28 Oct 2012

Nathan Englander’s Magic Carpet Ride

2 Comments New and Exciting, Personal Thoughts

Oh, what a night! WhatSmartWomenRead has attended plenty of author events, but we never had an experience quite like this.  It was a mind-blowing, gravity-defying, energy-bending glimpse into Nathan Englander’s creative process, and it was awesome to consider how such clear, coherent, and gorgeous prose comes out of his unplugged, overdrive mind.

While the typical event consists of a reading followed by questions and answers from the audience, on this evening we just listened to the author describe, in a completely unfettered, untethered way, his approach to writing. His comments came at us at lightning speed, so we are now struggling to recall exactly what we heard. But, here are a few things that stood out.

1. Englander’s absolute need to write–it is his dharma and lives within him as a force of nature. It is also abundantly clear that writing is his Valium–without it (the writing, that is), he is a man on fire.

2. All the writer needs is one reader. “The Reader” (from What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank) illustrates this point.

3. When an audience member asked the author to reveal a character’s innocence or guilt, which is ambiguous in the story “Camp Sundown,” Englander replied that readers bring their own truth to fiction. He said that the reader’s reality interacts with the author’s narrative, and it is the reader’s prerogative to make assumptions, fill in the gaps, and create his or her own story.

4. Englander spoke of the sacred moments of self-consciousness and loss of awareness. He made several references to the bicameral mind, which states that the brain is divided between one part that appears to be speaking and another part which listens and obeys. He stated that when his brain is most alive, it is spontaneously providing information to another part of his mind which records (as he types) his thoughts. For most of us, this might be more readily understood as the ‘zone’ or a form of active meditation (chop wood, carry water).

It was a wonderful, insane experience, and the audience enjoyed Englander’s great sense of humor and brilliant mind–qualities that make his work unique and appealing. If you are not familiar with his fiction, he has two short story collections (For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank) and an extraordinary novel (The Ministry of Special Cases). And, he is now in the process of transforming one of his stories, “The Twenty-seventh Man,” into a play that is opening next month at the Public Theater in New York.

On another note, Whatsmartwomenread.com is celebrating its first anniversary. We have received nearly 20,000 hits, have 337 subscribers, and 121 “Likes” on Facebook. We thank you for your support and would love to know what you like about the site and what you would like to see more of. Please email us at info@whatsmartwomenread.com with your comments.

By the way, the photo is of the blogger thanking Englander for signing her book.

20 Oct 2012

What We Talk About
When We Talk About Books

Post a Comment Personal Thoughts

Women love their book groups for many reasons, not the least of which being the close bonds we form through our conversations about what we read. As we reveal our points of view about the reading, we can’t help but learn so much about ourselves and one another.

Very often, when analyzing a character’s motivations, behaviors, or failures, and making judgments one way or another about what he or she chooses to do, we gain insight into our (and one another’s) moral compass, political position, religious or spiritual belief, and personal values.

So, as a reframe of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” we”d like you to consider the question, “What is it that we really talk about when we talk about books?”

In response to this question, one smart woman wrote:

“That’s a pretty loaded question! I saw this post late last night when I got home from a book group. An answer could be rather lengthy, but I will choose to comment on how enlightening a discussion can be.

Different book clubs have very different dynamics, but in general each individual person’s insights open up a new perspective on how they choose to perceive life. Over the years, my critiques of literature have become much more analytical, and I find myself always looking for something to appreciate, to admire about the work – – whether it is plot, characterization, use of language, etc.

I have generally been a rather judgmental person, and it’s a character trait I’m trying to revise; I like to think that my approach to discussing literature is showing a more optimistic and positive way of looking at the world. There is nothing better than when, at a book club meeting when someone is very critical, and after discussion with others, says “Wow, I never saw it “that way” … I’ll have to reconsider my thoughts! There may be something more to this than I realized!”. Thanks for the question; it prompted some important thoughts for me.”

While most reading groups refrain from personal revelations (which can turn a great discussion into a support group), we can’t help but reveal who we are when evaluate and analyze literature. What have you learned from your book club that you wouldn’t know if you read the book on your own? Why do you belong to a group (or groups)? Please let us hear from you by posting a comment on the top of this page.

Please make a note: On October 24 at 7:30 pm, Nathan Englander (one of whatsmartwomenreads favorite authors) will discuss his award-winning short stories at Bet Shira Congregation located at 7500 SW 120 Street, Miami. The presentation will be followed by a book signing and refreshments. For more information, call 305 271-9000.


03 Oct 2012

The Politics of a Mother’s Heart

Post a Comment Book Reviews, New and Exciting, What You Should Read

Authors often insist that their work is an expression of their imagination, boldly denying that it is a reflection of their personal lives. David Grossman was one of those authors, but his work was transformed in 2003.

Grossman writes, “About four years ago, when my oldest son, Uri, was about to join the army, I could no longer follow my recent ways. A sense of urgency and alarm washed over me, leaving me restless. I then began writing a novel that treats directly the bleak reality in which I live. A novel that depicts how external violence and the cruelty of the general political and military reality penetrate the tender and vulnerable tissue of a single family, ultimately tearing it asunder.”

The result of Grossman’s decision is the magnificent, yet heart-wrenching novel, To the End of the Land.

In a nutshell, this is Ora’s story–a mother whose heart is broken when her son Ofer decides to re-enlist after satisfying his obligation to the army. Ora and Ofer had planned a mother-son, post-release hike in northern Israel, which they will now be unable to take. But, after she delivers Ofer to the army’s designated meeting site, she becomes manic and determines that she can betray fate if she takes the hike and stays far from home unable to receive any bad news. Ora, for all intents and purposes, kidnaps her former lover and husband’s best friend, Avram, so she doesn’t have to take the trip alone.

This novel is a post-modern journey–one in which the voyagers seek to make sense of their world and overcome significant psychological, emotional, physical, and historical challenges. In this case, Ora’s survival depends on two things: using magical thinking to keep Ofer alive and revealing his life story to his father Avram.

Ora, from the first time we meet her in the isolation ward, is torn between two men, Ilan and Avram, and her family and her homeland. Grossman’s brilliance at conflating these two elements, the personal and the political, makes this a complex,engrossing read. In the end, it is one of the finest anti-war novels ever written that never loses sight of the human heart.

We highly recommend this novel as a must read for smart women. Let us know what you think by posting a comment at the top of this page.

To read Grossman’s entire essay, “Writing in the Dark,” click here.


14 Sep 2012

Coming of Age in Richard Ford’s Canada

Post a Comment Book Reviews, What You Should Read

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

1 Comment New and Exciting, What You Should Read

“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.