles for summer reading. In this piece, Janet Maslin recommends two ambitious historical novels: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which our groups will be tackling in July and August.

But, summertime is really perfect for short fiction. In anticipation of the dog days and frequent swims and naps, short stories are wonderful for that in-between fiction fix. With this in mind, we are making a few suggestions.

First, we highly recommend several of the short stories found in Nathan Englander’s latest collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. In particular, “Sister Hills” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows” (which first appeared in The New Yorker) are spectacular. And, if you read the title story, you certainly should re-visit Raymond Carver’s classic “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” as a companion piece (found in his collection Where I’m Calling From).

Second, take a look at Don DeLillo’s Angel Esmeralda, which is filled with haunting, gorgeous language and settings spanning past, present and future. The title story is just about the most perfect thing DeLillo has ever penned, and The New Yorker describes it as ‘a dazzlingly told tale of despair and ruination, the dream of redemption and the testing of faith.’

Then, find some time for the master of short fiction, Alice Munro. Her collection, Too Much Happiness is dark and insightful (try “Deep Holes” and “Child’s Play”–which, by the way, dovetails quite nicely with Englander’s “Camp Sundown).”

Last, if you loved The Art of Fielding, then you might consider re-reading one of our favorites, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Owen Dunne, the “Buddha” of The Art of Fielding, is inspired by Bartleby (and probably Billy Budd as well).

So, if you are hungry for summer snacks instead of full meals, consider short stories. Let us know if you read any of these recommendations and what you think. Happy Summer!