Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Similar Covers: Reflections

I was a bit shocked to come across these two oh-so-similar covers with oh-so-similar titles while browsing the Fantastic Fiction website recently. Playing Dead by Julia Heaberlin and Playing with Matches by Carolyn Wall are not only both due out this year (in May and July, respectively), but they are also both being published by Random House!

To be fair, it seems like someone caught on to the duplication because Playing with Matches now has a new cover, according to Amazon (and the author’s site).

For another post about similar covers that resemble these two, see also Cover Curiosity: Seeing Double over at 100 Scope Notes.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mailbox Monday (May edition)

Mailbox Monday buttonMailbox Monday is a gathering place for readers to share the books they received during the previous week. Warning: MM can lead to envy, toppling TBR piles and huge wish lists! Mailbox Monday, which was started by Marcia (who now blogs at A girl and her books) is on blog tour—this month, it’s hosted by Martha at Martha’s Bookshelf.

I just realized that I’ve only been posting one MM post per month for this whole year. Consider this May’s edition!

Four books have come my way in the last few weeks, all from different sources.

I received two books in the mail: Califia’s Daughters by Leigh Richards (aka Laurie R. King), which I ordered online, and Made Priceless: A Few Things Money Can’t Buy edited by H. L. Hix, which I ordered from Serena at Savvy Verse & Wit (who signed my copy as she is one of the contributors!).

My mum also visited me recently and gave me Tree Yoga: A Workbook – Strengthen Your Personal Yoga Practice Through the Living Wisdom of Trees by Satya Singh and Fred Hageneder. And finally, Mum and I visited Donna’s book shop, Beazley Books, where I picked up a copy of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.

What did you find in your mailbox this past week? For other Mailbox Monday posts, head over to Reviews by Martha’s Bookshelf.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Review: This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak by Melissa Coleman

Opening lines of the book:

“We must have asked our neighbor Helen to read our hands that day. Her own hands were the color of onion skins, darkened with liver spots, and ever in motion.”

Why I read it:

I’m interested in memoirs about women who grew up outside the mainstream.

What it’s about:

In the late 1960s, inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing’s book, Living the Good Life, Melissa Coleman’s parents bought land on the coast of Maine from the Nearings, built their own home and cleared the land so they could farm it. This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak is a memoir about the 10 years Melissa and her family spent on the farm and how a tragic accident ended their dream.

My thoughts:

I have such mixed feelings about this book that it’s hard for me to sort them neatly into “what I liked” and “what I didn’t like” (or even express them very coherently). On the one hand, This Life Is in Your Hands is, for the most part, a beautifully written and heart-wrenching story of a family trying to live their dream and the terrible toll it took on them. On the other hand, there were several elements of the book that didn’t really work for me.

For starters, since the tragedy at the heart of this memoir happened when the author was quite young, I expected the book to focus on the aftermath of this event, rather than mostly lead up to it, as was the case. This was not a problem in and of itself; however, it did mean that much of this “memoir” was actually based on other people’s memories, as Coleman was too young to recall many of the details of her early life. (The story in fact begins before she’s born.) And perhaps because of that, I found the beginning of the book quite confusing: Coleman flits back and forth in time to set the scene for her tale, from her parents’ decision to move back to the land, to her very early years, to her parents’ childhoods and back again (with a few other back-and-forths for good measure). However, once she has established the background for her story, she tells the rest of it in mostly chronological order and I found myself engrossed in her book.

Little did I know when I picked up this memoir that Coleman’s father, Eliot Coleman, is one of the pioneers of the modern organic movement. As someone who is a big proponent of organic food, I was fascinated by this glimpse into the movement’s beginnings. Some of Eliot Coleman’s ideas were totally new to me, such as that “The role of insects with plants is like the role of wolves with deer and caribou: to eliminate the unhealthy and unfit” (p. 66)—in other words, if your plants are healthy, they will not attract pests.

Occasionally, the foreshadowing in the book fell flat: it felt like Coleman was hinting at stories that she then never really told. For example, she says “The Nearings would prove, like most mentors, to have clay feet, and their ideas fallible, but their achievements will always be an extraordinary example of the power of determination and effort” (p. 57). I expected her to say more about this, but the Nearings are actually fairly peripheral to this story. She also hints several times that her parents’ health issues were exacerbated by their vegetarian diet, but never elaborates, which, as a vegetarian, drove me crazy!

However, the book is also filled with beautiful passages that testify to the joys as well as the sorrows of the way of life Coleman’s parents embraced. For example:
Heidi and I were always outside, naked and barefoot, dancing on the blanket of apple blossoms, skipping along wooded paths, catching frogs at the pond, eating strawberries and peas from the vine, and running from the black twist of garter snakes in the grass. We lay in the shade under the ash tree, gazing up at the crown of leaves and listening to the sounds of the farm—birds calling, goats bleating, chattering of customers at the farm stand, and whispers of tree talk.

When you focused on the leaves fluttering in the dappled light, they vibrated and shimmered into one, becoming a million tiny particles. You felt a shift inside, and you began to vibrate too, on the same frequency as everything else. All secrets were there, all truths, all knowledge. You had to scan with your heart to find what you were seeking. It might no be spoken in words, it might be hidden in rhyme, in song, in images. You knew the tree and the earth were the same as you, made of particles, like you, come together in a different form. You loved it all as you loved yourself (p. 4).
And here’s another of my favourite passages:
However, one morning, as I lay in my bunk, the good feeling returned. It hadn’t come in a while and I was afraid I would scare it away because you can’t feel the good feeling and be aware of it at the same time. I was thinking about the way light creates the shapes of things, when suddenly I felt it, like a smooth stone in my mouth. My body dissolved its boundaries and became part of all things. Just as suddenly the feeling was gone, and I was me again, lying in my bunk as the ache of reality returned. [. . .]
The floorboards creaked as Mama drifted into the kitchen. From above in the bunk she looked soft in the light, her face still open from sleep, not closed up like during the day.
“Do you ever get the good feeling when you first wake up in the morning?”
“The good feeling?”
“Yeah, like a smooth stone in your mouth?”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“Like warm light surrounding your body.”
“That sounds nice.”
“Do you get that?”
“Not recently.” (pp. 292-293). 
Although I didn’t love this book, I’m glad I read it. If you want to learn more about the birth of the modern organic movement from the perspective of one family who became icons of this way of life, This Life Is in Your Hands is certainly a worthwhile read. I would also recommend it, with reservations, to anyone interested in farming memoirs.

Thank you to Harper Perennial for sending me this book to review.

This Life Is in Your Hands is on blog tour with TLC Book Tours this month. Visit these blogs for other reviews:


Monday, April 9, 2012

Mailbox Monday (April 9)

Mailbox Monday buttonMailbox Monday is a gathering place for readers to share the books they received during the previous week. Warning: MM can lead to envy, toppling TBR piles and huge wish lists! Mailbox Monday, which was started by Marcia (who now blogs at A girl and her books) is on blog tour—this month, it’s hosted by Cindy at Cindy’s Love of Books.

I received one book in the mail this week: This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak by Melissa Coleman, which I’m reading for a TLC blog tour later this month.

From the back cover:

In the fall of 1968, Melissa Coleman’s parents pack their VW truck and set out to forge a new existence on a rugged coastal homestead. Inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of the homesteading bible Living the Good Life, Eliot and Sue build their own home by hand, live off the crops they grow, and establish a happy family with Melissa and her two sisters. They also attraction national media and become icons of the back-to-the-land movement, but the pursuit of a purer, simpler life comes at a price. In the wake of a tragic accident, idealism gives way to human frailty, and by the fall of 1978, Greenwood Farm is abandoned. The search to understand what happened is at the heart of this luminous, heartbreaking, and ultimately redemptive memoir.

I also forgot to mention in my previous MM post that my sister Brogan gave me Ancestor Stones by Aminatta Forna for my birthday. (Brogan reviewed Forna’s memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water on this blog.)

From the back cover:

Aminatta Forna, whose moving and gorgeously written memoir garnered international acclaim, now delivers her first novel, Ancestor Stones, a powerful, sensuous book that beautifully captures Africa’s past century and her present, and the legacy that her daughters take with them wherever they live. Abie returns home from England to West Africa to visit her family after years of civil war, and to reclaim their plantation, Kholifa Estates. There to meet her are her aunts: Asana, lost twin and head wife’s daughter; Hawa, motherless child and manipulator of her own misfortune; Mariama, who sees what lies beyond; and Serah, follower of a Western made dream. Through their tales, Abie begins gathering the family and the country’s history. Reminiscent of The God of Small Things or The House of the Spirits, Ancestor Stones is the unforgettable tale of a family and four women’s attempts to alter the course of their own destiny.

What did you find in your mailbox this past week? For other Mailbox Monday posts, head over to Cindy’s Love of Books.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Similar Covers: Boy and Girl Reading in Canoe

I can often count on finding at least one familiar cover among LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers books, and this month’s batch was no exception. Safe Within by Jean Reynolds Page (Harper Collins, 2012) is about to be published with a cover image that has been used at least three times before, on the following books: Book Crush: For Kids and Teens—Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Interest by Nancy Pearl (Sasquatch Books, Mar 2007), Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America by Joan Shelley Rubin (Harvard University Press, Apr 2007) and Toolkit for Teachers for Literacy by Diane Hood Nettles (Pearson, 2006).

I can’t say that any of these covers seems particularly interesting to me—there’s a blandness about them that would probably not inspire me to pick them up. (Nancy Pearl’s book might be the exception as it’s about reading and meant for teens, so the cover works quite well, but obviously is not meant for me.) What do you think?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Brogan’s Review: Curiosity by Joan Thomas and Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

My sister Brogan, who guest reviews on this blog on a semi-regular basis, sent me a batch of her reviews recently. Here’s the first of them...

I first heard about Mary Anning by reading a (nonfiction) children’s book with my daughter called Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon by Jeannine Atkins. Mary was a young girl in early 19th-century England who dug for fossils and sold them. She discovered a dinosaur before anyone knew what such a thing was—in fact before the word “dinosaur” was coined—and spent the better part of a year at the age of 12 uncovering an entire skeleton. She never married, and she continued to make a living by digging for fossils in her native Lyme Regis.

When I saw Curiosity by Joan Thomas on the library
shelf one day, I was immediately drawn to an adult version of the story, even though the subtitle, “a love story,” perplexed me somewhat, because Mary never married (not that love equals marriage!) and the Jeannine Atkins book suggested a quirky, possibly lonely character in Mary. Well, whatever the case, I definitely wanted to read more about this eccentric woman who was unusual for her time and place.

Before I had a chance to read Curiosity, I also came across Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. Well, then I was doubly curious, to think that 2010 brought forth two books about Mary Anning! Chevalier’s take is a little different: she offers the story of an uncommon friendship between two women of vastly different backgrounds and classes: Mary Anning, who came from a family struggling to keep clothed, fed and sheltered, and Elizabeth Philpot, who, though on the downturn of a moneyed family, needed neither to work nor to marry to live comfortably. I was just as eager to read Remarkable Creatures, since women’s friendships are an even stronger draw for me than love stories.

I started with Curiosity, which didn’t draw me in right from the start, as I found it particularly cerebral and hard to follow. But after the first hump I was really caught up in the story, its characters and its detail. I can only describe it as elegant. Joan Thomas plumbs the depths of 19th-century English classism and sexism in this novel, and renders complex characters with conflicting motivations. Here’s an early passage in Curiosity to give you an idea of the language and richness of description that Thomas achieves:
Mary sat and watched her father as he took up the second drawer and began to fit it together. He was working from the light of the window, which showed the sky in three rows of its panes, and then the sea. In the soft sawdust on the floorboards, she could see his footprints like the tracks of animals on the shore. This was a collecting cupboard he was making, with shallow drawers for the curiosities. For the rich, who could afford to hoard what the Annings must sell. It was a strange passion with the high-born, filling their drawing rooms with thunderbolts and snakestones, although they could buy all the china figurines they chose. Richard was lining up the dovetails, bracing the drawer on the workbench. He needed a helper. But he’d apprenticed [Mary’s brother] Joseph to Armstrong the upholsterer on Dorcas Lane. (Curiosity, p. 13)
Remarkable Creatures is much more accessible—there was never a point in the text when I wasn’t sure if I understood what was actually happening—but it also had a tendency towards cliché. Chevalier, it seems, never has a character hold anything back. They speak out, they speak up, they make much drama, but ultimately this is neither very believable, nor in fact very interesting. Mary is constantly in need of rescue in various forms (and always from the more-than-obliging Miss Philpot).

Chevalier misses the boat completely as far as class analysis goes and almost has her own brand of classism towards the Annings: I was irritated that Mary’s father is depicted as a carpenter of poor workmanship, when, really, how long would you last as a craftsperson in a small town if your work was of poor quality? Was it just too hard for Chevalier to imagine that economic structures of the time, and not personal failure, were to blame for the Annings’ poverty? And then when Mary sells her first big find, Miss Philpot comes and instructs Mary’s mother and older brother to invest the money in an apprenticeship for him for a trade—as though only an educated, higher-class woman would have the forethought for such decision-making—and yet the likelihood of someone of a higher class speaking of such private matters with a family seemed quite low to me.
When Lord Henley paid us £23 for the whole crocodile, I wanted lots of things. I wanted to buy so many sacks of potatoes they’d reach the ceiling if you stacked them. I wanted to buy lengths of wool and have new dresses made for Mam and me. I wanted to eat a whole dough cake every day and burn so much coal the coalman would have to come every week to refill the coal bin. That was what I wanted. I thought my family wanted those things too.

One day Miss Elizabeth come to see Mam after the deal had been done with Lord Henley and sat with her and Joe at the kitchen table. She didn’t talk of wool or coal or dough cakes, but of jobs. “I think it will benefit the family most if Joseph is apprenticed,” she said. “Now you have the money to pay the apprentice fee, you should do so. Whatever he chooses will be a steadier income than selling fossils.” (Remarkable Creatures, pp. 111-112.)
It was a strange experience to read two books with the same characters, not just Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot but a whole cast of characters in the town (with some exceptions) as well as the men who come from London to study the fossils. It’s a rare event to have two books cover so much of the same territory—I doubt both these books would have been published had they not come out nearly simultaneously, for whoever wrote the second book would surely have been accused of copying the first. (I do wonder whether Joan Thomas and Tracy Chevalier ever crossed paths in London or Lyme Regis while doing their research… that seems like a story in itself!)

I read Curiosity first, so it did feel to me like Joan Thomas raised the bar, and then Tracy Chevalier—for all that she may be the better known of the two writers—just didn’t hold a candle to Thomas’s achievement. I was interested, though, in the similarities and differences between each rendition. For example, the love story seemed so truncated in Joan Thomas’s book—were 19th-century men really so totally lacking in sexual imagination? However, when it was told in such a similar fashion in Tracy Chevalier’s book—though she chose a different character as the romantic interest—I felt more forgiving of Joan Thomas’s text. But perhaps it should just make me further question whether it’s 19th-century men who lacked imagination or rather 21st-century women writers when imagining 19th-century sex! The bigger question, of course, is about how sex is represented in literature and in our lives as women, which I can’t explain in more detail here without spoilers, but which I think deserves further exploration.

I would highly recommend Curiosity, even though I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, as it is quite literary and brooding; and I would not recommend Remarkable Creatures. If you’re into children’s books or have a child to read to (ages 7 to 10), Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon by Jeannine Atkins is a beautiful illustrated book and introduces several interesting topics for conversation.

Other reviews of Curiosity:

Other reviews of Remarkable Creatures:


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Similar Covers: More Repeats

What I’ve got for you today is a bunch of covers some of you may recognize if you’ve been reading my blog for a while. All of them are “repeats”: covers I’ve featured before along with new exact matches...

First up, is a threesome of the same dandelion puff (with one reversed image): Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents by Allison Gilbert with Christina Baker Kline (Seal Press, 2006), The Wishing Year: A House, a Man, My Soul by Noelle Oxenhandler (Random House, 2008) and Dandelion directed by Mark Milgard (movie poster, 2004).

The Wishing Year was featured previously in Similar Covers: Dandelion Puffs.

Next, the same poor butterfly trapped in a jar three times: Predators, Preys, and Other Kinfolk: Growing Up in Polygamy by Dorothy Allred Solomon (WW Norton, 2003), Bone Machine by Martyn Waites (Pegasus, 2007) and Life Sentences by Laura Lippman (Harper Collins, 2009).

Both Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk and Life Sentences were featured previously in Similar Covers: More Butterflies.

Next, a threesome of the same dancing couple: Sights Unseen by Kaye Gibbons (Harper Collins, Jun 2005), Als die richtige Zeit verschwand by Günter Ohnemus (Droemer Knaur, Sep 2005) and Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin (Random House, 2006).

The two English books were featured previously in Similar Covers: Two Couples.

Finally, a threesome that is actually part of a larger set (see link below): The Professors’ Wives’ Club by Joanne Rendell (Penguin, 2008), Choral Society by Prue Leith (Quercus, 2009) and the ironically titled More Like Her by Liza Palmer (Harper Collins, 2012). Thank you to Gwendolyn (A Sea of Books) for sending me the third cover (and, if you haven’t already, check out her Ditto Doubles!).

The first two books were featured previously in Similar Covers: Women’s Legs (along with two other covers that use a very similar image).

The covers in each of these sets are so similar, but the threesome that dismays me the most is the last, since not only do they look almost the same, but they’re all contemporary women’s fiction!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Mailbox Monday (March 19)

Mailbox Monday buttonMailbox Monday is a gathering place for readers to share the books they received during the previous week. Warning: MM can lead to envy, toppling TBR piles and huge wish lists! Mailbox Monday, which was started by Marcia (who now blogs at A girl and her books) is on blog tour—this month, it’s hosted by Anna at Diary of an Eccentric.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Mailbox Monday post, which I guess is a good thing, since it means I haven’t been adding to my out-of-control book piles... However, I did win a book recently, which has made its way to my home: A Cluttered Life: Searching for God, Serenity, and My Missing Keys by Pesi Dinnerstein. (With a title like that, how could I resist?!)

From the back cover:

Insightful, unsettling, and wildly funny, A Cluttered Life is the story of Pesi Dinnerstein’s quest to create a simple and orderly life—only to discover that simplicity is not so simple and what constitutes clutter is not always perfectly clear. in the end—with the help of devoted friends, a twelve-step recovery program, and a bit of Kabbalistic wisdom—her battle with chaos is transformed into an unexpected journey of self-discovery and spiritual awakening.

What did you find in your mailbox this past week? For other Mailbox Monday posts, head over to Diary of an Eccentric.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Similar Covers: Woman at the Window II

Jackie (Farm Lane Books Blog) recently posted the 2012 Orange Prize Longlist, which included a book with a familiar cover, Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick (Atlantic Books, 2011) . You might remember that I featured another book with the same cover image in a series of lookalike covers of a woman at a window: Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky (Random House, 2008). I also found a third book that matches this set, Gen nicht so schnell in diese dunkle Nacht (Don’t Go Through That Dark Night So Fast) by António Lobo Antunes (Random House, 2004).

While I like the photo of the woman, I can’t say that I like the composition of any of these covers. If you look closely, you’ll notice there’s a vehicle outside the window in the first and third covers, which has been removed in the middle one.

I also featured Eden Close by Anita Shreve (Harcourt, 2004) in my original post, and I’ve since found a mirror-image cover: Unseen by Mari Jungstedt (Macmillan, 2006). Unseen is my favourite of all the covers I’m featuring today—the juxtaposition of the woman at the window in the foreground and the house in the background, with the title in between, makes for a mysterious and appealing cover that draws me in.

Finally, a whole new set:

This last lot is kinda boring in my estimation—the only cover that stands out (though not for the right reasons) is Sashenka. The photoshopped head on that one looks bizarre to me!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Similar Covers: Hanging White Dresses

I recently spotted The Replacement Wife by Eileen Goudge (Open Road Media, 2012) which reminded me right away of Until the Real Thing Comes Along by Elizabeth Berg (Arrow, 2003). As it turns out, there’s also an exact match for the first cover: Life Is a Melody by Betsy Munson (AuthorHouse, 2008).

And while I’m on the topic of hanging white dresses, here’s another trio of them for you:

These are: Cennet Yolculari by Ayşegül Işık (2011), Mennonites Don’t Dance by Darcie Friesen Hossack (Thistledown Press, 2010) and Sinuciderea fecioarelor (the Romanian translation of The Virgin Suicides) by Jeffrey Eugenides (2005).

I can’t say that any of these covers appeal to me very much, although I am curious about Mennonites Don’t Dance... What do you think?