Saturday, August 15, 2015

Orphan Train: a book club review

Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline is a book I approached with a certain excited trepidation. Having written my masters thesis on Victorian orphans, I knew the despicable pedant in me would be on the look out for historical inaccuracies, but it's also a topic I find fascinating and the blurbs sounded good. Of course, there is a world of difference between Dickens' "lone, lorn, creatures" and American children sent from East Coast cities to lives of servitude in the Midwest (the plot is slightly more Anne of Green Gables than Oliver Twist).

Orphan Train uses the classic (a.k.a. cliché) story-within-a-story structure. The framing story has troubled Goth teenager Molly meeting aged rich lady Vivian to do some community service. There are no surprises in Orphan Train - I can hardly even clarify for myself what might constitute a spoiler in this review since not a single element of the plot was a twist. Their friendship builds as Vivian tells Molly the story of her childhood as an 'Orphan Train rider' and ... the rest is glossed-over history. 

Kline's story-telling is pleasant. Her writing style is both poetic and fluid, and her characters, in general, are well-developed. I devoured the book like one does a meringue - in the moment it's great, but you aren't left with much at the end.

In fact, as I was preparing to go to book club, I had to check my book shelf to remember what book we'd read. What was missing was any sort of sensory input. Not just skirting the issue of 'bad things happening,' but the stench of a family of 6 living in a New York City tenement, the cold of an unheated Minnesota sewing room, the pain of soul-crushing loss, the ache of horny teenagers, the promise of spring. Given the time period of the inside story, Kline left a lot on the table.

It's a good book. On the 'liked/didn't like, recommend/don't recommend, three-word review' test for book club I'd say
  • liked
  • recommend
  • predictable, enjoyable, fails to impress

Dear sweet funny bad-ass Little E hosted a luscious summer patio dinner, and faced the challenge of hosting for this book head on. We have a tradition in the club of, when possible, tying the theme of the dinner to the theme of the book. For a book like The Great Gatsby or The Secret Life of Bees the theme can be both obvious and inspiring to work with. For a book about orphans sent to work on farms and in other forms of indentured servitude for people little capable of or willing to care for them, during the Great Depression, with references only to squirrel stew or weak potato soup well, the cooking becomes a little more challenging.

And so, in true Little E style, we started with vodka spiked rosemary lemonade. I don't know that there's a connection to the book, and I don't care. She should bottle that stuff! From there, the framing story of the book is set on the coast of Maine, and Little E wisely took her inspiration from there.

Clam chowder thick enough to stand a spoon in, with an extra bowl of crumbled bacon on the side if we wanted more (it's bacon - WE WANTED MORE!). Seafood tacos with sass and verve and succulence. Lobster salad. There was more. Much more. And sorbet in orange peel bowls for dessert were the perfect palette cleansing touch of sweetness.

As always, the conversation was rich and far-ranging and sometimes off topic and insightful. On a sunny July deck in a gorgeous thriving back garden, with bees (okay, wasps, but they're less poetic) buzzing and a sweet baby girl stopping by to say "goodnight Mama" to our hostess, there was plenty of proof once again why book club is my favourite night of the month.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

the mother of all reviews

In the last 9 months or so I've fallen so far off the blogging wagon that I haven't even posted book reviews. Many of the books I've read I've drafted posts about - some full of notes & thoughts at the time, and some just with the title as a place-holder in my drafts folder.

My night stand on any given night. 
I thought about powering through them all - blasting out review after review until they're done. I will still post proper reviews of all the missing book club books (because I love those ladies, it's often the highlight of my month, and those posts are generally about more than just a book review).

While considering the back log recently, I had a streamlining idea - for all of the non-book club book backlog I will apply the round-robin review that we use to ensure everyone at book club gets heard at least once (we might have a conversation dominator or two *blushes & waves*)

Before our conversation turns into a free-for-all we go around the table and say 

1. Like it/didn't like it
2. Would/wouldn't recommend it
3. Three word review 

In truth, the three-word review is rarely just three words, but it's generally brief and not an invitation to discussion so much as an impression. We're not overly disciplined about that as it's hard not to jump in with 'oh really, but' or 'I know, right?,' but we do rein ourselves in if we haven't gotten around the table yet. 

So ... here are some of the non-book club books I've been neglecting to review. I won't be linking to Amazon anymore as they are now requiring Canadian associates to provide income details for the IRS. To which I say, "OH, HELL NO!" I do hope you'll instead check your local bookseller if anything I review catches your fancy.

White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
1. Liked it
2. Recommend it to most people
3. Compelling, charming, disturbing

Run, by Ann Patchett
1. LOVED it
2. Strongly recommend it
3. Redemptive, thought-provoking, comforting 

The Art of Non-Conformity, by Chris Guillebeau
1. Loved it
2. Recommend it to those ready for a different way to do life
3. Encouraging, inspiring, practical

The Measure of a Man, Sidney Poitier
1. Liked it
2. Recommend it
3. Deep, poignant, moving

One Hundred and Four Horses, by Mandy Retzlaff
1. That's a complicated question sometimes - I liked her writing, but I am SOOOO over 'poor me' stories of white Africa. Yes, what happened to the white farmers in Zimbabwe was inhumane and unjust. But can we at least acknowledge the 200+ years of inhumane and unjust colonization that came before? 
2. I would recommend it with caveats - and to my white African friends.
3. Engrossing, tone-deaf, poorly edited ('azure' 8 times in one chapter? C'mon)

There have been more, but without a place holder they've fallen away. More of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander and Lord John series. Books I picked up in the Cuso Jamaica office. Books I left behind in airports and on buses. But we've started clearing the backlog. Just a bunch of book club reviews to go and I might even start actually writing again.

Stranger things have happened.
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