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!

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

June 16, 2020

I just reread Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth for the fourth or fifth time in preparation for a book discussion class about the book in my “Women’s Words” series. As I said to my son before I began reading the book again, each time I start this book I hope that it will turn out to have a different ending. But, as you already guessed, it did not. The beautiful Lily Bart still wends her way through the perils of high society in turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York, still wavers between what she has been trained to do – find a rich husband – and what her heart tells her, and still follows a downward trajectory. Poor Lily! Or maybe not. My class participants didn’t feel a great deal of sympathy for her as they watched her make one after another bad decisions. Did our dear Lily ever have a chance? As she says of herself, she has been trained since birth to be an ornament. What hope does a woman like that have alone in the world if she does not marry? It seems that Lily had no marketable skills.  And that, while her instinct told her she didn’t really want to be married to any of these dull wealthy men, she continued to pursue them – when the book begins Lily is at the ripe old nearly spinster age of 29, and has been pursuing this goal since her coming out in society at age 18 – and yet she isn’t able to bring herself to marry the man she loves, because his income won’t keep her in the style to which she is accustomed. She might become what she and her mother believe to be the worst of sins: dingy. Edith Wharton herself was brought up in the New York society about which she writes. She wrote later that her mother was cold, and not supportive of young Edith’s bookish inclinations. She moved her daughter’s coming out up to have it earlier, hoping Edith would then have less time to read and write.  Wharton’s mother even deprived her daughter of a regular supply of writing paper, hoping that would discourage her.  There seems to be quite a strong tendency in the late 19th century, both in fiction and in real life, to keep women from writing by taking away their implements! Wharton did marry, but she and her husband did not get along very well and never had children, which left the well-off Wharton to launch a writing career, and to befriend other writers, including Henry James, who spoke very favorably of her work. She won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, which was published in 1920. Wharton was a successful and well-regarded writer, and her work, while set solidly in a long-gone era, resonates today due to the strong and insightful way the author has created characters with lasting impact. Lily’s plight tugs on my heart strings every time I read the book and, although I lament her fate, I am ever so glad to have met her time and again in this wonderful...

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What to read in these times

June 5, 2020

The country is in unheaval. The people who take my classes want to know what to read. They want books about anti-racism. I love that their instinct in these upsetting and confusing times is to reach for books. Those of us with an attachment to books use reading to learn about and understand the world. And that is what we need to do now: to learn how to take action to make the world a better place. As my friend, author Susan Barr-Toman says, we don’t want to read about racism – that is passive, sitting on the sidelines reading. We want to read about anti-racism: what we can do, how we can take action, and support the actions of others. The most-requested book at bookstores now is How to be an AntiRacist, by Ibram X. Kendi. If you read ebooks, download it, because stores are selling out fast. And here is a list of Anti-Racism Resources provided to me by the American Booksellers Association, which includes books as well as articles, podcast, videos, TV, and film. Find the list HERE. In addition to books on that list, go back to some literary classics — you may even have them on your shelves already. I just pulled out my Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, and a collection of poetry by Langston Hughes. See if you can find Passing by Nella Larsen and then compare it to Brit Bennett’s new novel about passing, The Vanishing Half. I just pulled another title off my shelf, Your Heart is a Muscle The Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa. It’s not specifically about racism, It’s about protest. The story takes place around a protest in Seattle against the World Trade Organization, which is meeting in the city (this actually happened in 1999). During the afternoon the story takes place, 50,000 people come out to protest, and we meet several of them and follow their stories. It’s a powerful novel about how world events impact our lives on a personal level. We can find people’s stories in books and hopefully come to understand each other...

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Awakening to Kate Chopin

May 29, 2020

Kate Chopin started writing her novel The Awakening in 1897, and it was published in 1899. Chopin had only begun her writing career about ten years prior to this, and she had built a good reputation for her short stories, publishing them in places like Vogue and The Atlantic Monthly and in several published collections.  She had also published one novel, called At Fault, but it did not attract much attention.  Chopin was born Catherine O’Flaherty in St. Louis in 1850, raised in a relatively well-to-do family, and well-educated. Her heritage on her father’s side was Irish, and through her mother, French Creole. In 1870, she married Oscar Chopin and moved with him to New Orleans. Between 1871 and 1879, she gave birth to six children. Meanwhile, Oscar ran his commodities business into the ground, and in 1879, they moved to the countryside and became the managers of a general store. Oscar died of malaria in 1882 and left behind considerable debt. For two more years, Kate tried to maintain their business. She also allegedly had some romantic flings, including one with a married farmer. (You will know that this is relevant once you read her work!) Finally, she succumbed to her mother’s urgings to move back home to St. Louis, although, shortly after she returned, her mother died. In the early 1890s, a family doctor friend suggested she take up writing as a career. He suspected she would be good at it and thought it might be a good way for her to earn some income. Imagine that: becoming a writer to earn money – ha! It’s also fascinating, to me at least, to note that this doctor encouraged Kate to write. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s well-known story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” published in 1892 and therefore overlapping with the time of Chopin’s work and available to Chopin to read, the female protagonist is strictly forbidden by her doctor to write, and this deprivation leads to her descent into madness. The doctor in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is based on the real-life doctor S. Weir Mitchell (a Philadelphian), whose famed “rest cure” for women prevented them from doing much of anything, lest it trouble their little heads. It’s a novelty to find that Chopin had a medical mentor who encouraged writing, and points to more of the novelty that appears in Chopin’s writing. The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a well-off young wife summering at Grand Isle, an island off the coast of Louisiana. Edna is originally from Kentucky, but has married into her husband’s wealthy Creole world. During the course of the novel, she has her awakening, in which she becomes aware of her status as a possession of her husband, as well as of her own youth, beauty, sensuality, and sexuality. The consequences are powerful and profound. And the literary public did not approve! The Awakening was not well received. Chopin herself died not long after its publication age 54, when she had a cerebral hemorrhage after a hot day visiting the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. It wasn’t until the feminist movement of the 1970s that The Awakening was rediscovered. It is now considered not only an important early feminist work but a significant literary work. Critics believe that, had its author lived to...

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Sitting at Emily’s Desk

May 7, 2020

Martha Ackmann taught a seminar on Emily Dickinson for nearly two decades at Mt. Holyoke College. The seminar took place in the poet’s home, The Homestead, located in near the college in Amherst, Massachusetts. As Ackmann describes it, the class took place on the 2nd floor of the house in a bedroom across the hall from Emily’s own bedroom, around a smallish table that could only accommodate ten students at a time. What an experience to study the poet’s work in the place where she wrote it! And not only that, they had the run of the house during the class, while the house was closed to visitors. Ackmann says the class was easy to to teach: “The walls did everything.” She describes teaching one particular poem – “There’s a certain Slant of light” – and timing it to have the students read it on a November day when she knew the angle of light in the poet’s bedroom would be as she described it in the poem. Ackmann is very familiar with The Homestead, having taught there for 20 years and having lived in the area for 40. She talked about her experience when she joined us on the evening of May 6 for a talk about her new book, These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson.  She told a story about how she was there when they were renovating Dickinson’s bedroom and, when they removed the molding around a door, they discovered layers of wallpaper underneath. Experts were called in and they got down to the oldest layer and dated it around 1880, during Dickinson’s final years. They then replicated the pattern and repapered the room. Amazing, isn’t it? That wallpaper is the design used on the cover of Ackmann’s book and it can also be seen in the photo above. She told us how the previous wallpaper was more monochromatic, which went along with the myth that Dickinson was sterile and austere. The walls are now much more vibrant and reflect the poet’s energy! These Fevered Days tells, in ten chapters, of ten pivotal days in the life of Emily Dickinson. Ackmann told attendees at our event about how she asked friends and Dickinson scholars what their top ten moments would be, and then chose her own, including a day in Dickinson’s youth when she wrote that “all things are ready,” the time in her 20s when she decided she wanted to be distinguished in her life, and all the way through to the day of her death. Ackmann worked hard and did tremendous research to make the town and the world around Dickinson come alive in her storytelling, from the weather to the sights and sounds of Amherst in the poet’s time. When Dickinson returned from a trip to Cambridge to treat eye trouble, she went to the attic of her house to read Shakespeare aloud. To tell this story, Ackmann got permission to go to the attic of The Homestead and there she too read Shakespeare aloud so she could hear how it sounded in that space. And, while writing, she put a card table in Dickinson’s room so she could watch the light and see the view from the windows under different conditions. Ackmann mentioned how Hemingway spoke...

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Hermione is their hero

May 4, 2020

Teaching a writing class for grades 3-5 recently, I asked the students to answer the following question: If you could meet any fictional character, who would it be and why? The most popular answer (from the mostly female class): Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books. And of course. Why wouldn’t they admire and wish to meet this smart, confident, unflappable girl? She’s proud of her intelligence, often using it to save them from dangerous situations, she’s comfortable with herself, she’s unafraid of the unknown and loves a good adventure… what could be better? She’s a great role model! Recently I was doing research for a talk on Louisa May Alcott, and I came across a similar sentiment among women of a different generation for the fictional Jo March of Little Women. She too is smart, fearless, bold, and unafraid of being judged by others. And she also had, and has, a huge influence on readers. A large number of writers, including Barbara Kingsolver, Simone de Beauvoir, Ursula K. Le Guin, Cynthia Ozick, Anne Quindlen, and – look at that! – J.K. Rowling, have said they became writers because of Jo March. How about you? If you could meet any fictional character, who would it be and...

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