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Meet Shakespeare’s Wife & Children
Mar16

Meet Shakespeare’s Wife & Children

Maggie O’Farrell says she first read Hamlet in high school (she didn’t call it high school, as she was in the UK, but I’m translating!). Since then, she has been very taken with the play, even dressing up as Hamlet for a costume party, carrying around a skull, of course. Later in her studies, she learned that Shakespeare and his wife had a son named Hamnet who died at age eleven in the black plague. She says several things were very interesting to her about this: History books, she says, make it seem like losing a child in those days wasn’t a big deal because of the general high child mortality rate. She wasn’t buying that.Very little is known about Shakespeare’s life, even though he left behind such a great body of work. His wife, typically called Anne Hathaway, is often presented as an older woman who trapped him into marriage and whom he did not love. O’Farrell disputes that. Shakespeare was 18 when he married her, btw, and she was 26. She says all the time Shakespeare was in London  he sent most of his money back to his family in Stratford and when he retired he moved back there to live with his wife, so she sees those facts as disputing the belief that he did not care for her. Also her name, legal records show, was Agnes, not Anne.She credits an article by scholar James Shapiro for pointing out that in those days the names Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable. And that therefore the fact that Shakespeare wrote a play called Hamlet four years after his son died is, as she puts it, “not nothing.” Now that I’ve given you some background, I will say: this book is a master work. Not that that is my judgment only; it has already won numerous accolades in 2020. O’Farrell is in total control of this story, spooling it out at a slow pace and getting us deeply inside the emotional heart of the story. And although you might think, as I did, that this book is mostly an historical story, a retelling/reimagining of the story of Shakespeare and his wife, which is what I expected, it is not that. This is a story of grief and of a woman losing a son. It is heartbreaking beautiful. In my canon of contemporary literary fiction that is sure to have long-lasting value, this book belongs there. A must read. Also interesting to see how this book was published in other countries. Here is the original UK cover: And here is the Canadian cover. In Canada, interestingly, the book had a...

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Reading Younger
Mar15

Reading Younger

A goal of mine at this time in my life (living through lockdown, post-divorce) is to read as much as I can. I want to read new books and be up-to-date, and I want to go back and fill in gaps in my reading. And so here is a gap I must admit: as a child, I never read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In fact, there are a good many gaps in the category of classic children’s lit in my reading past, but this one seemed very glaring and so, a few days ago, I grabbed a copy from the shelves at my B&N, bought it, brought it home, and read it overnight (one benefit of reading children’s lit as an adult – it’s quick!) I have at last become acquainted with Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, and I have been with them on their travels through the back of the wardrobe and into Narnia, at least I have accompanied them on their first journey to this foreign land; I know they have other forays there, but this will be the end of the line for me. And here is a downside of reading children’s lit as an adult – one might not be quite as entranced by it as one might have been in one’s younger and more easily-pleased years.  It was sweet, and I liked the charm of the writing, the way the narrator made himself known now and then (an interesting writerly technique – take note!). And now I have seen a bit of Narnia, met Aslan the kind and all-powerful lion, and encountered the White Witch. All good. Well, except it is my understanding from what I know of the author C.S. Lewis that this book is actually heavily symbolic with Christian theology. Even I can see that, given that Aslan is killed by sacrifice on the stone table and then resurrected, that he might just be a stand-in for some other popular fellow from another book. And so, a little research is required as a follow up to my reading… ok, yes, Aslan is a Christ figure, and the Witch represents Satan and the story represents a Christian’s journey and so much more, but as generations of kids already know, it’s possible to enjoy it simply as an engaging fantasy story. The day after I read the book, I talked to Deb and Theresa, two regulars at Barnes & Noble Wilmington who show up most mornings for literary conversation. I barged into their chat and announced that I had at long last read the Narnia book. “What did you think?” they...

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A Get Lit with Lynn update for the week of March 1st

If you signed up for the “Get Lit with Lynn” virtual event (which you can do by emailing me here), this is the letter you would have received today, 3/2/21. Dear Bookies, I miss you already! Instead of being with you this Tuesday evening, I’ll be at Barnes & Noble counting books. But I’m already thinking about when we can meet again and I’m cooking up new programs for us! In the meantime, I thought I’d send you an update, because a number of major authors have new books coming out today. Here are a few of the ones that interest me the most (some of which I did mention last week). Anne Lamott’s new book comes out today. Called DUSK NIGHT DAWN: ON REVIVAL AND COURAGE, in it she asks: How can we recapture the confidence we once had as we stumble through the dark times that seem increasingly bleak? Lamott is a writer who really knows how to say what she’s thinking and to analyze what she is experiencing, and she can be bold, bawdy, and irreverent, all the while being extremely faith-based. Her book about writing, BIRD BY BIRD, is certainly one of the top ten writing books ever. In my canon, it’s in the top five, and maybe even number one. Here is a piece about her new book that I think really gets at the essence of Anne Lamott. Kazuo Ishiguro has a new novel out today, KLARA AND THE SUN. Ishiguro is a fantastically talented writer with a wide range. While some writers stick to one setting and one style, Ishiguro is all over the place, and wherever he goes with his writing, he does it well. You might know him best for one of his most famous books, THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, which took place in mid-20th century England and was about a butler reminiscing about his years of service (played by Anthony Hopkins in a wonderful film). Other work of his is more futuristic, and one book, THE BURIED GIANT, is an allegory that takes place in post-Arthurian England. This new book is more along the lines of directions he explored in NEVER LET ME GO, and I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s hard to imagine this book will disappoint. Today includes a big publishing event: Michelle Obama’s hugely successful memoir BECOMING is finally coming out in paperback as well as in a young readers’ edition. Publishers release most books in paperback about one year after their original hardcover publication, however, with some popular books, they wait longer if the book is selling well in hardcover. Some...

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Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould
Feb18

Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould

I tried to write a quick post about this book, but instead I went down a rabbit hole. What I had intended to say was something along the lines of this: I spent two nights staying up way too late reading this book, in the end it was not justified. I was not moved by the character or her plight—or more specifically, by the way her plight was expressed. Instead I decided that, before writing my post, I would read some reviews of the book and see if anyone else agreed with me. But first I read the back cover of the book (always a mistake to read it first and, as usual, it gave away much of the plot). And then I focused on the 3 blurbs that were on the front and back cover, glowing reviews from well-known writers. On the cover was a quote from Stephanie Danler, the author of Sweetbitter, a book I quite liked. That is what probably originally motivated me to read the book, that and the fact that it’s (supposed to be) set in the music world (warm memories of reading and greatly enjoying Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid – a much better book, read that one instead). I dunno – maybe these writers are friends of the author’s – the book I read doesn’t deserve the raves these writers gave it – sorry. But I was taken by something Danler said about the author – she called her “one of the most essential writers of the internet generation.” What exactly does that mean? I wondered. What is/who is the internet generation and why is Emily Gould essential to it, according to Stephanie Danler? So I decided to Google the author and learn more about her. And thus: rabbit hole. Emily Gould has a lot of cool things in her bio. She co-runs a publishing imprint called Emily Books. She is married to the author Keith Gessen. I read his novel A Terrible Country, about a Russian man who returns to Moscow after many years in the US and what his experience there kind of caught between two cultures is like. I taught the novel in my Hot Off the Press class and we had a great discussion about it. But Emily Gould is perhaps best known for an incident that happened when she was interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel who was, at that time, guest-hosting the Larry King show. Gould was then working for Gawker media, and oversaw something called the Gawker Stalker, in which people could post celebrity sightings. Kimmel and his guests excoriated her for running...

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Recent Reading: Lydia Millet & Ethan Hawke
Feb14

Recent Reading: Lydia Millet & Ethan Hawke

For my Hot Off the Press class, last week we discussed A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet, chosen because this session we are reading prize winners or nominees, and this book was on a lot of “best of 2020” and award lists. I liked it very much and was surprised how many of the class participants did not enjoy the book. What I liked… The writing is excellent (we all agreed on that). The story is told from the point of view of a teenager and I think she did a great job with the voice; it was very convincing. (Although I can’t say I’m the best judge of authentic teenager speak these days!) The frame of the story is that a group of families rent a big old mansion (said to have been built and owned by “robber barons”) near a lake and the ocean somewhere in New England to spend the summer with their families. The parents are old college friends and haven’t all been together for a long time. They are artsy professionals. The kids all sleep upstairs in the attic and totally disdain their parents – in fact they won’t even admit to each other which ones of those embarrassing adults are in fact their particular parents. All goes wrong when a storm hits and, since this is climate change fiction, the storm changes the world. It’s actually many ongoing storms that devastate the eastern seaboard. The kids escape to a farm, leaving their parents behind. The book is a parable. It’s a devastating critique of people ignoring climate change. As the author said in a separate interview, she can’t understand why more people aren’t freaking out about the issue, and this is her call to arms. She herself has a master’s degree in environmental policy and works at the Center for Biological Diversity. Readers felt the parents were presented as too “extreme,” i.e. all bad – a bunch of uncaring, oblivious slugs. I guess my response to that is: unreliable narrator. The bible referred to in the title is a children’s bible that one of the young characters, the narrator’s younger brother Jack, is given by one of the parents and begins to read, well, religiously. His own take on the bible has to do with science and nature, and his interpretation of the book leads him to do things like collect the animals and bring them to safety before the flood. I enjoyed finding the many other biblical parallels in the story. Another Book I also just read Ethan Hawke’s new novel A Bright Ray of Darkness. The multi-talented Hawke tells the story...

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