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Hermione is their hero
May04

Hermione is their hero

Teaching a writing class for grades 3-5 recently, I asked the students to answer the following question: If you could meet any fictional character, who would it be and why? The most popular answer (from the mostly female class): Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books. And of course. Why wouldn’t they admire and wish to meet this smart, confident, unflappable girl? She’s proud of her intelligence, often using it to save them from dangerous situations, she’s comfortable with herself, she’s unafraid of the unknown and loves a good adventure… what could be better? She’s a great role model! Recently I was doing research for a talk on Louisa May Alcott, and I came across a similar sentiment among women of a different generation for the fictional Jo March of Little Women. She too is smart, fearless, bold, and unafraid of being judged by others. And she also had, and has, a huge influence on readers. A large number of writers, including Barbara Kingsolver, Simone de Beauvoir, Ursula K. Le Guin, Cynthia Ozick, Anne Quindlen, and – look at that! – J.K. Rowling, have said they became writers because of Jo March. How about you? If you could meet any fictional character, who would it be and...

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Actress by Anne Enright
May01

Actress by Anne Enright

Eavan Boland, the revered Irish poet who taught at Stanford University for decades, died recently. In a country where male authors often dominate the literary landscape, she was noted as one of the premier Irish women writers. Several years ago, when she appeared at the Free Library of Philadelphia, I covered the event for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and I had the opportunity to interview her (you can read my Inquirer article HERE). She was kind, thoughtful articulate, and insightful. And when I asked who her favorite contemporary Irish writers were, without hesitation she said Edna O’Brien and Anne Enright. I say all of this first of all, as a tribute to Boland’s life and work, and also as a lead-in to writing about Enright’s new novel, Actress. Anne Enright’s method of telling a story will never take you on an easy path from point A to point B. As Ron Charles says in his review in The Washington Post, “The chronology would appear no more ordered than the flow of anecdotes around a dinner table, but there’s always a design to Enright’s novels, a gradual coalescing of insight.” We gather information as we go along and, in some ways, the reader is left to figure it all out once they finish the book. Her writing gives us a slow accrual of brilliant insight. Norah’s mother was the famous Irish actress Katherine O’Dell, she of the glorious hazel eyes and red hair (and whose secret, that Norah guarded, was that she was actually born in England), a star of many years of stage and screen. But no, not a star… “We did not use the word star,” Norah tells us. Stars are made; actresses are born. Norah grew up in a household in Dublin with her mother and a longtime housekeeper. She did not know who her father was, and she had a loving, if tumultuous, relationship with her mother. And while Norah was able to have a somewhat ordinary upbringing, for her mother: “… she walked out the door and was famous all day.” We learn early on that Katherine is no longer alive. In fact, Norah is now the age that Katherine was when she died: 58. Norah, unlike her mother, is in a longterm loving marriage; Enright makes a point of exploring the ups and downs inherent in such a relationship, the emotional aspects as well as the physical intimacy of it. In part, Enright has said, this book is not just an exploration of a mother/daughter relationship but also a “conversation about marriage,” and she hopes to “reclaim ideas of agency in desire.” As the person...

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American Dirt
Apr09

American Dirt

The novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins was the topic of the first meeting of the new Open Book Productions Virtual Book Discussion Class. This is a book for which there are two main topics to discuss: the book itself, and the public response that the book has received. First the book. In the dramatic opening scene, which takes place at a home in Acapulco, Lydia and her eight-year-old son Luca are the sole survivors of a brutal massacre. After this horrific event, fearing for their lives, they must escape.  The rest of book follows them on the challenging and often frightening journey which they must take to flee first Acapulco, and then Mexico. They ultimately wind up riding “La Bestia,” the freight trains which many refugees ride on top of to escape to “el norte.” Have you seen these trains? If not, I encourage you to Google pictures of the hordes of people fleeing hardship by hitching rides on top of trains. You will find them to be very disturbing photos. Back to the book itself… did the group like it? Some yes, some no. Some found it to be a very well-told, compelling, page-turning story. Others found flaws in the characterization of the son (too smart and articulate for an eight-year-old), or other aspects of the storytelling. Overall, we thought, for those who are not aware of what is happening in Mexico and other countries to these refugees, that the book was a good starting place to becoming aware of the problem, something that will lead them to investigate other books, and sources of information. And there, as they say, is the rub. The controversy around this book has to do with the reaction from Mexican writers and other writers of color saying: why is this white woman telling our story, and getting paid megabucks by the publisher to do so?  They also picked up on several missteps by the publisher in their initial promotion of the book: a letter that says that the author said “…migrants were being portrayed at the Mexican border as a ‘faceless brown mass'” and that she wanted to “give these people a face”; a launch party where photos were leaked of the centerpieces that mimicked the book’s cover design, complete with barbed wire. We were fortunate to have a Mexican writer join our conversation at this point. Carlos José Pérez Sámano is a Mexican literary fiction and non-fiction author, and teacher of Creative Writing Workshops in Mexico, U.S.A., Kenya, and Cuba. The book was picked by several major outlets as a featured book of the month, including by Barnes & Noble...

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The Yellow Wallpaper
Apr06

The Yellow Wallpaper

It was during my feminist awakening/introduction in college that I first read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and I have been rereading it ever since. The wallpaper may be faded and torn, bu the impact of this story never dims. Charlotte Perkins Gilman lived from 1860, born just on the cusp of the Civil War, through 1935. During her time, she became a well-known writer and speaker, and she is an influential feminist foremother. Her book Women and Economics makes points about the worth of women’s work in the home that were echoed decades later by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (the famous “problem that has no name”) and which still resonate today. Gilman swore never to marry, seeing marriage as an institution that in those days did not offer women the chance to also pursue work. Despite this pledge, she did, however, marry, at a young age, bore a daughter, suffered from postpartum depression, and later, scandalously, divorced her first husband. She then moved with her daughter to California, began her career in ernest, managed to fix up her ex-husband with a friend of hers, and later, deciding they would be the more stable parents and, also radically, that a father deserved to be with his child as well as a mother, sent her then nine-year-old daughter to live with her father. “The Yellow Wallpaper,” was inspired by Gilman’s own postpartum experience, as well as the time she spent being treated by S. Weir Mitchell, a noted doctor based in Philadelphia famous for creating what he called “the rest cure” for women: no activity, no work–nothing to trouble their little heads… We met virtually last week for the Open Book Lunch ‘n’ Learn short story class to discuss this story and, as I said above, found its power undiminished 130 years after it was first published. We plan to offer a repeat of this class as well as classes about other famous feminist literature: Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and more. Email me (lynn@lynnrosen.com) for more...

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Writers & Lovers by Lily King
Apr05

Writers & Lovers by Lily King

A woman in my writers group had a line in her submission last week that we all enjoyed. In her book, a group of young men are going somewhere where they will be seeing a woman that one of them has met recently and is really interested in. The one friend says “He likes her,” and the other says “Yeah,” and the first one, to emphasize what he means, says “No, he likes her likes her.” I was amused to see this line come up again In Lily King’s new novel Writers & Lovers. “You two really hit it off.”“She likes you.”“We’ve known each other a long time.”“She likes you likes you.”p.236 I read a lot of books. Sometimes I don’t like them and sometimes I do like them. And sometimes I read a book that I am just so happy to be reading, and the time that I am engaged with this book is a period of such great pleasure, that I’m sad when the book comes to an end. I’m sure you’ve had that experience. That’s how I feel about Lily King’s new book. And that made me realize that the best way to describe how I feel about this book is this: I don’t just like it.  I like it like it. Ok, now, about the book… This is a story about a 31 year old woman who is struggling to write a book. I do tend to be a fan of books about writers trying to write books. This book now definitely goes on my short list of favorite novels about the writing process, along with The Friend by Sigrid Nunez and Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday. Casey, the protagonist of Lovers & Writers, is reeling from the recent and unexpected death of her mother, and she is very lonely. She’s working as a waitress and struggling to pay off student loans and trying to recover from the heartbreak of several failed relationships. And for the past six years, through graduate school and even a prestigious writers residency, she has been struggling to finish her novel. We follow Casey through the trials of her work life, her love life, and her writing life, and it’s just a great, well-told story, in addition to being full of insight about the lives of writers and the writing process. Brava, Lily...

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Our first virtual Short Story Lunch ‘n’ Learn
Apr01

Our first virtual Short Story Lunch ‘n’ Learn

Today a group of us convened virtually for our first Open Book Productions short story discussion group. Thanks to Stephanie Feldman for leading a great discussion! The subject for discussion was the short story “The Third and Final Continent” by Jhumpa Lahiri, from her collection Interpreter of Maladies. The story is told by an Indian man who comes to the United States in 1969 to work at MIT and who will soon be joined by his wife from his arranged marriage. Prior to her arrival, he rents a room in the home of Mrs. Croft, an elderly woman in Cambridge. One thing that struck me from this discussion is how much depth a talented writer like Lahiri can embed in a short story. We were able to unravel so many themes: the immigrant leaving his homeland and becoming a stranger in a strange place (learning to eat cornflakes instead of rice for breakfast), relationships — with mothers, with new brides — culture, community, family, hope. We were really able to step into the narrator’s life and gain an understanding of what was meant by the title of the story, what the “third and final continent” really was. Was it America? Was it death? Read the story and see! And join us for the next short story Lunch ‘n’ Learn! Details...

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