05 Jun 2012

Short Stories: Simply Perfect for Summer

1 Comment New and Exciting, What You Should Read

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!



25 May 2012

A Source of Stillness:
Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding

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The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.–Aparicio Rodriguez

If you are a smart woman looking for a wonderful summer book (now available in paperback for those who still like to hold their fiction) then here’s our pick. While this is not a light read, it is just perfect for the dog days ahead.

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach’s remarkable novel, takes place at Westish College, “that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin.” This is the ideal backdrop for a tender coming of age story, but that is just a small part of the sweeping novel Harbach creates. But what is really so compelling and unusual is that this is actually several stories of initiation linked by one zen-like character named Owen Dunne (called “Buddha” by his friends).

Circling Owen is his roommate Henry, Henry’s mentor Mike, and Mike’s girlfriend, Pella Affenlight. To complicate matters a bit, Pella is the college president’s daughter, and the college president (Guert Affenlight) falls in love with Owen.

And should you need a touch more enticing, Westish has an unusual backstory. Inspired by a lecture Guert finds ‘tucked between two brittle magazines’  in the Westish library in 1969 authored by none other than Herman Melville, the school’s mascot becomes a whale and the athletic teams are named The Harpooners.  And, while Westish is landlocked, a statue of Herman Melville graces the campus and gazes out toward Lake Michigan. (Guert’ s Harvard dissertation on “the homosocial and the homoerotic in 19th-century American letters,” becomes an influential book titled “The Sperm-Squeezers.”)

The introduction of Melville, and Moby Dick in particular, provides a philosophical point-counterpoint between monomania and principles from The Art of Fielding (a book within the book) such as, “There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to Thoughtless Being.” This in turn, ties together all the strivings of the main characters–self discovery and the ability to build relationships with one another. The reader witnesses and vicariously experiences a lot of growth in this novel.

Our reading group loved the book and could have spent hours discussing it. There are many layers of meaning, all beautifully conceived and conveyed to the reader. Let us know if you have read The Art of Fielding and what you think. And, keep in mind that this book is about baseball in the same way Moby Dick is about whaling.



15 May 2012

Book Club Challenges: Part IV

2 Comments Book Club Notes, New and Exciting

Reading a wonderful novel can transport you anywhere in the world….and it’s even more enjoyable when the trip is shared with friends. This is one of the main reasons book clubs thrive, despite the challenges we sometimes face.

An ongoing issue is what book to choose. There are so many approaches–some groups let the host decide; some decide as a group; some limit their reading to fiction or non-fiction; some even ‘cook the book’ and eat according to the novel’s theme.

Regardless of approach, we love reading together.

One of our book clubs picks a theme each year and decides on all of the novels at the end of our season. In the past we have read contemporary fiction, African-American and southern, and this past year we chose prize-winning authors (we always try to find balance between the genders).

We are very excited about next year’s theme: international authors. We worked hard to find eight of the best books from around the world and chose the following:

  • To The End of the Land by David Grossman (Israel)
  • Fiasco by Irme Kertesz (Hungary)
  • Hate by Tristan Garcia (France)
  • Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes(Great Britain)
  • The Messenger by Yannick Haenel (France)
  • Last Man in Tower by Arivind Adiga (India)
  • The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller (Germany)
  • A Sport of Nature by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)

We also considered novels by Roberto Bolano (Chile), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), Tahmina Anam (Bangladesh), Haruki Murakami (Japan), Phillipe Claudel (France), and Tash Aw (Malaysia). It was difficult making our decisions since all of the authors are accomplished and worthy of our time.

Although our meetings resume in the fall, we thought we would share our list with all our smart women readers. This way you can get a head start during the summer if you’d like.

Please let us know if you’ve read any of these and have thoughts to share.

“What writers need to do is remind people of how complicated everything is. Rather than simplify as news headlines, sound bites, and political speechifiers do, our responsibility is to pose difficult questions and not take sides. Novels aren’t how-to books. The point is not to make examples out of characters, but to try to capture people’s inner lives.”– Rosellen Brown

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.”)




19 Apr 2012

Much Ado About the Pulitzer

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If you’ve been reading the news these last few days, then you are aware of the brouhaha over the failure to award a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. No one doubts that there must have been at least one worthy novel (we can think of a few), yet the controversy is interesting.

Ann Patchett is upset with the Pulitzer committee and writes, “Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings.”

This is true, and smart women are aware of this. We also know that when a book is honored with a prize (Booker, Pulitzer, National Book Award), this doesn’t necessarily mean that we agree that it was the right choice or that we want to read it. It is just a guidepost indicating what has been recognized and we may want to consider it.

But, the good news is that numerous titles have been floated in the press as potential contenders. This gives us the chance to explore what may not have been on our literary radar. We will definitely look into Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin, and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. Another well-received 2012 title, The Art of Fielding, is already on our list and will be the subject of a forthcoming blog.

Although Patchett concludes, “The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction,” a prize isn’t necessarily what creates a buzz about a new book. Fifty Shades of Grey is the hottest (no pun intended) book at the moment, and surely it won’t be a finalist for the Pulitzer.