Category Archives: The month’s selection

The book we are reading and discussing this month at our meeting on May29

“One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1967, translated from Spanish

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Winner of a 1982 Nobel prize for literature and numerous other awards, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is the story of the Buendia family who founded the mythical town of Macondo in the wilderness interior of Columbia during the mid 19th century.  Throughout the next one hundred years and seven generations of their family they live there through good times, a twenty year war, the arrival of foreigners, economic upheaval, harsh rulers, and natural disasters.  Macondo seems to be simultaneously isolated (in solitude), and at the crossroads of events in Colombia during the period.  Although the overall storyline is simple; that of the town’s history and it’s inhabitants, there are dozens of stories within the lives of these characters which are woven together into the overall history of the Buendia family and Macondo.  There is a large cast of characters, many with similar names, so that even with the family tree in the front of the book, I found it necessary to write down the specifics of each character in order to recall them when they are referred to outside their featured scenes.  For example, there are over 20 characters with the first name of “Aureliano”.  Some of them are minor and the major ones are spread out over the 100 year timeframe.  Similarly, there are multiple Arcadio’s, Amaranta’s, Remedios’, and Ursula’s.  The name repetition feeds into the larger idea throughout the book; that history is cyclical and events from the past are echoed in successive occurrences.

The central theme of “solitude” is the salient quality in the lives of  the central characters. The frequently used word seems to express more than just loneliness and isolation.  Alienation, being outcast, are among the implied connotations which may have come out more in the original Spanish.  Other themes in the novel include love, especially unrequited love, incest, jealousy, loyalty, prostitution, fate versus free will, the ravages of war, the impact of new technology, exploitation by foreigners, wealth versus poverty, civilization versus nature, religion, death, renewal, and decay.  This book required a second reading for me to fully appreciate, as the first time through the characters became confusing.  The second reading was enjoyable as things fell into place and I could keep better track of the cast of similarly named characters.  There are some humorous moments as well as horrifying, and I was repeatedly impressed by the author’s ability to spin elaborate plot complexities within the overall saga.  At our discussion many members remarked that the similar character names were confusing and the ending lacked a clear concluding point.  This was attributed to the style of Latin American literature and that it reflected the absurdity of real life. Only two of us in the group enjoyed the book, although others who struggled with it were glad to have read it.  The book has been translated into 37 languages and sold over 30 million copies.

Here is a video about the author and the writing of “One Hundred Years of Solitude”

William Sargeant

 

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“An Unnecessary Woman” by Rabih Alameddine, 2013

an-unnecessary-womanThis is the story of Aaliya Saleh, a 72-year-old, socially isolated woman living in Beirut.  Throughout her life she has been unappreciated and marginalized;  first as an unloved daughter, later as an unloved wife, and ultimately as a divorced woman in a society where divorced women are generally looked down on.  The time span is from the early 20th century up to the near present including the period of the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990.  In spite of being “plucked out of school” at sixteen for an arranged marriage, Aaliya educates herself through constant reading, achieving a remarkable degree of expertise in liberal and fine arts.  Her husband leaves her after a miserable four years and she sees herself as “superfluous”and an “unnecessary appendage” from which the title is derived.  She is befriended by Hannah who is seeking to create her own value or “necessary” status through the service to others.  Aaliya begins a lifelong hobby of translating novels into Arabic from English and French translations of works originally in a third language.  Her reading and translation work becomes her refuge in life.  Through Hannah,  Aaliya gets a job at a boutique bookstore.  After years of an intimate friendship between Aaliya and Hannah, Hannah becomes depressed (by discovering her late boyfriend didn’t really love her) and commits suicide.  Aaliya’s only other friend, Ahmad, is a young man who gets caught up in the war and becomes an interrogator/torturer.  Towards the end of the story, Aaliya’s 37 unpublished translation manuscripts come into peril and with some irony, the endangerment of her literary work serves as a catalyst to reconnect her with humanity and fosters a change in her outlook.  The author concludes the book in an open way that allows the reader to ponder the questions raised in the book, rather than be given clear- cut answers.

“An Unnecessary Woman” explores several themes: the worth of an individual according to others, self-worth, aging, isolation, alienation, the second class status of women, the value of literature and art, and civilian suffering in war.  Throughout the book, Rabih Alameddine references a large number of literary works and figures as well as philosophers, artists, and musicians.  In our discussion meeting we all agreed we liked the book.  Valerie, our head librarian, has met the author on several occasions and related stories about his artwork, wit, and previous novels.  He resides part-time in San Francisco. We were all impressed with the quality of writing and numerous phrases that hit home throughout the book.

Here is the author giving a brief insight into “An Unnecessary Woman”:

“The Cookbook Collector”, by Allegra Goodman, 2010

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This story takes place during the dot-com bubble of the late 90’s through its collapse in the early 2000’s. Two sisters Jess and Emily are the central characters who are in two different worlds.  Emily is the CEO of a dot-com startup and Jess is a graduate student of philosophy at Berkeley (the author has a PhD in philosophy from Stanford) and works at a bookstore for George, the owner.  As the story progresses, Emily and the characters in her world are becoming multi-millionaires on paper as their stocks soar in what they are defining as a new economy; one in which companies don’t need profits to become highly valued. They are unable to redeem their shares after the initial public offerings for a period of months due to lock-in clauses.  During this time the mercurial rise of their stocks reverses and makes an equally swift fall into worthlessness or near worthlessness.  Meanwhile, Jess, in-between her studies and bookstore hours, joins the activists of “Save the Trees” to protect the redwood forests from logging.  Eventually she becomes involved with George in a project of appraising and cataloging  an extensive historical cookbook collection which George then purchases for his own.  The character of the deceased cookbook collector, Tom McClintock, emerges as they are going through the collection and notes of his are discovered in the pages of the books.  Jess and George become personally involved and the question of whether they really love each other hangs in the air until the end of the story. Without giving away too much of the ending, the two sisters and their worlds come together as wisdom wins out over folly and the characters discover their true identities.

My favorite part was the middle section in which the rising success of Emily, and her company, Veritech, and her boyfriend, Dave, and his company Isis (alluding to the Egyptian goddess) inflates their egos and those in their companies.  The resulting hubris brings out previously unrevealed character weaknesses and sweet dreams of how to spend their soon-to-be-had riches.  After their fall some are destroyed and others return chastened and a little wiser to more humble lives.  Another section I enjoyed was that in which Jess and George are going through the cookbook collection. This is a counterpart to the stock boom and bust, but instead of collapsing in value like the stock, the collection’s value expands as it is explored and new dimensions of its significance unfold.  George doubles his initial offer to the heir and owner of the cookbooks, Sandra, as the appraised value of the collection is revised upward and the money ends up going to a good cause.  Accumulating clues from the cookbook collector’s notes give Jess and George further insight into who he was and who they are to each other.  A part of the book which did not resonate for me was the last section in which religion triumphs over atheism, and the notion of “everything happens for a reason”  is heralded as a guiding principle.  Additionally, the ending seemed to resolve everything swiftly and neatly in a “too good to be true” way which seemed more like a fairytale ending than one which might have a more plausible relationship to the real world.  That being said, I still liked the book on the whole.

Bill Sargeant

 

“Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2013

DCF 1.0This is the story of a young woman, Ifemelu, who grows up in Nigeria and comes to America for a better life and the continuation of her college education.  While here, she starts a successful and profitable blog which explores the experience of Africans and African-Americans in America.  She offers many insights into the way black people are perceived and treated by non-blacks and each other vis-a-vis race, class, and cultural differences.  Her observations are made directly through her blog posts included in the story and sometimes as her unexpressed thoughts. Ifemelu is presumably the surrogate spokesperson for the author and compared to the other characters, offers the most insightful views and the least tainted by bias and ignorance.  Ifemelu has several boy friends throughout the novel, the most important of which is Obinze.  After their friendship in Nigeria, and Ifemelu’s departure to America, Obinze travels to England where he attempts to marry for citizenship and is caught and deported back to Nigeria instead.  Back in Nigeria he becomes a successful businessman and marries Kosi and they have a daughter. After several years in America, Ifemelu returns to Nigeria and goes through reverse culture shock as she resumes her life in Nigeria and now sees her homeland from a more worldly perspective.  Her personal life continues to evolve, but I will stop here so as not to spoil the ending.

I enjoyed the novel and found the cross-cultural comparisons enlightening for the most part.  About mid-novel one of Ifemelu’s blog posts made some assertions which I felt revealed some of her own blind spots and biases.  The post is addressed to “Dear American Non-Black” and lists many examples of how African-Americans have suffered worse than other groups and that no other people, such as Jews, Mexicans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, women, or poor people (her examples) can compare their injustices to those suffered by Blacks.  Well Ifemelu, just be glad you are heterosexual, because the penalty for being gay in Nigeria is death by stoning.

The author gives a TED Talk below.  She speaks about her background and similar cultural themes as those explored in her book.

“The Human Age” by Dianne Ackerman, 2014

DCF 1.0“The Human Age”  is derived from the term “Anthropocene”, which was coined in 2000 as the proposed geological epoch in which humans have impacted the Earth’s ecosphere.  This would start by some opinions from the dawn of agriculture, and others from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth Century, proceeding through the present until our effects cease at some point in the future. Diane Ackerman adds the fictional frame of a future stratigrapher digging through rock layers to study the residue left by humans thus creating a wide-angle lens through which to view the large-scale of this topic.  After reviewing the changes human activity has brought about, such as the redistribution of plants and animals, the extinction of certain species, pollution, and global warming, she presents many of the innovations currently being worked on to mitigate these problems. Her tone is upbeat and optimistic which sets it apart from the apocalyptic visions of the future populating much of today’s literature and movies .  The book serves as a survey of new technologies, solutions, and ethical dilemmas, and is presented in a poetic or novelistic style.  Our book club felt that she steered clear of political bias and opinions on a subject which usually lends itself to passionate diverging viewpoints.  I personally found it informative on one of the most important topics of our times.

Dr. Ackerman is described as a poet, essayist, and naturalist.  She writes about nature and human nature.  One of books,  “A Natural History of the Senses” was made into a five-part TV mini-series and another, “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, a bestseller, is currently being made into a movie.  She has won numerous awards and more information about her writing can be found on her website: http://www.dianeackerman.com/

The Green House by Mario Vargas Llosa, 1965 (in Spanish), 1968 (English translation)

DCF 1.0This novel takes place in the early to mid 20th century in various small communities in the northern Peruvian jungle. The large cast of characters includes the local military, Catholic priests and nuns, elected officials, townspeople, rubber smugglers and traders, and local indigenous people. The green house is a whorehouse built at the edge of a town.  Struggles throughout the novel revolve around morality with the Catholic clergy and military on one side and the whore house owner and whores, smugglers, indigenous people on the other.  Within the morality struggle is also a conflict of the European based culture dominating over the indigenous and the attempt of the nuns and priests to convert the natives over to their religion and culture.  Another pervasive conflict is that of the inhabitants of the area against the ravages of nature: floods, sandstorms, heat, tropical pests, and malaria.  The larger towns in the novel and the rivers are on Google maps, so setting is actual for the most part.  I found the novel a more challenging read than most being written in a modernist style with sections of stream-of-consciousness, a large number of characters, frequent scene changes occurring in parallel or non-chronological time .  The book received the most important South American literary prize, the Romulo Gallegos Award, in 1967 and Mario Llosa won a Nobel prize for literature in 2010.

“Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories” by Alice Munro, 2001

DCF 1.0This collection of nine short stories by Alice Munro showcases her mastery of the form for which she was given a Nobel prize for in 2013. The Nobel prize is for her short stories in general rather than just this particular volume, however this collection also won a New York Times Editor’s Choice Award in 2001 for the  top 10 books of 1996-2000. She has won numerous other awards including the Man Booker International Prize in 2009.

Each of the nine stories is a stand-alone piece although there are certain commonalities running throughout all as to settings, themes, and types of characters.  They all take place in Canada, mostly in Ontario province or the Vancouver area.  Many feature life on the farm or in small towns.  The time periods are the 1950’s through the 1990’s.  The characters tend to be ordinary middle class or those struggling below the middle.  Many of the stories involve married couples with complicated extra-marital romantic interests.  Themes of aging, death and dying, bereavement, and the nature of close human relationships are examined.  Stylistically, the writing is straight forward with attention paid to the nuances of communication and the psychological layers of the characters.  The endings open up space for contemplation rather than clear-cut resolution.    The title is derived from the title of the first story which itself is the name of a game played by two characters, and alludes to the relationship themes throughout the book.

My two favorite Stories are: “Comfort” and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”.  In “Comfort” a high school biology teacher is harassed by creationists and eventually is forced to resign.  In the meantime he comes down with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  His wife struggles to follow his wishes after they have made his end-of- life plans which tie into his conflict with religion fundamentalists.  An outside romantic interest crops up to further complicate issues.  In “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” a woman develops Alzheimer’s disease after many years of marriage and her husband, who in his younger days had some secret affairs, is forced to enter her into a nursing home. She forgets who he is and develops a close emotional bond with a man who is another Alzheimer’s patient, who is similarly married.  The two healthy spouses meet and also develop a relationship.  The ending is goose-bump worthy.