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Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
Jun30

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Several years ago I was in Salt Lake City for a publishing conference, and was lucky enough to visit the wonderful indie bookstore The King’s English. At the top of what seemed like a very steep hill (I walked there), it’s in a house, and you wend your way through a warren of rooms, each with different categories of books. What a great bookstore! My visit was enjoyable in many ways – the friendly staff, the colorful and appealing children’s department, the great dinner recommendation I got – but mostly I want to mention one of the books I bought there. I was seeking a book to discuss at a workshop I would be leading at Kripalu Yoga Center, and the knowledable booksellers steered me toward The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. In this book I learned to be interested in and care about a creature about whom I previously knew very little. It started with discovering that in multiple they are octopuses, not octopi, and went on to teach me about their habits and abilities, including how intelligent they are and how they can fit their bodies through tiny spaces. This all came back to me recently when I read the new novel Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. Really, it’s a story about a bunch of people who are lost in their lives for one reason or another, and we follow them through their struggles until they all wind up… well, I’m not a plot spoiler. But what makes the book different is not that it is narrated from different points of view, but that one of those viewpoints happens to belong to Marcellus, who is an octopus, a giant Pacific octopus, to be specific. Marcellus resides in a tank in an aquarium in Puget Sound, and he, like his species, is very intelligent. And like the octopus whom Sy Montgomery befriended in the Boston Aquarium in her book, this octopus also knows how to make friends, to convey thoughts and feelings, and to figure things out. He’s the most charming octopus I’ve ever met, and he makes this book into a more compelling story. Kudos to Van Pelt for creating this charming and loveable character, along with the rest of the cast in Remarkably Bright Creatures. Put this on your summer reading...

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Lots of Books! (my recent reading)
Apr28

Lots of Books! (my recent reading)

It’s time for a  bit of a blogfest, because I have a lot of books to catch up with you on. Birds of California by Katie Cotugno The author has written seven young adult novels – which means she knows how to write a book, how to shape a plot – but this is her first adult novel. She also co-authored a book called Rules for Being a Girl with Candace Bushnell (of Sex and the City fame, which is to say that Katie knows how to write good sex). This is one of those allegedly predictable romances that actually didn’t go where I thought it would, and one of those alleged “light reads” that dealt with some heavy stuff and whose characters I missed much more than I thought I would after I finished the book. Meet Fiona St. James, hugely successful child actor who crashed and burned very publicly and has since dropped out of sight. Meet Sam Fox, studly TV star who once played Fiona’s big bro on their TV show (Birds of California), now struggling in his own career. A reboot of the old show is proposed. Roll that plot! Birds of California will be published in June; this is your beach read for sure. Hell of a Book by Jason Mott Oh my, oh my. Dare I say? It’s a hell of a book. Winner of the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction, Mott’s novel has a clever conceit: it’s about an author’s dissolute book tour, touring the country for a book with bestseller potential, a book about… well, he doesn’t remember. Nor does he recall, apparently, that he’s a black man. But meanwhile, he’s having odd encounters along with way, including with a young black boy whom he calls The Kid who may or may not exist. And this is all interspersed with the story of another young black boy nicknamed Soot in a small southern town, who encounters the perils of small town racism. This also happens to be the town that the author is from. What’s the book really about? It’s about being a black man in America. This painful and necessary story is told in a powerfully original literary style. So, so good. Brilliant, even. The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier The recent winner of the prestigious French Prix Goncourt begins in gruesome fashion with a chapter about a day in the life of a contract killer. Don’t let that put you off. (Or perhaps you like that?) Then it proceeds, each subsequent chapter about another different character. Where are we going? I wondered. Why are we hearing all these...

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The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. by Lee Kravetz
Apr07

The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. by Lee Kravetz

Author Lee Kravetz has created what I call a literary thriller that draws heavily on real events in the life of Sylvia Plath: her hospitalization at McLean Hospital after a suicide attempt, her involvement in Robert Lowell’s poetry workshop at Boston University and the confessional poets movement, her marriage to Ted Hughes, and her writing of the now famous novel The Bell Jar. I’ve chosen this old cover design of the book because this is the version I read as a girl. The story alternates between three points of view. There is Dr. Ruth Barnhouse, who really was Plath’s psychiatrist at McLean and with whom she maintained a relationship after leaving the hospital. There is Boston Rhodes, a fictionalized version of the poet Anne Sexton, and there’s Estee, a contemporary character who is an archivist at a Boston auction house. The story kicks off there when two property developers bring Estee something they’ve found in an old attic: a lock box that contains three notebooks that appear to be a handwritten version of The Bell Jar, i.e., an early draft that no one knew existed (and which, to all knowledge, does not, IRL, exist). The story is well-told, with some surprising and engaging revelations (although, boy did Boston Rhodes make my skin crawl!), and what I think is an extremely controversial ending. Email me after you’ve read it and we’ll discuss that! Next step should be to go back to the source and reread The Bell Jar. See my video review of this book HERE. Follow me on Instagram at @lynnreadsabook for more...

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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Dec01

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The novel The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett explores the phenomenon of “passing,” which is when a light-skinned black person “passes” for white. The novel begins by introducing us to a small town in Louisiana called Mallard whose inhabitants are all light-skinned blacks who pride themselves on being fair-skinned. They intermarry so as to keep their skin light. Nonetheless, the world still considers them to be black and, in mid-twentieth century America, they are subject to racism, restrictions, and much worse. The novel focuses on a pair of twins, Desiree and Stella, descendants of the town’s founder. The book opens in 1968 when Desiree is spotted returning to Mallard after a long absence and we learn that 14 years prior, when they were 16, the twins disappeared from Mallard. We learn that they ran away to New Orleans and that, sometime into their stay there, Stella left, and Desiree has not seen or heard from her since. Upon her return to Mallard in 1968, the townspeople note that Desiree has a child with her, a very dark-skinned child, and this is almost more notable than her return in a town where being light skinned is so valued. This child’s dark skin is the topic of much gossip, and will be a factor in how the town treats her. I had a conversation with a friend recently about how, in today’s world, people are able to choose their gender (I’m not saying this is easy or without struggle) and he commented: what if people could also choose their race? In this book, that is the central issue. Can a light-skinned black person choose to “pass over” and live their life as white? And, if they do, what are the consequences? And what are the consequences of the racism endemic to our society that would cause a person to want to live their life in a lie? This book looks deeply at those issues, and examines them from different sides, because we see how the light-skinned blacks are treated when they venture out of Mallard, and how the dark-skinned girl is treated in Mallard by the rest of the community. Bias runs deep. We also look at the impact of these choices on family bonds. Years ago I taught Bennett’s first book, The Mothers, in my Hot Off the Press class, and it’s an excellent book. If you read and like The Vanishing Half, I recommend you read her first book, too. And if you discover The Vanishing Half the way so many readers are finding it these days, because it’s popular and highly recommended on BookTok/TikTok, then good for you...

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Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade
Nov24

Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade

I enjoyed this book so much! First of all, let me clarify that I didn’t exactly read it – I listened to the audiobook (which I got from Libro.fm, a great source of downloadable audiobooks that supports indie bookstores – don’t buy from Audible, y’all, cause you-know-who owns them!). The reader had a lovely English accent, which made me feel like I was in London with her. And everything just sound better when it’s in an English accent, doesn’t it? The author, Francesca Wade, who lives in London, has written for many stellar publications, but I had never read her work before, and she’s very good! The premise of the book is that the five women on whom she focused all, at different points between the World Wars, lived in the same neighborhood, an area that is part of the famed Bloomsbury neighborhood called Mecklenburgh Square. She believes that living in this place influenced the work of these women. What was notable about Mecklenburgh Square was that it was made up of homes that had been broken up and which had become boarding houses. And it was here, in a London still inhibited by Victorian strictures, that a woman could live how she wished, be it alone and trying to work to earn her own living, or with a man to whom she was not married. These type of living arrangements, shunned or at least looked down upon elsewhere, became more common and certainly doable and even acceptable in Mecklenburgh Square. I think the author makes a very good case for this place being influential in supporting these women’s ability to do the work they did, as well as offering them the opportunity to interact with like-minded people also living there. Of the five women she writes about, I knew about only some of them. The most famous, and the one who really had the most tangential relationship to the place, was Virginia Woolf who, with her husband Leonard, had a place in the square during the last year of her life although, due to the oncoming war, spent much of her time in the country. The group also includes the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), whom I studied briefly in a poetry class in graduate school (thank you to the brilliant Ann Douglas), and the mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers, whose life I know about because another brilliant grad school prof of mine, Carolyn Heilbrun, refers to her in her fabulous book Writing a Woman’s Life (please read that one too!). The other two writers featured a Jane Harrison, a scholar of classical literature and quite highly regarded in...

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It’s a BookTok World
Sep09

It’s a BookTok World

We have a table in the front of the bookstore with a display of books and a poster that says “#BookTok.” As some of you may already know, the book part of the popular social media app TikTok has become huge, and “book influencers” who recommend a book on BookTok can send a book’s sales soaring. I read in Publishers Weekly magazine this week about one of these books, It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover. The book was published in August, 2016, and did fairly well. In its first month, it sold 21,000 copies, but then faded out. Until November of 2020, when it began to be talked about on BookTok. The book then made a huge comeback, and sales are now in the range of about 17,000 copies per week. I can see this happening at our Barnes & Noble, where we’ll put out a big pile of the book and it will be gone in mere days. BookTok followers, who are mainly teen and young women, are reading these books in droves. And I’m in favor of anything that popularizes reading! Another author who is popular on BookTok is our own dear Philadelphia-area author Madeline Miller. I’ve been reading Madeline’s books since before they were published! I had an early copy of her first book, Song of Achilles, which came out in 2011. I loved it, and taught it in my Hot Off the Press class. Song of Achilles is now the #1 fiction seller at B&N, and it too flies off the BookTok table at astounding speed, along with her second book, Circe, which is also wonderful. Kudos to you, Madeline, for this well-deserved success! Recently I read another BookTok book, an LGBTQ+ Rom-Com called One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston. McQuiston is also very popular on BookTok for this and an earlier book of theirs, Red, White & Royal Blue. I don’t usually read the Rom-Com genre, but I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, as it were, plus why not pick a book that isn’t totally gut wrenching once in a while? 😊 (Just a note: another table we have up front in the bookstore, which contains the sort of Rom-Coms people typically call “beach reads,” also has books flying off of it, particularly books by Emily Henry.) One Last Stop has an interesting plot. August, the protagonist, moves to NYC, finds some interesting roommates in a run-down but funky apartment, and then meets a girl on the subway. August falls fast for Jane, but then discovers some odd things about her, like why is Jane always on August’s subway...

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