Book chat: ‘The Dirty Life’ by Kristin Kimball

The Dirty LifeKristin Kimball’s transition from tenacious New Yorker to muddied farm wife is lovingly documented in The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love – and it almost made me want to get dirty myself.

I’m a suburban girl with no experience around animals or agriculture. Though surrounded by farms — the last vestiges of Maryland’s tobacco past — growing up, my knowledge of farming practices and experience with homegrown food is incredibly limited. I don’t like to be sweaty or hot, basically; the idea of slaving away all day in the sun pulling tubers from the ground isn’t appealing.

And yet, on some level . . . it is?

It’s hard to describe the immense satisfaction we get from a hard day’s work — far away from a computer. Kristin and her then-fiance, Mark, take over a rundown farm in Essex, New York, with the idea of creating a CSA (community-supported agriculture) and living off the land.

While Mark has extensive farming experience, Kristin does not. She’s just a woman tired of fighting the good fight in New York’s cutthroat journalism world . . . and when she meets muddy, sincere, unassuming Mark, the pair fall into easy conversation. And love.

I felt for Kristin from the beginning, relating to her lack of experience but her drive to learn. She starts out visiting Mark for a story and, with time, finds she enjoys her hours spent on the farm with the crew — especially when it comes to the fresh, organic and healthy meals they’re served. It’s farm-to-table on a literal level, and the authenticity of it all stands in stark contrast to Manhattan’s manufactured happiness.


Farm


The Dirty Life chronicles Kristin and Mark’s early courtship and the origins of Essex Farm, which starts as nothing but bare fields and slowly becomes a booming, productive enterprise that brings the community together. I’ve long been interested in the concept of CSAs, and Kristin makes the idea of joining one immensely appealing.

One of the most interesting parts of the story is the idea that, when times are tough, people return to the land. Published in 2010, The Dirty Life arrives in the thick of the recession — and I thought a bit about how and why farming is still considered the noble American profession. While farmers themselves have seen their numbers dwindle significantly over the decades, we all still need to eat. This food must come from somewhere. So why not Essex Farm?

Increasing attention is paid to what we’re eating, where it’s coming from and why. Shoppers seeking “organic” foods have more options at the grocery store than ever before, and farmers’ markets — especially in and around my hometown — seem to be booming. It’s appealing to shake hands with the man or woman who grew your tomatoes, you know? It’s refreshing to hand cash over to farmers living, working and supporting your own community.

So it’s easy to see why Kristin and Mark — with their passion, drive and hard work — would eventually succeed. Her story is quick, interesting and entertaining. The steep learning curve Kristin faces while working with Mark on their great farming adventure is realistic and human. I loved that she did not romanticize all the long hours, exhausting work and painful sacrifices, but she’s not complaining, either. She acknowledges both the slog and tremendous reward of working side-by-side with your family in a place you love. How they have really built something together.

Kristin feels like that cool, bold friend who leaps first and figures it out later . . . and, by the close of the story, I found myself proud by proxy of all she and Mark have accomplished. The Dirty Life is a very enjoyable read — especially for those interested in agriculture.

I might be just a girl from the suburbs, but I do love a good cow story.


4 out of 5

Pub: 2010 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio book borrowed from my local library


Book chat: ‘Hugo & Rose’ by Bridget Foley

Hugo & RoseThis book was . . . not quite what I was expecting.

That’s not inherently a bad thing, you know; surprises are exciting. Interesting. Compelling.

But sometimes they’re jarring. And with Bridget Foley’s Hugo & Rose? Well, I felt jarred. I’m still jarred, in fact.

To start, the cover is just so pretty and whimsical, you know? And reading the description — about a stay-at-home mom who has dreamed of the same man and their adventures every night since childhood — made me think of the imaginary friends who once accompanied me at recess, lending an ear to all my troubles and taking my side in sister fights.

But this was . . . darker. Textured. Nuanced. I liked that, but it startled me. In a good way, perhaps? But I’m still not sure. It’s not too often that I’m left with such mixed feelings on a story. Have I been ambivalent about a novel in the past? Absolutely. But I’m not suffering from a lack of opinion on Hugo & Rose — just a lack of clarity.

So Rose — our dear, troubled Rose — is in a bit of a rut. She deeply loves Josh, her doctor husband, and their three children — but Josh’s hours are long and his attention short, and the boys can be a bit much to handle. Now in her mid-thirties, Rose struggles to believe she’s an aimless woman with a baby on her hip. It’s in her dreams that she finds relief, escape, fulfillment: her dreams with Hugo.

After a bike accident knocks her unconscious as a child, Rose finds herself on Hugo’s island locked in eternal struggle to get to a glistening city on the horizon. Like “Lost” without the other castaways, Rose and Hugo help each other fight off enemies and battle evil forces — both seen and unseen. While they start their time there as kids, they grow together into adulthood. No matter how they may look in reality, their island selves are strong, lean, tan. More beautiful. Powerful.

Following a kids’ soccer match in a nearby Colorado town, Rose succumbs to temptation and takes her bawling boys for fast food on their drive home. It’s there that she first sees Hugo perched in a take-out window, hunched and weary at work. He’s thicker in the middle, balding, less enigmatic — but definitely Hugo.

Hugo in real life.

Shocked and inexplicably drawn to this strange not-stranger, Rose tumbles down an obsessive path. Foley excelled at showing Rose’s deepening preoccupation with this man, eventually demonstrating what can happen when reality and fantasy collide. There is a touch of magical realism to Hugo & Rose — a little suspension of disbelief. But Foley is a talented writer, and I felt the transitions between the island and reality were well done.

While I didn’t always like Rose, I did appreciate her challenges and nuanced personality. Who hasn’t longed to feel like a better, stronger version of themselves? I could sense her physical and mental exhaustion in Foley’s descriptions, feeling a very suburban desperation in it all. That’s why sleep is so welcome for Rose . . . well, until it isn’t.

The story becomes increasingly sinister — almost frightening. While I didn’t always enjoy it, I was invested in the characters’ fates and racing to finish. At times I wanted to slap some sense into Rose, desperately not wanting her to ruin everything good and whole in her life, but our heroine has spent so much time feeling powerful on an island and powerless in reality; it’s easy to see why escapism appeals to her.

The twists and turns were not ones I saw coming. Though I wondered how the island would be explained, of course, I wasn’t preoccupied with knowing all the hows and whys. It’s fiction, not science. Hugo’s back story is a fascinating, tragic one, but I was glad that Foley never took the easy route to cast him entirely as a villain. No one here is a saint, and no one just a sinner.

I wasn’t always in love with the story, but Foley made me care about her characters. There’s no denying Hugo & Rose makes — and leaves — an impression.


3 out of 5

Pub: May 5, 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Twitter
Digital review copy provided by publisher for coverage consideration


Book chat: ‘Catching Air’ by Sarah Pekkanen

Catching AirFor Dawn Zukowski, fleeing a life — and love — she thought she wanted is more than she bargained for. Marooned in the snowy wilds of Vermont, she happens to meet two couples — Kira and Peter, Rand and Alyssa — who have recently taken over a charming bed-and-breakfast in the mountains.

With nowhere to go and no plan for the next step, Dawn reluctantly agrees to accompany the crew to the B&B and assist in day-to-day tasks in exchange for her lodging. Though Kira senses there’s plenty more to Dawn’s story, she doesn’t push her — especially as plans ramp up for a coming wedding at their little lodge. Despite her strange presence, they need Dawn. And Dawn needs them.

Kira and Peter have traded their busy lives in Florida for the slower, snowier pace of Vermont. Rand, Peter’s estranged brother, proposes the four go into business as a way of rebuilding his relationship with his sibling. Babies loom large in the lives of the couples: Alyssa desperately wants to be a mother, but is having trouble conceiving; Kira knows Peter desperately wants to be a father, but isn’t sure she’s ready for a family.

Sarah Pekkanen’s Catching Air is a quick, engrossing story of a family finding their way back to each other — as well as the meandering paths one sometimes takes to motherhood. Though Dawn’s character always felt a little “off” to me, I fell in love with the cozy winter setting of the story and would have loved to take up residence on one of the B&B’s plush couches.

Of the two couples, I bonded most with Kira and Peter — two young professionals escaping their complicated work lives in the south. A hardworking lawyer by day, Kira finds it easy to deflect Peter’s overtures on having children when she has a grueling schedule . . . but in Vermont? Away from the hustle-bustle? Well, the conversations get more complicated.

I found Pekkanen’s exploration of marriage and compromise very interesting. Where Kira and Peter are serious and straight-laced, Alyssa and Rand are the nomads: free spirits, wanderers, travelers. The idea of having children with Alyssa — though something he professes to want — also scares Rand, wondering how children will impact their lifestyle. And with good reason.

Playing out against the marital dramas is their first wedding at the B&B: a lavish affair in the dead of winter, and the key to getting them all out of financial trouble. Ever the organized taskmaster, Kira spearheads the event coordination and handles the meals churning out of the lodge’s kitchen. As the details became more complicated, I felt my anxiety rising right along with Kira’s — and wondered how she was going to handle it all without collapsing. It felt like too much.

Pekkanen’s charm is her ability to create likeable, realistic characters and seamlessly interject readers into their lives. Her heroines feel like real people — women that could be your girlfriends — and her stories are always fast and compulsively readable.

Though this wasn’t my favorite of her works, I was engrossed in the story and invested in the characters’ fates. Though Dawn felt out-of-place, even she grew on me by the end. An entertaining read for fans of women’s fiction and stories exploring family dynamics.


3.5 out of 5

Pub: 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher for coverage consideration


Book chat: ‘The Little Paris Bookshop’ by Nina George

The Little Paris BookshopFloating on the Seine is a very special barge: a bookshop tended by Monsieur Jean Perdu, a brokenhearted bookseller nursing his decades-long heartache by “prescribing” must reads for the patrons passing through Paris. This literary apothecary has medicinal tales for young idealists, overworked businessmen, widows starting over. Perdu presides over the bookshop like an eager pharmacist, ready with a recommendation at every turn.

Long accustomed to a solitary life, Perdu isn’t prepared for the sudden appearance of an equally vulnerable — and beautiful — neighbor. Believing his one true love, Manon, to have abandoned him 20 years earlier, Perdu has thrown himself into work . . . and scarcely looked up until Catherine arrived on the scene.

When their burgeoning relationship awakens old feelings, he panics — and runs. The floating bookshop takes its inaugural run. Accompanied by a young writer in a slump and many friends he picks up along the way, Perdu embarks on a journey to discover the truth about Manon — and to finally find a way to heal.

Enchanting, warm and populated with memorable characters, Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop is a delightful read for francophiles and literary lovers alike. With a touch of magical realism and many fantastic quotes to delight readers, I fell in love with this story.

A melancholy man now in his fifties, Perdu isn’t the type of hero I’m accustomed to following. He’s initially cold, distant, despondent. In the decades since Manon departed, he has never come to grips with what made her go. Jean has not discovered — or even tried — to find love again, and all he has is his canal boat filled with books: self-help, literary fiction, memoirs. Something for everyone.

His apartment building is filled with unusual folks. Max, a popular young author, is now one of them: but he’s stricken with vicious writer’s block, dreading having to churn out his sophomore story. He turns to Jean as a type of mentor and friend, arriving at the bookshop needing guidance and support. Having never had the chance to have children, Jean takes him under his wing — and together, when the going gets tough, they take to the waters.

The French countryside, Provence, Paris . . . all come alive in The Little Paris Bookshop. The setting is so fragrant and beautifully rendered by George, it’s impossible not to feel as though you’ve gotten lost on the Seine yourself. It was the perfect opportunity for armchair traveling with a tenderhearted hero, and I loved George’s descriptions of everything Jean and Max experience. The towns they find, the meals they cobble together . . . everything is a sensory experience.

At its heart, though, the novel is about the redemptive power of love. Even decades later, Jean is still in love with Manon: and the mystery of their separation is a guiding principle of his life. I was as curious to discover the truth as our hero, somehow hoping for a happy ending for the pair even when I knew it couldn’t possibly be so. When they take off on the river, Jean doesn’t realize the journey fate is already taking him on . . . and by the close of the story, I was in tears.

Without spoiling a thing about this lovely tale, the ending was just so satisfying. Loose ends were tied in beautiful but understated bows; characters we’ve come to love find their meandering way to happiness. It was exactly the sort of sweetly enveloping read that’s perfect for a Sunday afternoon, and I really didn’t want it to end.

Interspersed with the narrative are gorgeous quotes about the power of reading — and the ability of books to be both “medic and medicine at once.” Jean takes his job as a bookseller very seriously. This was an instance when I wished I had a physical copy rather than a digital one; if I was holding The Little Paris Bookshop, I would have been dog-earing and highlighting and starring like a madwoman.

As it stands, I want you to discover this novel for yourself. It’s not one I’ll soon forget.


4.5 out of 5

Pub: June 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book chat: ‘Etched in Sand’ by Regina Calcaterra

Etched in SandRegina Calcaterra could have turned out very differently.

The third of five children, Regina and her siblings were forced to scrabble a life together when Cookie — their mentally ill, alcoholic mother — went on weeks- or months-long binges, leaving her four daughters and son to fend for themselves.

Little to no food. Shelter — until a landlord gets wise to the fact that his tenant isn’t paying . . . and has abandoned her kids at his rundown apartment, where they live like warriors forced to steal to survive. The clothes on their backs and, if they’re lucky, a television set to entertain the little ones.

No more. No less. For years.

Though she thinks there are people who want to help them, Regina fears what has already come to pass before: being shoved into foster care, where she will be unable to look after siblings — especially Rosie, the baby of the group. Tired of playing “mom” before their time, Regina’s teenage sisters have begun hefting more of the responsibility to Regina . . . who has no resources, no support.

Even in this quagmire in New York, Regina believes that staying together in an abusive hell with Cookie — who arrives only occasionally to dole out beatings and drop off pathetic groceries — is better than losing one another. Better than the unknown. Until one confession changes everything . . . and changes life forever.

Regina Calcaterra’s Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island is the sort of book you desperately wish were fiction. These horrible things can’t really have happened, can they? No “mother” could be so heartless. No “parent” could be so cruel. No system in place to help children could be so neglectful, and no children could really be forced to steal or starve to death in a lonely, worn-out hell.

This book is jarring. Gut-wrenching. Horrifying. Despite the obvious pain and difficulty, though, we know from the beginning that Regina not only survives her mother’s abuse . . . but thrives. That glimmer of hope — that small, tiny ray of sunshine in the distance — is what kept me motivated to turn the pages. Regina is a woman you come to know and love: someone you want to cheer on and support. Someone who needs that support.

Why read a memoir detailing such neglect? The power of Regina’s story — which is her siblings’ story, too. Even in her darkest moments, she never loses sight of the most important people in her life: her family. Though the system fails Cookie’s children in many ways, they never give up fighting for one another. And knowing that Regina goes on to become wildly strong and successful, brave and resilient, well . . . it makes it all worthwhile.

Though occasionally tough to read, Etched in Sand was impossible to put down. I finished the book in two sittings, desperate to make sure that Camile, Cherie, Norman, Rosie and Regina would somehow land on their feet.

With or without Cookie.

Somehow, through it all, Regina’s first-person account does not come off as bitter — or even angry. Someone who has every right to be a fire-breathing dragon when recounting the horrible things she was forced to do, see and decide as a teen manages to tell her tale without malice. Regina’s writing strikes a delicate balance between factual detachment and impassioned storytelling, and I found that impressive. Crazy, even.

For much of the story, I felt focused on the idea of revenge . . . this hope that their mother would finally be forced to pay for what she did to them — either with jail time or mental anguish. Preferably both. In the process, I wanted her to repent and apologize. To be less of an unspeakably horrible monster, basically.

But real life doesn’t always work that way. By the close of Calcaterra’s powerful memoir, I was thinking more about forgiveness . . . and how important it is for the soul. Despite Cookie’s attempts to break them down and wreck them, her children found a way to move forward.

The best revenge, they say, is living well.


4 out of 5

Pub: 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book chat: ‘Me Before You’ by Jojo Moyes

Me Before YouOh, you guys.

I can’t really think about this story without tearing up. I mean, I am deeply hormonal — but I really think I’d have been reduced to a whimpering mess even without a baby playing havoc with my emotions.

This book is powerful. Redemptive. Uplifting. Soul-wrecking. Funny, exhilarating, memorable. Basically, it’s everything I want in a book — and though I ardently wished it could have turned out differently, I understood it. This book? This book was love.

Louisa “Lou” Clark and Will Traynor meet at the most complicated points in their lives. For twenty-something Lou, life is a tireless march between the home she shares with her parents, sister, nephew and grandfather and the tea shop where the regulars all know her name. Day-to-day, nothing much changes; day-to-day, Lou has no plans for change. Or escape.

Will Traynor was a handsome, successful, high-flying London hotshot until a freak accident left him paralyzed with no desire to live. Now wheelchair-bound and living with his devastated parents, Will spends his days immersed in music or staring blindly at films. What he doesn’t want — or need — is a babysitter, but the freshly-unemployed Lou seems determined to fit that bill.

Though initially prickly, distant and cold, Will can’t help finding himself won over by Lou’s eccentric dress and caring personality; she is funny, kind, beautiful. Their days once spent in silence are soon filled with soaring conversation, and they open up to one another within the confines of Will’s home.

When Lou dares to begin to venture outside the safe walls Will has constructed, their friendship deepens — and her desire to make him see the world (and himself) as valuable becomes her reason for rising each day. But what — or who — could change Will’s mind about life?

Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You is easily one of my favorite reads in years. I whipped through it like crazy, simultaneously unable to part with it and absolutely dreading having finished it. When I got to the pivotal conclusion (which I will not spoil, don’t worry), I was sobbing as though I’d just gotten word that my soldier was never coming home.

Lou and Will’s growing dynamic makes this story — and I really fell for Lou. She is so resilient, funny, strong-willed, independent . . . yet still vulnerable and searching, searching. When she meets Will, she’s initially afraid of him and his coldness — but desperately needs the money his parents are paying for his care. She’s not a nurse (Will has someone for that); she’s there for moral support. Companionship. Hired for her cheery disposition, Lou is determined to be a friend.

And she is. As they begin to trust one another, I felt my heart bursting as they set out on adventures like attending a concert or going for walks around a nearby castle. Though Will seems broken, physically and spiritually, he finds healing in Lou’s company. They complement each other perfectly, actually, and I loved the idea that love comes in many forms.

As I approached the last few chapters, I felt a gnawing pit open in my stomach. Though I was desperate to learn what was going to happen, I worried endlessly about both Will and Lou. There was a surprising amount of romance and sensuality in their interactions; their relationship became quite intense. I grew concerned that one or both would get hurt, but realized hurt is inevitable.

Hurt is inevitable. But we can choose how to build from that hurt, how to use that hurt to become something greater, something more . . . and though my heart absolutely broke for Lou, I could see her becoming the woman she is meant to be. The fighter, the dreamer, the do-er that Will encourages.

Me Before You is not a novel I’ll soon forget, and it has cemented Jojo Moyes as one of my favorite storytellers. I loved One Plus One, but this story? It’s one for the ages.


5 out of 5

Pub: 2012 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg


Book chat: ‘Big Little Lies’ by Liane Moriarty

Big Little LiesWhen’s the last time you raced through a book like wildfire, so caught up in the story that you’re unable — or unwilling — to set it down . . . even if that means Mt. Laundrymore has grown in your bedroom and dinner just ain’t getting made?

For me, it had been a while. My reading in 2014 was, to be honest, pretty lackluster. After learning I was pregnant in September, my concentration was pretty much shot. Nothing interested me. Even with stacks of novels just waiting to be picked up, I could barely muster the energy to crack their covers.

That malaise traveled well into November and December . . . until I found Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. A recommendation from Melissa, this novel follows the lives of several Australian families with children in the same kindergarten class: quiet Jane and her son, Ziggy, running from a disturbing past; beautiful Celeste with her wealthy and perfect husband, Perry, who transforms after-hours — and hides that side from their twin boys; outspoken Madeline and Ed, who are parents to two youngsters with Madeline’s teen daughter in the mix.

And then there are the Blonde Bobs: the seemingly-perfect moms who hover and preen and dictate, lording over the “inferior” parents when they dare darken the door of their beloved school. Madeline is well-versed in their antics . . . and all too happy to show newbie Jane, freshly arrived in Australia’s coastal Pirriwee, the ropes.

She knows young Jane needs it.

Interspersed with the narrative are snippets from an interview — and it’s clear something terrible has happened at the school’s Trivia Night. Terrible enough to leave someone dead. As readers, we don’t know what or who . . . but we do know when. And as we get ever closer to that fateful night, my heart began to pound.

What works so brilliantly in Big Little Lies is the wide, varied tapestry of characters we get to know and love. This is contemporary, domestic fiction that shimmers and shines; it’s engrossing, well-written, effortless to read. As I got sucked into Jane’s awful back story, Celeste’s current heartbreak and Madeline’s painful desire to connect with her daughter, I could think of little else. I didn’t want it to end.

But it did end . . . and what an explosive conclusion it was. I must admit to never guessing the twist, and the identity of the murder victim remained elusive until I literally gasped aloud during Trivia Night. My husband asked what was happening — but I shushed him, unable to fill him in with a little snippet. “It’s complicated,” I said.

It was . . . and it wasn’t. As Moriarty deftly unveiled many secrets, I was awestruck at her ability to throw me off while still leading me in the right direction the entire time. She got me — and she got me good.

With its glimpses into many marriages — some working, others not — and the families either trying to stay glued together or ripping apart at the seams, Big Little Lies will appeal to fans of domestic dramas and well-written contemporary fiction. I loved my time with Madeline, Jane and Celeste, and find myself thinking about them even after turning the final page.


4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg