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Lynn Reads a Book

This blog reflects Lynn Rosen’s comments on books she’s read and on happenings in the world of book publishing. You can purchase Lynn’s recommendations on her page on Bookshop.org.

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

July 9, 2020

Mrs. Dalloway turns out to be a good choice of a book to read during a pandemic. Mrs. Dalloway, as is noted on page 2 of the book, has been ill (“…she was over fifty, and grown very white since her illness.”) She has had “the influenza,” and it has affected her heart. The book takes place in 1923, so it is likely that Mrs. Dalloway became ill during, and survived, the flu pandemic of 1918. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Evan Kindley writes about how the famous first line of the book – “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” – is being repurposed in social media for our current situation, as in “Mrs. Dalloway said she would make the mask herself,” or “Mrs. Dalloway said she would order from @Instacart herself.” (Read more HERE.) Pandemic references or not, Mrs. Dalloway is always a good choice of a book to read, for it never ceases to yield new insights, and Woolf’s prose never fails to astound (and often confound) with its brilliance. In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf gives us so much: her brilliant stream of consciousness writing, a portrait of post-war London in the midst of modernization, and the story of a 52-year-old woman trying to discern meaning in her life, while twinning this with the story of Septimus Warren Smith, a “shell-shocked” WWI veteran on the verge of madness. Clarissa Dalloway has begun the day by purchasing flowers for the fancy party she is hosting that evening, and throughout the course of the one day during which the book takes place, the chain of actions set off by this sunny June day weave their way through London’s streets and in and out of the consciousness of so may of the city’s denizens. I had scheduled a virtual class about the book as part of my Women’s Words series because: how can you teach a program on important writing by women without Woolf? I also scheduled the class as a challenge to myself: can I teach Woolf? Am I, as a teacher, ready to take this on? I think my students will tell you that that I ably guided them through a thoughtful and careful examination of the book. As one of them said the next day: “I think we did justice to Clarissa.” But, knowing Woolf as much and also as little as I do, I’m guessing we missed more than we found. Which means that Mrs. Dalloway will be ripe and ready for my next reading, whenever that may happen to...

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The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

July 4, 2020

The Poet X is a young adult book by Elizabeth Acevedo. I was first alerted to this book by our wonderful local author Laurie Halse Anderson who, before the book was even published, told us: keep an eye out for this book, it’s a big one and important! The book was published in 2018 and has won many awards, including a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and, from the American Library Association (ALA), the 2019 Youth Media Awards/Pura Belpré Award, for a Latina writer who best portrays the Latino experience for children, and the Michael Printz Award for best young adult literature.  It came out in paperback in April of this year. By way of a quick plot description: A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. It is the debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo. (Read more on the author’s website HERE.) It took me a long time to get to the book, but I just finished it, and wow! Actually, I didn’t read the book. I listened to it. I got the audio version of the book from Libro.fm, an audiobook provider that serves independent bookstores (you know that Audible is owned by Amazon, right?). The audiobook also won an award from the ALA. It is read by the author, and I am so glad I got to hear the poetry of the book in her vibrant voice – it added so much to the experience for me, especially the parts in Spanish. It didn’t matter a bit that I didn’t understand those parts – they sound so beautiful in her voice! The whole book is a story about poetry told in poetic form, and it’s one of those examples of young adult books that are equally enjoyable to adults. To be given a look inside this Dominican-American family, and to experience what the main character Xiomara is feeling as she struggles with her mother, who wants her to be more involved with and more loyal to the Catholic Church, and meanwhile Xiomara is burning up inside with her passion for poetry (and an emerging love interest as well). I’m in a writers group with eleven people, and some of the members are poets. For years we’ve been reading their work and those of us who feel less comfortable with poetry have been learning to read it and to understand it, and to appreciate its nuance and its flexibility as a form. Reading this book taught me why and how poetry is so powerful, and how some people just need poetry in order to express themselves. This book is a gift. Please read it! (Want to buy a copy? Visit my “Lynn Reads a Book” online shop on...

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The Book of V by Anna Solomon

July 1, 2020

The Book of Esther is part of the Hebrew Bible. If you are familiar with the tale, then you know all about beautiful Queen Esther, who is chosen by the King in a contest after he banishes his first queen, Vashti. Vashti’s offense was that she refused to appear when the king commanded her to parade before him and his drunken revelers wearing her crown (one presumes he meant only her crown). Esther goes on to save the Jewish people and vanquish the bad guys. It’s a partly-goofy and partly-brutal story that is reenacted every year in the Jewish holiday of Purim, when little girls love to dress up as Queen Esther. If you know this story before you read The Book of V by Anna Solomon, then you have a leg up on Esther’s story as it is retold here in multiple ways and eras, and if you have a feminist slant, then you will already know that generations of feminist readers, going back to Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the 1890s, have asked: what happened to Vashti? Many have lamented the quick disappearance of this queen who stood up for herself. Anna Solomon is out to remedy that. Solomon’s story is in three interwoven parts. She goes back to the time of the original biblical tale for her own retelling and re-envisioning of the story of the Jews in Persia, introduces us to Vivian (Vee) Kent, a senator’s wife in the 1970s, and we also follow Lily Rubenstein, a stay-at-home mom in contemporary Brooklyn. Solomon moves back and forth between the stories masterfully, and the way she weaves in details that tie each piece to the other is just terrific. It’s a beautifully written book and a compelling story, with much fodder for discussion. And that’s all I’m going to give away! (Interested in reading this book? Purchase a copy from my online bookshop...

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The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

June 16, 2020

I just reread Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth for the fourth or fifth time in preparation for a book discussion class about the book in my “Women’s Words” series. As I said to my son before I began reading the book again, each time I start this book I hope that it will turn out to have a different ending. But, as you already guessed, it did not. The beautiful Lily Bart still wends her way through the perils of high society in turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York, still wavers between what she has been trained to do – find a rich husband – and what her heart tells her, and still follows a downward trajectory. Poor Lily! Or maybe not. My class participants didn’t feel a great deal of sympathy for her as they watched her make one after another bad decisions. Did our dear Lily ever have a chance? As she says of herself, she has been trained since birth to be an ornament. What hope does a woman like that have alone in the world if she does not marry? It seems that Lily had no marketable skills.  And that, while her instinct told her she didn’t really want to be married to any of these dull wealthy men, she continued to pursue them – when the book begins Lily is at the ripe old nearly spinster age of 29, and has been pursuing this goal since her coming out in society at age 18 – and yet she isn’t able to bring herself to marry the man she loves, because his income won’t keep her in the style to which she is accustomed. She might become what she and her mother believe to be the worst of sins: dingy. Edith Wharton herself was brought up in the New York society about which she writes. She wrote later that her mother was cold, and not supportive of young Edith’s bookish inclinations. She moved her daughter’s coming out up to have it earlier, hoping Edith would then have less time to read and write.  Wharton’s mother even deprived her daughter of a regular supply of writing paper, hoping that would discourage her.  There seems to be quite a strong tendency in the late 19th century, both in fiction and in real life, to keep women from writing by taking away their implements! Wharton did marry, but she and her husband did not get along very well and never had children, which left the well-off Wharton to launch a writing career, and to befriend other writers, including Henry James, who spoke very favorably of her work. She won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, which was published in 1920. Wharton was a successful and well-regarded writer, and her work, while set solidly in a long-gone era, resonates today due to the strong and insightful way the author has created characters with lasting impact. Lily’s plight tugs on my heart strings every time I read the book and, although I lament her fate, I am ever so glad to have met her time and again in this wonderful...

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What to read in these times

June 5, 2020

The country is in unheaval. The people who take my classes want to know what to read. They want books about anti-racism. I love that their instinct in these upsetting and confusing times is to reach for books. Those of us with an attachment to books use reading to learn about and understand the world. And that is what we need to do now: to learn how to take action to make the world a better place. As my friend, author Susan Barr-Toman says, we don’t want to read about racism – that is passive, sitting on the sidelines reading. We want to read about anti-racism: what we can do, how we can take action, and support the actions of others. The most-requested book at bookstores now is How to be an AntiRacist, by Ibram X. Kendi. If you read ebooks, download it, because stores are selling out fast. And here is a list of Anti-Racism Resources provided to me by the American Booksellers Association, which includes books as well as articles, podcast, videos, TV, and film. Find the list HERE. In addition to books on that list, go back to some literary classics — you may even have them on your shelves already. I just pulled out my Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, and a collection of poetry by Langston Hughes. See if you can find Passing by Nella Larsen and then compare it to Brit Bennett’s new novel about passing, The Vanishing Half. I just pulled another title off my shelf, Your Heart is a Muscle The Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa. It’s not specifically about racism, It’s about protest. The story takes place around a protest in Seattle against the World Trade Organization, which is meeting in the city (this actually happened in 1999). During the afternoon the story takes place, 50,000 people come out to protest, and we meet several of them and follow their stories. It’s a powerful novel about how world events impact our lives on a personal level. We can find people’s stories in books and hopefully come to understand each other...

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