Category Archives: Books

The Soloist

Some of us loved the book; some of us found it flat. But it triggered an interesting conversation, as have so many books about which we’ve disagreed.

Priscilla and Terry, who didn’t care for the novel, and Olga, who liked it, were serious musicians until injuries prevented each from continuing to play. In the context of these experiences, we discussed what Maryellen felt was the heart of the novel — dealing with losses that are the inevitable byproducts of life. Maryellen was an athlete in her youth, and she’s found it difficult as she gets older to deal with the loss of her ability. Olga put it well — learning to cope with our losses is the key to maturity. The Soloist illustrates the process as Rennie, a former cello prodigy, while serving on a murder trial jury, comes to terms with his loss of ability and ambition.

Barbara linked the book with Salzman’s later work, Lying Awake. Both books explore the continuum between religious experience and insanity, and the difficulty of determining a clear demarcation between the two.


War and Peace

A shout-out to Mary Ellen, who’s pushed for reading Tolstoy by our book club.

I’ve discovered a fabulous discussion of Tolstoy’s War and Peace at the New York Times’ Reading Room blog.

Here’s a taste from the introduction by Sam Tanenhaus.

Why “War and Peace”? Well, it’s one of the greatest novels ever written — the very greatest, some would say. It is, moreover, almost eerie in its timeliness, with its sweeping detailed narrative of military invasion and occupation (by France of Russia in 1812) set against political and social intrigue in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as experienced by aristocratic families, some of them in decline.

“War and Peace” is not just massive. It is sturdily and delicately structured. The novel divides into four volumes (there is also an epilogue). We’ll cover one volume each week — though the panelists will be encouraged to range freely over the whole of the book, its opulent mix of incidents and characters (who include Napoleon and Czar Alexander) and also to tackle Tolstoy’s profound meditations on history, philosophy, religion and human nature.

The participants are:

  • Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, reported from the paper’s Moscow Bureau from December, 1986, until October, 1991.
  • Stephen Kotkin teaches history and directs the program in Russian and Eurasian studies at Princeton University.
  • Francine Prose’s most recent book is “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.”
  • Liesl Schillinger is a regular reviewer for the Book Review, studied comparative literature and Russian at Yale, and lived in Moscow in 1993, where she was editor of the English supplement of Moscow Magazine and wrote dispatches for The New Republic.
  • Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of the Book Review

Weird Character Names

Re: Henry James’s The Ambassadors — Lambert Strether?

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half a Yellow Sun

I just finished Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The novel, about the Nigerian war against Biafra and the Igbo people of the 1960s, won the 2007 Orange Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

This fits into my two recent obsessions: novels about war and novels about Africa.

Today I’ll focus on Africa.

I’ve read a number of fine novels from a white colonialist perspective. Though they take place in different time periods, all echo Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, about the brutal exploitation that was the colonialist venture. As such they contain more insight into the colonialist’s soul than into Africa itself. (The Norton critical edition, which I linked, looks interesting. It contains essays by Achebe and Edward Said, among others.)

So it is refreshing to read Africa from the perspective of African authors. I’ve just begun, so I can’t do much of a comparative analysis. Top on my list is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, which, like Half a Yellow Sun, takes place in Nigeria. It is closely followed by Wizard of the Crow by Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o*. Both have a timeless quality that give them a universal dimension despite the specificity of place that allows a reader insight into African culture. Things Fall Apart depicts precolonial tribal and village life and the impact of colonialism that follows. Wizard of the Crow is a satire set in a fictional post-colonial dictatorship. The country is rife with corruption, cronyism, and repression, but a magical trickster character can survive and win. Despite the harsh realities they depict, both books reveal a thread of hope.

The tale of the Biafran war and starvation depicted in Half of a Yellow Sun struck me as more despairing. Perhaps because the tone is realistic. The story is told from the close point of view of several of the major characters — two well-to-do twin sisters, their two lovers, and a houseboy who works for one of the sisters. The ethnic warfare, the assault on civilians, and the hunger were palpable.

If one wants to know how it feels to survive as a civilian in wartime, this is the book to read.

Stylistically, while Half a Yellow Sun was interesting and informative, the novel as a whole didn’t have the impact I had expected. The narrative lost focus about half-way through and only recovered at the very end. It would have been more compelling if there had been fewer point-of-view characters and if the author had defined more clearly the trajectory of the plot or character arcs.

Still, it was fascinating to read a female novelist’s portrait of women of different social classes in a still highly patriarchal society, life among the African elites and intellectuals, including contacts with white Westerners as well as African-Americans, their interactions with many levels of tribal and village life, the impact of sexual violence used as a weapon of war.

*Here are links for more about Wizard of the Crow and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who’s led an amazing life.

What makes a good book club book?

One of our most successful choices was Kafka’s The Trial. Other books that everyone enjoyed reading and fostered lively discussion: Wild Swans, Bel Canto, Love in the Time of Cholera, and The Known World. We also had great discussions about Embers, Lolita and Atonement. So I ask myself, what do these books have in common?

  1. Well-written, with style and beauty.
  2. Thought-provoking themes and characters.
  3. Aside from the Kafka, not too densely written…and aside from Love in the Time of Cholera not terribly long.
  4. Accessible, with enough narrative energy to keep us reading.

Needless to say, some great books don’t make good book club books. Example: Almost anything by Dickens–because of the length–or by Faulkner–because of the density of the prose. I wonder how many of us will finish the Henry James?

Our list is here. Someday soon, I’ll add grades and links to my reviews.

A Passionate Rationalist

Mary Wollstonecraft

Juicy life; dry read. That was the club verdict on Vindication, the recent biography of Mary Wollstonecraft by Lyndall Gordon.

Grade — B- (C readability; A- subject matter)

Barbara was taken with the historical and literary aspects, most particularly Mary Wollstonecraft’s friendship with John and Abigail Adams. To augment Gordon’s biography, she read Wollstonecrafts’s most famous work — A Vindication of the Rights of Woman — as well as three other biographies. The one she’d recommend for general readers is The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Claire Tomalin, which is shorter and more focused.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was marked by obstacles and adventure — a violent father, financial strains, needy siblings who constantly beg for money, a love affair with a charming but faithless American spy (Gilbert Imlay), life in France during the Terror, travels with a baby in tow through Norway and Holland on the trail of stolen silver.

Despite these ills, she produced many influential works including the first declaration of women’s rights, a history of the French Revolution, and books on the education of daughters, child-rearing, and travel. Many of her ideas are still current after two centuries. She was one of the first advocates for mothers’ breast-feeding, for example.

Sadly, when she found and married a possible soul-mate*, William Godwin, she died in childbirth, leaving two daughters without a mother.

I felt the book went overboard describing the romantic and sexual aspects of Wollstonecraft’s life and shortchanged her intellectual contributions. We are too often reduced to our sexual and emotional selves.

Terry felt Gordon went off on a tangent at the end — connecting the lives of the daughters and a student Margaret King (who dressed as a man in order to study medicine) to Wollstonecraft’s ideas.

Others felt Gordon made poor transitions, went on and on about irrelevant details, and left out connecting information leaving the reader feeling lost or bewildered, scratching her head and saying: Where did this character come from?

That said, we found plenty to talk about — the horrors of childbirth in the 18th century, the shocking practice of the French aristocracy of sending their infants off to a wet nurse to be reared (where they often died), and the absolute legal rights of men over wives and children. It was wrenching to read about women being forced to give their very young children to the father upon separating, and about wives having no recourse if physically or psychologically abused by their husbands.

We touched on Rousseau (education, child-rearing), the fact that Wollstonecraft can be seen as a transitional figure between Enlightenment rationalism and the Romantic / Sentimentalist movement (Sorrows of Young Werther; poets Shelley and Byron), free love and its consequences in a world without contraception (free love is free only for men), and Wollstonecraft’s daughters (Fanny Imlay who commits suicide; Mary Godwin Shelley who writes Frankenstein and lives in a menage à trois with the poet Percy Shelley and her step-sister Claire Clairmont).

Yes, great topics of discussion…if you can make it all the way through the book!

*Point of contention — was he indeed the right man, or a cold fish?


Barbara adds —

Vindication is truly fascinating. It is a feminist classic but its feminist concerns have more to do reforming marriage and motherhood than in winning political or sexual freedoms. In particular, Wollstonecraft wants mothers to become the nurturers and educators rather than turning their children over to hirelings. Here’s a money quotation: “To be a good mother, a woman must have sense, and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands.”

By the way, Gilbert Imlay’s novel, The Emigrants, is still available in a Penguin classic edition.


At the end of Vindication, Gordon includes an aftermath concerning Mary Wollstonecraft’s heirs and followers — her two daughters, Fanny Imlay and Mary Godwin, their step-sister Claire Clairmont, and her early pupil Margaret King, Lady Mount Cashell. Wollstonecraft’s daughter Mary married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and is best known as the author of Frankenstein. Read more about her and Frankenstein’s Shadow at Fickle Foe.


Claire Clairmont, perhaps jealous of Mary’s relationship with Shelley, seduced the poet Byron, who seems to have cared little for her. After she gave birth to his daughter, Byron took the child but refused to let Claire see her, even after he left young girl to be raised at a convent, where, tragically, she died.

Claire outlived them all, dying at the age of 81. In addition to being immortalized in several of Shelley’s poems, she appears as Juliana Bordereau, a central character in The Aspern Papers by Henry James. A good summary of Claire’s long and interesting life can be found here.

Naturally, curiosity aroused, I wanted our next book to be The Aspern Papers. I’ve always been drawn more to survivors and strivers than victims. The group decided to go with James’s more famous — and much longer — The Ambassadors. The first half is on deck for early November.

By the way, I’ve linked to Amazon for your convenience, since there are plot summaries and reviews there. But the full texts are available online at these links:

The Human Stain

Last night I finally saw The Human Stain, adapted from Philip Roth’s novel. The film was moving and true to the book, but what was left out interested me.

It’s about a Coleman Silk, a New England college professor who loses his job over an unintentional racial slur against a black student who files a complaint. The twist is that the professor himself is African American, but has slipped across the racial divide and has passed as white and Jewish for his entire career.

In the novel Roth moves the narrative back and forth through time with tremendous ease. The film reflects this style. Seamlessly interwoven are moments in the Silk’s life–his first love, his first realization that he can pass for white, his estrangement from his siblings and mother. The main plot traces his love affair with a much younger woman who is being stalked by her ex-husband.

The tragic elements of the tale were beautifully portrayed in the film. There were stunning performances by Anthony Hopkins, who plays the Dean, Nicole Kidman, his young lover, and Ed Harris as her crazy ex-husband suffering PTSD from Vietnam.

In adaptations a lot of material has to be cut. Novels are complex, often sprawling, and films need to have clear, efficient plot development and risk losing an audience if they are much longer than an hour and a half to two hours.

This film, at about 100 minutes, leaves out a great deal. So it’s worth reading the book, especially for Roth’s humor. He’s at his virtuoso best in a scene, nearly over-the-top, where the manic Vietnam vet is attempting to overcome his post-traumatic stress by having dinner at a Chinese restaurant. It’s simultaneously hilarious, shocking, and tragic.

By all means, see the movie. Then go home and read the book.

Book blogs

Some great resources that I’ve just discovered:

Well, that’s enough to get started. The discussion of Bruno Arpaia’s The Angel of History, J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach on today’s Ready Steady will keep me busy for a while. Walter Benjamin, the subject of Angel of History, died attempting to cross from France to Spain to escape the Nazis is someone who I’ve been wanting to read, but haven’t yet had the time or the intellectual energy. Arpaia’s novel–which has a parallel story about the Spanish Civil War–might be the place for me to start.

Ah, maybe the next rainy day.

Rainy Day Reading

One of the nicest experiences during my travels in Ireland was a rainy day. After ten days of nonstop hiking, biking, and sightseeing, it was delicious to have an excuse to cuddle up with a good book and lose myself in someone else’s adventures instead of having to sweat them out on my own.

While Paul Dombey and Sonwent searching for a prehistoric burial mound in the downpour, I curled up in bed and allowed myself to be swept away by Dickens’s Dombey and Son. Every so often, I paused to stare at the gray skies, the sheets of rain blurring the picture windows, the soft green pastures and rocky hills. What a luxury!

The plot unfolds slowly, but once it starts chugging, it is hard to put down this long novel. While the raindrops pattered and splashed, I wandered through the mean, labyrinthine streets of nineteenth-century London with its teeming crowds, unscrupulous villains, and wizened eccentrics. The novel relates the trials and tribulations of Florence, the neglected daughter of the proud and wealthy Dombey, who is furious because a daughter is unable in his eyes to carry on the name of his firm–Dombey and Son. When Florence’s mother dies giving birth to the much desired son, poor Florence must fend for herself in a cold, unloving household.

A reader does so want her to survive the many cruel twists in the plot. These include a kidnapping by the evil “good Mrs. Brown,” the illness of Florence’s beloved but frail little brother, her father’s loveless marriage to a haughty but beautiful stepmother, and the treachery of her father’s assistant, a scheming, catlike man, who contrives to divest her of her true love, Walter, by sending him off to the Barbados on behalf of the firm, where he is lost at sea.

Here’s a taste of Dickens’s description of the effect of the railroad on the layout of the town and people’s lives. The Charles Dickens Page, where I found this excerpt, is a wonderful resource.

The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; Railroad enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond. Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; Continue reading