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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.

Sitting at Emily’s Desk

May 7, 2020

Martha Ackmann taught a seminar on Emily Dickinson for nearly two decades at Mt. Holyoke College. The seminar took place in the poet’s home, The Homestead, located in near the college in Amherst, Massachusetts. As Ackmann describes it, the class took place on the 2nd floor of the house in a bedroom across the hall from Emily’s own bedroom, around a smallish table that could only accommodate ten students at a time. What an experience to study the poet’s work in the place where she wrote it! And not only that, they had the run of the house during the class, while the house was closed to visitors. Ackmann says the class was easy to to teach: “The walls did everything.” She describes teaching one particular poem – “There’s a certain Slant of light” – and timing it to have the students read it on a November day when she knew the angle of light in the poet’s bedroom would be as she described it in the poem. Ackmann is very familiar with The Homestead, having taught there for 20 years and having lived in the area for 40. She talked about her experience when she joined us on the evening of May 6 for a talk about her new book, These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson.  She told a story about how she was there when they were renovating Dickinson’s bedroom and, when they removed the molding around a door, they discovered layers of wallpaper underneath. Experts were called in and they got down to the oldest layer and dated it around 1880, during Dickinson’s final years. They then replicated the pattern and repapered the room. Amazing, isn’t it? That wallpaper is the design used on the cover of Ackmann’s book and it can also be seen in the photo above. She told us how the previous wallpaper was more monochromatic, which went along with the myth that Dickinson was sterile and austere. The walls are now much more vibrant and reflect the poet’s energy! These Fevered Days tells, in ten chapters, of ten pivotal days in the life of Emily Dickinson. Ackmann told attendees at our event about how she asked friends and Dickinson scholars what their top ten moments would be, and then chose her own, including a day in Dickinson’s youth when she wrote that “all things are ready,” the time in her 20s when she decided she wanted to be distinguished in her life, and all the way through to the day of her death. Ackmann worked hard and did tremendous research to make the town and the world around Dickinson come alive in her storytelling, from the weather to the sights and sounds of Amherst in the poet’s time. When Dickinson returned from a trip to Cambridge to treat eye trouble, she went to the attic of her house to read Shakespeare aloud. To tell this story, Ackmann got permission to go to the attic of The Homestead and there she too read Shakespeare aloud so she could hear how it sounded in that space. And, while writing, she put a card table in Dickinson’s room so she could watch the light and see the view from the windows under different conditions. Ackmann mentioned how Hemingway spoke...

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Hermione is their hero

May 4, 2020

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

May 1, 2020

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 who knew her mother best, Norah is best positioned to revaluate her life, with its successes and its terrible pain. She is also, simultaneously, by embarking on this quest (which is set off by the inquiries from a graduate student who is writing about her mother), going to learn more about herself than she knew she had to learn. Enright’s control of this story is masterful, and her writing is beautiful. And really, there is nothing like a good Irish novel to turn you inside out and make you see things in a new way. Enright writes that: “Our love has always carried its freight of dread,” and such is...

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American Dirt

April 9, 2020

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 and by Oprah. A number of writers wrote to Oprah asking her to withdraw her selection, and Carlos was a supporter of that letter. (Oprah responded by convening some group conversations, which I have not seen but which are written about HERE.) I don’t want to misquote Carlos, but I think it would be accurate to sum up some of this thoughts as follows: the desire to have Mexican writers represent themselves, for publishers to be more inclusive and offer more opportunities to writers of color, and the desire not to have his people portrayed in stereotype. It is true that one might come away from American Dirt believing that...

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The Yellow Wallpaper

April 6, 2020

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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