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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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Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie by Carly Simon
Jul30

Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie by Carly Simon

Switched to memoir this time… just finished reading Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie by Carly Simon, a memoir about her friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. I’m a huge Carly Simon fan from way back, so I was interested to see what her writing was like, and also, it sounded like it would be interesting to hear this behind-the-scenes story she decided to tell. I shouldn’t be surprised that Carly can write. After all, she is a songwriter. I always thought that poets made for beautiful novelists because they pay such careful attention to every word choice, and I suppose the same can be said for songwriters about when they turn to longer form work. Carly’s sentences and descriptions of place are lovely. She begins the book by talking about how difficult it is to write about a person you knew, how challenging it is to capture and describe their essence. She says you can present details but to convey what they are really like is hard to do. She is correct. I feel like Jackie is only a fleeting presence in this book. Simon tells some stories about times they were together, parties, lunches, etc. But other than now knowing something about what her deathbed scene was like, I don’t feel like I have any more insights into what Jackie O was like than I did before reading the book. What the book is a lot about, however, is Carly and her famous friends and her life hobnobbing with famous writers and other celebs on Martha’s Vineyard. That life she had/has there sounds fun. I sure would love to hang out with all those folks! Carly is a different generation than I am, but I certainly know of the writers she knows and knew: Lillian Hellman, William Styron and more. Her ex James Taylor makes only a brief appearance in the book (she was married to her second husband Jim Hart during much of when this story takes place). But there is plenty o’ name dropping. When Carly goes to a Stones concert, for example, of course she goes backstage to say hey to Mick. And when she and her husband and Jackie go to the theatre, they need a fourth for Jackie so they invite along Ken Burns or Alec Baldwin. The person who is most written about in this book is the director/producer/actor Mike Nichols and his wife Diane Sawyer. It seems like both Carly and Jackie had a thing for Mike, who comes off in this book as a brilliant and compelling person. Carly was very close with him, and worked with him...

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Mrs. March by Virginia Feito
Jul21

Mrs. March by Virginia Feito

One of our Barnes & Noble buyers sent us an advance copy of Mrs. March by Virginia Feito because he’s very excited about this new work of psychological suspense, due to be published in August and apparently already optioned for film with Elizabeth Moss in the title role (good casting!). I enjoy a good psychological suspense novel, one with a story that will keep you up late and which is engaging but not emotionally wrenching like some of the literary fiction I usually choose! A recent example of a book like this that I greatly enjoyed is The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave.  Anyway, the book sounded fun, plus it’s a debut novel, something I also enjoy reading, and I really liked the cover, but more on that later. The book is told entirely from the point of view of Mrs. March and the character is referred to throughout as Mrs. March. Her husband is a well-known novelist who has just published a new book which is doing quite well and which others have told her (she hasn’t read it) has a protagonist who is based on her – and who also happens to be an overweight, unattractive whore. Mrs. March is struggling with issues related to self esteem and identity and her place in the world and, as the book progresses, with her hold on reality. She also has an emotionally-removed relationship with her 8-year-old son and I suppose with her husband as well. They live in a big apartment in New York City and have a lot of money and a maid and have fancy formal dinners together every night with the proper table settings (which of course I appreciated the references to table settings!). I had a little trouble figuring out when this book was supposed to take place. At the outset, it felt more contemporary but I think I also recall a scene where Lawrence Welk was on TV so maybe it was supposed to be the fifties. In any case, it was a fun and quick read and the ending will greatly please Hitchcock fans! Now about the cover… (you may notice I write about covers frequently. I’m sure you know that it’s absolutely untrue that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Covers contain tropes that designers use to let potential readers know it’s their kind of book. Looking for historical fiction? Pick a book with a period picture of women seen from behind. Self-help? Look for big bold san-serif letters. Etc.) I do very much like the cover’s stark and arresting image. The green gloves pictured on the...

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Blush by Jamie Brenner
Jul07

Blush by Jamie Brenner

Jamie Brenner said that when she was growing up she really admired writers like Jayne Ann Krentz and Jackie Collins, and that this book was her tribute to them. I’m sure those authors would be proud, because she does a great job writing the same sort of book: romance, beautiful setting, strong passions, etc. So if you are a fan of those writers, you definitely want to check out Blush. It’s a story that takes place at a winery out on the North Fork of Long Island. It’s a story about women becoming empowered and it’s a story that revolves around a book club. Love, wine, and books – all the important elements! And hey, Jamie Brenner, I see that you live part-time in Philadelphia, so I hope we get to meet some time! I’m extending an open invitation to do an event at our bookstore: Barnes & Noble in Wilmington,...

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