Book review: ‘Paris In Love’ by Eloisa James

Paris In LoveI love daydreaming about Paris.

It’s one of my favorite pastimes, in fact. The people, the architecture, the desserts . . . all tantalizing. Intoxicating. Absorbing. If I had the funds and vacation time (both quite elusive these days), I’d be on a transcontinental flight faster than you can say macaron.

But alas. Until I can sip wine beneath the Eiffel Tower in person, I’ll have to settle for delightful stories like Eloisa James’ memoir Paris In Love.

After surviving cancer shortly after her mother recently died of the disease, Eloisa James convinces her husband, son and daughter to move abroad for a year to discover what the Parisian life is all about. With Anna and Luca settled in a new school and Alessandro learning the local ropes, Eloisa settles in to absorb the city and work on several books.

A popular and prolific romance novelist, Eloisa makes no bones about her French journey: though she may wish she and her family came away from the experience with amazing “life lessons” or a greater appreciation for family or the passage of time, what their year abroad really taught her was to try and be in the moment. Life is just life. Told as a series of vignettes, Paris In Love is a compilation of her skillfully-crafted Facebook and Twitter updates from their time in the City of Light — occasionally expanded into short essays about subjects as diverse as Anna’s burgeoning friendships, French food, a nearby dance school and more.

It was a different reading experience — and a quick one. James’ thoughts are shared in paragraph-long snippets that, while chronological, don’t necessarily connect from one page to the next. The results felt like reading someone’s travel journal: little glimpses of day-to-day life for a stranger in a strange land, trying to blend with the locals while getting some work done. The most charming passages focused on Luca and Anna, Alessandro and Eloisa’s children, and I looked forward to hearing about their ex-pat adventures in school.

Francophiles and armchair travelers will find Paris In Love to be a fast, delightful read — and James’ fans will welcome an opportunity to know the author better through her memoir. If Paris lacks sparkle for you, you’ll likely find the descriptions hum-drum — but if you’re looking to escape to the other side of the Atlantic for a few hours, James’ invitation to come along is a fun one.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0812981901 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Have Mother, Will Travel’ by Claire and Mia Fontaine

Have Mother, Will TravelMia and Claire Fontaine, a mother-daughter duo who “found” each other again after years of physical and drug abuse threatened to separate them forever, have settled into a familiar — and unfamiliar — rhythm. Now a decade out from her troubled past, Mia is a 25-year-0ld woman learning the ropes of adulthood after growing up too fast.

With her daughter now relatively settled, Claire needs a new focus — and has recently uprooted her life to move cross-country with her husband. Now planted in a fixer-upper with “potential” in Florida, 51-year-old Claire still vacillates between wanting to help her daughter and trying to let her come into her own. It isn’t easy.

Feeling both physically and emotionally separated when Claire learns about the Global Scavenger Hunt, a real “Amazing Race”-style trip that takes travelers to four continents and ten countries in less than a month, she eagerly calls her daughter to gauge interest. They both feel disconnected after ending a whirlwind press tour for Come Back, a memoir they penned about Mia’s turbulent youth and sexual abuse, and want to start fresh. Claire sees this as an opportunity to get to know her daughter again — and differently this time.

Claire and Mia FontaineThey sign up. They embark. Starting in China and eventually winding their way through Malaysia, Nepal, Greece, France and more, the Fontaines explore different cultures, traditions, meals, gender roles — and the ever-changing dynamic between mothers and daughters.

Have Mother, Will Travel is a unique blend of memoir that both excites with its armchair travel opportunities and entices with its insights on the complicated, beautiful and challenging relationships between families. The women take turns narrating, each with a distinct voice and focus, we’re frequently treated to the “two sides to every story” lens as Mia and Claire discuss traveling, the past and their future.

What I loved most about the book — aside from, you know, the tantalizing descriptions of locales like Cairo and Athens — was how seamlessly the women shift from talking about their relationship to exploring the relationships all women share. As much an exploration of motherhood as a travel memoir, Have Mother, Will Travel offers so much food for thought regarding women’s roles in other nations, our perceptions as Americans (and what it means to be American) and the underlying responsibility humans have to one another.

Of the two voices, Claire — an erstwhile screenwriter — was the more literary. She offers gems like this:

“It’s not often mothers and daughters relate in silence. We speak our whole lives long in conversations reckless, tender, thoughtless, bold, honest, funny, hypersensitive, unconscious, cutting, healing. Our daughters hear us in utero long before they see us and we hear our mothers’ voices long after they’re gone. ‘I have conversations with my mom all the time,” my friend Leah recently told me. “She’s been dead twenty years and I still have things to say to her.'” (p. 117, hardcover edition)

I looked forward to their insights as American women abroad as much as their discussions of their personal relationship, though both were fascinating. While reading Come Back isn’t necessary to get the full breadth of Have Mother, Will Travel, I could see where really getting the pair’s back story would help to appreciate just how far they’ve come — and how far they have to go. Still, an introduction in this book helps set the stage for the ladies’ around-the-world adventure; I thought it was very well done. I felt dropped into the story without getting smacked over the head with too much telling, not enough showing.

And the story itself? It was interesting. Uplifting, different. Well-paced and well-researched, the Fontaines obviously spent a great deal of time reliving their experiences and expanding on them with local history. I loved the blend of fact and emotion — the swirl of Claire and Mia’s personal dynamics amidst the warm stone of Cairo’s ancient pyramids and the fragrant fields of Avignon. Claire often details their interactions with natives, too, and I loved the little stories of the people they met in remote locales.

If you love armchair travel and discussions of the tender but steadfast love fused by motherhood? Well, the Fontaines are ready to let you in. Have Mother, Will Travel was an engrossing read that delved deeper than I expected from the (pretty!) cover, and it’s one I would easily recommend to memoir lovers looking for some international flavor.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0061688428 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthors’ Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Calling Dr. Laura’ by Nicole Georges

Calling Dr. LauraNicole Georges grew up believing her father was dead. The youngest daughter of a woman who seemed to shuffle men faster than cards at a blackjack table, Nicole struggled with her mother’s whims as well as her changing identity. After her older sister comes out, it seems all the more important for Nicole to cling tightly to her own secret — and it’s slipped that her vanishing dad might not have disappeared in the way she thought. A fateful call to Dr. Laura Schlessinger realigns Nicole’s thinking — maybe just in time to confront her complicated past.

It’s been so long since I picked up a graphic novel. The ones I’ve enjoyed in the past — like Craig Thompson’s Blankets — blew me away . . . so I guess it’d be fair to say I had high expectations of Nicole Georges’ memoir-in-illustrations. Described as “part coming-of-age and part coming-out story,” Calling Dr. Laura was an interesting work.

You know, I have a ton of respect for Georges. She grows up in a home full of secrets and half-truths, and I think my favorite portions of the book were the moments she explores her childhood. As an artist, Georges’ style is fun and retro (check it out). I’m certainly no expert on these matters — art is a fuzzy area I studied one semester in college, like, eight years ago — but I appreciated her illustrations and the way she characterized her young self. As she suffers heartbreak and finds solace in life with her dogs in Portland, Ore., it’s impossible not to feel the confusion and hurt stemming from a break-up.

But as a narrative? Calling Dr. Laura didn’t captivate me. The central mystery in Georges’ work is, of course, that of the missing father. Who is he? Where is he? Why did he walk out on the family? Is he still alive? And I get that, through the course of the memoir, we’re led to understand why Georges’ dad is of less importance than, say, her mother: the person who, for better or worse, was there through it all. But I couldn’t help feeling unsatisfied. By the book’s close, I knew I should feel something — especially after the bombshell epilogue. But though heartbreaking, I didn’t feel as emotionally connected to Georges as I wish I had.

Still, Georges’ story will appeal to fans of graphic memoirs and GLBT-themed stories. Though Georges’ orientation is not the story’s focus, it’s an important part of how she relates to her family — and why she doesn’t just confront her mom about the past. It seems crazy that a lie so big would stretch between a group for so long, but Georges does a remarkable job of probing her family’s history while still leaving a little mystery intact. I enjoyed it and wouldn’t hesitate to read more of her story later on.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0547615590 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag’ by Jennifer Gilbert

Jennifer Gilbert was only 22 when she was violently, randomly attacked outside a friend’s apartment in New York City. In the wake of that physical and mental assault, Gilbert was forced to reconcile the fact that someone tried to kill her with the knowledge that he didn’t succeed — and that she must find a way to move forward. Piece by piece, inch by inch.

Sound like the plot of terrifying movie? Yeah. It basically was. Gilbert’s I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag: A Memoir of a Life Through Events — the Ones You Plan and the Ones You Don’t is the story of her tumultuous twenties, the aftermath of the attack and her rise to eventual success as an event planner, entrepreneur and mother. It’s filled with hardship and heartbreak, love and loss, humor and devastation — and through it all: determination. The one thing Gilbert’s attacker couldn’t steal.

Here’s the thing: I don’t generally seek out survivor’s stories. Not because I’m disinterested, cold-hearted; not because I don’t feel for others and hope for their recovery. Mostly because I’m a skittish, empathetic reader with an active imagination. If I read about it in a book, it’s not a huge leap to imagine these terrible things happening to me. And when they’re written well, it’s no leap at all.

Such was the way with Gilbert’s tale. I felt her cuts and bruises; I ached when she ached. Her descriptions of life pre- and post-attack were heartbreaking. I didn’t pick up the memoir with a clear understanding of what happened to her — only that she had a great adversity to overcome on her path to becoming a successful business owner. That aspect appealed to me: the one-woman show. The tough, don’t-tell-me-no female founder. It’s what prompted me to pick up I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag, and to be honest? The attack hit me like a wrecking ball. I didn’t see it coming.

So I’m cautioning you. Scary stuff goes down.

But Gilbert’s is not a tragedy. She’s honest about her feelings following her near-death experience: the fear and anxiety and chaos that encircled her life after 1991. She doesn’t sugarcoat things, doesn’t smooth them over. But when circumstances really start to get her down, Gilbert pulls herself up by those metaphorical bootstraps and digs in. She refuses to be a victim; she doesn’t want others to know her story. After her physical wounds heal, the details of her attack begin to fade — and aren’t dragged out for every newcomer on the scene. Her attack is not a party trick or fodder for gossip.

Gilbert turns inward and gets down to business. She becomes determined to thrive.

This story of her road to recovery and path to finding love was interesting and well-paced, and I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag is definitely a reminder to never take life for granted. Gilbert makes it clear that she never craves sympathy; she doesn’t want others to feel sorry for her. I believe she held this story in for as long as she could, eventually finding the strength to disclose what happened twenty years ago when her young son began his struggle with alopecia.

You know, I just really liked this book. It worked for me. The author herself is erudite and sassy, confident and funny. Though obviously wealthy, she never comes across as holier-than-thou — and she doesn’t pretend to have it all figured out. She felt like “one of us,” basically — genuinely. I could see myself throwing back champagne at one of her impeccably-organized parties, dripping in diamonds, or just see us catching a latte in jeans while the kids are in school. Assuming I was, um, a mother in New York City. But you know what I mean.

Fans of contemporary memoirs, stories of triumph, those interested in the event-planning business or anyone who just craves a good read will find plenty to ponder in this memoir. At just over 200 pages, I devoured it quickly and really liked Gilbert. She’s an amazingly resourceful person, a role model — and this is a book I heartily recommend.

Check out a bit of Gilbert’s story below.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062075942 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Mini book reviews: ‘We’re Just Like You…’ and ‘Black Heels To Tractor Wheels’

Two memoirs. And my thoughts on them, which aren’t quite as professional and fleshed-out as they might be in one of my “normal” reviews, so . . . it’s Tuesday, friends, and here you go: Rivenbark and Drummond. Drummond and Rivenbark.

They have nothing to do with one another, but I’m squeezing these ladies into one post.

We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier
by Celia Rivenbark
3.5 of 5 stars
Source: library

When it comes to the South, Celia Rivenbark has seen and heard it all. The humor columnist from North Carolina shares her “confessions of a tarnished belle” in a book that was laugh-out-loud funny one moment and snooze-inducing the next.

I borrowed this one on audio and listened to it in less than a week, so it was quick — but not very memorable. The vignettes have little to do with one another, and many of them have little to even do with Southern culture; the writer just happens to be Southern. Still, no matter; it was funny and light, albeit no competition for my beloved Jen Lancaster and Laurie Notaro.

The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels
to Tractor Wheels

by Ree Drummond
2 of 5 stars
Source: publisher

Marlboro Man is gorgeous. Marlboro Man looks great in his jeans. I act like a fool around MM, but MM makes my insides turn into jelly — which is just as important to note as my parents’ impending divorce and the death of my dog and the effects of an Oklahoma prairie fire.

Look, Ree — I love you. I love your adorable cooking show. I waited in line for four and a half hours to meet you in 2010, which almost led to the demise of my nascent relationship with Spencer. (But also proved a barometer for how patient and awesome my boyfriend is, so actually — thank you?)

But this book? It was pretty dreadful. Boring and repetitive and eye-roll-inducing and all the things I never thought I would ever say about my beloved PW. It read like an overly dramatic romance novel, and honestly? I wondered how such a sassy, spunky woman could come across as such a whiny lemming in her take on the early years of her romance with Ladd, her hunky husband, and their quick-as-lightning courtship. (And marriage. And first child.) The endless references to Marlboro Man’s physique and their obvious attraction to one another made me sip my Diet Coke with disdain, and I only finished the book out of a sense of loyalty to all PW has meant to me over the years. If it had been penned by anyone else, it would have been out. the. door.

Ree’s trademark self-deprecating humor is buried beneath a thick layer of insecurity and inexperience in Black Heels — and not in a charming way. It also came across as . . . very anti-feminist? I don’t know. I didn’t like it. I’m going to end here but still know that I love you, PW, though I will stick to reading your blog and admiring your adorable kids and dogs.

Okay, so I was wrong about not having that much to say about Pioneer Woman. But I feel sort of bad panning the book, so I’m going to hide my thoughts within this “mini” review post because somehow it assuages that odd nagging guilt. Though I’m just being honest. Okay? Okay.

Book review: ‘As Always, Jack’ by Emma Sweeney

Decades after her father’s plane goes down in the Atlantic, Emma Sweeney “meets” the pilot father she never knew through letters saved by her mother from the early days of their courtship. After her mother’s death, these letters — hidden since Emma’s childhood — give her a glimpse at the funny, charismatic and devoted man with whom Beebe had her sons and daughter: Emma herself, born after Jack’s death during the Cold War.

Jack met Beebe Mathewson in Coronado, Calif., just weeks before he was sent overseas with the Navy. Stationed in Hawaii and Tsingtao, China, Jack and Beebe’s nascent relationship begins with his acknowledgment that he’s utterly smitten with her — and their love only strengthens in the following months apart. In Emma Sweeney’s As Always, Jack, a collection of her father’s letters from 1946, we read only his missives to the beauty he left in California — but the affection between them is clear. It would have been wonderful to read Beebe’s letters, too, but they’re nowhere to be found; Emma notes that her heartbroken mother likely destroyed them after her husband’s death.

For me, the highlight of this short-but-sweet collection — published with a prologue and epilogue explaining family history and the letters’ significance — was learning how Emma felt about the father she never knew. Growing up, Emma’s questions about her family’s origins went unanswered. After her mom remarried when Emma was small, she was told to refer to her stepfather as “Dad” and her biological father as “Jack.” It made sense, I guess . . . considering her dad was gone. But it left Emma with a hole in her heart.

It’s hard to imagine Beebe’s heartache at having lost the love of her life — especially when no one could explain what became of him. Originally written off as “lost in the Bermuda Triangle,” the case was considered closed after the ’50s plane crash. It’s only in adulthood that Emma discovers what really became of Jack. When she finds her father’s letters, tucked away in a drawer, she knows intuitively that her mother left them for her alone to discover. It’s not hard to imagine they’d been hidden away for quite some time — a relic from a simpler time in Beebe’s life, before everything in her world went dark.

Though Jack’s letters to Beebe make up most of the book (and I enjoyed them), I found myself more interested in Emma’s childhood and the mystery of Jack’s plane crash. Here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure most of us have a stack of letters just like Jack’s somewhere in a family attic. I grew up hearing stories of my great grandfather, a World War II veteran, and all the letters he wrote from China when my grandmother was young. I’ve held quite a few in my hands, actually, and talked about my great grandfather’s adventures abroad. Those letters? They’re treasures. My great grandfather’s descriptions of life in the service, the Kodak camera he purchased on the black market in China, the obvious love and devotion he had for his wife and daughter at home . . . they bring tears to my eyes. And Jack’s seem much the same.

Though the missives are likely reminiscent of many written in the 1940s, maybe that doesn’t matter. As Always, Jack is a pleasant read, one I devoured quickly; I chuckled a few times, shed a tear once or twice. I can’t imagine being Emma in that time following her mother’s passing, saying goodbye to one parent while just “meeting” another for the first time. Jack’s letters are a treasure for the Sweeney family — absolutely — and if you’re a World War II buff (though these were technically written after the war) who enjoys epistolary love stories, Sweeney’s collection is a heartwarming way to spend an afternoon.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0316758582 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazon
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

GIVEAWAY update on 7/12: Congrats to Erin, lucky No. 5 in my entrants list. I’ve emailed you!

Book review: ‘Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me’ by Lisa F. Cook

When Lisa joins her teacher husband in holy matrimony, they have a few blissful days before embarking on a whole new life — across an ocean. After Peter accepts a job in Nagoya, Japan, high maintenance Lisa must adapt to a new culture. Kicking and screaming, perhaps, but adapt nonetheless.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Japan Took The J.A.P. Out of Me is an entertaining look at one Type-A woman’s quest to make the most of a foreign experience. Peter’s new teaching post means Lisa must leave behind her L.A.-based friendships, family and work for the year they’re abroad. As someone addicted to her regular primping sessions, lunch dates and hob-nobbing, Lisa’s introduction to Japanese culture is a little rocky. She doesn’t speak the language, for one, and as a tall, blonde American? Well, let’s just say attracts her fair share of attention. Cook isn’t prepared for the onslaught of changes, but eventually attempts to make the most of her time away outside the U.S.

Despite the skewering it’s taken, I have to tell you: I really liked this book. It was my constant companion in the days until I finished it, and I loved Cook’s glimpses at a culture so entirely different from my American way of life. Broken down into chapters regarding seemingly “simple” tasks, like laundry and eating out, Cook’s battles to master things that came naturally in the U.S. really got me thinking. I’ve traveled a bit in other countries and love peeking at how others live, but to actually move there? It was brave. And bold. And really cool.

Does Lisa occasionally act like a spoiled brat? Sure. Does her pinched-nose annoyance with foreign culture become grating? Sometimes. It’s hard to believe someone so averse to living abroad actually moves abroad, but hey — we all do crazy things for love. And Lisa makes no bones about the way she feels for Peter, even getting into the nitty-gritty of doing “dirty” American things in their Japanese living arrangements. We know they’re in love and they’re going to thrive or fall together. I liked the vulnerable parts of their nacent marriage she let us see, and I loved that she never tried to be perfect — or describe it that way.

And here’s what makes Lisa a likable heroine: she’s aware of her faults and doesn’t take herself too seriously. Though deemed “shallow” by other reviewers, I gently beg to differ: Cook is a self-proclaimed J.A.P. (Jewish American Princess), so her misadventures on public transportation and fending for herself in a world where everything is foreign takes on extra meaning. She admits she’s been spoiled and sheltered. And she’s trying to change that. Maybe it takes a while, but that was all right with me. I was invested — and along for the ride.

If you’re looking for a deep look at life for expatriates doin’ their thing in Nagoya, this probably isn’t for you. Lisa is often more interested in finding a good hairdresser and manicurist than becoming culturally enriched, but that didn’t bother me. She does offer insights into Japanese culture through an American lens, though they were pretty superficial. Still, I found her hilarious and charming, and Japan Took The J.A.P. Out of Me was a delightful read.

For chick lit lovers and armchair travelers, this is one delicious bento box of fun. (Mmmm, bento.)

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 1439110034 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg