21 Jun 2013

The Value of Non-Fiction
for the Literary Mind

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for the Literary Mind
Personal Thoughts

A pen and ink drawing of buildings, trees and a tower.As you know, whatsmartwomenread.com focuses on high-quality literary fiction. However, most good readers sprinkle in a bit of non-fiction for balance. Finding the best selections can sometimes be a challenge, but a recent 60 Minutes interview with Bill Gates provided a great source.

It turns out that Gates is a voracious reader–in fact, he keeps a canvas bag (the size for carrying firewood) filled with the books he wants to read. And, he blogs about them.

His site, www.thegatesnotes.com/Books is incredible. Of course it is well-done and easy to navigate, but more importantly, it is a treasure trove of non-fiction along with Gates’ comments about his reading.

The titles are fascinating: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (which is a whatsmartwomenread.com selection); Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder (we highly recommend this amazing biography of Paul Farmer); The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee;  and dozens more.

Here are what he calls his “Ten Books that Made Me Think.”

  1. The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined by Steven Pinker
  2. Deng Xiaoping by Ezra Vogel
  3. The Quest by Daniel Yergin
  4. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
  5. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
  6. One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World? by Gordon Conway
  7. A World-Class Education by Vivien Stewart
  8. Academically Adrift by Richard Arum & Joshipa Roksa
  9. This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Carmen Reinhart & Kenneth Rogoff
  10. The City that Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control by Franklin Zimring

It’s really unbelievable that a man that is in the process of eradicating childhood diseases around the world has time to read the newspaper let alone piles of books. But part of intellectual growth depends on staying current. That’s the inherent value of non-fiction and why we are not only directing you to www.thegatesnotes.com but also offering a few non-fiction suggestions of our own. For summer reading, you might consider:

  • A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
  • Great Books by David Denby
  • The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
  • To Repair the World by Paul Farmer
Let us know what non-fiction selections appeal to you and what you plan to read this summer to balance imagination with fact.




18 May 2013

The Young and the Talented:
Our Next Selections for Smart Women

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Our Next Selections for Smart Women
New and Exciting, What You Should Read

A painting of people in white clothes standing under an umbrella.

Every year our reading group selects books according to a specific theme. As you know, in 2012-2013 we read world literature, and previous seasons were organized around prize-winners, African-American and Southern fiction. This is an interesting way to choose books and may be a strategy to introduce to your own clubs.

For the 2013-2014 season we decided to direct our attention to writers under 40. This is a popular trend, and The New Yorker and Granta frequently preview these exciting and emerging authors. Many of the writers who were introduced to us in this way, Michael Chabon, Nicole Krauss, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jonathan Franzen to name a few, have gone on to impressive literary careers.

So, we are enthusiastic about next year’s line up and once again hope you will consider reading along with us starting in the fall. We provide the list to you now so you can get a jump start over the summer should any of these titles appeal to you (and we feel certain that they will). We may even dip into the list ahead of time and offer some teasers on the blog.

  • Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie
  • This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
  • Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer Dubois
  • A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
  • The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger
  • Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
  • The Russian Debutante’s Handbook by Gary Shteyngart
  • Battleborn by Clare Vaye Watkins
  • Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng
Stay tuned to whatsmartwomenread.com for reviews on these novels and more as the summer unfolds.

01 May 2013

The Journey Ends in Africa

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A painting of the vatican and its surroundingsAs the 2012-2013 season comes to an end, we’d like to say a few things about reading world literature. We have worked our way through an extremely ambitious list (see below), and somehow maintained good spirits and enthusiasm.  We are concluding our adventure with Nadine Gordimer’s A Sport of Nature (South Africa) and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (Nigeria), and we certainly have stretched our minds through this experience.

As David Damrosch, author of How to Read World Literature writes, “Reaching back over nearly five millenia and extending today to almost every inhabited region of the globe, world literature offers its readers an unparalleled variety of literary pleasures and cultural experiences. Yet this variety also poses exceptional challenges, as we cannot expect to approach all these works with the fund of cultural knowledge that readers share with works within a single tradition.”

We have found this to be true, and perhaps this is why we are all mentally and psychologically depleted. It was really hard to read about so much suffering, pain, war, starvation, and hatred. What we do know is that reading international fiction dials up the empathy factor and creates awareness of the difficulties so many people face on a daily basis.

A few thoughts on A Sport of Nature and Things Fall Apart–The former is a sophisticated, complex, sweeping political novel which crosses the African continent. The main character is on a journey of self-discovery and constantly morphing. The latter is a local, primitive, cultural parable whose main character represents the plight of tribal life as colonialism takes hold in Nigeria. While the structure and content of these two novels couldn’t be more different, in the end they are both about the conflicts between whites and blacks in Africa.

But, the most significant difference is that both the author and main character of A Sport of Nature are white South Africans, and the author and main character of Things Fall Apart are black Nigerians. While both novels deal with race relations, the power of Things Fall Apart is infinitely stronger. We would suggest that you read both since they provide an interesting point-counterpoint to one another.

Nadine Gordimer “hailed Mr. Achebe in a review in The New York Times in 1988, calling him ‘a novelist who makes you laugh and then catch your breath in horror — a writer who has no illusions but is not disillusioned.'” The same could be said about Gordimer, but not for the same reasons. She looks at her world from 30,000 feet while Achebe’s feet are planted firmly on the ground.

  • 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


06 Apr 2013

The Big Read: Tim O’Brien’s
The Things They Carried

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The Things They Carried
Book Reviews

There is fiction in the space between
The lines on your page of memories
Write it down but it doesn’t mean
You’re not just telling stories

–Tracy Chapman

In honor of Tim O’Brien’s keynote lecture as part of The Big Read on Tuesday, April 9, we are featuring this blog originally posted last year. For more information on The Big Read, click here.

Although Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried is ostensibly about the Vietnam War, for this reader it is really a discourse on how narratives shape our past, present, and future.

Through a series of interrelated vignettes about Alpha Company, O’Brien retells and reshapes what they experienced, especially the deaths of his comrades. Seen through the lens of the horrors of war, storytelling becomes an essential coping mechanism for the entire platoon. And for the author, it becomes critical to his sanity after the war ends. The Things They Carried is considered a “ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, and imagination,” and just a handful of writers have offered such insight on the “redemptive power of storytelling.”

In “Notes,†(one of twenty-one chapters in his book) O’Brien examines his own guilt about his fellow soldier Kiowa’s death:

By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field,and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless clarify and explain.

Ands, in “Speaking of Courage,†he writes:

I did not look on my work as therapy, and still don’t. Yet when I received Norman Bowker’s letter it occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse.

O’Brien’s book is a must read for Smart Women. It not only reminds us of the psychological, emotional, and physical costs of war but provides one of the best views of why we tell stories in the first place.

For more  on The Things They Carried as well as discussion questions for book clubs, please look at “Other Smart Reads”   https://whatsmartwomenread.com/other-smart-reads/

28 Mar 2013

Lean in to Literature

5 Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts

A drawing of an ornate design on paper.In her highly-publicized bestseller Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg seeks to understand why working women still struggle to achieve parity in positions of leadership. As the chief operating officer of Facebook, she has a good view from the top and offers practical advice for building a successful career. She writes, “Women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves…These internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention, in part because they are under our own control.”

Some readers are critical of Sandberg, claiming that her message is aimed only at those women already groomed for positions of power. However, at the core of her vision is a question at the heart of  good literature–how does a human being overcome significant challenges to find her or his place in the world?

At this time, www.whatsmartwomenread.com is revisiting one of Pearl S. Buck’s classics, Pavilion of Women. Published more than sixty years ago, the novel  follows the evolution of Madame Wu, the matriarch of an important Chinese family. Her transformation begins on her 40th birthday when she makes a conscious decision to satisfy some of her own longings. Prior to this time, Madame Wu cultivated perfection by making a fine art of managing her family and its affairs; nonetheless, she never explored her inner feelings or personal desires. Her life was relegated to ‘duty’ (not unlike most women in the 21st century who struggle to balance family, work and spiritual growth).

Madame Wu remembers the words Brother Andre (the character that serves as the catalyst for her insight) offered as she sought wisdom: “To lift a soul above its natural level is a dangerous act. Souls, like springs, have their natural resources, and to force them beyond is against nature and therefore a dangerous act…The wisdom is to weigh and judge the measure of a soul and let it live where it belongs.” This ‘weighing’ that Brother Andre speaks of is in our own hands, and we find guidance, support and encouragement from what we read (fiction and non-fiction), and though sharing our understanding of the literature with one another. This is the greatest gift of our reading groups, and the most likely explanation of their popularity with smart women.

So, we encourage our smart women readers to consider Sandberg’s book in the context of the literature we read together. Any bildungsroman (novel centered on self-development) that we explore with one another, Richard Ford’s Canada is a recent and very good example, is the best place to look for inspiration and life lessons. Let us know what novels opened your eyes to new possibilities by posting a comment.