Posts Tagged Maine

book review: A Piece of the World

piece-of-the-world

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline. William Morrow| February 2017| 309 pages | $27.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-235626-0

RATING: 4.5/5*

“Do our natures dictate the choices we make, I wonder, or do we choose to live a certain way because of circumstances beyond our control? Perhaps these questions are impossible to tease apart because, like a tangle of seaweed on a rock, they are connected at the root. I think of those long-ago Hathorns, determined beyond all reason to leave the past behind—and we, their descendants, inheritors of their contrarian tenacity, sticking it out, one generation after the next, until every last one of us ends up in the graveyard at the bottom of the field.”

In the gorgeous and mysterious 1948 masterpiece Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth depicts a woman crouching on a hill looking toward a weathered farm house. Looking at the painting, one might wonder whether the woman is coming or going. She seems far away and in such a twisted, crouching position with her hair blowing a bit in the wind. I never knew that Wyeth painted this on a farm in Maine. Author Christina Baker Kline creates a riveting story of the artist’s muse. Christina Olson lives a rather solitary, quiet and isolated existence in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine on her family’s farm with her brother. Christina lived at a particular time in particular circumstances and suffered an illness as a child which led to increasingly physical debility. At school she develops an affinity for Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Her father insists she quit school after eighth grade to help on the farm. Christina wanted to be a teacher. When young painter Andrew Wyeth asks if he can paint the farm, Christina and her brother welcome the distraction and attention.

This masterful work of historical fiction—told through first-person narrative– allows readers to feel Christina’s pain, disappointment and glimmers of hope throughout. In her youth, Christina dates a young man who summers nearby. But after several years he becomes engaged to another woman. He never intended to foray into a serious relationship with Christina. She’s devastated as she’s looking to be understood and accepted and just seen by somebody. Something many people seek. Readers feel empathy for Christina but not pity. She’s resilient and resourceful. She’s managing her situation.  Writing with exquisite detail, Kline transports us to Maine and effectively moves from 1940 to the early 1900s to reveal the personal history of the woman immortalized by a classic American work of art.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.

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Maine: book review

Maine , by J. Courtney Sullivan. Publisher: Knopf (June 14, 2011) Literary fiction. Hardcover, 400 pages.

She got the feeling that none of her children particularly liked one another, or worse, that they had no use for one another. So why keep the old place? And why bother coming up, year after year, when it only made her feel lonely, longing for something she’d already had?

J. Courtney Sullivan writes women vividly, flawed and in such a resonant way that you recognize women that you know in her characters. Sullivan focuses on the Kelleher family with all its dysfunction, hidden drama and interactions. The mercurial family matriarch Alice Kelleher has three children. Alice’s eldest daughter Kathleen is an eco-friendly free-spirit who moved to California to raise worms with her second husband, Arlo. Clare, the middle child, lives happily in Jamaica Plain with her husband where they run a successful business. Patrick, the youngest and most successful, seems most invested in Alice’s well-being.

The business was the perfect reflection of their relationship. Arlo was a dreamer, an optimist, a big-picture guy. And Kathleen was a realist—she told it like it was. Together, they just worked.

Alice’s husband Daniel died not too long ago which has left a void for the entire Kelleher clan. Lately in Maine, Alice spends the majority of time with the local priest. The rest of the family’s turned away from Catholicism for the most part. She questions her mothering ability even now. It turns out that Alice had always planned to move to Paris and become an artist but she met her husband Daniel and a new reality quashed her dreams.

She thought of how she never really liked children, though her friends always said positively everyone fell in love with their own once they had them. She felt as though her body was full of something bigger than itself, pushing against every inch of her, trying to get out. She wanted to say that she was here only by some strange accident, but that in reality she should be in a Paris apartment right now, painting in solitude.

In June, three generations of women converge on the cottage. Grand-daughter Maggie, who recently broke up with her boyfriend and discovered she’s pregnant, retreats to the beach. When she finally shares her secret with her mom, Kathleen rushes to be with her daughter in Maine. Though Kathleen isn’t very family oriented she loves her two children. She’s not been to Maine in a decade and that’s a rather thorny issue for her mother and even sister-in-law. Anne Marie, Alice’s seemingly perfect daughter-in-law, arrives harboring a bittersweet secret crush and painful truth [for her] about one of her children.

Family expectations, judgments and perceptions rarely change throughout the years. While I sometimes got a bit bogged down in all the peripheral characters, Sullivan tackles marriage and family dynamics in a solidly truthful and amusing manner in the densely packed Maine. It’s definitely the type of drama to dig into during the warm months.

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THIS LIFE IS IN YOUR HANDS: book review

This Life is in Your Hands , by Melissa Coleman. Publisher: Harper (April 12, 2011). Memoir. Hardcover, 336 pages.

We are a family of human beings trying to live a happy, healthy and fruitful existence in a world where it is difficult to do so. Our goal is not to prove anything, but is mainly to survive as decently as possible.
–Sue Coleman, The Wall Street Journal, 1970

This Life is in Your Hands is an engrossing memoir about homesteading in the 1970s and its effects on one young family. Home-birthed and raised on 60 acres in rural Maine, Melissa Coleman certainly had a unique childhood. Her parents embraced organic farming and living off the land in what was then a exotic, hippie-ish phenomenon to outsiders. She ran around barefoot, picked berries by the handful and gorged on them until she felt sick, listened to stories on the radio [while her peers watched television] and consumed a completely vegetarian, no refined sugars diet. When her parents first arrived in Cape Rosier, Maine, the untouched land challenged them, especially her father who’d been interested in organic farming for years. They had to start from scratch—creating gardens, keeping goats for milk and planning ahead for long Maine winters. For this young, idealistic couple it seemed like the perfect existence. The homesteading philosophy is to subsist completely off the land and to create nearly everything oneself. As Coleman wrote, it was a “growing subculture of environmentalists, natural foodies, and organic farming advocates.”

Sue and Eliot Coleman chose Maine because of Scott and Helen Nearing who wrote a book called Living the Good Life. They bought land from the Nearings. Eliot and Sue worked nearly 16 hour days. Homesteading required complete dedication and focus. If there wasn’t enough food for the day, the week, the month, to last the winter then they cannot survive. The family enjoyed a plethora of fresh seasonal vegetables and simple meals. They didn’t have an excess of material goods. In This Life is in Your Hands, Coleman clearly shows that the lifestyle embraced needs over wants. When Melissa is four years old, her sister Heidi is born, providing her both a playmate and student. She effectively taught Hannah the way of the land. Melissa attends elementary school which allows her exposure to other children and other lifestyles. But she never revolted against the homesteading way of life.

A third daughter Clara is born but soon after there’s a tragic accident and Heidi drowns in their homemade pond. Already strained, Sue and Eliot’s marriage fell apart. Eliot, who’d traveled abroad to study organic farming, was a true devotee to the lifestyle. Sue needed something else. She felt too much stress and not enough of the familial support which she craved. This Life is in Your Hands explores homesteading, the precursor to today’s organic farming movement, with clarity, thorough research and heart. The family’s heartbreak highlights the stress of this type of living [think the early settlers]. This Life is in Your Hands is a unique, environmentally conscious and tender memoir.

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purchase at Amazon: This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone

Melissa Coleman will be at Brookline Booksmith on April 19 at 7pm.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Melissa Senate [The Secret of Joy]

See my earlier review of The Secret of Joy by Melissa Senate. Recently Melissa took the time to answer these questions for me.

AMY STEELE [AS]: Why did you decide to have Rebecca live in Manhattan and Joy live in Maine?

MELISSA SENATE [MS]: I moved to Maine from New York City (where I’d lived since 1989) in 2004 and I can clearly see every day that Maine is a beautiful, easy place to live. But five years later, it still doesn’t feel like home. I think I sent my main character to Maine to find what I know is here (the beauty, the quaint, the lack of traffic and honking, the quirky), but haven’t really appreciated on any kind of level (except where it concerns my young son; Maine is made for kids). I think I made Maine and Wiscasset sound dreamy because I know it is and wanted to help myself see it. It did work a little. But for me, a lighthouse will never compare to Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace with its Angel of Waters statue.

AS: How do the differences between and urban and then a more serene, rural setting advance or influence the story?

MS: It’s interesting to me that New York seems like the bad guy in the story. It’s where Rebecca can’t find herself, can’t breathe, gets her worst news, feels trapped by her own . . . rut. And Maine is where everything opens for her.

[writer’s note: I’m an urbanite but I would, if I could afford to, have a country house in The Berkshires, Maine or Vermont]

AS: Many TV shows and films, place the urban woman in the middle-of-nowhere town where hilarity ensues. You definitely took a different approach with Rebecca. Why? Have you had some experience in this with your own move from NY to Maine?

MS: I’m a sucker for those fish out of water movies, even ones starring Renee Zellweger. But being in a very different environment wasn’t at all a driving force in the novel. Granted, the setting created its own world, but at its heart, this story could have been told with basing Joy in the East Village of Manhattan. Would have sounded different, sure, but the “middle of nowhere” aspect for The Secret of Joy was really to send Rebecca off to a place that in itself would be comforting. A comforting, sweet backdrop so that when she felt most alone, her surroundings would be like a hug. One of my favorite blurbs for The Secret of Joy said it was “a warm hug of a book.” I love that.

AS: How realistic do you think it is that Rebecca fits in so quickly in the town?

MS: When I first moved to Maine, to a small town with one (unnecessary) traffic light, I felt like I fit in right away. One neighbor knocked on the door the first day with vegetables from her garden. Another invited me to a book club meeting. Fitting in can often depend on how you feel about where you are. The people Rebecca meets (and the people I met) are not very different than she is, really. More down jackets and fewer pointy high heels, maybe.

AS: How did you come up with the idea of the letters unsent, kept in the box?

MS: Much of The Secret of Joy is based on what I wish I knew about my own biological father, who I haven’t seen or heard from since I was eight. I have always known that, as the result of his own affair, I have a half-sibling who was born when I was seven, a half-sibling I’d never seen or heard from until I was in my thirties when I received an email that said: I think you might be my half sister…. The story isn’t at all autobiographical; just that nugget of half-siblings connecting as adults is based from real life, but there are certain things I wish were true. One is that my biological father wrote a stash of letters explaining himself—and in a way that would bring closure. That’s one of the most wonderful things about writing fiction that you can change whatever you want to fix in your own life.

[writer’s note: I “re-connected” with my father as an adult (I too had not seen him since I was about 10) and he published a magazine in L.A. and I’m a writer. How perfect. Well, he blew it again and again. We agreed I’d write for him. He’d pay me a small amount. The check bounced. Same dead beat dad. And after all that time, what hurt the most was that his daughter he hadn’t seen in 20 years was there and he could have re-established a relationship and he chose not too.]

AS: Why sisters? What is it about the bond between sisters that usually makes for a compelling story?

MS: What I love about the dynamic between sisters is the potential. You should be best friends, first best friends from the tiniest of tot hood, but oftentimes sisters are not best friends, not friends at all because of what parents do their children, whether meaning to or not, or because the sisters are just very different people. What’s possible, what should be, is what I find so beautiful and love delving into.

AS: What do you think The Secret of Joy can tell people about family dynamics?

MS: What was reinforced for me during the writing of this book is that sometimes (and key word is sometimes) there’s no real bad guy when it comes to family dysfunction, that all involved feel differently about things depending on their point of view and personalities. I’m a happy person because of this way of thinking.

AS: Why did you choose the travel group as a career for Joy and the paralegal at a mediation firm for Rebecca?

MS: I wanted to give Rebecca a career that made endings a good thing, which is a bad thing for her. And I wanted to give Joy a career that made beginnings, and the open road, a necessity. Rebecca’s job is so bad for her that it helps her be in a place where she wants to flee. And Joy is right where she needs to be, with a foot firmly on the brake that slowly lifts up.

[writer’s note: Very clever. I never thought of that in reading it but now I see it and adore that idea–delightful!]

AS: What is your favorite aspect of the novel?

MS: What I love most is the spirit I think is there. There are a lot of stuck people in the novel, and at the end, they’re all on the way to finding the secret of joy for themselves. No one’s found it, of course, but they’re seeking it instead of doing absolutely nothing or remaining status quo or stuck in a rut. The seeking is everything.

AS: What do you find to be the greatest challenge about writing?

MS: Finding my main character’s heart and soul and putting voice to that. It takes me a good one hundred pages until I feel like I know her inside and out and can really tell her story. The fun part of that is then I can go back through those first 100 pages and color what’s black and white.

AS: How did you create the character of Michael—he’s like my ex-boyfriend and usually the type of guy I’m attracted to- successful but controlling?

MS: Yup, know the type! I’m not attracted to controlling, but I’ve had controlling boyfriends and I know how easy it is to lose yourself to their voice, their opinion, especially when you don’t know what you want or where you should be. For Rebecca, leaving controlling Michael, leaving her job, leaving her home would take something very big, something that was all hers and meant nothing to anyone else but her. That something presented itself in the form of a half-sister, a total stranger. And she reaches out for it. Michael calls her constantly in Maine, comes after her, never really listening to her from the beginning. He seems supportive, full of hugs and hot chocolate and wine and “their future,” but what he actually says is rat poison.

AS: What kind of research went into The Secret of Joy? as it is unusual for an adult to find her sister after the death of her parent.

MS: Eight years ago, I received an email that said: I think you might be my half-sister. Can you imagine getting that email out of the blue? The I think itself floored me. I took the nugget of that and created an entirely fictional premise and plot and characters, but the emotional impact, the emotions, period, all very real. That was my research!

AS: Why was Rebecca so desperate for a family that she didn’t even know in Maine. What attracted her so much to Maine?

MS: I don’t think she was desperate for a family; I think she was given this wisp of a huge thing (a secret half-sister) by her dying father and that it felt like a lifeline to her. A connection to herself, when she felt she had none—no family, no sense of herself or where she belonged. What she was desperate for was what was possible.

AS: Why the title The Secret of Joy?

MS: My editor came up with that perfect title, which now seems like such a no-brainer. (I’d originally called it The Love Bus, but the art department had big trouble designing the cover with such an odd title.) The main character’s secret half sister is named Joy, but what the title means for me is that the secret of joy is individual for every character in the book and they’re all finally looking for it. As I said, I think the seeking is everything.

AS: Thank you Melissa. I enjoyed The Secret of Joy and really enjoyed See Jane Date too which I read when it first came out.

MS: Thank you! I loved all your in-depth, insightful, and interesting questions!

[writer’s note: You are one of my new favorite author-friends! If I can be so bold to say that.]

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book review: The Secret of Joy

Title: The Secret of Joy
Author: Melissa Senate
ISBN: 978-1439107171
Pages: 352
Publisher: Downtown Press (November 17, 2009)
Category: women’s fiction
Review source: publisher
Rating: 4/5

People had been telling her of their tragedies and triumphs since preschool. With pinky promises and crossed hearts and swearing on various boyfriends’ lives not to tell (and Rebecca never did: she was a supreme keeper of secrets), she would hear stories of parents divorcing, of older sisters getting pregnant, of letting a boy unhook a bra. When she’s started working, she’d spent her lunch hours listening to all sorts of family dysfunction, of boyfriends, fiancés, and husbands who wanted this or didn’t want that. But then her mother had died and Rebecca had lost her way and trailed along in her dad’s career as a real-estate attorney—for too long.

The Secret of Joy takes an interesting approach to a topic not often addressed. What happens when a 28-year-old woman finds out from her dying father that she has a younger sister? Rebecca Strand longed for a sister all her life and now gets hit with a double blow: her father is dying but she has a long-lost sister living in Maine. He had an affair when Rebecca was two. She has endless questions about what this woman looks like and what she does and would she like her? Rebecca knows that she must meet her. Her father instructs her about a locked box he has kept in which she finds letters that he wrote to Joy on her birthday but never mailed. The Manhattan paralegal, in a two-year passionless relationship with Michael, takes her bereavement leave to find this sister, box of letters at her side. Rebecca is impulsive and idealistic. Her sister Joy is skeptical and practical. She’s a singles group tour planner. Rebecca throws herself into Joy’s life without giving Joy much of a chance to make any decisions. No matter how many times Joy turns her away, Rebecca determinedly returns. Before too long, Rebecca has new friends in Wicasset, Maine and even a blossoming love affair and she’s renting a house. She also has no desire to return to Manhattan. Maine provides another character for The Secret of Joy, as anyone who has visited knows. The people are genuine and welcoming, in no rush to be anywhere and generally sweet and comforting. At first, I thought, how realistic is it that she is embraced so quickly but then realized it’s small town Maine. Of course they would welcome someone as open and caring as Rebecca.

She glanced back at Rebecca. “Really. He’s nothing to me but biology and DNA. My mother married a very nice man when I was nine. He helped raise me. Why would I be interested in some stranger who couldn’t even face up to the most basic of responsibilities?”

With both her parents dead, she desperately wants a family and in that she wants her sister. Even if her sister doesn’t quite believe in the whole DNA makes us sisters argument. Joy resents their father for abandoning her and her mother completely. Joy says a sperm donor does not make a father. A father has to be present in someone’s life. [And I can understand this as my parents divorced when I was around six and my father disappeared. My mother remarried when I was 12 and I even changed my name when I was 23. My biological father reappeared during my adult years and it turned out that he ran a magazine. You would think this would be the perfect opportunity for his writer daughter to re-connect with her publisher father but he had never changed. He was still a deadbeat. So I would be just like Joy. Very unsure of what to expect.] Rebecca intends to make up for her father’s faults. Through touching moments, realistic situations and real people to which anyone can relate, Melissa Senate has created a book that will provide much debate on the subject of parenthood, siblings, and familial relationships. I’ve never had a sister but writers adore writing about the bond between sisters. In this one, the reader never knows whether Rebecca and Joy will ever find a common bond or a place at which to begin to mend that past that their father tore apart decades ago. The Secret of Joy provides an astute outlook on sisters, a subject that many women’s fiction books adore to cover.

Thank you to Sarah Reidy and Pocket Book Blog Tours.

Buy The Secret of Joy at an Indie Bookseller

–review by Amy Steele

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