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Lynn Reads a Book

This blog reflects Lynn Rosen’s comments on books she’s read and on happenings both in the world of book publishing and at her independent bookstore, the Open Book Bookstore.

Snow White Leaves Her Dwarfs Behind

May 2, 2014

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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March 18, 2014

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?

March 17, 2014

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 to know most of his readers will not understand? Does this in any way enhance the book? I didn’t understand everything I was reading. I confess to skimming some of the technically descriptive material. But not much of it – I really did try to read it, and I tried to understand it as best as I could. I learned some things, and, especially in the parts about music, what I most learned is how much I don’t know. Reading the author’s words describing how his character, the composer Peter Els, listens to music, describing what he hears when he listens, describing what he thinks about when he composes music,...

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Books Are Always in Fashion

February 28, 2014

When that small trim-sized book we now call “mass market” was first created, it was called a pocket book, and it was meant to literally fit in one’s pocket. Pocket Books publishers published the first books of this size in America in 1939. The company was acquired by Simon & Schuster, who owns it still, in 1966. There was a fashion designer in the second half of the 20th century who designed dresses with specific pockets for books (Darn, I can’t remember or find her name! Does anyone know? …[Two minutes later…] I just remembered! It was Pauline Trigère. I am so impressed with myself. My confidence in my memory is restored!) Anyway… Pauline Trigère thought books important enough to make a place for them in haute couture. Once, when I led a book class for a group of lower income women, women with very challenging lives, many of them single moms, I remember one mother telling me how she kept a book in her pocket while she cooked dinner. When things were simmering on the stove, she’d slip the book out and slip in a few moments of reading time. That really stayed with me, that image of someone to whom books mattered so much that she went to some effort to create reading time. Take that, you many folks who tell me you’re too busy to read! But I digress… my point is, books are in fashion, literally. And just last week, at London Fashion Week, it happened again. Designer Christopher Kane has taken a page from the book of fashion and integrated it into his lovely Bookleaf dress. It probably costs a bit more than a paperback, but that’s the cost of...

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The Obituary Writer’s Sad Story

February 25, 2014

A few days ago I wrote about my challenges writing book reviews, about how I shy away from criticizing a book in a written review. In exploring whether or not it’s wrong or inappropriate to write negative reviews, I referred to what some other writers recently had to say about this in the New York Times, and I determined, along with writer Francine Prose and others, that it’s important to be honest and ok to be critical. So I’m going to just plunge right in here: Ann Hood’s recent novel The Obituary Writer was a great disappointment. I discovered the writer Ann Hood in college, when I wrote about several of her novels in a paper about how feminist politics manifested itself in the fiction of various contemporary women novelists (there were other, stronger, entries as well in the paper: Margaret Atwood and Marge Piercy for example). I greatly enjoyed her work at that time, but then it began to feel too fluffy to me, and a bit off (an icky father/daughter relationship), so she disappeared from my radar for a while. In 2002, a truly tragic thing happened to Hood when her five year old daughter died of an antibiotic-resistant strain of strep. One can only dimly imagine the pain of such a thing. In 2008, Hood published a memoir about this experience. The book, called Comfort, was well-reviewed and chosen as a book of the year by the New York Times. I could not bring myself to read it. Since then, Hood has published several more books, and I eagerly returned to reading her work with her newest novel, The Obituary Writer. The book interweaves the stories of two women, Claire, a 1960s housewife in an unsatisfactory marriage, and the titular obituary writer, Vivien, who lives in Napa Valley in 1919 and still mourns the loss of her lover in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.Eventually the reader will discover how these two women are connected. Vivien came to her vocation by accident and has turned writing obituaries into an art form. Her home welcomes a steady stream of the grieving who long for Vivien to hear their stories of loss and memorialize their loved ones in writing. Vivien understands their grief, as she herself is still in mourning. Nonetheless, I found it odd that an obituary writer should be such a local celebrity, and that the first thought of those experiencing the loss of a loved one would be to rush off to Vivien’s home to tell their story. Claire, meanwhile, is ensconced in 1961, just as JFK is about to take office, and the descriptions of her life read like a lesson in brand marketing. Every product, appliance, or other item associated with this period in suburban life has a cameo, and we are treated to frequent scenes of pregnant Claire smoking, swilling scotch, and idolizing Jackie Kennedy. I’m not sure which came first, this book or “Mad Men,” but in the TV version of the early 60s we appreciate the verisimilitude; here it reads like stereotype. The author is relying on her scene-setting to give the story depth, while she leaves her characters flat and superficial. There are also a number of children who die in this book, from the neighborhood boy who is kidnapped...

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