Saturday, April 27, 2013

Mary Coin (Marisa Silver)

The Depression era photo of a woman with a hand on her face surrounded by her children is one of the most famous images ever taken.  Snapped by photographer Dorothea Lange in 1936, Migrant Mother shows a woman by the name of Florence Owens Thompson and is stunning in its stark simplicity.  In Marisa Silver's equally stunning novel Mary Coin, she reimagines the lives of the woman in the famous image and the photographer who took it.

Silver's story follows three fictional characters, Mary Coin, Vera Dare, and Walker Dodge.  Coin is a mother several times over who is just trying to do the best she can by her children during one of the darkest periods in American history.  Dare is having an equally hard time, attempting to reconcile her job of taking photographs of wealthy women with the depression that is happening outside her walls.  Walker is a professor of social history, and the reader is left guessing about how his story will eventually interact with Coin.

When Dare meets up with Coin and her children, she takes the photograph that eventually would become so famous.  Silver doesn't use Lange's and Thompson's real names in the novel, but her description of how the photo may have been taken is enthralling.  The professor's story seemed at times to be extraneous; I think the women's stories during the Great Depression and their lives thereafter would have been
enough to make this novel superb.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Skinny Bitch in Love (Kim Barnouin)

What can one say about a book titled Skinny Bitch in Love?  If you read it and think it’s going to be world-class literature, then I have beachfront property I’d like to sell you in Kansas.  Kim Barnouin has brought her wildly popular Skinny Bitch no-nonsense dieting empire (which she developed along with Rory Freedman) to chick lit, writing a surprisingly enjoyable quick read.

The staff of a popular vegan restaurant, including chef Clementine Cooper, is all atwitter, knowing that a renowned food critic will be making an appearance that night.  After the critic suddenly leaves, it’s determined that the chef’s butternut squash dish was sabotaged with….dum, dum, dum….real butter!!!  Clementine’s reputation is ruined; every other vegan restaurant blacklists her, so she is unable to find another position.  When a friend suggests that her talent could lead her into vegan cooking classes and baking for coffee shops, Clem begins to see that her life is not over.  With stereotypical characters like a sassy roommate, a gorgeous boyfriend, and another guy pining away for her, Skinny Bitch in Love subscribes to the tried-and-true chick lit formula.

Some reviews have pointed out that this novel is too preachy about the vegan lifestyle.  I disagree.  I actually learned a lot about veganism and especially enjoyed the food parts.  Barnouin’s view that it is not all "crunchy granola" really resonated with me.  Who knew you could have vanilla chai cupcakes and tropical fruit scones?  Sign me up!


Monday, April 15, 2013

The Clover House (Henriette Lazaridis Power)

The Clover House, Henriette Lazaridis Power's debut novel, has been listed in the "If you liked Tatiana de Rosnay's Sarah's Key, then you'll love..." recommendation column.  However, with the exception of both being historical fiction books about World War II, I found little comparison.  While Sarah's Key is gripping and heartbreaking, holding your attention until the very end, The Clover House does so only in waves.  However, wartime Greece is thoroughly researched by Ms. Power to deliver a multi-generational, textured story.

Callie is a Greek American living in Boston with her fiance, Jonah.  She grew up in the United States, but her mother, Clio, took the first opportunity to move back to Greece after her husband passed away.  When Clio gets a call that her Uncle Nestor not only has died, but has left all of his earthly possessions to her, she heads back to the land of her heritage.  Clio is desperate to keep a secret from Callie, but Nestor seems determined to let the secret be known even in his death.

The book alternates between Callie's modern-day adventure and Clio's adolescence in Greece.  I felt like The Clover House would have worked better if the reader was able to experience what happened through Clio's eyes first, rather than hearing about it secondhand through Callie's chapters.  However, even though the book is a little dry and takes awhile to get going, I encourage the reader to stick with it for a fascinating look into Greek history.


Friday, April 12, 2013

Life After Life (Kate Atkinson)

I was excited to devour Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life as the latest selection in my book club.  It got a lot of buzz in the media, but reviews were very mixed, as it seemed like people either absolutely loved it or…didn’t love it.  While I applaud Atkinson for the monumental effort that writing a novel like this entails, I unfortunately was in the latter category.

The title of Life After Life could not be more perfect.  Atkinson raises the question we all sometimes wish we could answer.  How would you live your life over if you had a do-over?  In Ursula, the main character’s case, she has many do-overs, constantly reliving the same periods in her very British life with changes (sometimes major and sometimes subtle).  At the very beginning, she has the opportunity to kill someone who, if he didn’t exist, would completely change the course of history for the better.

It is very difficult to write about Life After Life because it’s incredibly hard to explain the plot.  The reader (as well as Ursula) feels a constant sense of déjà vu.  For me, reading this novel was bordering on a chore; the accordion-style dating of the chapters was very confusing and made me constantly have to go back and forth to get things straight.  I was hoping that it would all come together at the end and allow me to have an “A-ha!” moment, but that never materialized.  Instead, I was left even more confused.  However, you as a reader might love it.  Regardless of your feelings, no one can dispute the fact of Atkinson’s ambitious undertaking to put Life After Life together.