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 Plymouth Meeting, PA!) 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!
What is Milk Fed, a new novel by Melissa Broder, about? It’s about many things… It’s about individuation. It’s about a Jewish woman in her early twenties trying to manage, no – cope with, no—overcome her relationship with her mother. Her mother is in some ways only superficially interested in Rachel’s life, except when it comes to food, and boy, has her mother given this daughter one giant eating disorder. From the age of six, she was comparing her to other, thinner, girls her age and warning her against the greatest of all possible sins: becoming chubby. As a result, when we meet Rachel, she has a relationship with food that is more about deprivation than it is about enjoyment, and to call her a calorie counter would be a huge understatement. Her therapist (because of course there’s a therapist) recommends detox by means of cutting of communication with her mother. Clearly she desperately needs help coping with this toxic relationship. And meanwhile, she’s living in LA and working in the film business, so she is surrounded by a body-conscious culture where a woman displaying an appetite is a charming anomaly. And then there is the temptress with the frozen yogurt: the zaftig, pure, lovely, orthodox Miriam. And there’s also the golem. You see why I’m overwhelmed? There’s a lot going on here. There’s curvaceous clay figure that Rachel’s therapist encourages her to make and that represents the body Rachel fears and desires and which becomes a stand in for the golem (I offer you the Wikipedia definition: “A golem is an animated anthropomorphic being in Jewish folklore that is created entirely from inanimate matter (usually clay or mud”). And then there’s the real-life full-bodied Miriam, whom Rachel greatly sexually desires. And there are other objects of desire as well: a film star, an office mate. And plenty of detail about what Rachel eats and doesn’t eat (and I’m not just talking about food). All of this is an oversimplification of a complex book; I’m just trying to get at the core of what it is. I think it stands among other significant books by contemporary American Jewish women writers in that it grapples with the particularities of the Jewish mother/daughter relationship (and throw in the golem and a bit of hand-wringing over Israeli politics). It’s also a coming-of-age novel. It’s also a very sexy book, by which I mean it contains a lot of very vividly described sex. And it’s funny. Rachel is a wannabe stand up comic, and you can’t write about that without being funny, which this author is. Wryly observant may be a better way to describe it. I’ve struggled with writing about this book. I admired so much about it, and enjoyed reading much of it, but parts of it made me uncomfortable – for example, her constant and obsessive chronicling of food. But then again, that was the point of the story. But since I haven’t been able to fully articulate my discomfort with the book, I’ll close by linking to a review that I think says it much better than I can or did — see the review in The New York Times HERE. One last comment… given the character’s great interest in breasts and her issues with her mother, it’s a great title....read more
One of the best things a book discussion group can do is help you appreciate aspects of a book that you didn’t understand or enjoy when you read the book on your own. A good book discussion brings a book to light and to life in a way your individual reading didn’t; it enhances and enlarges what you were able to get out of the book on your own. Sometimes a book you didn’t enjoy reading will nonetheless lead to an enlightening discussion, leaving you glad you read the book after all. This is what my Hot Off the Press book discussion class often does for me. After one of our talks, I quiver with new insights, things I wouldn’t have come to on my own. Exploring a book with my literary comrades is so much better than doing it alone. This week we discussed Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles and winner of the 2020 National Book Award for translated literature. And yes, as you may have surmised from my comments above, this was a book that I found difficult to read, not only because of its bleakness, but because of the way it jumps around in time and its many references to history and tradition with which I am unfamiliar. But all of that can be a good and welcome challenge in the right context, i.e. in my book discussion class! This book took us deep into another culture, led on our journey by Kazu, an elderly Japanese man who has had a difficult life. When we meet him, he is homeless and has been living for years in Tokyo’s Ueno Park as part of a large contingent of homeless people. His life has been full of the struggle of the underclass to make a living and feed his family, full of hard labor mixed in with great tragedy (not giving you any plot spoilers!). The book is also a comment on this often-unseen side of Japan, a country which prides itself on its polished and clean exterior. But is this image achieved by hiding the underside? The book offers a look at Japanese culture and history, reflecting on centuries of Japanese tradition as well as on contemporary trauma in the form of the Fukushima nuclear accident brought on by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. But it also offers a strong universality in how it looks at struggle and grief. It is part of what the givers of the National Book Foundation award called a global literature. And if we can turn our gaze around the world and partake of a shared literary experience, we can grow our literary and social horizons. How exciting to think of a global literature which can cross national divisions and achieve some kind of shared understanding and experience. Just like we do with all the various voices and opinions in my book discussion...read more
I like to keep up with current fiction, so here are some notes on a few very new books that I’ve read in the past week or two… [Note: Now that I see these books all together I notice that they all have bright orange-yellow in their cover design. I must be drawn to that color. These books do look good together on the shelf!] SUPERHOST by Kate Russo I chose it because it sounded like a fun plot, the outlines of which are: Bennett, age 55, lives in London, is recently divorced (i.e. dumped unexpectedly by his wife of more than 20 years for being “stuck”), and is an artist who had a reputation but hasn’t sold anything of late. He decides to make a living by decamping to his studio/shed in the backyard and renting out his huge house on AirBed, aka Airbnb. The story follows Bennett as he finds himself and as 3 women guests cycle in and out of his house. They each get a chapter or two, sometimes focusing on their lives and issues and sometimes on how they interact with and influence Bennett, and we also meet his college age daughter and his new girlfriend. It’s a light, easy read which at some points I wasn’t sure why I stuck with but I found Bennett to be very appealing and I did enjoy watching him begin to find his way back to being the person he once wanted to be. The writing is fine (and just that). I didn’t know at first but I later discovered that the author is the daughter of Richard Russo. THIS CLOSE TO OK by Leesa Cross-Smith In this one we are plunged into the drama of the book right away. The protagonist, a 40-something therapist named Tallie, also recently divorced (that’s not why I’m picking the books – it just keeps happening!) is driving across a bridge in the rain (city is at first unnamed, turns out to be Louisville, Kentucky), when she sees a man about to jump and pulls over to try to stop him. She succeeds, so she takes him out to a coffee shop to dry off and see if she can further help him (she’s a helpful type) and then takes him back to her house where he spends the weekend and they spend time getting to know each other and keeping secrets from each other. They’re both very appealing characters with compelling backstories, and it’s enjoyable to see how the author spools this story out. Tallie and the guy (we’ll call him Emmett) spend a lot of time sitting around the house talking, and it’s not easy to tell that story and make it interesting, but she does. And of course she weaves in the backstory pieces (sometimes too long and a little intrusive) and brings in other characters (Tallie’s ex and family, a neighbor), and they do some things: go for a walk, go shopping, cook, play cards, attend a party… and then some more. I liked this one – also a quick read, insightful and enjoyable. I recommend! MILK FED by Melissa Broder Starting this one next! A woman is told by her therapist that she needs time off from her mother. Funny concept! In the meantime, check out...read more
Maggie O’Farrell says she first read Hamlet in high school (she didn’t call it high school, as she was in the UK, but I’m translating!). Since then, she has been very taken with the play, even dressing up as Hamlet for a costume party, carrying around a skull, of course. Later in her studies, she learned that Shakespeare and his wife had a son named Hamnet who died at age eleven in the black plague. She says several things were very interesting to her about this: History books, she says, make it seem like losing a child in those days wasn’t a big deal because of the general high child mortality rate. She wasn’t buying that.Very little is known about Shakespeare’s life, even though he left behind such a great body of work. His wife, typically called Anne Hathaway, is often presented as an older woman who trapped him into marriage and whom he did not love. O’Farrell disputes that. Shakespeare was 18 when he married her, btw, and she was 26. She says all the time Shakespeare was in London he sent most of his money back to his family in Stratford and when he retired he moved back there to live with his wife, so she sees those facts as disputing the belief that he did not care for her. Also her name, legal records show, was Agnes, not Anne.She credits an article by scholar James Shapiro for pointing out that in those days the names Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable. And that therefore the fact that Shakespeare wrote a play called Hamlet four years after his son died is, as she puts it, “not nothing.” Now that I’ve given you some background, I will say: this book is a master work. Not that that is my judgment only; it has already won numerous accolades in 2020. O’Farrell is in total control of this story, spooling it out at a slow pace and getting us deeply inside the emotional heart of the story. And although you might think, as I did, that this book is mostly an historical story, a retelling/reimagining of the story of Shakespeare and his wife, which is what I expected, it is not that. This is a story of grief and of a woman losing a son. It is heartbreaking beautiful. In my canon of contemporary literary fiction that is sure to have long-lasting value, this book belongs there. A must read. Also interesting to see how this book was published in other countries. Here is the original UK cover: And here is the Canadian cover. In Canada, interestingly, the book had a different title, calling it after Hamnet and also his twin sister, Judith, an intergral part of the...read more
A goal of mine at this time in my life (living through lockdown, post-divorce) is to read as much as I can. I want to read new books and be up-to-date, and I want to go back and fill in gaps in my reading. And so here is a gap I must admit: as a child, I never read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In fact, there are a good many gaps in the category of classic children’s lit in my reading past, but this one seemed very glaring and so, a few days ago, I grabbed a copy from the shelves at my B&N, bought it, brought it home, and read it overnight (one benefit of reading children’s lit as an adult – it’s quick!) I have at last become acquainted with Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, and I have been with them on their travels through the back of the wardrobe and into Narnia, at least I have accompanied them on their first journey to this foreign land; I know they have other forays there, but this will be the end of the line for me. And here is a downside of reading children’s lit as an adult – one might not be quite as entranced by it as one might have been in one’s younger and more easily-pleased years. It was sweet, and I liked the charm of the writing, the way the narrator made himself known now and then (an interesting writerly technique – take note!). And now I have seen a bit of Narnia, met Aslan the kind and all-powerful lion, and encountered the White Witch. All good. Well, except it is my understanding from what I know of the author C.S. Lewis that this book is actually heavily symbolic with Christian theology. Even I can see that, given that Aslan is killed by sacrifice on the stone table and then resurrected, that he might just be a stand-in for some other popular fellow from another book. And so, a little research is required as a follow up to my reading… ok, yes, Aslan is a Christ figure, and the Witch represents Satan and the story represents a Christian’s journey and so much more, but as generations of kids already know, it’s possible to enjoy it simply as an engaging fantasy story. The day after I read the book, I talked to Deb and Theresa, two regulars at Barnes & Noble Wilmington who show up most mornings for literary conversation. I barged into their chat and announced that I had at long last read the Narnia book. “What did you think?” they asked. “Eh,” I replied. They agreed and promptly recommended another young reader book, The Bookwanderers by Anna James. As soon as I learned that is a book that takes place in a bookstore and is about characters who interact with fictional characters and can wander in and out of books, I was sold! In The Bookwanderers, I found what so many of the best middle grade books can offer: sophisticated, complex, and compelling plot. It was a terrific read. Kudos to Anna James for her intricate plot and for working out so well how the complicated logic of book wandering actually works, and for creating the fictional supporting mechanism for...read more