Historical fiction imagines the life of “Migrant Mother”

Mary Coin cover

Mary Coin
by Marisa Silver
Rating: ****

Try to imagine what Florence Owens Thompson was thinking in this iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph, a picture that was taken in 1936 by Dorothea Lange. Lange was a government employee, on assignment to show the plight of poor migrant workers during America’s Great Depression, and this image became a national symbol of the extreme hardships these destitute Americans endured. To me, she looks tired and worried, but also strong and resolved. When this picture was taken, Thompson was a widow with seven children, and she worked in the fields to support her family, picking cotton, peas, and oranges. She and her children traveled to wherever there was work, living in tents and scraping by to do no more than exist.

What was Thompson thinking about when this picture was taken?

What was Thompson thinking about when this picture was taken?

Marisa Silver used this image as inspiration for Mary Coin, a work of historical fiction based on the incredible and difficult life of Florence Thompson and her children.

I enjoyed reading Mary Coin. Silver is an excellent writer and she makes it very easy to imagine what Thompson’s life was like. She presents the story from three perspectives, beginning with Walker Dodge in the present day, whose family has owned an orange grove in California for four generations. When Walker’s father, George dies, Walker must go through the family home and clear out his father’s belongings, furniture, books, and seemingly unimportant, outdated papers. Trained to notice details, Walker begins to piece together a different picture of his family, particularly the lives of his father and grandfather.

Mary’s story begins in Oklahoma when she is a teenager. She is restless and in search of something more than the life she leads in her family’s mud house. Mary reads the newspapers that cover their walls for insulation and feels excluded from a bigger world, “aware that there were words and ideas meant only for people who already knew them.” She’s drawn to Toby Coin, a boy in her village. They marry when she becomes pregnant, marking the beginning of Mary’s life as a mother.

Vera Dare begins her career as a portrait photographer, taking pictures of wealthy society women. She marries and has children, but her marriage is doomed and when the Depression hits, Vera gets a job taking photographs for the government. Her picture of Mary Coin gains national recognition, Mary remains anonymous, and their lives continue independently until years later.

As the years pass and the two women age, each feels compelled to confront and explain the significance of their meeting. And when Walker makes discoveries in his father’s house, we learn about the significance of his family’s link to Mary.

Silver follows Thompson’s story closely, but it’s important to remember that this is a fictional work. It is fun, however, to imagine the personalities of these people and the story of Mary Coin allows you to do just that. Reading Mary Coin makes me want to re-read The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, one of my all-time favorites.

For the record, Dorothea Lange did not receive royalties or any kind of payment (other than her salary) for her photograph of Florence Thompson. The picture was the property of the U.S. government. Lange did, however, receive a great deal of professional recognition after taking the picture, which helped boost her career. Thompson’s identity remained anonymous until 1978 when a reporter tracked her down and told her story.

I recently found additional information about Thompson and her children, including two great interviews of her daughter, Katherine. It’s a fascinating story and I think the interest begins with that very photograph and the serious, but not-totally-readable look on Thompson’s face.

Great 2008 interview with Katherine McIntosh, one of the children in the photo (girl to the left):


Another interview with Katherine McIntosh 2009:


Great article from the Tampa Bay Times: http://www.tampabay.com/features/visualarts/depressions-migrant-mother-remains-a-powerful-image/493338

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Love in the Pasadena Playhouse – Premiere, by Tracy Ewens

Available on October 27!

Available on October 27!

by Tracy Ewens
Rating: ****

Samantha Cathner knows all too well that it’s not so simple to be young and in love. Peter Everoad was her one true love, but he left her for a playwright’s career on Broadway. Now he’s back and he’s brought his new play with him to the Pasadena Playhouse.

Sam has moved on with her life, or has she? As assistant creative director at the Playhouse, she must work directly with Peter and she soon discovers that the characters in Peter’s play bear a close and uncomfortable resemblance to Sam, Peter and their close friends and family.

The sparks are still there and Sam wrestles with this undeniable attraction and her anger with Peter for leaving four years earlier, just as their romance was taking off. But Peter’s story is much more complicated than a guy fleeing when things get too involved. Pasadena represents good and bad memories for Peter. Now that he’s back, he’s forced to confront the painful reminders of his father’s suicide, including a mother who can’t make it to lunchtime without a drink.

I enjoyed reading this smart romance about the trials and angst that young professionals endure as they navigate love’s rocky road. It’s a great look at young lives when everything is on the brink of happening. The reader can see where things should head, but the characters struggle to find their way.

Ewens’ characters move within Pasadena’s privileged class and it is fun to jump into a world where money is no object.   But Sam is not a princess. She is strong-willed and career-driven, like her grandmother, who is portrayed in Ewens’ first book, Catalina Kiss.

The story moves along at a nice pace with lots of romantic tension and fun, intelligent conversation. Ewens has a good feel for what it’s like to be a twenty-something young professional, with equal parts of romantic drama and serious personal conflict.

Suspense carries the reader through to the play’s opening night. With his personal life unsettled, Peter has struggled to write a satisfying ending, which he’s kept secret to all. As she sits in the audience, Sam shakes with nervous anticipation and can hardly watch as Peter’s final and unconventional scene draws her into its conclusion.

Premiere is an enjoyable romance, with the bonus of interesting and uncomplicated descriptions of behind-the-scenes drama production. The attraction between Sam and Peter is well-presented, with realistic dialogue and conflict. In addition, Ewens has managed to write love scenes that are nice and spicy, but not over-the-top, which gives the story class and separates it from popular bodice-ripping tales. I think the strongest scenes are between Sam and Peter in New York. It’s what the reader sees as an ultimate coming-together, but with more pages ahead, there’s a lot to figure out. But my favorite scene is towards the end between Peter and his mother, one of those conversations that has taken years to happen and is satisfying to witness.

Ewens also raises the important question of where writers get their material. Peter’s best writing comes from his own experiences, which he puts on stage for all to see, a catharsis for him, but a writer’s dilemma as well. Is it right to include these painful and personal experiences, at the expense of family, friends and, especially Sam?

Premiere is a seemingly simple story with more complicated layers and is best described by one of my favorite quotes from the book, “If only life were as simple as a good-looking guy and a great dress.” So true, but the complicated parts are just as entertaining!

I received an ARC to review Premiere, which will be released on October 27.

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Patrick Modiano wins 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature

 French novelist Patrick Modiano. Photograph: AP

French novelist Patrick Modiano. Photograph: AP

The decision is in and the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Patrick Modiano. Modiano, from Paris, is 69 years old and is the eleventh French writer to win. The prize is worth 8 million kronor, which is $1.1 million or £700,000. The Nobel Academy awarded the prize to Modiano: “For the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

Modiano’s father had Jewish and Italian roots. His mother was a Belgian actress. His parents met during the German occupation of Paris and Modiano was born two months after the end of World War II. He often writes about Jews during the Nazi occupation and about the loss of identity, themes that occur in La Place de l’Etoile, published in 1968.

Peter Englund, the Nobel Academy’s permanent secretary, has this to say about Modiano:

Patrick Modiano is a well-known name in France but not anywhere else. He writes children’s books, movie scripts but mainly novels. His themes are memory, identity and time.

His best known work is called Missing Person. It’s the story about a detective who has lost his memory and his final case is finding out who he really is; he is tracing his own steps through history to find out who he is.

Englund adds that Modiano’s books “are always variations of the same theme – memory, loss, identity, seeking. Those are his important themes: memory, identity, and time.”

The Swedish Academy nominated 210 writers this year. Twenty made it to the secret long list and five to the committee’s short list. There was much outside speculation about who was being considered, and several writers’ names came up as possible winners, including Ngugi wa Thiong’o, from Kenya, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami and the Belarussian journalist Svetlana Aleksijevitj.

There are lots of articles online today about Modiano, but I think the best one is from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/09/patrick-modiano-wins-nobel-prize-for-literature

You can also check out what The New York Times says here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/10/books/patrick-modiano-wins-nobel-prize-in-literature.html?_r=0

If you speak French or German, you can get La Place de L’Etoile on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=la%20place%20de%20l%27etoile

Missing Person is available in English on Amazon:


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What’s up next? Mary Coin, by Marisa Silver

Dorothea Lange took this now iconic photo of Florence Owens Thompson.

Dorothea Lange took this now-iconic photo of Florence Owens Thompson.

Do you know this photograph? It’s called “Migrant Mother” and it was taken by Dorothea Lange, a photographer for the Resettlement Administration, part of America’s New Deal. In 1936, Lange was on assignment in California and visited a crowded campsite of out-of-work pea pickers. The subject of the photograph is Florence Owens Thompson, a mother of seven. Her family had stopped at the camp to fix their truck and Lange took six images of Thompson and her children. This photograph was published nationwide and became one of the most familiar symbols of the American Depression. It also launched Lange’s career as a photographer and helped earn her a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. Thompson’s identity was kept out of the story until 1978, when a reporter located her and wrote about her.

Mary Coin is a novel inspired by this brief encounter between photographer and migrant worker. Silver has written a story about a present-day professor of cultural history who discovers a family secret hidden in the photograph.

Mary Coin cover

Marisa Silver bookpassage.com

Marisa Silver

I am looking forward to reading Mary Coin, this month’s selection for my local book club!

Here are some links to information about Florence Owens Thompson’s remarkable story and about Dorothea Lange’s photography career.






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The Nobel Prize in Literature – how well-read are you?

from Nobelprize.org

from Nobelprize.org

If you think you are well-read, prepare yourself to be humbled when you take a look at the complete list of winners of the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature, which has been presented to 110 writers since 1901. This year’s winner will be announced later this week, most likely on Thursday, October 9.

I am embarrassed to admit that I have not read anything by Alice Munro, last year’s Laureate. Some familiar names down the list made me feel a little better, including Toni Morrison, Harold Pinter, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Pearl Buck and Thomas Mann.

Here are a few interesting facts about the Nobel Prize in Literature:

  • The award is decided by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden.
  • 13 women have received the award.
  • There have been 4 shared prizes.
  • Rudyard Kipling, best known for The Jungle Book, was the youngest Laureate to receive the prize at 42 years old.
  • Doris Lessing won the award when she was 88 years old in 2007.
  • Jean Paul Sartre declined to receive his award in 1964.
  • Boris Pasternak initially accepted his award in 1958, but it was later declined by the authorities of the Soviet Union.
  • The nominations and opinions of the Swedish Academy are kept secret for 50 years.

Here is the complete list of recipients:

2014       To be announced
2013       Alice Munro
2012       Mo Yan
2011       Tomas Tranströmer
2010       Mario Vargas Llosa
2009       Herta Müller
2008       Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio
2007       Doris Lessing
2006       Orhan Pamuk
2005       Harold Pinter
2004       Elfriede Jelinek
2003       John M. Coetzee
2002       Imre Kertész
2001       Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul
2000       Gao Xingjian
1999       Günter Grass
1998       José Saramago
1997       Dario Fo
1996       Wislawa Szymborska
1995       Seamus Heaney
1994       Kenzaburo Oe
1993       Toni Morrison
1992       Derek Walcott
1991       Nadine Gordimer
1990       Octavio Paz
1989       Camilo José Cela
1988       Naguib Mahfouz
1987       Joseph Brodsky
1986       Wole Soyinka
1985       Claude Simon
1984       Jaroslav Seifert
1983       William Golding
1982       Gabriel García Márquez
1981       Elias Canetti
1980       Czeslaw Milosz
1979       Odysseus Elytis
1978       Isaac Bashevis Singer
1977       Vicente Aleixandre
1976       Saul Bellow
1975       Eugenio Montale
1974       Eyvind Johnson/Harry Martinson
1973       Patrick White
1972       Heinrich Böll
1971       Pablo Neruda
1970       Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn
1969       Samuel Beckett
1968       Yasunari Kawabata
1967       Miguel Angel Asturias
1966       Shmuel Yosef Agnon/Nelly Sachs
1965       Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov
1964       Jean-Paul Sartre
1963       Giorgos Seferis
1962       John Steinbeck
1961       Ivo Andric
1960       Saint-John Perse
1959       Salvatore Quasimodo
1958       Boris Leonidovich Pasternak
1957       Albert Camus
1956       Juan Ramón Jiménez
1955       Halldór Kiljan Laxness
1954       Ernest Miller Hemingway
1953       Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill
1952       François Mauriac
1951       Pär Fabian Lagerkvist
1950       Earl (Bertrand Arthur William) Russell
1949       William Faulkner
1948       Thomas Stearns Eliot
1947       André Paul Guillaume Gide
1946       Herman Hesse
1945       Gabriela Mistral
1944       Johannes Vilhelm Jensen
1943       No Nobel Prize awarded
1942       No Nobel Prize awarded
1941       No Nobel Prize awarded
1940       No Nobel Prize awarded
1939       Frans Eemil Sillanpää
1938       Pearl Buck
1937       Roger Martin du Gard
1936       Eugene Gladstone O’Neill
1935       No Nobel Prize awarded
1934       Luigi Pirandello
1933       Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin
1932       John Galsworthy
1931       Erik Axel Karlfeldt
1930       Sinclair Lewis
1929       Thomas Mann
1928       Sigrid Undset
1927       Henri Bergson
1926       Grazia Deledda
1925       George Barnard Shaw
1924       Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont
1923       William Butler Yeats
1922       Jacinto Benavente
1921       Anatole France
1920       Knut Pedersen Hamsun
1919       Carl Friedrich Georg Spitteler
1918       No Nobel Prize awarded
1917       Karl Adolph Gjellerup/Henrik Pontoppidan
1916       Carl Gustaf Verner von Heidenstam
1915       Romain Rolland
1914       No Nobel Prize awarded
1913       Rabindranath Tagore
1912       Gerhart Johann Robert Hauptmann
1911       Count Maurice (Mooris) Polldore Marie Bernhard Maeterlinck
1910       Paul Johann Ludwig Heyse
1909       Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf
1908       Rudolf Christoph Euken
1907       Rudyard Kipling
1906       Giosuѐ Carducci
1905       Henryk Sienkiewicz
1904       Frédéric Mistral/José Echegaray y Elizaguirre
1903       Bjørnstjerne Martinus Bjørnson
1902       Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen
1901       Sully Prudhomme

Here’s a link to the official site of the Nobel Prize: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/  I really enjoyed visiting this site.  It’s full of interesting facts and has a great layout.

I also enjoyed reading this recent article about the award and this year’s favorites: http://m.apnews.com/ap/db_268781/contentdetail.htm?contentguid=yxh8QnGM

How many of these authors have you read?  Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

“House of Flowers” – a short story by Truman Capote

“House of Flowers”
by Truman Capote
Rating: ****

Truman Capote

Truman Capote

“House of Flowers” is one of three pieces of short fiction included at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s the story of Ottilie, a young woman from Haiti, whose only power is in deciding which life of submission she will lead, one as a prostitute or one as the wife of Royal Bonaparte, a native from the mountains. What makes this story remarkable, I think, is the double side of Ottilie’s situation. She is strong-minded and feels the power of being able to choose, but the reader sees just how dismal her options are.

Ottilie is younger and prettier than the other women at Champs Elysées, a bordello in Port au Prince, and she’s also a customer favorite. The proprietress, to protect her investment, gives Ottilie the best room with an electric light-bulb and the men buy her bangles and silks. She is happy with these new things, for she had nothing as a girl in the mountains. She laughs and gossips with her new friends, Baby and Rosita, and the bordello becomes her home.

But despite the attention from her customers, Ottilie wants love. She thinks she might love Mr. Jamison, an older American and one of her best customers. “How do you feel if you’re in love?” she asks her friends from the bordello. They tell her she will feel pepper on her heart and tiny fish swimming through her veins, but she does not understand. A voodoo priest tells her, “You must catch a wild bee and hold it in your closed hand…if the bee does not sting, then you will know you have found love.”

But the bee stings her hard and she knows she has not found love in Mr. Jamison.

It’s different when she meets Royal Bonaparte at a cockfight during carnival season. Like Ottilie, he’s from the mountains and she is drawn to this and to his beauty. She thinks she recognizes love. Capote is great at describing how she feels and it’s easy to picture her looking tentatively at Royal. “Ottilie was used to boldly smiling at men; but now her smile was fragmentary, it clung to her lips like cake crumbs.”

And when the bee does not sting her, she knows.

Royal takes her to his house of flowers, a seeming haven covered with wisteria and lilies, kept cool by its cover. But Ottilie’s new life is not easy and Royal soon returns to his old unmarried ways. And this married life includes Old Bonaparte, Royal’s spell-making grandmother, “a charred, lumpy creature” who torments Ottilie by leaving a cat’s head in her sewing basket, dead snakes and other dead creatures in the house. It’s a battle of wills and Ottilie fights back with clever revenge. When Old Bonaparte dies, Royal insists that Ottilie be tied to a tree for a day as punishment, to break the grandmother’s spell.

When Baby and Rosita come to rescue her, Ottilie must choose, but which life is better, one that promises security and friendship, but takes away much more, or one that started with love, but has turned into something else?

I liked this story because of Capote’s precise character descriptions. He explains situations by what his characters say, or don’t say, and by what they do. For example, through Rosita, he shows you how Ottilie is unable to see the house of flowers for what it is, small and unremarkable, promising nothing. Ottilie tells Baby and Rosita they need to get to a cool place and points to the house. She says, “It’s like you picked a wagon of flowers and built a house with them: that is what I think.” But Rosita sees the house differently. Instead of agreeing with Ottilie about the house, she sniffs and says only that they should get out of the sun. I think this is a terrific way of showing how communication is often subtle and hidden between the lines.

I also like how Capote gives you a glimpse of Royal’s true character and how it doesn’t come out completely until the end of the story. After Royal has dragged Ottilie out of the house, kicking and screaming and biting, he walks off to work annoyed, “sucking his hand where she had bit him.” Capote doesn’t say Royal is a jerk, he shows it in this small detail.

Ottilie chooses and the story ends, but not without the twist of a mind game, something I always love in a story. We can see she is trapped either way, but her spirit exerts some independence and rebellion. And I don’t think she feels bad or helpless about her decision.

I think this story reads a lot like a folk tale, mixing modern situations with old ways and superstitions. It seems like an experiment with style and characterization and I enjoyed reading it!

 House of Flowers musical

“House of Flowers” was  published in 1950.  It opened as a musical in 1954 with a cast that included Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll. Capote also wrote the play, but he made a lot of changes in the plot. Harold Aren wrote the music and the lyrics. It was Capote’s only musical and it closed after 165 performances, to poor reviews.

Here’s a link to information about the musical: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Flowers_%28musical%29

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Two new books in October!

I don’t always read my email from iTunes, but I did today. And I was happy to see two interesting books being published in October!


Belzhar cover

Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer
(The Interestings)

This is Meg Wolitzer’s Young Adult debut. 10th grader Jam Gallahue attends a therapeutic boarding school after the tragic loss of a close friend. Her English teacher gives Jam a special journal that allows her to go back to her life before the loss.


A Sudden Light

A Sudden Light, by Garth Stein
(The Art of Racing in the Rain)

While trying to save his parents’ failing marriage, 14-year-old Trevor Riddell discovers a legacy of family secrets in an old Riddell mansion, a house full of secret stairways, hidden rooms and a lingering spirit.

You can check out these books and a list of other new books on iTunes. Visit iTunes Books and look for the “Coming in October” banner.

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