Blog Archive for March, 2012

30 Mar 2012

What We Talk About When
We Talk About Books

2 Comments Book Reviews

A stack of books on top of each other.Smart women love to read, and our solitary reading experiences are enhanced when we discuss literature as a community. While we explore fundamentals such as character, theme, plot and style, our conversations really come to life when we examine an author’s attitude toward his or her subject.

In two powerful, incisive short stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” Raymond Carver and Nathan Englander respectively give us startling, provocative views of love and marriage. These works expose a truth about the most intimate of relationships—that while they can be deeply satisfying, there are also unspoken, darker understandings that surface under certain circumstances (and these authors create the precise situations for these to unfold).

What we might suggest as a book club ‘assignment’ would be to read these two stories side by side and ask why Englander chooses to build a story upon Carver’s theme and structure. He follows Carver’s patterns quite closely with a clear intention. Your group can consider:

  • What are the similarities and differences between the two?
  • What are the authors saying, and what does Englander add to Carver’s classic story?
  • How do they present the ideas of love and marriage, and how are these emotions tied up with issues of power, control, and the ‘truth’?

What we think you might discover is that what we talk about when we talk about books is also much more complex than just what is on the page. As many women will attest, we learn so much about one another through our explorations of fiction that it is impossible to limit our discussion to the book even when we discipline ourselves to stay on the topic. Infused in every comment about a text is a smart woman’s point of view, which reveals who she is, what she believes, and where she stands. This is the heart and soul of a book club.

So, take a look at the Carver and Englander. See what you think about these couples sitting around a table draining bottles of gin and vodka (and in Englander’s story, smoking a fair amount of pot). What happens when they loosen their collars a bit and get into the hard facts of life and love? And ultimately, how are we transformed by our own talks about books?

Perhaps there’s a story here.


21 Mar 2012

Book Club Challenges: Part III

Comments Off on Book Club Challenges: Part III Book Club Notes, Personal Thoughts

The novel is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. –Annie Murphy Paul

If reading fiction is the ideal way to “enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings,†then belonging to a book club is the quintessential social experience. Smart women grow through the exploration of what we are reading while we deepen our bonds with one another.

Yet, the success of a reading group depends on the goodwill of its members. It is important to listen, to engage, and to respect one another as we work together to gain greater understandings of the fiction at hand.

Maintaining this positive experience is sometimes a challenge, so we offer a few suggestions:

  1. Set aside social time. We are always eager to see one another and catch up on what’s been happening in each other’s lives. However, this may overshadow the reason we are meeting—to discuss a specific book. So, the best approach is to begin each meeting with a dedicated social time (say twenty to thirty minutes). Then, when you sit to discuss the book, you can maintain your focus. Make a commitment to this clear demarcation between social and discussion time. And, as a courtesy to one another, arrive at your meetings on time.
  2. Read with a purpose. While you are reading, ask yourself questions. What is the book about? What are the significant themes? Which characters are compelling and why? Does the work have flaws? Write some of your thoughts and take them to your meeting. Be prepared and take your reading seriously (this also means finishing the book before the discussion).
  3. Select books in advance. How does your book club select the readings? Do you pick one book at a time or do you establish a list for your season? Is your group flexible and encourage reading that you wouldn’t ordinarily select, or do you limit yourselves to contemporary fiction, as an example? Is the purpose of reading as a group more social or intellectual, and does this impact the books you pick? Regardless of your response, it makes good sense to follow some kind of model. This eliminates the need to spend much of your time talking about what you are going to read and allows you to dedicate your meeting to the book you are currently reviewing. It is helpful to appoint one member as “the keeper of the list,†and this person can document new titles for the next round of selections.
  4. Pick a moderator. Some groups hire a facilitator to keep the discussion on track. But, you can do this yourselves. For each discussion, identify one group member who will prepare the questions and lead the conversation. The moderator also is responsible for keeping the group focused and minimizing sidebar conversations.
  5. Be kind to each other. Challenges will arise in our book clubs. Some members will dominate a discussion, arrive late, or insist on a particular point of view. Some will fail to read or finish the book. Be open and truthful with one another when these issues arise. Be direct and address your concerns kindly and clearly in the best interest of maintaining a healthy group dynamic.
We are interested in issues that have arisen in your reading groups. Please share with us by clicking on ‘comment’ at the top of this blog.

I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.–John Burroughs

13 Mar 2012

Making Sense of Julian Barnes’ Ending

Comments Off on Making Sense of Julian Barnes’ Ending Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, What You Should Read

A drawing of a man leaning against a wallThe 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

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For Smart Women
Book Reviews, What You Should Read

A drawing of people in the street and buildings

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