About the Book:

The Lobster Chronicles by Linda Greenlaw (http://erinreads.com)The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island is the story of author Linda Greenlaw’s transition from swordboat captain to lobsterman. Leaving the open sea behind her, Greenlaw moves home to a tiny island seven miles off Maine’s coast. The book follows her through a lobstering season, starting with prepping gear and ending with the traps being hauled in.

But The Lobster Chronicles isn’t just about lobsters. It’s also about the people on this tiny island, Greenlaw included — their relationships, their habits, their battles, their histories.

My Thoughts:

Don’t ask me why I picked this book off the Half Price Books clearance shelf years ago. I couldn’t tell you. I’m equally uncertain why it’s made it through several bookshelf purges and a handful of moves, including one across the country. Funny how some books just cling to you, isn’t it? All I can say is that something about the book’s premise — living off the land (or sea, really) on a tiny island in the Northeast — appealed to me.

The Lobster Chronicles didn’t disappoint in that regard. It’s not a long volume, but it manages to touch on all kinds of things: the island and its residents (both summer and year-round), the lobstering industry (from the gear to the politics and beyond), a bit of the island’s history, some of the realities of life on an island reachable only by boat, Greenlaw’s own history (both personal and familial), and even — briefly — the reproductive habits of lobsters. Greenlaw paints her chosen pictures well, drawing the reader into this tiny, isolated, yet beautiful and rich world. No single aspect receives too much time or attention. Instead, Greenlaw strikes the right balance between terms and processes on the one hand and more personal story on the other. She touches on just enough technical stuff to give you a window into the world of lobster fishing, but not so much that you’re bored or confused. At the same time, she gets lost in neither the island’s history nor its day-to-day dramas.

It’s in the execution that I started finding little flaws in The Lobster Chronicles. For starters, I wasn’t quite sure why Greenlaw chose to spend her time on the specific anecdotes she does. Some made sense, while others seemed to get more or less time than they warranted. Further, though the book covers a broad range of topics, the way in which those topics come together isn’t always clear. Transitions feel a little choppy or forced. Shifts in topic feel abrupt. I often couldn’t really see why B came after A (or why they couldn’t have been sequenced the other way around). I also felt like the way Greenlaw herself came across shifted throughout the book. Like the way she wrote didn’t match the way she wrote about herself, if that makes sense. Like her voice didn’t align with the actual thoughts and feelings she records having.

The writing itself was okay. There were moments when I really liked Greenlaw’s writing style. A few times I nearly laughed out loud; at others I was touched or moved. But then there were other moments when a sentence meandered in an odd direction, when language got in the way of the story just enough to pull me out of the narrative. It felt like the book couldn’t figure out how to settle on a tone.

The Verdict: Mediocre

The Lobster Chronicles satisfied the desire that prompted me to purchase and hang onto it. Not, in my opinion, an exquisitely crafted work, but still interesting and well enough written to make me read it all the way through. And now I can finally release it back into the world!

Your Turn!

Have you ever been inexplicably drawn to a book? Did it turn out the way you’d hoped?

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UnderstudiesA couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the short, almost poetic novel Understudies by Ravi Mangla. Here’s how the publisher describes the book:

“A high school teacher begins to question the course of his life after a famous young actress moves into town. In the starlet’s shadow, his girlfriend, his mother, his neighbor, and his students take on strange new dimensions. Told in a series of snapshots, Understudies presents a sharp, funny, and heartbreaking study of beauty, celebrity, and everyday needs.”

I ended up enjoying the book very much, as you’ll see from my original review. Mangla’s writing style, in particular, really drew me in and kept me turning the digital pages.

The Giveaway Details

To celebrate the fact that Understudies is now available as an audiobook, the author has generously offered to give away three free Audible.com downloads to Erin Reads readers! You can read about the book and listen to a sample right here.

Want to enter to win a copy? Here’s what you need to know:

  • To enter, just leave a comment on this post. Make sure you include a valid email address so the author can contact you if you win.
  • One entry per person.
  • The contest will run for a week. Get your entry in before the end of Wednesday, February 12, 2014!
  • Three winners will be randomly chosen by the book’s author (Ravi Mangla). He’ll email the winners after the giveaway closes.

Good luck…and I hope you enjoy Understudies as much as I did!

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I received a copy of Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir by Frances Mayes for review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

About the Book:

Under Magnolia by Frances Mayes cover (erinreads.com)Under Magnolia is another memoir from Frances Mayes of Under the Tuscan Sun fame. Only this time, instead of exploring Italy, Mayes turns her attention to her childhood in the Deep South. Beginning with her early memories, Under Magnolia follows Mayes through her high school and college years, ending when she at last takes off for the West Coast.

My Thoughts:

I was a fan of Under the Tuscan Sun when it came out. More the movie than the book, but I did read and enjoy Mayes’s account of buying and rehabbing a run-down home in Tuscany. I liked the way Mayes wrote. She was good at capturing in writing the quality of remembering, the way some moments are razor-sharp while others are elusive and wispy. I was pleased to find that Under Magnolia has much the same quality to it. At the same time, though her writing is studded with the occasional literary gem, Mayes manages to avoid waxing too flowery and poetic.

Another aspect of Under Magnolia I appreciated was that Mayes did not put much effort into setting her story in the broader context of history. That may sound odd — who doesn’t like context? But I don’t think ten-year-old Frances was thinking much about what was going on in the country at large, and I found it fitting that Mayes tailored her focus to represent that.

Places and things play their part in Under Magnolia, of course. The South itself, its culture and atmosphere and geography, is a major part of what Mayes recalls about her time growing up there, and it had a strong influence on her life. But it is the people I’ll remember. There are old photographs sprinkled throughout the book — nearly all of people — which I particularly enjoyed. Mayes spends most of her time on her parents (and her mother in particular), her paternal grandfather (still living nearby), and Willie Bell, the African American woman who worked for Mayes’s family when she was a child. Mayes’s older sisters, on the other hand, barely have names, and enough boys wander through the pages that they’re hard to keep straight. It’s clear that the former were towering giants in Mayes’s early life, while the latter simply skipped across the surface. I found this pattern of emphasis to be interesting and telling in and of itself.

There is a bit of a disjointed feel to the book, particularly in the first half. It’s a little hard to get a toehold in terms of narrative and timeline. At first, this amorphous quality bothered me, and I had trouble really getting into the book. But as the stories slowly resolved themselves into something a bit more concrete later in the book, I came to realize that perhaps this style was intentional. After all, who can tell the events of their early childhood with as much clarity and chronology as they can their college years? The way in which Mayes chose to tell her story may be a reflection of just that, either intentionally or not.

The Verdict: Enjoyable

Under Magnolia is nice if you’re in the market for a memoir. It’s well-written, interesting, evocative. And if you are a fan of Frances Mayes, this newest of her books shines a light on a part of her she’s not yet known for. Overall, a good book.

Your Turn!

What memoirs are among your favorites?

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Thoughts on “Understudies” by Ravi Mangla

by Erin on January 15, 2014

I received a copy of Understudies from the author in exchange for an honest review.

About the Book:

Understudies by Ravi Mangla cover (http://erinreads.com)Understudies is one of those books that’s tough to describe. After several vain attempts to do so, I gave up and checked Outpost19′s website. I was glad to find the following there, which sums up Understudies better than I can:

“A high school teacher begins to question the course of his life after a famous young actress moves into town. In the starlet’s shadow, his girlfriend, his mother, his neighbor, and his students take on strange new dimensions. Told in a series of snapshots, Understudies presents a sharp, funny, and heartbreaking study of beauty, celebrity, and everyday needs.”

My Thoughts:

I’ll admit it. As I read the first couple of (very short) chapters in Understudies, I wasn’t sold. Mangla’s style is unique, and it takes some getting used to. But when I read chapter 3, I was sold.

The narrator has just returned home from his neighbor’s house, where the two of them were watching the actress move into her new home. Missy is the narrator’s girlfriend. Here’s chapter 3, in its entirety:

“Missy, all dirt and sweat, was sitting on the porch steps. ‘I don’t see what the big deal is,’ she said, skimming through a magazine she’d picked up at the supermarket checkout.”

I realized then that Mangla has a gift: He can capture moods, reactions, subtexts in just a few easy words. His style is astute, concise, and subtly clever. In fact, his writing has an almost poetic quality to it. Perhaps a bit of an acquired taste, but it didn’t take me long to acquire it.

You get a good sense of who Mangla’s characters are from the first moments you encounter them. There is Chudley, for instance, the friend and neighbor who hangs out on his roof, chills beers in the gutter, and is rather unhealthily interested in what the actress is doing. There’s the aforementioned Missy, who comes across as the frustratingly enigmatic woman. There’s the narrator’s mother, who finds herself dispensing advice to everyone she meets. And there are the teenage boys whose band the narrator joins — one of whom is actually named Cuisinart. These ordinary people, with all their human details, are set against the mysterious actress, about whom little is actually known. (In the novel, she doesn’t even have a name.)

The novel itself is brief but does not feel too short. Most chapters aren’t more than several paragraphs long, but it works. The word “snapshots” in the description above is entirely accurate — it’s like you’re zooming in tight on a few moments in the narrator’s life, then pulling back so far that you can’t see anything in between. Then it’s time to zoom in close again for another look at a tiny sliver of the narrator’s day. You could almost — almost – imagine the chapters as dated diary entries.

It’s one of those stories that begins where it begins and ends where it ends. If I looked hard enough, I could identify reasons why the beginning and ending pick up and leave off where they do. I like it as is, though, without thinking too much into it. It’s almost like you ride along with the characters for a stretch and then leave them to go on their way, having enjoyed the bits of your life that overlapped and knowing they’ll probably figure it out.

Intrigued? You can read an excerpt from Understudies right here.

The Verdict: Enjoyable

I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Understudies. I can’t think of another novel I’ve read to compare it to, which is always fun. If it sounds interesting to you, I’d say go for it. It does what it sets out to do nicely and is a pleasure to read.

Your Turn!

What books started out iffy for you but ended up winning you over?

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I received a copy of Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.

About the Book:

Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb cover (http://erinreads.com)Becoming Josephine is about what you’d expect, given the title. It tells the story of Josephine Bonaparte, from her youth on Martinique (when she was known as Rose) to her crowning as empress of France and beyond. The book focuses on the more personal side of Josephine’s story, highlighting events and moments that affected her growth and shaped her character rather than providing a complete history of her life.

My Thoughts:

I’m a fan of Josephine. I like her. I admire her. She’s courageous, passionate, determined, clever. She crossed an ocean to marry a man she’d never met, bore two children, weathered two marriages and more lovers, got herself through a lot of impossible situations, and lived through a pivotal period in French history. I have yet to read a factual biography of her, but she has fascinated me ever since I first learned of her.

I did not, however, love this book. It left me feeling dissatisfied and a little unhappy with how Josephine was portrayed. Since I finished it a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been stewing over what, exactly, left me so cold.

I think the book’s fatal flaw lies in the fact that it compressed Josephine’s life too dramatically. In the Author’s Note at the end of the novel, Webb mentions that she intentionally compressed periods of history to trace the arc of Josephine’s development. Fair enough. But the result is that the novel is a compilation of high points, emotional extremes, sudden decisions, and hurried glimpses of major historical events. It makes Josephine’s development seem at once too rushed and too contrived. She comes across as overly dramatic. And hey, maybe that’s how the actual historical Josephine was. But it didn’t work for me in the novel. Until the final pages, I liked Webb’s Josephine about as much as I liked George’s Helen.

I wasn’t won over by Webb’s writing style, either. It struck me as overly passionate most of the time, with an odd blend of old-fashioned and modern conventions. It emphasized the compression effects I’ve already  mentioned. I felt like it was forever a barrier between myself and the story. Not that it was actually bad. Just…noticeable. It kept snagging my attention as I read.

The one bright spot, in my opinion, was Webb’s portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte, Josephine’s second husband and the man who changed her name from Rose. He is intense, quirky, enigmatic, inscrutable. I never saw the relationship between Bonaparte and Josephine develop into the great love it was supposed to be, but on his own, Napoleon seemed right to me.

It’s possible I’m just being grumpy. Years ago I read and adored Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B. trilogy, which also traces the life of Josephine Bonaparte. Except Gulland gave Josephine three books and set her firmly within her historical context. The heroine still grew immensely. She still weathered the ups and downs, and they still shaped her character. The two authors’ approaches feel vastly different. Suffice it to say that I would recommend Gulland’s version a hundred times over Webb’s.

The Verdict: Mediocre

Am I glad I got the opportunity to read Becoming Josephine? Sure. It wasn’t a bad book. And if nothing else, it made me realize just how wonderful Sandra Gulland’s trilogy really is. It also made me want to revisit that old favorite. But Becoming Josephine won’t be making my list of 2014 favorites.

Your Turn!

What book(s) have you read that didn’t treat a historical figure the way you’d hoped or expected?

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