Blog Archive for What You Should Read

02 May 2012

The Personal Meets The Political:
Nadine Gordimer’s The House Gun

2 Comments Book Club Notes, What You Should Read

Violence is the common hell of all who are associated with it.  –The House Gun

What happens when an upper-middle class, white South African family becomes the victim of violence? What happens when that violence is perpetuated by a member of their own family? How do a successful, community-minded physician and her religious, corporate husband cope when they discover that their only son, an architect, committed murder? And last, how do they deal with their son’s selection of a black man in post-apartheid South Africa to represent him? These questions form the core of Nadine Gordimer’s extraordinary novel, The House Gun, a must-read for smart women.

Our group wrestled with these issues last night at our monthly meeting, and the conversation was spirited.  Much of the discussion centered on the difficulties Claudia and Harald faced coming to terms with the truth about their son, Duncan. Not only does he murder one of his roommates, they discover that Duncan’s act was a crime of passion committed when he discovered his girlfriend and ex-male lover having sex on their communal sofa. (By the way, this is not a spoiler. All this is revealed in the opening pages of the novel.)

Much of how they deal with this painful tragedy reflects their sense of personal responsibility, wondering where they might have gone wrong. Their guilt is compounded by the post-apartheid world in which they live and their response to Duncan’s lawyer Hamilton Motsamai. While trying to wrap their heads around the news that shattered their life, they also confront their biases. “She’s (Claudia) not one of those doctors who touch black skin indiscriminately along with white, but retain liberal prejudices against the intellectual capacities of blacks. Yet she is questioning, and he is; in the muck in which they are stewing now, where murder is done, old prejudices still writhe to the surface.”

We were so dazzled by Gordimer’s writing and subject matter that we added A Sport of Nature to our 2012-2013 reading list. If you haven’t discovered this Nobel Prize winning author, then don’t wait any longer. There are many rewards to be found on her pages. This book that was unanimously applauded by our reading group, and we are certain it will be well-received by yours as well.

(By the way, discussion questions can be found under “Other Smart Reads.”)




13 Mar 2012

Making Sense of Julian Barnes’ Ending

No Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, What You Should Read

The New York Times critic Liesl Schillinger writes, “In The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes reveals crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden. He has honed their edges, and polished them to a high gleam.” Also of The New York Times, Geoff Dyer suggests, “Any extreme expression of opinion about The Sense of an Ending seems inappropriate. It isn’t terrible, it is just so average.”

So how does a smart woman reconcile such divergent points of view? This is one of the more fascinating questions that many reading groups deal with when discussing fiction. Ultimately, how we feel about any work is based on our own reactions and impressions, and in the case of The Sense of an Ending, we would more likely agree with Dyer’s position than Schillinger’s. And for one specific reason: This mostly strong novel is compromised by a convoluted ending.

An accessible and fairly short book, there is much to recommend it. The novel teases out an interesting theme: Is it better to live a meaningless life or to commit a meaningful suicide? Early in the story, a young classmate named Robson commits suicide ostensibly because his girlfriend is pregnant. His suicide note reads, “Sorry, Mum.” This gives rise to a compelling conversation led mostly by Adrian who quotes Camus: “Suicide was the only true philosophical question.”

In his own suicide note, Adrian writes, “Life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; that the thinking person has the philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision.” Clearly, this is heavy stuff, not to mention the novel’s other themes of history, time, and memory.

The characters are finely drawn and the story line is solid, but in addition to the issues with the ending there are problems with the reliability of the narrator, Tony Webster. He asks, “Who was it who said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient–it’s not useful–to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.” If the narrator is continually filling in the blanks without any certainty, where does that leave the poor reader?

While the novel is flawed, we would still recommend it as a good selection for reading groups. There is much to discuss, and the writing (as reflected by some of the passages above) is quite good. And, Julian Barnes did win the Man Booker Prize in 2011 for this work.

By the way, one of our reading groups will meet to discuss this book on Saturday. If you are interested, discussion questions will be found under Other Smart Reads.

06 Mar 2012

Ethan Canin: A ‘Top Ten’ Author
For Smart Women

No Comments Book Reviews, What You Should Read

If you haven’t read Ethan Canin’s fiction, then you are really missing something.

Starting with his first collection of short stories “The Emperor of the Air” through his most recent novel, America America, Canin has displayed a profound understanding of human nature. He has the gift of translating the most universal character flaws into perfect, compelling, and moving narratives. Canin is so good that you can read the same story over and over and still be joyfully elevated or emotionally stricken.

From the first time we taught “Carnival Dog, Buyer of Diamonds” to university students (who loved the story as much as we did), we were absolutely mesmerized by this author’s talent. It feels as if he has lived each of the character’s lives and gives you access into their hearts and souls. His writing is honest, clear, and most astoundingly wise. What more could a smart woman ask for?

This month one of our groups read The Palace Thief (check out Other Smart Reads for discussion questions)–a most brilliant set of four stories. Each one is spectacular in its own right, but our favorites are “Batorsag and Szerelem” and the title story. “Batorsag and Szerelem” is one of sibling rivalry unlike any other we have read, and it is hard not to recognize ourselves in this powerful family story.

“The Palace Thief”” centers on a teacher who overestimates his importance and comes to recognize his place in the world through his interaction with the boys at his boarding school. The main character, Mr. Hundert, dedicates his life to teaching and confesses, “That school was my life.”

Later in the story, when he is reunited with several of his best students, he reflects: “Oh, how little we understand of men if we think that their childhood slights are forgotten!” Canin’s insight into the human condition and his recurring statement that ‘character is destiny,’ and ‘the die is cast’ brings classic beliefs to the modern day.

On behalf of all smart women, we anxiously await Canin’s next novel…it will surely be a gift.

By the way, the beautiful drawings that adorn the site are gifts from our dear friend and most gifted artist from Rome, Jose Grave de Peralta. To learn more about him and his work, please visit

21 Feb 2012

Smart Women and Literary Judgment

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

“The older I get, the more I’m convinced that a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character.” This is a curious remark coming from Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections and Freedom) who himself has been the subject of much discussion. (Bear in mind that Franzen called Michiko Kakutani, the esteemed book critic, “the stupidest person in New York City.”) Nonetheless, Franzen’s point is worth exploring, which he does brilliantly in his New Yorker essay “A Rooting Interest.”

For smart women, it is a compelling question: Do we have to like a character to appreciate a work of fiction? And, do our feelings about an author have anything to do with forming a literary judgment? In honor of Edith Wharton’s 150th birthday, this is a good question to consider since both the writer and her characters have stimulated great conversations.

At the heart of Franzen’s exploration  is whether or not a reader can be sympathetic to characters created by an author for whom they may have a negative predisposition. (Again, remember the brouhaha when Franzen rejected Oprah’s invitation to her show? Then again, did anyone have sympathy for the characters in The Corrections?) In the essay, Franzen focuses primarily on Edith Wharton who was well known for her arrogance. Franzen provides two examples: “She was the kind of lady who fired off a high-toned complaint to the owner of a shop where a clerk refused to lend her an umbrella,” and an image recounted by her biographer (RWB Lewis) where Wharton is “writing in bed after breakfast and tossing the completed pages on the floor, to be sorted and typed up by her secretary.”

But where the essay gets interesting is when Franzen delves into the question of whether a reader has to like or sympathize with a character to like the novel itself. He compares the sympathetic Lily Bart (The House of Mirth) to the highly unsympathetic Undine Spragg (The Custom of the Country). Lily Bart is “an angel of grace and sensitivity and lovability. Undine Spragg is the spoiled, ignorant, shallow, amoral and staggeringly selfish product of the economically booming American hinterland.”

If you’ve read both novels (which if  you haven’t you  must!), you might agree that The Custom of the Country is the more powerful, more memorable, and definitely the juicier of the two.  This is where we think Franzen answers his own question—a reader does not have to like either the author or the character to absolutely love a book. And based on the enduring power of Edith Wharton, ‘liking’ doesn’t seem to have much to do with it. What smart women need is an authentic experience that speaks to her in a distinct literary voice. Do you agree? Let us hear from you.

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.