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 recommendations on her page on Bookshop.org.
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
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...read more
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...read more