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Mona Simpson’s Casebook and The Bechdel Test
Jun10

Mona Simpson’s Casebook and The Bechdel Test

Mona Simpson’s new novel, Casebook, passes the Bechdel test. Last night, thanks to Tamar Granor in my “Hot Off the Press” book discussion class, I learned about the Bechdel test, which comes from Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out For” Strip. A book or movie passes the Bechdel test if it: Has at least two women in it who Talk to each other and Talk about something other than a man. Bonus points if the female characters have names! Casebook is a story told by Miles Adler-Hart, who is nine at the beginning of the story, and in his early twenties when he is telling the story. Nine-year-old Miles very much wants to be allowed to watch “Survivor,” so he decides to eavesdrop on the conversation his mother Irene (Reen) is having with her good friend Sarah (Sare), to see if they plan to let their sons watch the show. What he learns from this and much subsequent (and complex) eavesdropping is that his parents are planning to get divorced. The book tells the story of the divorce and Reen’s later relationship with another man, Eli, all through Miles’ eyes. Reen and Sare have a very close relationship and rely on each other to get through tough times and thorny issues, and they do occasionally discuss things other than men. Reen also has another friend, Marge, who, like herself, is a brainy mathematician, and they have many conversations about their work; in fact, they wind up working together and winning a major prize. So, Bechdel test? Check! How about the “is it a good book?” test? On that one we’re going to have to go with a “so-so.” Mona Simpson is a terrific writer. I love her language, even if one reader in my class complained that it did not at all sound like it was coming from a teenage boy. I was willing to overlook that because I so admire the way she turns a phrase. Here’s one example: “When we walked in the door that night, my mom looked happy and looser, the way she did around Eli, but our life didn’t feel as pure as it had been last year at this time, the way Christmas wasn’t after you learned it was just your parents, and almost nothing felt as right as at Little League when you were nine and the ball landed hard in your mitt.” In addition to being an excellent writer, Simpson also (and this is completely tangential to the analysis of the story) has a very interesting bio. Her literary credentials are stellar: after getting an undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley and an...

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Lynn has indeed been reading books!
Jun09

Lynn has indeed been reading books!

Lynn’s been reading lots of books these days. In fact, she’s been gobbling them down so fast she almost can’t remember them! But here’s a quick summary of recent reads. As a member of the implementation committee of the “One Book, One Jewish Community,” in Philadelphia, I’ve been reading many books with Jewish themes. I enjoyed a thriller by Charles Belfoure called The Paris Architect. Set in Paris during Nazi occupation, it follows a Christian architect who, against his will, becomes involved in creating hiding places for Jews. It’s very suspenseful in a way that at times reminded me of the anxiety I felt watching the brilliant film “Inglourious Basterds.” Also for the “OBOJC” committee, I’m reading a new novel by Nomi Eve. Henna House, set in Yemen in the 1920s, tells the story of a character named Adela and the passions and trials of her Jewish community. I’m also reading All I Love and Know by Judith Frank about a gay couple in Northampton, MA, whose life is thrown into upheaval when one of the men’s brother and his Israeli wife are killed in a suicide bombing, leaving them to raise their children. For my “Hot Off the Press” class, in which we read brand new literary fiction, I just read Mona Simpson’s new Casebook. It tells the story of a family’s divorce from the point of view of the fourteen-year-old son. He begins spying on his mom to find out if she’s talking to her best friend about them letting their young sons watch “Survivor,” and winds up learning much more than he bargained for. I loved how the authorlooks at love, family and divorce from this point of view. You may know Simpson for her best-known novel, Anywhere But Here, about a mother/daughter road trip. There’s ever so much more on my summer reading list, including a few classics, some Young Adult books (have not yet read The Book Thief!), a new novel called Perfect by Rachel Joyce, who first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I really enjoyed, and some non-fiction about authors: The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia...

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Mourning Author Maya Angelou

I’ll share this statement from the National Book Foundation: Maya Angelou (1928-2014), Recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013 We join the world in mourning the death of Dr. Maya Angelou, recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community in 2013. Writer, performer, and political activist, Dr. Angelou died Tuesday after a long illness at her home in Winston Salem, N.C. She was 86. Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation says, “We share the gratitude of so many for Dr. Angelou’s contributions to literature, human rights, and social justice. Her legacy is one that all writers and readers across the world can admire and aspire to.” In her acceptance speech at the 2013 National Book Awards Ceremony, Dr. Angelou said, “For over 40 years, imagine it, I have tried to tell the truth as I understand it.” Watch Maya Angelou’s acceptance speech: http://vimeo.com/80091024 More on Maya Angelou and her 2013 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community: http://www.nationalbook.org/literarian.html#ma...

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Snow White Leaves Her Dwarfs Behind
May02

Snow White Leaves Her Dwarfs Behind

Richard Powers’ new novel, Orfeo, is a story of a composer in his 70s who, throughout the course of the book, recalls key moments in his life. The book is filled with detailed descriptions of the music he listens to along the way. It’s a book that begs for a soundtrack and, in fact, it turns out that several industrious readers have created Orfeo playlists that can be downloaded and appreciated along with this brainy well-written book. As far as ancillary materials for the newest novel from the youthfully prolific Helen Oyeyemi, I would like to request that someone create an accompanying anthology of the wide range of folklore, mythology, and other literary sources drawn on by the author to build her fantastical tale Boy, Snow, Bird. The main frame of the book is a modern retelling of Snow White. She’s dispensed with the dwarfs and the poison apple, but step-mothers and other recognizable tropes abound in the story of a girl named Boy who grows up to become step-mother to a girl named Snow, and then who gives birth to another girl named Bird. Along the way, the reader will find a witch with a snake for a heart, a mysterious shadow girl with bloody hands, references and allusions to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, poetry by Christina Rossetti, the Greek Fury Alecto, and much more. The book, as it examines questions of identity and appearance versus reality, also weaves in a powerful look at racism in our society and at the status of civil rights in the 1950s and 60s. It also throws in some gender politics at the end, but oh, how I wish she hadn’t gone there. But, no spoiler am I. Grab yourself a copy of Boy, Snow, Bird and take the magically real journey...

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Mar18

Helen Oyeyemi, author of the new novel Boy, Snow Bird, gave a reading last week at the Free Library of Philadelphia. She is bright, charming, and upbeat, and here’s one thing she said that really stayed with me: “I don’t have a sense of a single culture. I’m just basically made up of books and pieces I read.” How I love that! I feel the same way. Do...

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The Powers Problem?
Mar17

The Powers Problem?

In a review in The New York Times of a new book by novelist Richard Powers, critic Jim Holt asked: Is it premature to talk of the “Powers Problem”? He goes on to explain that the novels of Richard Powers, eleven in all, often tend to be called “cerebral.” Powers is clearly an intellectual, and he writes about weighty, complicated subjects such as genetics, artificial intelligence, and game theory. His latest book, the recently-published Orfeo, tells the story of Peter Els, a retired composer in his 70s who returns to his love of chemistry, builds an in-home lab, and begins manipulating the DNA of bacteria. His lofty goal: to implant music into the cells. However, when he is accidentally discovered by law enforcement, they view his experiments as a terror threat, sending Els on the run. The book contains complicated, lengthy passages that use highly-technical language to explain details of how both chemistry and music work. Hearing this, does it make you run for cover? Or does it intrigue you and make you want to read the book? I like intellectual novels. I like to be challenged while I’m reading. After reading early reviews of this book and seeing that the critics seemed to think that Powers provided excellent storytelling that was not overwhelmed by too-heavy technical or scientific detail, I decided to read the book, and I loved it. I was moved by the story of Peter Els, and found him to be a very real, flawed character with a touching story, whose motivations I could understand. I selected the book for my “Hot Off the Press” class to read. In this class, a group of passionate readers gather, under my guidance,  to discuss works of recently-published literary fiction. I looked forward to our discussion of Orfeo. I was moved by the book; I cried upon reading the final pages, something I rarely do these days with a book. I was surprised to find my class had a very different reaction. They were not happy. They did not enjoy the detailed musical and scientific passages. They are smart people and smart readers, yet they felt overwhelmed, put off. One likened reading the book with its descriptions of avant garde music to an unpleasant experience she had had attending a concert of John Cage’s music. Another asked with irritation: “Who is he writing for?” It’s a valid question. If the smart and engaged readers in my class can’t wade through this material, who can? Do you need a degree in science or music to read this book? Why does the author put so much detail in that he has...

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