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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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Goliath v. Goliath
Jun09

Goliath v. Goliath

At a party Saturday night, I had a long conversation with a friend about the contentious situation between Amazon and Hachette publishing. This friend is a professor and an author, so these two roles do elevate his awareness of publishing issues, but still, I think this battle is a publishing business issue that has really spilled over into public awareness. It is something that people really care about, because they have a stake in it. Most of us shop from Amazon, so what Amazon does affects us. How are we to feel about the latest move by the online retailing giant, hindering sales of books by Hachette authors? Do we calmly continue to enjoy the convenient free shipping offered by our Amazon Prime accounts or do we learn to shop elsewhere? Even Stephen Colbert is weighing in! With Amazon demanding a higher discount from Hachette on ebook sales and Hachette’s now closely-watched CEO Michael Piestch holding the line, Amazon has fought back by making Hachette books harder to purchase, claiming long waits for shipping, removing discounts, and recommending other titles instead. Many authors, including Colbert and Malcolm Gladwell, have weighed in to say how this situation is affecting them. Gladwell, speaking to the New York Times, explained how, over the years, he has sold millions of dollars’ worth of books on Amazon and therefore made them millions of dollars. “It’s sort of heartbreaking when your partner turns on you,” he says. James Patterson, who, according to New York Times columnist David Carr, has penned one out of every 17 hardcover novels now being sold, railed against Amazon at the recent Book Expo (the annual publishing trade conference), warning that: “Amazon seems to be out to control shopping in this country.” Several authors, however, have weighed in in support of Amazon, and in a story in The Daily Beast headlined “Amazon Is NOT the Vladimir Putin of the Publishing World,”  Nick Gillespie says the fight is really about how much readers, having gotten used to Amazon’s deep discounting, are going to have to pay for books. He says: “It’s really about how much readers are going to be asked to pay for titles coming out of big publishing companies. Amazon’s track record on that score is pretty damn great: It always wants the price to be lower. That sucks for publishers and authors, and maybe even for Amazon’s bottom line. But it’s worked pretty nicely for readers so far.” According to Publishers Weekly, Amazon has captured 40% of all book sales. That’s pretty difficult for any publisher or author to just walk away from. The recent government lawsuit accusing five publishers...

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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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The Newspaper is in the News
May28

The Newspaper is in the News

The big news in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer is about its own ownership. Like so many others, the paper (the one I still get delivered daily to my front door) has been experiencing much uncertainty of late, with changes in ownership and losses of employee jobs and benefits, not to mention the ongoing struggles of newspapers everywhere to maintain readership and monetize digital. According to the paper itself, this is its sixth ownership change in eight years. In a private auction held yesterday, the winners are local businessmen and philanthropists Lewis Katz and H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest.  (If you live in Philadelphia, you have already become accustomed to seeing the Lenfest name on many notable local institutions). Katz and Lenfest were previously owners of 42.55% of the paper, and they notably feuded with co-owners the Norcross Group. Bill Marimow, who was ousted by Norcross but later reinstated by the court, is to be editor. As quoted in the paper, Lenfest says: “We want to return the Inquirer to the great newspaper it has been for many years.” We the readers, and certainly the paper’s 1800+ employees, hope this will be the case. The paper has had several recent notable achievements, including a Pulitzer Prize won this year by architecture critic Inga Saffron for distinguished criticism, and breaking important local stories such as a recent to-do in a case involving the Pennsylvania Attorney General. Philadelphia is the country’s fifth largest city; we deserve to have a newspaper of which we can be...

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