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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.

Tell Me What You Really Think

February 12, 2014

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...

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Lauren Grodstein’s Explanation for Everything

February 1, 2014

Local Philadelphia author Lauren Grodstein is out and about doing readings from her compelling new novel, The Explanation for Everything. You may have heard of Grodstein from the excellent press she received for her last novel, A Friend of the Family, and her new book is sure to be well-received as well. Lauren teaches creative writing at Rutgers University Camden and (I love when I can say this part) is an all-around lovely, friendly, funny person. Learn more about her work...

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Life After Life After Life After Life…

January 31, 2014

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is a book I admired more than I enjoyed. I’ve always meant to read Atkinson, and have friends who have highly recommended her earlier crime stories Case Histories and Started Early, Took My Dog. When this new book came out, reviews seemed to indicate it was a departure in style for her, as well as something of a literary tour de force, so I decided to begin at the end, as it were, with her most recent book. Life After Life is the story of…well, that’s hard to say. It’s the story of Ursula, born outside London in 1910 on a very snowy day. The plot tracks the path of Ursula, some of her family members, friends, and acquaintances, as they wend their way through two World Wars. That path, however, is far from straight. This is a book that plays with timelines in a major way. Plot lines start and then stop, wind their way back to their starting point and begin again. Stories repeat with multiple endings. Characters live or die, survive or don’t; each character’s outcome changes in the story’s telling. Atkinson’s literary feat is impressive. One pictures her in her study with a huge collection of Post-its hovering overhead to help her keep track of plot strands. Being the puppet mistress pulling these strings was no easy feat. The concept itself is imaginative and original; the execution is excellent. When I say I admired the book more than I enjoyed it, what I mean is that, while reading it, I appreciated its literary acrobatics, but that kept me at a distance. While many of the characters, Ursula included, where quite likeable, compelling or entertaining, they did not so much draw me in as keep me watching from afar. Nonetheless, I think the book well deserves the accolades it has received and I recommend it for readers of serious and well-written literary fiction. I do plan to include it in my one of my Open Book discussion classes this spring as well, so check the events page for more...

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A Reliable Wife: An Unreliable Read

January 8, 2014

I had a funny conversation while out with a few girlfriends the other night. “Do you ever read books just for fun, beach read kinds of books?” one of them asked me. “No,” I replied, explaining that I just really like good writing, and fluffy books don’t engage me. I’m a literary snob, I know. You won’t, therefore, generally find me reading bestsellers, but now and then I do try to read a book that I hear the people who take my classes talking about. If it’s good upscale commercial fiction, I’ll give it a try. What do I put in this category? The Help, for example. Well-written, good story. I liked it. There are other books I want to read that, from what I hear, I suspect fall into this category, books such as Sarah’s Key or Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. They’re on my list. Another book I had heard about in this way is A Reliable Wife. So when I professed my literary snobbiness to my friends and they asked me what I was reading, I told them I had just started this book. Little did I know that A Reliable Wife would turn out to be merely wearing the cloak of literary fiction, but that underneath lay the heaving bosom of a bodice-ripper Yes, it’s reasonably well-written, although the faux-Victorian third person voice is often stiff and awkward. Yes, he draws vivid characters and creates a strong portrait of the landscape in which the story takes place, the frozen winter world of northern Wisconsin. But really, the book is about sex. Who’s having it, who’s not having it, and a main character who pretty much thinks about it non-stop. The only difference is, unlike the more traditional romance-novel plot, in this book the rape scene takes place at the end of the book. I did a quick scan of some reviews to see how I became so misled about this book. Here are two reviews I found: “A tantalizing pace that will have you flipping faster and faster through the pages… A beautiful and haunting read, a story about all the different manifestations of love—a story that will stay with you.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune “Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife is my must-read recommendation… This engrossing and addictive novel will leave you both chilled and satisfied.” —Chris Livingston, Summer’s Best reads on NPR’s Morning Edition Well, I really don’t agree with those critics, it turns out. But wait, here’s what The Washington Post has to say:”A Reliable Wife,” isn’t just hot, it’s in heat: a gothic tale of such smoldering desire it should be read in a cold shower. This is a bodice ripper of a hundred thousand pearly buttons, ripped off one at a time with agonizing restraint. It works only because Goolrick never cracks a smile, never lets on that he thinks all this overwrought sexual frustration is anything but the most serious incantation of longing and despair ever uttered in the dead of night.” I guess I read the wrong...

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