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.
In a review in The New York Times of a new book by novelist Richard Powers, critic Jim Holt asked: Is it premature to talk of the “Powers Problem”? He goes on to explain that the novels of Richard Powers, eleven in all, often tend to be called “cerebral.” Powers is clearly an intellectual, and he writes about weighty, complicated subjects such as genetics, artificial intelligence, and game theory. His latest book, the recently-published Orfeo, tells the story of Peter Els, a retired composer in his 70s who returns to his love of chemistry, builds an in-home lab, and begins manipulating the DNA of bacteria. His lofty goal: to implant music into the cells. However, when he is accidentally discovered by law enforcement, they view his experiments as a terror threat, sending Els on the run. The book contains complicated, lengthy passages that use highly-technical language to explain details of how both chemistry and music work. Hearing this, does it make you run for cover? Or does it intrigue you and make you want to read the book? I like intellectual novels. I like to be challenged while I’m reading. After reading early reviews of this book and seeing that the critics seemed to think that Powers provided excellent storytelling that was not overwhelmed by too-heavy technical or scientific detail, I decided to read the book, and I loved it. I was moved by the story of Peter Els, and found him to be a very real, flawed character with a touching story, whose motivations I could understand. I selected the book for my “Hot Off the Press” class to read. In this class, a group of passionate readers gather, under my guidance, to discuss works of recently-published literary fiction. I looked forward to our discussion of Orfeo. I was moved by the book; I cried upon reading the final pages, something I rarely do these days with a book. I was surprised to find my class had a very different reaction. They were not happy. They did not enjoy the detailed musical and scientific passages. They are smart people and smart readers, yet they felt overwhelmed, put off. One likened reading the book with its descriptions of avant garde music to an unpleasant experience she had had attending a concert of John Cage’s music. Another asked with irritation: “Who is he writing for?” It’s a valid question. If the smart and engaged readers in my class can’t wade through this material, who can? Do you need a degree in science or music to read this book? Why does the author put so much detail in that he has to know most of his readers will not understand? Does this in any way enhance the book? I didn’t understand everything I was reading. I confess to skimming some of the technically descriptive material. But not much of it – I really did try to read it, and I tried to understand it as best as I could. I learned some things, and, especially in the parts about music, what I most learned is how much I don’t know. Reading the author’s words describing how his character, the composer Peter Els, listens to music, describing what he hears when he listens, describing what he thinks about when he composes music,...read more
When that small trim-sized book we now call “mass market” was first created, it was called a pocket book, and it was meant to literally fit in one’s pocket. Pocket Books publishers published the first books of this size in America in 1939. The company was acquired by Simon & Schuster, who owns it still, in 1966. There was a fashion designer in the second half of the 20th century who designed dresses with specific pockets for books (Darn, I can’t remember or find her name! Does anyone know? …[Two minutes later…] I just remembered! It was Pauline Trigère. I am so impressed with myself. My confidence in my memory is restored!) Anyway… Pauline Trigère thought books important enough to make a place for them in haute couture. Once, when I led a book class for a group of lower income women, women with very challenging lives, many of them single moms, I remember one mother telling me how she kept a book in her pocket while she cooked dinner. When things were simmering on the stove, she’d slip the book out and slip in a few moments of reading time. That really stayed with me, that image of someone to whom books mattered so much that she went to some effort to create reading time. Take that, you many folks who tell me you’re too busy to read! But I digress… my point is, books are in fashion, literally. And just last week, at London Fashion Week, it happened again. Designer Christopher Kane has taken a page from the book of fashion and integrated it into his lovely Bookleaf dress. It probably costs a bit more than a paperback, but that’s the cost of...read more
A few days ago I wrote about my challenges writing book reviews, about how I shy away from criticizing a book in a written review. In exploring whether or not it’s wrong or inappropriate to write negative reviews, I referred to what some other writers recently had to say about this in the New York Times, and I determined, along with writer Francine Prose and others, that it’s important to be honest and ok to be critical. So I’m going to just plunge right in here: Ann Hood’s recent novel The Obituary Writer was a great disappointment. I discovered the writer Ann Hood in college, when I wrote about several of her novels in a paper about how feminist politics manifested itself in the fiction of various contemporary women novelists (there were other, stronger, entries as well in the paper: Margaret Atwood and Marge Piercy for example). I greatly enjoyed her work at that time, but then it began to feel too fluffy to me, and a bit off (an icky father/daughter relationship), so she disappeared from my radar for a while. In 2002, a truly tragic thing happened to Hood when her five year old daughter died of an antibiotic-resistant strain of strep. One can only dimly imagine the pain of such a thing. In 2008, Hood published a memoir about this experience. The book, called Comfort, was well-reviewed and chosen as a book of the year by the New York Times. I could not bring myself to read it. Since then, Hood has published several more books, and I eagerly returned to reading her work with her newest novel, The Obituary Writer. The book interweaves the stories of two women, Claire, a 1960s housewife in an unsatisfactory marriage, and the titular obituary writer, Vivien, who lives in Napa Valley in 1919 and still mourns the loss of her lover in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.Eventually the reader will discover how these two women are connected. Vivien came to her vocation by accident and has turned writing obituaries into an art form. Her home welcomes a steady stream of the grieving who long for Vivien to hear their stories of loss and memorialize their loved ones in writing. Vivien understands their grief, as she herself is still in mourning. Nonetheless, I found it odd that an obituary writer should be such a local celebrity, and that the first thought of those experiencing the loss of a loved one would be to rush off to Vivien’s home to tell their story. Claire, meanwhile, is ensconced in 1961, just as JFK is about to take office, and the descriptions of her life read like a lesson in brand marketing. Every product, appliance, or other item associated with this period in suburban life has a cameo, and we are treated to frequent scenes of pregnant Claire smoking, swilling scotch, and idolizing Jackie Kennedy. I’m not sure which came first, this book or “Mad Men,” but in the TV version of the early 60s we appreciate the verisimilitude; here it reads like stereotype. The author is relying on her scene-setting to give the story depth, while she leaves her characters flat and superficial. There are also a number of children who die in this book, from the neighborhood boy who is kidnapped...read more
Ah…. Just finally sitting down after a busy morning on my feet doing what I love best: talking about books! This morning I gave one of my talks where I preview forthcoming books. I include a PowerPoint presentation and discuss books that will be published by various publishers in the next 1-5 months. I review different categories of books; for today’s audience at Keneseth Israel I spoke about adult fiction and non-fiction, including memoir, business books, cookbooks, and books by local authors. I also brought along the Open Book pop up mobile bookstore, so I had books for sale right on the spot! I love my portable bookstore and being able to turn people on to new authors. Today one reader was introduced to Ann Patchett for the first time, and walked away with a copy of Bel Canto. She’s lucky—she has a great reading experience ahead of her. I introduced another reader to Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn—what a terrific novel! And best was the eight year old girl who successfully persuaded Daddy to buy her The Big Book of Girl Stuff. She was so happy! When Daddy told her that he spent the ice cream money on the book, she didn’t even care! There are a number of new and forthcoming books that I talked about today which I’m really looking forward to reading. Here are just a few: Orfeo by Richard Powers: In a review in the New York Times, critic Jim Holt asked: Is it premature to talk of the “Powers Problem”? The potential “Powers Problem” Holt describes is that Powers, who has written 11 books, is cerebral, intellectual. He writes about weighty complicated subjects such as genetics, artificial intelligence, and game theory. I like cerebral writers, but, like this critic, I want a book that also has heart, that has fully fleshed characters. The story underpinning Orfeo is: Retired 70 year old composer Peter Els has an unusual hobby, do-it-yourself genetic engineering. He is trying to implant his theories about music into DNA. When his work is accidentally discovered by government agents, he embarks on a journey that takes the reader through Els’ history and his beliefs about music. I am so far about fifty pages into the book and am finding it very compelling. Yes, it’s intellectual, but I am enjoying the author’s explorations of music, language, and the process of creating art and science. Orfeo will be the first book discussed in my upcoming “Hot Off the Press” class. Another new book I enjoyed is Margot by Jillian Cantor. The premise of this novel is that Anne Frank’s sister Margot did not perish, but managed to survive the war and is now living under an assumed name in Philadelphia, in 1959 when the book takes place. Margie Franklin works as a legal secretary at the firm Rosenstein, Greenberg and Moscowitz. She is posing as a non-Jew, hiding her former identity of Margot Frank, and wearing long-sleeved sweaters, even on the hottest days of summer, to cover the tattoo on her arm. What sets Margie’s neatly constructed post-war world on edge is the release of the film version of her sister’s diary. A book in the food category, coming out next week, sounds really interesting: Lunch: A History. This book (which is apparently part of “The...read more
I just read a book I didn’t much like. I did finish reading it—there are many books I abandon quickly if they do not engage me—so there was enough of interest to me to keep me going until the end to find out what happened to the characters, although I did a lot of skimming. But overall, the book was disappointing. Now what do I do? In this blog, in my classes, and, really, everywhere I go, I talk about books I’ve read and share my thoughts about them, and I have a number of people who take my book recommendations seriously. Yet while I freely share my feelings in conversation, I find it difficult to be critical in print. It’s that old adage pounded into me by my mother: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.” I’ve struggled with this issue before when I got my first (and only!) freelance assignment as a book reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer for a book by which, as it turned out, I was not impressed. I danced around this in the review. When I turned it in, the editor called me up. “Did you like the book?” he asked. “Ah,” I replied with a smile, “I was wondering if you were going to notice that.” He had to coach me through figuring out how to incorporate my negative opinion into the piece. After all, people read reviews to find out if the reviewer liked the book or not, right? For the last few days, I’ve been struggling with how to write about this book I just read. I have committed to writing about what I read in this blog, but I wasn’t sure how to write about this particular book and still be nice. I questioned why I felt the need to be nice. I don’t know this author. And yet I so admire the work authors do; even finishing and publishing a book is a great accomplishment. And I meet so many authors in my work; perhaps I would someday encounter her. I feel it’s my job to be supportive of authors. Interestingly, as I was having this dilemma, The New York Times read my mind. This week’s “Bookends” column in the Sunday Book Review is entitled “Do We Really Need Negative Book Reviews?” In the column, two writers, Francine Prose (I can honestly and comfortably say I like her work!) and Zoe Heller (haven’t read her) each weigh in on the topic. Prose says she used to write negative reviews when she was younger, and she describes how much easier it is to write a witty and entertaining review when you’re tearing the work apart. She said her negative reviews garnered compliments, whereas her positive reviews were not commented upon. But then, she says, she gave it up, like smoking, like a bad habit. With publishing suffering like it is, why create more bad press, she explains. Recently, however, Prose says she’s fallen off the wagon, and she’d doing it again. She feels the need to be a voice when bad writing or bad trends in writing get under her skin. This happens, for example, when she sees “talented writers figuring out they can phone it in,” or “gossip masquerading as biography.” Prose is also...read more