Blog Archive for January, 2012

29 Jan 2012

Smart Women Should Consider Saul Bellow

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We are always looking for the book it is necessary to read next– Saul Bellow

One of our book clubs decided to limit our 2011-2012 selections to prize winning authors. The result is an ambitious reading list including Susan Sontag, John Updike, Nadine Gordimer, and of course, Saul Bellow. While some of our conversations involve why these authors won the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and most notably, the Nobel Prize, we also wondered whether the form and content of these works remain relevant in the 21st century.

In the case of Saul Bellow, the answer would be a resounding yes. The universal questions that Bellow’s characters wrestle with, and in the case of Humboldt’s Gift and its highly-energized narrator Charlie Citrine, include the soul, death, money, and culture.

According to a Los Angeles Times review published in 2009, “Humboldt’s Gift, is both a crazy mess of a novel and an abiding testament to the vital exuberance of Saul Bellow’s genius.” And in Jeffrey Eugenides smart introduction to the Penquin edition, he writes that Bellow “elevated language and, by doing so, reversed the spirit’s atrophy. That’s what reading Bellow feels like. What makes Bellow’s prose better than just about anyone else’s is that it is touched, in every clause, by enlightenment.”

Sentences like, “Ah Humboldt had been great—handsome, high-spirited, buoyant, ingenious, electrical noble. To be with him made you feel the sweetness of life. We used to discuss the loftiest things….to talk to him was sustaining, nourishing,†excite and draw the read into the meditations of Charlie Citrine. In fact, these meditations take the form of a conversation with the reader until the end of the novel when Charlie formally says goodbye to Humboldt.

For this blogger, what makes Humboldt’s Gift  a ‘must read’ is the humanity of  its narrator. He lives in the real world, one that we know and also struggle to understand. He makes mistakes and chides himself—his regrets speak to all of our regrets especially those relating to love and friendship. But on his sofa, Charlie explores what makes our lives worthwhile and wrestles with how we might discipline ourselves to make the right choices at the right time.

If you haven’t read Humboldt’s Gift, you should consider it for your book club. It’s not a fast read, but it’s great fun while seizing the serious questions about the meaning of life. We all have a little of Charlie Citrine in us, and in the end, that’s a good thing.

20 Jan 2012

Why Smart Women Read Fiction

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Why do you read fiction?

There are many answers, and when posed to a very smart woman in a recent conversation, she said, “I read to be amazed, to connect, to learn, to feel.” Yet her answers reflect only one aspect of a larger issue presented in Garth Risk Hallberg’s recent New York Times magazine article entitled, “Why Write Novels at All,†which focuses more on the reasons authors write than on why we read.

But, these two activities are intertwined—after all, authors need a raison d’etre to write if we are to have anything to read.

In his essay, Hallberg identifies a group of emerging authors that he labels ‘Le Conversazioni’ since they formed a core group at a 2006 literary conference in Italy. Writers he mentions include Nathan Englander (an absolute favorite of this blogger—consider his The Ministry of Special Cases for your book club), Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Jeffrey Eugenides. More specifically, Hallberg looks at how they use their craft to justify the existence of fiction. The essayist’s view is that, “The deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness… a sign that you are not alone,†and he offers a few examples from La Conversazioni :

If a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of other’s identifying with our own.—David Foster Wallace

Simply to be recognized for what I was, simply not be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.—Jonathan Franzen

These reflections are just a part of the puzzle. Many of us read beyond the need ‘to resist loneliness.’ Something closer to the truth emerges at the end of the essay when Hallberg brings in a 2000-year-old theory about the purpose of art—to delight and instruct. For most smart women, those of us who engage in conscious, deliberate, active reading for whatever reasons are important to us, we want to feel joy and we want to learn, experience something important beyond what is available to us in our daily lives. And this, we believe, is why smart women read fiction.

Please post a comment and let us know why you read. For this blogger, to be delighted and instructed is a great start.

10 Jan 2012

More Thoughts on The Submission

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A pen and ink drawing of trees, bushes and a wall.

As promised, here are some additional thoughts on Amy Waldman’s The Submission. Our book club discussion on this novel was among our liveliest, and we agreed that this is an outstanding work of contemporary fiction. We found the characters authentic and their conflicts generated much important thinking for the reader.

Our conversation centered primarily on Mo, Claire, Asma, and Sean, and if their behavior was consistent with what they believed to be their core values. In the case of Mo and Claire, the actions they take find them both alone and isolated twenty years after the contest. It is hard to know, however, if their lives would have wound up much differently had they not found themselves in the 9/11 maelstrom. Asma and Sean, on the other hand, took more dramatic action: Asma loses her life, Sean loses his family–but they both fulfill a need to be true to themselves.

This novel forces the thoughtful reader to confront her own biases and challenge herself to ask the hard questions. And as Tom Junod of Esquire magazine writes:

The Submission is not a religious novel but rather a secular one that takes religion very seriously. It is not a political novel but rather a novel about the ongoing redefinition of the place where politics starts. It is a novel of large public concern, and yet what it suggests is that over the last decade “the public†in America has just become an excuse for “the private†to hold sway — for people to submit to impulses they didn’t know they had. It is a portrait of a country almost terrifyingly free and at the same time endlessly involved in the task its title describes: either trying to get up off its knees or fall down to them.”

Indeed, The Submission does force these questions and unsettles the reader in an important and significant way, and that is precisely why this is a must read for smart women.

If you haven’t read the novel yet, the descriptions below give you a good sense of the cast as provided by the author on her site

Mohammed Khan: The Architect

Every day brought more proof that the attackers were Muslims, seeking the martyr’s straight shot to paradise—and so Mo braced for suspicion as he returned to the theater under construction. A few days later he realized that the difference wasn’t in how he was being treated but in how he was behaving. Customarily brusque on work sites, he had become gingerly, polite, careful to give no cause for alarm or criticism. He didn’t like this new, more cautious avatar, whose efforts at accommodation hinted at some feeling of guilt, yet he couldn’t quite shake him. Read more

03 Jan 2012

Your First Smart Book Club Read for 2012

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A drawing of people in the waterIf your book club is looking for a compelling, provocative, stirring, and relevant read for 2012, then Amy Waldman’s The Submission should be on the top of your list.

Not since Let the Great World Spin has this blogger read a “New York†novel as interesting as this one. And, as you read The Submission, you will find yourself questioning your own principles, values, and biases while you are simultaneously challenged to understand those of the characters. Quite simply, The Submission is a great book.

Essentially, the novel opens when a group of New Yorkers are selecting the finalist for the 9/11 memorial only to discover that the winner is an American Muslim. This revelation is the catalyst for community-wide debate and chaos, much of it instigated by self-serving journalists and politicians. Caught in the fray is the memorial’s designer as well as other ‘survivors’ of the attacks.

One reviewer writes, “In this deeply humane novel, the breadth of Amy Waldman’s cast of characters is matched by her startling ability to conjure their perspectives. A striking portrait of a fractured city striving to make itself whole, The Submission is a piercing and resonant novel by an important new talent.â€

We wholeheartedly agree.

Let us know if you have read The Submission and what you think. Our reading group will be discussing it on Friday, January 6, and another blog will follow the meeting. Reading group discussion questions can be found by clicking on Other Smart Reads.

Happy New Year to all.