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.
Mona Simpson’s new novel, Casebook, passes the Bechdel test. Last night, thanks to Tamar Granor in my “Hot Off the Press” book discussion class, I learned about the Bechdel test, which comes from Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out For” Strip. A book or movie passes the Bechdel test if it: Has at least two women in it who Talk to each other and Talk about something other than a man. Bonus points if the female characters have names! Casebook is a story told by Miles Adler-Hart, who is nine at the beginning of the story, and in his early twenties when he is telling the story. Nine-year-old Miles very much wants to be allowed to watch “Survivor,” so he decides to eavesdrop on the conversation his mother Irene (Reen) is having with her good friend Sarah (Sare), to see if they plan to let their sons watch the show. What he learns from this and much subsequent (and complex) eavesdropping is that his parents are planning to get divorced. The book tells the story of the divorce and Reen’s later relationship with another man, Eli, all through Miles’ eyes. Reen and Sare have a very close relationship and rely on each other to get through tough times and thorny issues, and they do occasionally discuss things other than men. Reen also has another friend, Marge, who, like herself, is a brainy mathematician, and they have many conversations about their work; in fact, they wind up working together and winning a major prize. So, Bechdel test? Check! How about the “is it a good book?” test? On that one we’re going to have to go with a “so-so.” Mona Simpson is a terrific writer. I love her language, even if one reader in my class complained that it did not at all sound like it was coming from a teenage boy. I was willing to overlook that because I so admire the way she turns a phrase. Here’s one example: “When we walked in the door that night, my mom looked happy and looser, the way she did around Eli, but our life didn’t feel as pure as it had been last year at this time, the way Christmas wasn’t after you learned it was just your parents, and almost nothing felt as right as at Little League when you were nine and the ball landed hard in your mitt.” In addition to being an excellent writer, Simpson also (and this is completely tangential to the analysis of the story) has a very interesting bio. Her literary credentials are stellar: after getting an undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley and an MFA at Columbia, she went to work for The Paris Review. Her many novels have won many prizes, and her first (and I think most popular), Anywhere But Here, was made into a film with Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman. Her parents divorced when she was young and she was raised by her single mother, losing track of her father. It turned out that her parents had had another child before Mona and before they married, whom they put up for adoption. Mona later found and became close with this elder sibling, who turned out to be Steve Jobs. And Mona’s husband, with whom she had two children and from...read more
Lynn’s been reading lots of books these days. In fact, she’s been gobbling them down so fast she almost can’t remember them! But here’s a quick summary of recent reads. As a member of the implementation committee of the “One Book, One Jewish Community,” in Philadelphia, I’ve been reading many books with Jewish themes. I enjoyed a thriller by Charles Belfoure called The Paris Architect. Set in Paris during Nazi occupation, it follows a Christian architect who, against his will, becomes involved in creating hiding places for Jews. It’s very suspenseful in a way that at times reminded me of the anxiety I felt watching the brilliant film “Inglourious Basterds.” Also for the “OBOJC” committee, I’m reading a new novel by Nomi Eve. Henna House, set in Yemen in the 1920s, tells the story of a character named Adela and the passions and trials of her Jewish community. I’m also reading All I Love and Know by Judith Frank about a gay couple in Northampton, MA, whose life is thrown into upheaval when one of the men’s brother and his Israeli wife are killed in a suicide bombing, leaving them to raise their children. For my “Hot Off the Press” class, in which we read brand new literary fiction, I just read Mona Simpson’s new Casebook. It tells the story of a family’s divorce from the point of view of the fourteen-year-old son. He begins spying on his mom to find out if she’s talking to her best friend about them letting their young sons watch “Survivor,” and winds up learning much more than he bargained for. I loved how the authorlooks at love, family and divorce from this point of view. You may know Simpson for her best-known novel, Anywhere But Here, about a mother/daughter road trip. There’s ever so much more on my summer reading list, including a few classics, some Young Adult books (have not yet read The Book Thief!), a new novel called Perfect by Rachel Joyce, who first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I really enjoyed, and some non-fiction about authors: The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia...read more
I’ll share this statement from the National Book Foundation: Maya Angelou (1928-2014), Recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013 We join the world in mourning the death of Dr. Maya Angelou, recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community in 2013. Writer, performer, and political activist, Dr. Angelou died Tuesday after a long illness at her home in Winston Salem, N.C. She was 86. Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation says, “We share the gratitude of so many for Dr. Angelou’s contributions to literature, human rights, and social justice. Her legacy is one that all writers and readers across the world can admire and aspire to.” In her acceptance speech at the 2013 National Book Awards Ceremony, Dr. Angelou said, “For over 40 years, imagine it, I have tried to tell the truth as I understand it.” Watch Maya Angelou’s acceptance speech: http://vimeo.com/80091024 More on Maya Angelou and her 2013 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community: http://www.nationalbook.org/literarian.html#ma...read more
Richard Powers’ new novel, Orfeo, is a story of a composer in his 70s who, throughout the course of the book, recalls key moments in his life. The book is filled with detailed descriptions of the music he listens to along the way. It’s a book that begs for a soundtrack and, in fact, it turns out that several industrious readers have created Orfeo playlists that can be downloaded and appreciated along with this brainy well-written book. As far as ancillary materials for the newest novel from the youthfully prolific Helen Oyeyemi, I would like to request that someone create an accompanying anthology of the wide range of folklore, mythology, and other literary sources drawn on by the author to build her fantastical tale Boy, Snow, Bird. The main frame of the book is a modern retelling of Snow White. She’s dispensed with the dwarfs and the poison apple, but step-mothers and other recognizable tropes abound in the story of a girl named Boy who grows up to become step-mother to a girl named Snow, and then who gives birth to another girl named Bird. Along the way, the reader will find a witch with a snake for a heart, a mysterious shadow girl with bloody hands, references and allusions to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, poetry by Christina Rossetti, the Greek Fury Alecto, and much more. The book, as it examines questions of identity and appearance versus reality, also weaves in a powerful look at racism in our society and at the status of civil rights in the 1950s and 60s. It also throws in some gender politics at the end, but oh, how I wish she hadn’t gone there. But, no spoiler am I. Grab yourself a copy of Boy, Snow, Bird and take the magically real journey...read more
Helen Oyeyemi, author of the new novel Boy, Snow Bird, gave a reading last week at the Free Library of Philadelphia. She is bright, charming, and upbeat, and here’s one thing she said that really stayed with me: “I don’t have a sense of a single culture. I’m just basically made up of books and pieces I read.” How I love that! I feel the same way. Do...read more