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!
You’re not gonna believe it but I’m actually recommending a book that has a happy ending. I promise I’m not giving anything away by saying that, but this is far from the doom and gloom kind of book I often read. When you’re looking for a perfect summer read – which you likely are right now! — this is what I’m going to direct you to. I actually had a student come into the store the other day and ask me to recommend coming-of-age stories. The teacher had told the kids that’s what they had to read this summer but didn’t give them any more direction than that. I wound up selling him TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which I think is a great choice, and I wouldn’t recommend MARY JANE to a middle schooler. But for you, it’s perfect! It’s set in 1975, features interesting characters, such as the buttoned-up straightlaced mom vs. the cool, hippie neighbors, has celebrities, lots of music, good food, and much fun! A 14 year old girl gets a new babysitting job which leads her in all kinds of unexpected directions. Happy...read more
Morningside Heights had several things that made me choose to read it. First of all, it’s about an English professor, and I love books that are set in academia, particularly about English professors (a profession I was partway to pursuing until I decided to stay in book publishing). Secondly, it takes place at Columbia University, which is where I did my graduate studies. I immediately liked the book’s tone and pace. It begins by introducing us to one of the main characters, Pru Steiner, and, since we will be most interested in Pru once she herself gets to Columbia, it does a rushed recap of the early years of her life, telling us only what we need to know, and I liked the way the author did this. The book opens: “Growing up in Bexley, in the suburbs of Columbus, Pru had been drawn…” so we’re already on the move in the opening sentence. Later I would come to dislike this approach, however. When we are introduced to the character of Arlo, we are given his backstory in one big rushed chapter, which felt more telling than showing to me. In fact, since Arlo is important (he is the English professor’s son by his first marriage), he has recurring chapters of his own, and they are all presented in this telling rather than showing way. The crux of the story, which you learn early on, is this: Pru meets and falls for Spence, a rising young star in Columbia’s English department. They marry and have a daughter and are very happy, until Spence is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in his late 50s. Pru has aspirations of her own, first to be an actor, then to be an academic, but she drops all this when she marries Spence and gets what was then commonly called her MRS degree. Is she happy about this choice? Maybe. Does she wish she had fulfilling work of her own? Yes. So when Spence quickly gets sick and Pru hires a caregiver, the story turns back toward her again, and we (at least I) are led to believe that it’s Pru’s turn now, that she is going to figure out who she is outside of her marriage. And what does the author immediately have her do? Meet another man and start dating on the sly (no judging here about whether or not she is entitled to date since her husband is mentally gone from her, just recounting the plot and the judgements of the characters). Ok, Joshua Henkin, I waded through the Arlo chapters hoping I would get back to what I felt was the heart of the story, and then you did this, and you lost me. That is what you are going to have this woman do? Find another man? I thought you were going to finally open the world back up for her, let her use her brain and her talents. (In fact there was one part during Spence’s decline that he couldn’t write a book he had contracted for and, for a brief moment, I thought: oh cool, she’s going to write the book for him! But she didn’t. She just returned the advance.) None of the characters in this book is drawn in great depth, but this is where I...read more
David Szalay is a writer about whom I had heard good things, particularly about his novel All That Man Is, which was nominated for a Booker Prize. I happened to have an advance reader copy of his novel Turbulence, which I must have been holding onto for a while because it was published in July 2019. It’s very short, 145 pages, so I was able to read it in a night. The story opens with a woman standing at the window of a man’s apartment, looking down at the leafless trees of his street on Notting Hill in London. The man, it turns out, is her 50-something year old son, who has just come home from the hospital, where he was being treated for prostate cancer. His case is serious, and for the past month, his mother, who lives in Spain, has been staying at his apartment while he was in the hospital. Now that he is home, he seems eager to book a flight for her to go home. Airplane flights are what connect the chapters of this book, and the turbulence of the title is both literal, as in what the passengers experience sometimes on the plane, and literal, as in the shake-ups in their lives. Each chapter is titled with two abbreviations for the airports to and from which the featured character is traveling, hence chapter one is called LGW-MAD, as the mother is traveling from London Gatwick to Madrid. I had fun trying to guess which cities were featured as I came to each new chapter title. In the book, we cover much of the world, from MAD to DSS to GRU to YYZ and so on. The author fills you in, but it’s fun to try and guess at first. The book is a sort of game of dominoes, with one character setting off another’s story. As a character from each chapter travels to their next destination, they meet someone along the way, and that person carries the story into the subsquent chapter, leaving the first person behind. And so the woman whose son is ill meets a man on the plane ride home, and the next chapter is his, and the one after that features someone who intersected with that man’s life, and so on through this short book. In the end… well, I won’t say, but we are certainly led to see that the randomness of life may not be so random after all. The moments we witness in the lives of the characters we meet are short and dramatic; each chapter could exist on its own as a short story. There is no real linear thread in this book. Instead, it is episodic, pearls in a necklace. Apparently his Booker-nominated book, All That Man Is, is structured similarly. The author himself says that book, however, is not “a collection of smaller works that just happen to be packaged together in one volume.” He says it is a “unified thing,” as is this book. These characters, who are very loosely connected to each other, all happen to be experiencing some kind of turbulence in their lives, a turbulence from which we cannot know whether or not they will recover. It’s an interesting structure and concept, and well done. As we all know,...read more
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