29 Jan 2013

A Profound Lesson in Courage:
Yannick Haenel’s The Messenger

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What happens to a man who is given a message that will ‘shake the conscience of the world,’  but no one will listen?

This is the defining question of Yannick Haenel’s fictionalized biography of Jan Karski, a leader in the Polish Underground who assumed the daunting task of delivering the truth of what was happening not only to the Jews of Poland but also to his homeland. His dedication to his task as a messenger drives this compelling story and engages the reader from beginning to end. More than anything, the reader is inspired by Karski’s unyielding commitment to speaking the truth despite the tremendous personal costs.

The Messenger is one of those books with scores of significant statements. If you are a smart woman reader who likes to underline, asterisk, and annotate, your book will be filled with comments and marks. Observations like the ones below will make you stop and think:

  • Sixty years after the liberation of the death camps we know that it is impossible to shake the world’s conscience, that nothing will ever shake it because the world’s conscience does not exist.
  • Jan Karski discovers that death has nothing exceptional about it. And that it amounts to precious little. Above all, he discovered that the worst thing of all is not violence, but violence that is gratuitous.
  • It is impossible to eliminate a man’s life, because a man exists in the lives of others, and what we call time extends each person’s existence among all our existences.
  • We think that world history is happening far away from us, it always seems to be occuring without us, but in the end we realize that it is the history of our souls.
  • There is never an answer to abandonment, and there is no worse abandonment than that suffered by the Jews of Europe. Not only were the Jews of Europe abandoned by mankind, but they were abandoned by God.

While this book certainly deals with the horrors of the Holocaust, it is the triumphant tale of a Righteous Gentile who suffered because he was not heard. It carries a universal message most clearly conveyed when Karski finally meets with President Roosevelt.

At the end of the meeting, which is painfully futile for Karski, Roosevelt said, “‘Deafness is just one of evil’s ruses.’  Because men act only according to their own interests, and it was definitely in no one’s interest to save the Jews of Europe, and so no one did. Even worse: the Anglo-American consensus masked a shared interest against the Jews. But I understood that only much later, because shameful truths are always revealed slowly.”

Jan Karski’s story will inspire you, and Yannick Haenel’s novel will stay with you long after you finish it. We recommend this book highly. For discussion questions on The Messenger, click here.

14 Jan 2013

A Little Levity for a Change

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If you are a whatsmartwomenread.com follower, then you know that we are immersed in a heavy duty line-up of international novels. Our last book, Fiasco by Irme Kertesz, was an extremely challenging read, and we had to remind ourselves that we picked it!

In any event, we are about half way through our demanding 2012-2013 season, and we all agree that the hard work is worthwhile. Next up is The Messenger by Yannick  Haenel. Stay tuned for our comments on this French novel about Jan Karski, the young Polish diplomat who joined the underground after escaping from a Soviet detention camp in 1939.

In the meantime, we thought we’d share something fun and a bit lighter. We attended an unusual author event on Saturday where we met a real star–Mirabelle–the main character of a delightful series of children’s books. We were the only adults without small children, but we had a wonderful time. The children who attended went crazy over Mirabelle and enjoyed listening to the author read these delightful stories.

A Boston Terrier, like the mascot of our site, we absolutely fell in love with her and her books. The author and illustrator is the talented Michael Muller. He and Mirabelle began their lives together in 2006. They live in Washington, D.C., and online at www.adventuresofmirabelle.com.

(Photo above is the author, Mirabelle, and the blogger)

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30 Dec 2012

Gems for the New Year:
Edith Pearlman’s Short Stories

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In the introduction to the exquisite stories found in Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, Ann Patchett writes, “What you have in your hands now is a treasure, a book you could take to a desert island knowing that every time you got to the end you could simply turn to the front cover and start it all again. It is not a collection of bus crashes, junkies, and despair. Despair is much easier to write about than self-reliance. Theses stories are an exercise in imagination and compassion…an example of what happens when talent meets discipline and stunning intelligence.”

Patchett’s remarks are spot on, and we highly recommend Pearlman’s stories. We have dipped into the collection starting with the title story and working our way through “Self-Reliance,” and then on to “Vaquita,” “If Love Were All,” “Purim Night,” “The Coat,” “Home Schooling,” and our favorite, “On Junius Bridge.”

What we love about Pearlman’s writing is her keen eye and her life affirming themes. She finds beauty in every detail and joy in the most desperate situations. Her view of the world is described as “large and compassionate, delivered through small, beautifully precise moments. Her characters inhabit terrain that all of us recognize, one defined by anxieties and longing, love and grief, loss and exultation. These quiet, elegant stories add something significant to the literary landscape.” (New York Times, January 2011)

Edith Pearlman maintains an esteemed presence in the literary world. She has earned the praise and recognition of her peers but not enough attention from readers. As Ann Patchett writes, “Binocular Vision should be the book with which Edith Pearlman takes up her rightful position as a national treasure. Put her stories beside those of John Updike and Alice Munro. That’s where they belong.”

So, for our first pick of 2013, we are wholeheartedly suggesting Binocular Vision. Consider giving it throughout the year as a gift to all the smart women you know who love fiction. We are certain that they will find the stories as enchanting and meaningful as we do.

05 Dec 2012

It’s Hard to Blog About Hate

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Hate: A Romance is our third international novel on this year’s reading list. So far we have worked our way through David Grossman (To the End of the Land) and Julian Barnes (Flaubert’s Parrot), and now find ourselves wrestling with a young French writer and philosopher named Tristan Garcia. (If you are interested, our next international novel is Fiasco by the Hungarian Irme Kertesz.)

In Hate: A Romance, Garcia develops four characters through whom he weaves the themes of love, sex, violence, hate, and death. The result is an extremely disturbing yet original novel, and readers may find the subject matter hard to take. But, there is also much to learn. After all, we read to explore boundaries beyond what we know, and sometimes it requires us to peer through a darkened window.

Told through the voice of a ‘straight’ journalist named Liz, the story centers on political and personal struggles as AIDS wreaks havoc on an emerging and newly-liberated gay community in Paris. Our main characters, Will and Doume, exploit the AIDS crisis to both carry out individual vendettas and advance political agendas. It is a complicated tale, layered with ideas about commitment, liberation, and activism. Garcia says, “It seemed to me that, as time passed, the memories, the intimate writings of those who had participated in the chronology of gay liberation, the subsequent arrival of the AIDS virus, and the political ruptures that accompanied them step-by-step, weren’t enough anymore–it needed an aspect of fiction.” Hate: A Romance is the fruit of that vision.

The novel’s style is journalistic and a fast read, yet is contains powerful bits of philosophy. In the concluding section, Liz offers reflections on her life and the men with whom she shares this literary stage. One such observation is, “Our origin reveals itself only slowly to be our destiny, and with some weariness, some relief, some fright, we come to understand it. The way we understand it depends on the way we first wanted not to understand it, and to be free.” Her point, which is underscored by the love-hate paradigm that dominates the narrative, is that only through the exploration of opposing tensions can we understand the meaning of our lives.

While the smart women in our group engaged in an intense and significant discussion about this novel, it was a challenge to get to the heart of the matter. So not only was it tough to talk about Hate: A Romance, it is also very hard to blog about! Nonetheless, it is a novel smart women might consider for their reading groups  if you want to read outside of the box.


15 Nov 2012

Literary Lessons on Life and Art:
Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot

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Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own.–Geoffrey Braithwaite, narrator of Flaubert’s Parrot

Julian Barnes, author of the 2011 Man Booker Prize winning The Sense of an Ending, is interested (perhaps compulsively) in the role fiction plays in our lives. Most recently, he published a series of essays entitled Through the Window in which he writes: “Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, and how we lose it.”

In Flaubert’s Parrot (a much earlier work published in 1984), Barnes’  teases out this question of why fiction matters. The main character, Geoffrey Braithwaite, seeks to understand the circumstances of his own life through his curiosity about the life and work of Gustave Flaubert. Although Braithwaite ridicules literary critics and asks, “Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why aren’t the books enough?”, he too become obsessed with the life of the writer. He alternates between wanting to know the truth about Flaubert, his lovers, his family, and his parrots with the bigger question as to why any of this even matters. After all, shouldn’t the fiction stand on its own?

Perhaps Braithwaite only gets it half right. Novels do help us to make sense of other people’s lives, but in the end they often offer a way for us to understand our relationships as well as the world around us. Unlike authors, we can’t control outcomes or predict what will come next. However, many of us do make wonderful discoveries through our reading, and this is one reason why we love talking about books with each other.

There is also laugh-out-loud humor in Flaubert’s Parrot. Braithwaite proposes a set of rules for all future authors which includes: ‘no more novels about incest,’ ‘no scenes in which carnal connection takes place between a human being and an animal’ and ‘no more novels in the which the narrator is identified by an initial letter.’ However, he also writes, “There shall be no more novels which are really about other novels.” This is pretty ironic since Braithwaite’s story (and Barnes’ novel) is essentially about Madame Bovary!

Collectively, we enjoyed Flaubert’s Parrot. It offers, using an innovative structure and style, a way to look at how art mirrors life and the importance books play in understanding the human condition. For this alone, we think it’s worthwhile. Let us know what you think by posting a comment at the top of the page.