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 book recommendations at Barnes & Noble (we especially recommend Lynn’s store in Philadelphia!) or at your nearest indie bookstore. Wherever you choose to shop, we ask that you please support a bricks & mortar bookstore. They need your support! Shop local!
Hernan Diaz gave a talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia last night (5/8/23). It was an extra-special event because, the previous afternoon, Diaz was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his latest novel, Trust. Luckily for you, Trust has just been released in paperback (and I know where you can get a copy!). I’ve been a huge fan of the book since it was first published in hardcover in May of 2022. Trust has an innovative approach, a story told in four parts, each written in a different format: one a memoir, one a novel-within-a-novel, one more straightforward storytelling, and one in the form of journal entries. Taken all together, it plays cleverly with your point-of-view and the reader watches the story change with each telling. Diaz himself says the book is about money, something he says he see very little being written about in the American canon. (Diaz, btw, was born in Argentina and English is his second language. It is my first language, and would I could use it as fluidly and elegantly as he does!). He says he sees plenty of books about rich people, from Edith Wharton and Henry James through F. Scott Fitzgerald and right on through to Bret Easton Ellis. But the making of the money, he says, is not in the stories. The money is already a given as a presence in the story. We see how it affects people, but not how it came to be in the first place. So much for the rags-to-riches mythos. So he set out to correct that in Trust, a novel whose multi-layered title has multiple meanings, from the urging to trust the storyteller (should we?), to the meaning as the word is used in the world of finance. It is that world in which the book is set, as we look at the story of a fictional early 20th century financier and his wife. Diaz described the intensive research he did for the novel, reading many books and reading through troves of letters and personal papers of real-life financiers and, more significantly, their wives, whose papers, he said, were rarely catalogued and were recorded by means of how big the collections were, literally, i.e. how much space they took up. A collection could be six feet, for example. And in this research, he found, and then wrote about, what he calls “the evanescent border between the discursive realities of fiction and history.” (see what I mean?) And much of what he found in his research he refers to as “textual shrapnel,” due to its scattered existence. Diaz describes his love of language and writing, something he says he has been doing all of his life, and although Trust is only his second published novel, he claims to have plenty of rejected novels tucked away. “I’m in it for the sentences,” he says of his love of language. He explains further: “Our first piece of technology is the sentence.” I’ve never heard language described like that, but I thrilled to the valuation of a sentence as an essential technological tool with which we carve out our lives. If you haven’t already, you want to read this book. Trust...read more
In my last post, I wrote about how publishers control your first impression of a book with very intentional cover design tropes that signal what sort of book it is. This time, I’d like to write about two recent books for which I think the publishers got it completely wrong. Last year, I read and greatly enjoyed Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. It’s a charming and well-written story about a quirky character named Elizabeth Zott who has a degree in chemistry. It’s the 1950s, and Zott is trying to get the fellow scientists with whom she works to take her seriously as a chemist, instead of relegating her to note-taking and coffee-fetching. The book has charm but also weight, along with a feminist overlay that’s very appealing. Here’s what the cover looks like: What does that cover say to you? To me it says chick lit. It says beach read. It goes out of its way to say: this is a light read. Btw, even The New York Times mentioned this. Their review of the book is entitled: “Beneath Its Pink Cover, ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Offers a Story About Power.” And that review also quotes our B&N CEO, who says: “Aiming the novel at a female readership is “a bit pigeonholing,” said James Daunt, the chief executive of Barnes & Noble. But ultimately, he added, “the book has dominated the cover.” Had Barnes & Noble not chosen this as our book of the year, had I not read good reviews, I would not have chosen to read it. What this cover says to me is: Lynn, don’t pick this up. This is not a book you will enjoy. Why did publisher Knopf get it so wrong? I dunno, but they did. And they are usually so on the mark, especially since they publish so much excellent literary fiction. I hope that when the book eventually comes out in paperback, they will have a new cover design. This one is pretty and bright and appealing, but wrong, wrong, wrong. I have had to talk so many customers into buying this book because the cover turns them off. I plead with them: please, disregard the cover! I promise it really is a good book! Another book that I also think is a terrific read is the new book by Cathleen Schine called Künstlers in Paradise. The cover looks like this: What does that say to you? Period costume, bathing beauty on the boardwalk. Maybe old-timey Hollywood? I think that is what they’re going for. And there is a real-life 30s/40s movie star who features in the book. Maybe someone mentioned that theme to the designer and that’s what they glommed onto. But, while that plot thread is significant, it’s not what the book is about. Yes, it’s about LA and beaches and sunshine. But it’s about being an exile in a strange land, about history, about family relationships, about the Holocaust and about the COVID pandemic. This cover does not say any of that. To my mind, it’s an unfortunate choice. I picked up the book because I know of the author and like her work. If I were just judging by the cover (which, we’ve all agreed by now, we all do), I would have passed it by. And...read more
My customers sometimes get sheepish when they admit they’re choosing a book because they like how it looks. “I know you can’t judge a book by its cover…” they say, trailing off in embarrassment. I immediately reassure them. “Oh yes, you can,” I reply. You can tell quite a lot about a book by its cover. And that’s intentional. Publishers have developed certain design conventions for different sorts of books. These design styles indicate to the reader what kind of book it is. The reader might not even be aware of this. They may simply see a book and think: that looks like the kind of book I like. Here are some examples. Years ago I used to get upset as I saw more and more books being published with pictures on the front of women in period costume with their backs to the viewer. “Don’t these women deserve to have a face?” I complained. But the style stuck, and soon it came to represent an entire genre: historical fiction. (Or maybe, specifically, historical women’s fiction.) Go take a look in your neighborhood bookstore at the table of historical fiction. Every book will look like this: You don’t even have to think about it; these books signal. You don’t have to waste time and read the back cover copy. If you like one, you’ll like them all. Step right this way, historical fiction reader. These books are for you. Self-help is another genre that has a very specific style. The title is usually in a blocky san-serif font (san-serif is without the little tails and decorations that appear on a serif font. Think Arial vs. Times Roman.) This big title will usually be on a solid color background with no or very little art. It is trying to look authoritative and reliable. We don’t mess around, it says. We get right to the point and we’re here to help you. Other genres have their particular styles as well, although they may not be as straightforward. I can always tell literary fiction, for example (which is what I prefer to read). It looks artsy. Mystery/thrillers tend to resemble each other as well, often with that blocky type, but in a vivid color, and often with a dark background, like this: Of course you’re going to judge a book by how it’s written, how much it helps you, and how much you like it. But judging by the cover is step one, so don’t be ashamed to jump to conclusions based on what you see on the front of a...read more
If you have read My Body, please message me and let’s set up a Zoom conversation, because this is a book I really feel like I need to talk through with other women. But in the absence of that conversation, for the moment, I’m going to try to muddle through some of the ideas Emily Ratajkowski brings up (I’m going to refer to her below as EmRata, which is what she goes by on Instagram). In this collection of essays about women’s bodies with a focus on her own body, EmRata explains that her mother was a beautiful woman who taught her that what is important, above all, is being beautiful. And EmRata is beautiful, with a small, slender, sexy body. As one fashion industry person says to her: “you’re like Kate Moss, but with big boobs.” Even though she is short for a fashion model (5’5”), EmRata has become a very successful model, a position she worked hard to attain. And this is, of course, a profession that is all about how you look. Cue Billy Crystal saying “it’s not how you feel, it’s how you look,” and, in this case, it’s completely true. What is a world like in which women are judged by their looks? What it is like to be a woman who chooses a life in which she will be judged by her looks? And what does it mean that the world, in large part, judges women by how they look, and that the prevalent and all-powerful male gaze represents the panel of judges? This book addresses all of those questions. I’m not a fashion model, but I identified with many of the cirrcumstances described by Emrata. My mother didn’t tout beauty as the all-important quality, but it’s not like she de-emphasized it. I was frequently subjected to her once-over before going out, and was sometimes the recipient of the comment “you’re going out in that?” or “why don’t you put on a little lipstick?” In her world, and hence in mine, it matters how you look. Because of that, I, like EmRata, care, and have always cared, how I look and not just that, but I care about what people, even complete strangers, think of how I look. When I describe it that way, it almost sounds like some sort of disease. Perhaps it is. (Let’s give it a name. How about insecurity?) How I look is a crucial element of the impression I make, and I want to have a say in that impression. Who am I going to see today, I’ll think while getting dressed, and what sort of impression do I want to make on that person? I’m reminded of a line I heard in a song recently: how do I know my first impression is really mine? When I heard it, I thought: that’s just a cute throwaway line. But on further reflection, it actually isn’t. Your first impression of me, of Emrata, of many other (dare I say beautiful) women, is not yours – we crafted it. And we spend way too much time and energy on it. The book isn’t just a well-written reflection on what it’s like to live subject to the public and the male gaze. It’s also about the ways in which women are...read more
Here are some books I’ve read recently, just in case you were wondering! Virgil Wander by Leif Enger I pulled this book off the shelf after it sat there neglected for several years, and loved it so much. Such a quirky, thoughtful, multi-layered book. Our hero (what a great name Virgil Wander is!) doesn’t really wander anywhere, in the physical sense, but his experiences in the hard luck Minnesota town of Greenstone, located on the shore of Lake Superior (should be called a sea, not a lake, one fisherman said) are charming and insightful. And also weird and strange and with the magical quality of a fable. A friend told me today about her visit to Crete and when she went to the beach by the place in the sea where Icarus fell to his death. That has the same sense to me — a magical place where myths come to life. I could imagine myself standing by those waters and shouting: Icarus, why didn’t you listen to your father? And I could easily imagine myself in Greenstone watching an old movie at Virgil’s theater, or flying a kite with Rune, or surfing with Bjorn… Visit with Virgil Wander (Virgil, our Greek guide through the story) and enjoy the journey. This book was Enger’s first novel in ten years, after his bestselling book Peace Like a River. Here We Are by Graham Swift Swift is a wonderful British writer. His book Last Orders won the Booker Prize. I read a book of his called Mothering Sunday, which I adored and which tells the story of a woman’s life and how she came to be a writer because of something that happened to her on a day long ago. Here We Are has much the same shape as Mothering Sunday in that it is a brief book that meanders around in time. It tells the stories of three main characters and how their lives came together and, in one case, apart. It goes back in time to their beginnings in another era, but is placed in the present where one of the characters is recollecting all of this. Read it and determine for yourself whose story it is. Is it about Ronnie the magician and why he disappeared, or about Evie his assistant and how she made a life for herself, our about Jack, who brought them all together and made the show happen? In my opinion, this is very much Evie’s story. One beautiful scene has Evie walking into a garden and, when the light shines just so, it illuminates the cobwebs connecting everything. So it is with magic, where there are hidden connections, and so it is with life. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami Murakami is a gap in my reading, and I decided it was time to read one of his books – so many people I know like and admire his work. A customer recommended this book, and I took her suggestion. It’s a popular one, and I’ve had it recommended previously, so I bought a copy @bnplymouthmtg and dove in. “I was thirty-seven then…” the book begins, letting us know this will be a recollected story. The character, whose name we later learn is Toru, hears a recording of the song “Norwegian Wood” and is...read more