Books: Sarah-Kate Lynch

Alternate title: a bad surprise and a very good one.

By Bread Alone Blessed are the Cheesemakers
Black Swan Paperback, 368 pages Black Swan Paperback, 320 pages

Why I read them
Way back when I participated in my very first reading challenge (with my old blog), someone mentioned these two. I don’t recall what was said, bu it was enough to make me add the titles to my wishlist, and to pick them up when I had the chance several years later.

The bad surprise: By Bread Alone
By Bread Alone is the story of a woman whose marriage is on the brink of destruction because she went through several very hard experiences over a very short time, and who looks for refuge from her own life in an old romance with a French baker.
It is not a bad book. Lynch has a good, light tone and deals very well with shrouding the whole story with mystery and revealing things only a little at a time. That much I appreciated. As a bread-lover myself, I also liked the baking lessons and details (including a recipe to make your own starter).
The “bad” part is that I could not stand the protagonist. This is one of those characters that never make decisions on their own, but let things happen to them. I could accept this from the 18-year-old Esme, but cannot forgive it in her older, married-and-mother self. And because of her behaving in this way, all the interesting themes the book deals with (family, loss, mourning) end up being dealt with in a very light and superficial manner. I may sound a bit too severe, but it really did put me off.

The good surprise: Blessed Are the Cheesemakers
So it took me a long time to get to the second book, and I approached it with lower expectations, and was pleasantly surprised.
Blessed Are the Cheesemakers is a quirky book about the healing potential of love and good cheese. It’s hard to summarize it without giving away anything, so I’ll just say that it features a cheesemaker who can read minds, cows milked to the sound of songs from The Sound of Music, and a cheese (the Coeur de Collarney) with a strong personality:

“Shake?” she finally offered timidly, holding out her hand […]
Kit looked at her hand. She could stick it up her ass, as far as he was concerned, and he was about to tell her that when the Coeur lashed out and slapped him.
“Sure,” he said instead. “Why not,” and he took the hand she had offered in his own.
The fromage d’amour screamed with triumph.

I must admit that most twists were quite predictable, but the story as a whole was less so, so this did not detract from my enjoyment. Bottom line: it may not be great literature, but a nice story, quirky details, an easy style and likeable characters make for a good and relaxing read.

Book: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

The book: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida

The edition: Atlantic Books paperback, 228 pages

The story: after her father’s sudden death, Clarissa discovers that he wasn’t her biological father after all — and embarks on a trip to Finnmark to search for her roots among the Sami people.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I tend to have high expectations from books. This one here came with high praise, and going back to check on several reviews now I’m afraid I cannot agree with one word of them.
Clarissa is the typical character that grates on my nerves. OK, so you’ve been abandoned by your mother, your father has died and you feel betrayed by your fiancé — fine, go on and cry your eyes out, but then it’s time to grow up and take your own responsibilities. But no, apparently the fact of her mother having abandoned her is the perfect excuse to make right whatever mistake she makes, and it means that she can avoid to take responsibility for her action, even though she’s not 14 any longer. (More on her in the part with spoilers, #1)
The second thing that I disliked is the way the issue of Sami people is treated. I admit I knew nothing about them before traveling to Norway, and still I know very little, but the whole book felt like the author telling the world “look how good I am, I care about native people, I am their champion against stereotypes” when in reality the whole book said basically nothing about them. (More on this side of the story in the part with spoilers, #2)
Finally, I may be too sensitive, but there were several details here that were extremely US-centric. Among other thing, there is an assumption that Clarissa gets to drive a rental car with automatic transmission — which is not the norm in Europe. Even if the author only visited Finland once, she should have noticed. (And one more example in the part with spoilers, #3)

The part with spoilers: (1) So because she feels betrayed by her fiancé, she is excused in going away and having the worst sex scene ever with the first man she meets, right? So because her mother has abandoned her she cannot avoid the experience of rape, right? Come on! It’s not like she’s weak, because she isn’t, it’s more like she likes to feel sorry for herself!
(2) Sami may not be too many, but still, how on earth is it possible that she tracks her supposed father so easily, and how is it possible that she ends up in her grandmother’s house, and how is it possible that the woman who gives her a lift knows to say precisely what she needs to know to put the puzzle together? Is this some kind of 19th-century novel?
(3) When Clarissa lands in Finland, she meets her shuttle driver and he hits on her immediately, and of course they end the night with the scene I mentioned in #1 — as if people living in Europe were only here to wait for an American to drop into our lives! I’m offended by the whole premise. I’m happy that the Northern Lights never actually appear in such a book!

Read this if: if you liked The Mermaid Chair — I found the same faults in both (even US-centrism, although that one is set in the US). Otherwise, just don’t bother.

Counts as: Travel with books project – Norway; What’s in a Name Challenge – Something in the sky

Book: The Hindi-Bindi Club

The book: The Hindi-Bindi Club, by Monica Pradhan

The edition: Italian translation by Marina Nocilli, as published by Newton Compton, paperback, 426 pages (with recipes!)

The story: of Indian women immigrated to the US, of their daughters, and of the clash between the two generations (or: see the official synopsis)

My experience with the book & my thoughts: this is one more case of misplaced expectations. I expected a novel about the immigration experience and how it is seen differently from 1st and 2nd generation immigrants. I expected something like a women version of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Instead, it’s little more than a chick-lit with some Indian spices. I’m not saying that it is bad, actually I enjoyed it for what it is, but I was expecting more. That said (and not being a regular reader of chick-lit, which is “beach books” to me), it’s a nice story, touching (although very lightly) on a number of issues — not only self-evident ones like the clash of cultures, and family, but also things like growing old, malady, the difference between what we are and the way people see us. I even grew attached to some of the characters… All in all it was a fun ride!

What I liked: recipes! And a narrative with many different points of view. Also, I loved the dedication!

What I didn’t like: characters that change abruptly for no reason whatsoever and a “happy ending” that readers can guess as soon as they meet a certain character for the first time.

Language & translation: as I wrote above, I was expecting one kind of book. Luckily I realized quite soon that I was in for a chick-lit, and that was thanks to some turns of phrase. Such as this:

To the west, the cherry lollipop of the setting sun glows between the pine trees.

I’ll admit that I couldn’t restrain myself from calling my husband in order to laugh together at this sentence. *shame*. But it helped put the whole book in perspective, so that I enjoyed it for what it was.
Also, what is it with Italian publishers and nonsensical titles?

Random thought: I wish I could start learning a new language.

Read this if: if you liked Monsoon Wedding, it has the same feeling.

Book: The Lace Reader

The book: The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry

The edition: Italian translation by Stefania Cherchi, as published by Garzanti, softcover edition with additional material including an interview with the author, 391 pages

The story: it’s been a while, so I’ll just link you to this review, which I don’t agree with but which makes a good job of summing the book up.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I had read so many good things about this book that when I saw it in a bookshop I couldn’t but take it, despite the absurd title it has been given in Italian. Oh man, was I ever so wrong in buying a book! While I can see it may attract readers, and while I’m not saying it’s a bad book altogether, it’s what I call a “beach book”, i.e. something you may want to turn to when you feel lightheaded and don’t want to embark in anything that will engage your mind. It’s definitely a pageturner, with the right amount of mystery and cliffhangers. But it doesn’t remain with you. (And that’s why I had to link you to someone else’s synopsys!)

The part with spoilers: how early in the book did you guess the truth? Me, it was while reading about Towner’s near-drowning in her diary — which is, I’m afraid, not very intelligent of me, but still much earlier than the author intended. Now the thing I don’t get is, if she was still so unstable and so hysteric as to believe everything happened to someone else, why did they let her check out of the mental ward?

What I liked: uhm… a fast read?

What I didn’t like: so many themes touched upon, and none of them gets any attention at all.

Language & translation: good style for this kind of book, though I didn’t like the third person chapters inserted in a mainly first person narrative. Also, why on earth is the Italian title translated as “The lying reader”? People will think it’s a novel about books, which it definitely isn’t! Oh, well.

In the author’s own words: nothing to share, I’m afraid!

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: I wish I knew how to navigate a boat.

Read this if: if you liked The Da Vinci Code. Yes, that’s the genre, although without much of the religious issues (there are some, but again, only very marginally touched upon).

Book: Learning to Fly


The book: Learning to Fly, by Roxanne Henke

The edition: Harvest House paperback, 354 pages, plus reading guide

The story: following the relationship between Susan and her daughter Lily from the moment of birth through to first year in college. Susan is filled with doubts and never really feels at ease with motherhood; but her trials and successes are confronted with those, very different, her friend JoJo goes through with her daughter Tiffany, who has her own set of difficulties with the mother-daughter relationship.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: this book delivers exactly what it promises: a nice, compelling story about motherhood. It may be a little too much in the way of giving one good and one bad example, a dualist black-and-white world where either you are the perfect couple or your children are inevitably spoiled brats; and the bad example turns a little extreme at times. But still, I could understand Susan reactions and enjoy her story. There’s a lot of food for thought here.
Side note: this is a Christian fiction novel, but it didn’t bother me much, it was done in a way I can appreciate.

The part with spoilers: the problem for me was that it never really went into the reasons why. Why would Tiffany and Lily turn out so opposite? Different upbringing, right, but while I could see JoJo’s mistakes, and her husband’s absence, they were just too plain, and there was no explanation of why JoJo would handle her children the way she did (except for having more than one, that is). When JoJo and Tiffany go to Susan’s house for the first time, it looks like she will change things, teach JoJo a thing or two… but she only ends up saying something when the girls are in their teens, way too late. So what was the supposed friendship between the two women about?

What I liked: a good description of the different feelings of motherhood.

What I didn’t like: too much focus on the mother-daughter relationship alone, to the point of effacing everyone else. Grandparents only appear at first birthday and Thanksgivings; even fathers are only dwelt upon when they need to discipline children, while for most of the book it looks like these two women are in parenthood alone.

Language & writing: I may be picky, but it sounded like the author was a driving instructor in a previous life (I’m joking here!), with all the step by step description of how everyone drove.

In the author’s own words: I loved this description of motherhood:

Nothing had felt this… this… important.
All the kidding around we’d done about becoming parents seemed like immature babbling as I looked down at this child we’d somehow created.
I created.
Oh, yes, there was no doubt in my mind God had everything to do with this. There was no way Seth or I could have ever done something so remarkable on our own.

And just to show you what I meant, here’s the driving-instructor speaking through the author 🙂 (just to be clear: this is all in the same scene, almost all on the same page):

I shifted in my seat, cast a glance into the backseat to make sure Lily was okay, then took a deep, deep breath. At least I could still breathe. I put the car into reverse and backed out of the mall parking spot. […] I shifted into drive and slowly pressed my foot on the gas pedal. […] I pushed on my turn signal and headed out of the parking lot. […] I pressed my foot a little harder on the pedal

Random thought and question: one thing sounded strange to me: that the moment the children enter college is felt as a termination of motherhood. As if one was supposed to be a mother from birth to the moment they leave home for college (or for something else, but at the same age anyway). In my feeling, the parting is much less defined, and it needn’t be at that age, it could be well before and well after. Is that the way motherhood is seen in the USA?

Read this if: if you are looking for a book about motherhood, this is a nice one.

Counts as: One! Two! Theme! Challenge – Pregnancy and Motherhood #3; What’s in a Name Challenge – movement