The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram » Books Thu, 25 Aug 2016 04:28:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Book review: An imaginative take on the Underground Railroad Sun, 21 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 The calendar year hasn’t even slipped into September, and Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” is already being talked about as the book of the year (and that’s with a slew of big books heading our way in the fall, including works from Ann Patchett, Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer).

Oprah Winfrey chose “The Underground Railroad” for her Book Club 2.0 (which may carry somewhat less weight than her earlier announcements on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” but is still a powerful force for selling books and encouraging reading). Publisher Doubleday shipped the novel out a month early after that happy news, and The New York Times published a long print-only excerpt.

So does “The Underground Railroad” live up to the hype? Yes, and that shouldn’t be a surprise. Whitehead has always been a smart, inventive, versatile writer, and his creative premise immediately demands your attention: What if the Underground Railroad were literally a working railroad, tracks buried deep beneath the plantations and the swamps and the fields and the towns, carrying escaped slaves northward to safety?

Author of such novels as “John Henry Days,” “Sag Harbor” and “The Intuitionist,” Whitehead has delved into speculative fiction before with “Zone One,” his zombie novel (and a damned good zombie novel at that). In “The Underground Railroad,” he blends fact and fiction seamlessly in this story about Cora, a young woman enslaved on a Georgia cotton plantation who makes the bold decision to join another slave, Caesar, in an attempt to escape.

Escape, it seems, is in Cora’s blood. Not for her grandmother Ajarry, who lived out her life on the Randall plantation after being kidnapped from her African village (“It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase, eighty-eight human souls for sixty crates of rum and gunpowder.”).

But Cora’s mother, Mabel, fled Randall when Cora was a girl, and she never returned. Mabel is a myth, a legend: the one who got away. She wasn’t captured like most of the other runaways, never found stumbling lost through the swamp, never trapped trembling in a barn or sweltering in an attic. She didn’t return to Randall chained and broken, was never beaten or tortured or lynched as an example to anyone who still dreamed of fleeing.

Cora hasn’t forgiven her mother for the abandonment, but she can’t help but learn Mabel’s lesson. When her already bleak life on the plantation takes a turn for the worse – a horror that seems impossible and yet isn’t – she reconsiders Caesar’s proposition.

Their flight leads them to the southernmost spur of the railroad’s tunnels, a marvel of industry, intelligently designed and executed. “Who built it?” Caesar asks. The answer: “Who builds anything in this country?”

The rules of the railroad are simple. You ride in the boxcar; you don’t sit up front with the engineer. You won’t be sure where you will end up. But it will be north and away from those in pursuit (in Cora’s case, the dreaded and legendary slave catcher Ridgeway, who is determined to bring her back because her mother eluded him). The train tracks are trickery, laid out in endless dead ends and spurs to nowhere, the better to confuse authorities if they’re discovered.

Whitehead envisions the world outside the Randall plantation as a series of increasingly terrifying fever dreams, each stage of Cora’s journey a fresh hell to be negotiated. She emerges first in South Carolina, where black men and women are free to work and learn and carry on their lives out of bondage. But the freedom is deceptive, illusory, not freedom at all. Worse awaits in North Carolina and Tennessee (“If Tennessee had a temperament, it took after the dark personality of the world, with a taste for arbitrary punishment.”).

Though the story is mostly Cora’s, Whitehead spares brief passages for other characters – Caesar, Mabel, even Ridgeway, who has dedicated himself to destroying the underground railroad. He sees his violent calling as a necessary evil. “In another country they would have been criminals,” Whitehead writes of Ridgeway and his patrollers, “but this was America.”

“The Underground Railroad” is a thrilling, relentless adventure, an exquisitely crafted novel that exerts a deep emotional pull. It’s an alternate history with a bite and a heart. But Whitehead’s greatest skill is that he also forces us to consider the messy, ugly state of race relations today the further we immerse ourselves in Cora’s nightmare worlds.

“America,” he writes, “is a delusion, the grandest one of all. … This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty. Yet here we are.” True. But a book like “The Underground Railroad” – a masterpiece, let’s just say it – can put our tattered, ugly past in perspective and maybe help us forge some kind of better future.

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Book review: In ‘On Trails,’ an unexpected adventure on the Appalachian Trail Sun, 21 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 “Once, years ago, I left home looking for a grand adventure and spent five months staring at mud.”

Robert Moor introduces himself and his subject in “On Trails” with that nearly perfect invitation: The words flow effortlessly toward an optimistic ambition (with a touch of irony in that “grand”) and end with the bump of unadorned reality, which you know even then will be metaphysically transformed before you can say, “Appalachian Trail.”

Hiking the AT from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin is the adventure Moor is referring to. He had the misfortune to pick the summer of 2009, which he says was so awful it was compared to the “year without a summer” in 1816.

“My memories … consist chiefly of wet stone and black earth,” he writes. He had anticipated months of looking up and out, the trail a mere vehicle for seeing what was all around him. Looking down instead, all he could do was study the trail as an actual thing. Which led to questions: What is a trail really? Does it go forward or backward? Who made it and why?

The result is a wonderfully rich and human book. It is a trail all on its own, marked by the procession of internal contemplation and idea-spinning that a long solitary walk in the woods can produce.

Moor is interested in everything, with a knack for communicating that curiosity to the reader, and he has lined up a chorus line of experts that are as one-of-a-kind as their various specialties.

The book’s one organizing principle is evolutionary chronology. Moor starts off with fossil tracks so old that scientists can’t decide whether the organism that made them was a plant or an animal or something else altogether. This Ediacaran trail-blazing may have been nothing more than an effort to stay put. Involuntarily displaced by wind or wave, it was just struggling “through the muck to regain its perch.”

One can only guess about what really motivated the Ediacarans. Within the modern insect world, scientists continue to gain amazing insights into the ways insects use trails, laying them down with chemical pheromones, to communicate where (and where not) to find food and how much there is. Moor finds plenty of contemporary researchers to interview, but he is equally fascinating on the history of these discoveries and the discoverers themselves.

The author divides interactions and relationships between higher animals and humans into watching, herding and hunting. As he investigates these three paradigms – “Naturally, I began with the one that intimidated me least,” he admits with delightful self-deprecation – he follows a caregiver at a retirement home for circus elephants (someone he first met hiking the Appalachian Trail); works as a rather inept shepherd on a Navajo farm; and hunts with an Alabaman bowhunter (unsuccessfully – one feels that Moor was relieved, although he gives a graphic description of what might have been).

When it comes to human trails and path-finding, he is taken all over Cherokee country by an unlikely environmental activist (a former member of the John Birch Society), is instructed in trail craft in the jungles of Borneo, and hikes part of the Appalachian Trail with the only full-blooded Cherokee to complete a thru-hike.

After that, Moor discovers the International Appalachian Trail, the creation of former Maine Conservation Commissioner Dick Anderson. He joins Anderson at a conference in Iceland, the island country a symbol of the parting of the continents along whose rim the IAT follows the ancient traces of the Appalachian Orogeny. He ends up in Morocco hiking the last stretch of what he calls “the world’s longest hiking trail.”

“On Trails” covers a lot of ground. Moor has a wonderful sense for the original, vivid metaphor or description. On a field of larger fossils, the Ediacaran trails are “like a poem carved onto a handrail in a stairway of the Louvre.” An approaching storm cloud “let out a soft digestive growl.” Fascinating facts fall fast and furiously: algorithms from ant colony pathways have improved British telecommunications networks; slime molds have independently come up with a network identical to the Japanese rail system in Tokyo. “Linger a moment over that fact,” he writes, gob-smacked. “A single-celled organism can design a railway system just as adroitly as Japan’s top engineers.”

Moor writes that his aim was to create a “trail winding from the dim horizon of the past to the wide foreground of our present circumstances.” He has succeeded admirably. Thru-hikers be warned: you’ll be ditching some essentials to make room for “On Trails” in your pack.

Thomas Urquhart is a former director of Maine Audubon and the author of “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

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Meet the duo behind Print – Portland’s newest bookstore Sun, 21 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Nearly everything about their decision to open a new bookstore in Portland appears counterintuitive.

Emily Russo and Josh Christie, both in their 30s, will open Print: A Bookstore at the base of Munjoy Hill in mid-October. The book trade, given up for dead a decade ago, seems like a risky venture for these two first-time entrepreneurs. On the peninsula alone, Portland already has two hyper-local bookstores that specialize in new titles, both of which are well supported by a loyal book-buying public. There are other bookstores off the peninsula and in neighboring towns, and Portland is home to several used bookstores, as well.

Portland probably doesn’t need another bookstore. But for Russo and Christie, Print isn’t about serving a need as much as it is about elevating the book to a higher, almost sacred, level. In this digital age, when our bonds to tangible objects seem less secure and more fleeting, Russo and Christie – children of this era who became friends through Twitter – are opening a business that celebrates an object nearly as old as man.

They considered calling their store Paper, but that felt ambiguous. Print suggests something weighty and substantial.

“We just really love books,” Russo said. “We want to celebrate the book.”

Russo saw herself as a city girl. When she was 18, she wanted to live in Boston or New York, or maybe San Francisco or Seattle.

But definitely not Waterville, where she grew up, and almost certainly not Portland, which, cool as it was back in 1998 when Russo graduated from high school, was still Maine.

She needed to get away.

Christie never wanted to leave. He grew up in the Knox County town of Washington, went to college in Farmington and has lived outside Maine only for about six months, when he went to Alaska on a student exchange. He can’t imagine living anywhere but Maine.

They will open the 1,900-square-foot store in mid-October in Portland’s East End, in rented retail space on Congress Street, formerly occupied by designer Angela Adams.


The two are linked by their love of books, by parents who love to write and by a desire to stay in Maine – or in Russo’s case, an unlikely desire to come home. As did many of her peers, Russo left Maine as soon as she graduated from high school and went off to college in Pennsylvania, “and I didn’t expect ever to move back,” she said.

Books and family brought her home. As she grew older and began a family of her own, she missed Maine and fell in love with Portland.

The 36-year-old is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Portland resident Richard Russo, who is consulting with Print and will use his clout and connections in the book world to elevate readings, signings and author talks into high-profile events.

She did her big city-living in Brooklyn. Her move home last year directly corresponded with her parents’ move to Portland from the midcoast in 2012 and the birth of her son, her second child, in 2013.

“We started coming to Portland a lot more, and I just fell in love with it,” she said. “It was in the back of my mind to open a bookstore for a very long time. During one of those visits, I said to my husband, ‘How do we move back?’ ”

Emily Russo contacted Christie, a friend and professional colleague, to gauge his interest in a partnership.

Christie, 31, also is a veteran bookseller and a former Portland resident, now living in Yarmouth. He most recently worked as the manager of Sherman’s Books and Stationery on Exchange Street in Portland and as the buyer for the statewide five-store Sherman’s chain.

Christie and Russo knew each other through New England book channels. Because Maine is a small state and the state’s literary community is even smaller, their paths had crossed. He served on the board of directors of the New England Independent Booksellers Association when Russo worked at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Massachusetts, before she moved on to Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn.

Like Russo, he was born into the literary fold. His late father, John Christie, wrote books about Maine life, and the younger Christie has written, co-written with his father or contributed to five books, primarily about Maine beer and Maine outdoors. Christie also writes an outdoors column for the Maine Sunday Telegram. He began working for Sherman’s in Camden as a summer and holiday employee while growing up and during college, and later worked full-time at Sherman’s Freeport store. When Sherman’s opened in Portland in 2014, Christie signed on as the manager.

Selling books is all he’s ever done and all he’s ever wanted to do, and he never really imagined doing it anywhere but Sherman’s.

“But at a certain point, you realize, when you work for other people, you can only go so high in the organization,” Christie said. “I knew of Emily’s interest in doing something like this, and the timing just seemed right personally and professionally.”


Their timing is good indeed. The industry trade journal Publishers Weekly reported last week that, for the first half of this year, bookstore sales were 6.1 percent ahead of the same time in 2015. Bookstores reported $5.44 billion in sales from January to June, up from $5.13 billion a year ago. Additionally, bookstore sales in 2016 were higher every month than they were in 2015.

Those figures bolster Russo and Christie’s belief that Portland can support three bookstores on the peninsula.

Russo and Christie wanted to be in the East End because they like the feel of the neighborhood and its distinction from the rest of Portland, including other neighborhoods on the peninsula. There are new restaurants and businesses nearby on Congress and India streets and Washington Avenue, and the bookstore will be walkable for thousands of East End residents, Russo said.

“We felt Portland could support a third bookstore on the peninsula, and we also felt that Munjoy Hill and the East End are becoming their own self-sufficient community,” she said. “You do not have to go to the Old Port to experience being in the city.”

The building they are in is being converted into condos, with 10 residential units above them. Print faces Congress Street, looking down India Street toward the water. India Street was the city’s original thoroughfare, leading people up from the harbor toward Munjoy Hill. Russo and Christie believe Print is primed to take advantage of what have been historic pedestrian traffic patterns that are re-emerging because of the density of residential development.

The bookstore will be sandwiched between a synagogue and a church, across the street from a health clinic and food co-op and surrounded by houses, condos and apartments. Buses rattle by within a few feet of the front door; the sidewalk sees a steady flow of pedestrians.

“It feels like we’re joining a real community rather than a tourist attraction,” Christie said, adding that Print also hopes to appeal to tourists, who may wander up India Street when they get off the cruise ships. “Our store is also perfectly located within greater Portland, equidistant from the Eastern Prom and the heart of downtown. I feel like Print has the potential to become a staple of the neighborhood, and the neighborhood has the potential to become the creative heart of Portland.”


The commercial space at 273 Congress St. is a work zone. Last week, a portion of the floor was opened up to accommodate new plumbing, and crews had begun knocking down an interior wall that will remake the previous storefront, from the small Angela Adams showroom that it once was into what will be a large, open and adaptable space with buffed concrete floors and bookshelves that can be moved to accommodate the dozens of author readings and literary-related events that Print has planned.

Aesthetically, Print is aiming for what Russo calls a coastal modern look, with custom-built bookshelves that will be finished in a pickled gray color. She wants the store to feel something like Portland Hunt + Alpine Club and Elements bookstore and cafe in Biddeford – rustic and functional in a rugged, industrial way.

The section for Maine authors will be immediately to the left when you enter the store, and general fiction will be off to the right. The store will spread out from the front to the back, with the registers along the left wall. There will be enough room to accommodate 125 people for author events, making Print one of the largest gathering places in the East End.

Aesthetics aside, Print will succeed or fail based on how it serves its community. And community, ultimately, is what brought Russo home to Maine and kept Christie here.

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Book review: ‘Unknown Caller’ rearranges the pieces of a family’s story Sun, 21 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Maine writer Debra Spark’s new novel, “Unknown Caller,” shatters the conventions of storytelling like a Cubist painting fractures realism. The result is a story that closely approximates real life – messy and confusing, with important pieces misplaced and time distorted by the force of circumstances and events. The reader may find the storyline hard to get a handle on at first. It’s best, as in life, to simply go with it.

The novel starts with a phone call in the middle of the night. Joel Pearlman and his young wife, Daniella, are awakened at 2 a.m. The call is from Liesel, the woman Joel was married to for five months 19 years ago, a woman who broke his heart by abandoning him, who has a habit of calling in the middle of the night from places like Geneva, Paris and London. This call is greatly more significant than those before, for Liesel announces that she is finally sending their daughter, Idzia, to spend the summer with him. Joel has never seen Idzia, despite desperately wanting to, because Liesel fled the marriage pregnant, went to Europe and has never allowed it.

Joel drives down from Maine to Boston to pick up his daughter on the appointed day. Only she never shows, with no explanation why. Thereafter, the late night phone calls stop all together.

The novel shifts in the second chapter to the story of Liesel and Idzia in London. Liesel has cancer and is readmitted in an emergency to the hospital. When Idzia comes to visit, her mother tells her that she has spoken with her father and arranged for her to go visit him in America. Idzia is upset and adamantly opposed to going. Later, while Idzia is riding on the Metro, there is a blast. Fifty-six people die, but Idzia survives.

The narrative is divided into two parts. The first and longer section is an extended, regressive series of backstories, with each successive chapter a backstory to the chapter that precedes it. The story moves backwards in time across the globe, from Maine to London, Morocco, Paris and Italy. We meet an array of characters who materialize in Liesel’s life when she most needs a friend, and, as is often the case, someone to take her and Idzia in when they don’t have anywhere else to go. The characters are revelations of the author’s rich imagination. There’s Bernie Russell, a London nurse and tenderhearted friend, and Raymond, a goodhearted soul who tells Liesel he’s in “funerary services,” but Liesel comes to understand that he is into far more than counseling the bereaved. There’s Justine and Gladys, Liesel’s older sister and mother, one a drama queen and the other a manipulative enabler; and a young London couple who accidentally hire her as a nanny, rescuing her from the mess of her life with Michael, a hapless artist boyfriend. The backwards slide ultimately leads to how Joel and Liesel meet and marry, and to the circumstances precipitating pregnant Liesel’s departure.

Liesel is flighty, full of dreams, beyond impulsive, and ever without a plan. She lacks the financial resources to carry out a plan, other than an instinct to capitalize on whatever comes along, typically in the nick of time. She is passionate, adventurous and, as readers come to appreciate, generous and principled on her own terms.

Part Two of the book is relatively brief. Only three chapters long, it moves the reader forward in time. It is the story of Idzia living the bohemian life in the film world in Copenhagen. Her best friend, Katie, is writing and producing a film trailer based on Idzia’s life. Here, all the misplaced and left-out pieces from the first section of the book fall into their proper place.

In one scene, Katie tells Idzia that her instructors love the trailer, but “they don’t like the way the film jumps around in time.”

“It does?” Idzia remarks. Katie hasn’t told her what is in the script. “They want the whole thing to be chronological.”

Liesel’s friend Bertie has told Idzia that Joel and Daniella and their teenage son, Benjamin, are coming to Copenhagen to meet her. Idzia remains opposed to the idea, but agrees when Bertie encourages her to take her “family” as backup to meet them. She selects Bertie, Katie and Nikolaj, her roommate.

The ending is deeply honest and affecting.

Strange as the story’s telling is, it leaves the reader with the sense that this is very much how life is, maddeningly perplexing at times despite our best efforts to understand it, yet also marvelous and heartbreaking. It’s about how we tell ourselves interpretive stories, which are always missing, misplacing and misrepresenting important pieces of the tale, out of a desire to fortify or validate what we’ve come to believe is true. At heart, it is also a story about what truly constitutes family.

“Unknown Caller” is an uncommon novel by an uncommon talent, a puzzle and a delight.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer and ghostwriter whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named as a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver. Smith can be reached via his website:

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Best-selling author Michael Koryta dives into Maine Sun, 14 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 As visitors flock to Maine for summer vacation, Michael Koryta is here to work. The 33-year-old Indiana native has rented a place near Camden, where he’s researching his next book. The critically acclaimed bestselling author of 11 thrillers and suspense novels, Koryta (rhymes with “margarita”) wants to experience Maine in a way that eludes most tourists. He plans to interview fishing guides, historians and other local experts for a plot line that takes place on the Maine coast. It’s part of the immersion-style research for which he’s become known.

“I found a way to be a perpetual child and come up with uses for hiking, caving, camping, fishing – and claiming that they’re research,” said the one-time journalist and private investigator. “It’s worked out really well for me.”

Koryta’s latest thriller, “Rise the Dark,” hits bookstores Tuesday. The author spoke recently from the midcoast about his literary idols, the craft of writing, his playlist and his cat, Marlowe. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Your books are very good at scaring readers and keeping them on edge. What scares you?

A: Oh, so many things. That’s a fun thing about the books: I get to take all of my own fears and transport them to other people. I love that Gothic sense that the past is always affecting the present. I’m fascinated with the idea of the day you make a left turn that redirects things, when you could just as easily have made a right turn.

Q: What is the difference between the category of suspense versus thrillers, or is that just a marketing term?

A: To me, that’s more of a marketing term. There are lots of sub-genres. I think of suspense as sort of the big house, and there are different rooms in the house. There’s the ghost story room, the detective novel room, the chase-thriller room and the family drama room. I’ve done all of them. To me, they all seem to follow within the same general working territory.

I grew up reading mysteries. My dad was a huge film noir guy. I like not knowing what’s going to happen. I love the emotion of suspense.

Q: Critics have praised your work for its inventiveness and writing style.

A: From a very early age, I was brought up on Strunk and White (“The Elements of Style”) and William Zinsser, and the idea that every word counts. You could have a great story, but if you are not paying attention to the craft and language, you’re going to under-deliver on it. I had a chance to work with some really great writing teachers. Putting together a nice sentence – that’s the thing that hopefully elevates the story. I’m a fan of writers who care about craft as much as they care about story.

Q: Safe to assume that you’re a Stephen King fan?

A: Yes, absolutely. In fact, his book, “On Writing,” came out when I was 18, and that was a defining point for me. I had always wanted to be a writer, but that was the book that really made it feel possible.

Q: It seems that King has been penalized, in a sense, for being so prolific. What is that stigma, and have you encountered it?

A: Yes, it’s definitely around, and I’ve encountered it. It’s always amused me because, in many professions, if you do consistent work, you’re praised for work ethic and effort. But if you’re in the arts, the idea of putting out consistent work is viewed almost with skepticism. “Oh, it can’t be that good.” Or: “He can’t care that much.” There’s nothing that you, as a writer, can do about that.

I write because I love it. It’s not as if being prolific is really a choice so much as I have a lot of stories that I want to tell, and time is finite. I’d rather not waste it.

Q: Given your level of productivity, writing roughly a book a year, you must have near-military discipline.

A: I think that’s the thing that comes with wanting to be better. I spend a lot of time trying to measure up to the writers I consider really great in terms of language and getting things across with clarity, originality and economy. There’s a level of insecurity, where I’m never pleased with a book when it’s first published; I need a couple of years of remove to really enjoy it. But I’m always over-the-moon excited about what I’m working on.

Q: Who are the writers you’re competing with mentally, who set the gold standard for you?

A: Daniel Woodrell of “Winter’s Bone,” Dennis Lehane, Stephen King. There’s a fearlessness to Pat Conroy. He did not shy away from melodrama or big moments of emotion. I don’t distinguish in the least between writers in the genre and writers outside. The most dangerous thing a writer can do is read only in his or her genre. Rule No. 1 is read widely.

Q: Tell me about your writing routine.

A: When I’m working on a new book, I try to do a minimum of 1,500 words a day. I never outline a book. I feel like the first draft is where I’m sort of interviewing the characters and getting a rough sense of the story. In the rewriting, I have the chance to actually tell that story well; the rewriting is where I discover the book. It’s a messy process, but I honestly think I have more joy in that process than if I had an outline where I was just writing to get from A to B to C.

Q: In your Maine office, what are the essential ingredients?

A: I have to have music. I have a playlist that feeds the story. So I try to build soundtracks around the characters’ different moods – that’s a critical ingredient. I always want a nice view, but then, when the writing is going well, I realize that I never really look up, anyhow. Also, I drink an enormous amount of iced tea – that’s my go-to fuel during the day.

But the key ingredient is a stray cat that I took in the year that my first book was published. He has lived in my office in Indiana, Florida, Maine. His name is Marlowe, as in Detective Philip Marlowe. He’ll jump up on the desk and howl in my ear. He lets me know that I’m not working hard enough.

Q: How does Maine factor in to your next book?

A: I have characters in the next book who are lifelong Mainers. To write about a place, you really need to spend some time in the place and talk to people who are experts at what they do. I’ve been coming up here for seven or eight years. But I’ve only been here for a few weeks at a time, so I really only have a tourist’s sense of the state.

Again, all of this is sort of an excuse for me to have fun. What I loved most about being a journalist was talking to people, hearing stories that might be overlooked otherwise. That’s really where I draw a lot of inspiration. I always go back to that reporter’s instinct.

Q: No doubt, you’ve learned the difference between real Mainers and people “from away.”

A: I have to continually point to my wife: “No, no, she’s a fifth-generation Mainer!” Now that we’ve leased this place for the year, I’m really hoping to be here all summer. There’s something about Maine that seems to feed readers and writers. And I’m actually eager to spend as much of the winter as possible up here.

Q: Have you been warned about winter in Maine?

A: That’s why I think I need to spend time here!

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

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Signings, etc.: ‘Mechanical Horse’ author traces bikes’ history Sun, 14 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: Maine Coast Book Shop, 158 Main St., Damariscotta


INFO: 888-563-3207,

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Book review: A haunting debut effort and a writer on the verge Sun, 14 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Readers will feel the tug of Anne Britting Oleson’s debut novel, “The Book of the Mandolin Player,” in the first few pages. It’s done with a soft but evocative touch in introducing the two main characters, Meg and her 10-year-old niece, Maeve, who has been entrusted to her care. This is a story about the entanglements of family, and how grief and regret so often feel inescapable.

The story is that of the Crosses, a set of adult siblings whose lives, for the most part, center on Damascus, the rural Maine town where they grew up. Meg Cross, a retired schoolteacher just shy of 50, is the narrator. She and her two older brothers, Dusty and Hal, still live in Damascus. Their brother Peter, who lives in New York, is a famous actor and constant fodder for the tabloids. Sister Bella lives in Paris and is barely mentioned. And baby brother Arthur, Meg’s favorite, has a large presence but is mostly absent throughout.

Nine years earlier Arthur showed up at Meg’s door and handed her his year-old daughter, entrusting Meg to raise little Maeve. He then got back in his car and drove away. Where? God only knows. Meg embraces Maeve and raises her as if she were her own daughter – which she deeply wishes she were.

By the second page, readers will sense that Maeve will likely figure greatly in the story. Maine author and poet Oleson does not disappoint. Maeve is a worthy focus, old beyond her years, strong willed, taciturn and startlingly prescient.

When the story opens, Meg and Maeve are in the kitchen preparing for the holidays. Thanksgiving – as always – will be hosted by Dusty’s wife, Shelly. Maeve, who loves music, has put on Van Morrison’s “Beautiful Vision” CD. Just at that moment, as “Dweller on the Threshold” starts to play, Maeve announces out of the blue, “He’s coming.”

Meg doesn’t know whom she means, but is so accustomed to such odd pronouncements and Maeve’s penchant for not elaborating, that Meg doesn’t ask. “If anything described Maeve,” she thinks, “that was it. She dwelt on a threshold.” Other than Maeve’s largely unflappable reserve, the Crosses are a big, messy family with permeable personal boundaries. Shelly is the worst, believing she’s entitled to be in everybody’s business. She constantly criticizes absent Arthur for giving Maeve to Meg to raise, reminding Meg repeatedly that she doesn’t know a thing about being a mother, having never had kids. This is a painful subject for Meg, as she had once been married, but her husband left her because she couldn’t conceive. Meg, however, is a fierce warrior mother when it comes to Maeve.

Though Meg is private and guarded about who she lets into her life, she secretly harbors an interest in Will Ledbetter, the nice-to-look-at single minister at the local church. He is also a skilled mandolin player who comes to the house to teach Maeve how to play. Maeve is passionate about the mandolin, but also deftly plays her hand as a matchmaker.

Oleson’s novel is richly complex, especially in probing the workings of relationships – between women and men, family and friends, and adults and children. But also wondrously so toward the end, between women and women and the idea of what constitutes family.

When a tragedy occurs, midway through the book, it is so totally unexpected and distressing that it momentarily threatens to overpower the story. Readers are forced to recalibrate their expectations about the book, as if the story they’d come to expect wasn’t the story at all that they were going to get. It totally recasts the world the Crosses inhabit, especially for Meg.

“The Book of the Mandolin Player” is a penetrating look at guilt and blame, and the dangers of hardening oneself against forgiveness. It shows how the hardest thing to do can be coming to understand that what happens in life may be nobody’s fault – and how difficult it can be to find the grace to forgive oneself.

If there is a flaw in this haunting story, it’s that the author overwrites the transition between the two halves of the book, where less would have been more.

Still, “The Book of the Mandolin Player” is deeply affecting on so many levels that it is difficult to shake the story from mind. Anne Britting Oleson’s soft touch and strong storytelling make this an exceptional debut novel.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer and ghostwriter whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named as a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver. Smith can be reached via his website,

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Book review: John Hadden’s conversation with his father is a window to a secret life Sun, 07 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 When I first came to Portland, I was invited to join the Committee on Foreign Relations, which used to meet at the Cumberland Club. One of the regulars, not to say stalwarts, was John Lloyd Hadden, a Brunswick resident. It was an accepted fact that John, like a number of retired people living on the midcoast, had worked for the CIA. After spending some enjoyable dinners together, we became good friends.

John died in 2013, but his son had the enormous good sense – and fortune – to tape a series of interviews with him some 10 years before. An actor, John Hadden Jr. first turned them into a one-man show. Now he has published the interviews as a book, “Conversations with a Masked Man.” They are riveting from every angle. The book is a marvelous, if a bit idiosyncratic, commentary on American foreign relations and the CIA more or less since the end of the Second World War. Powerful names like James Jesus Angleton and Richard Helms “orbit … [Hadden’s] career like large planets.”

The Agency’s new recruit arrived at his first posting, Berlin, in the middle of the Air Lift. The author was born there. The new father was supposed to pick up wife and son from the hospital, but as luck would have it, East German workers rebelled against the government that day, and he was “running around East Berlin watching the riots. Playing the game!”

For much of the ’60s, Hadden was in Israel. On one occasion, a family picnic was organized near the Israeli nuclear facility, cover for collecting samples from shrubbery growing there. On the basis of the radioactive traces in the cuttings, Hadden proved the original uranium was spirited out of an American plant. When, during the Six Day War, he received an irresponsible order to OK the Israeli bombing of Cairo, he ignored it, he tells his son.

Another facet of this compelling book is the study of a man for whom wearing a mask was innate. Without recourse to any bogus psychologizing, the son tries to draw a picture of his father’s inner life. He gets little help. Life is “just a matter of luck,” his father says. “We come out of nowhere, we rent a room for a night, and then we’re gone.” One thinks of the troubled characters of John LeCarre. Or, as the author does, of Lewis Carroll’s Father William.

Unsurprisingly, the relationship between the two men was anguished. They were frequently at loggerheads, “mostly about politics” starting when the son was 12. “I loved hearing him tell the story,” he writes at one point, “and I felt proud of him, but I didn’t want to feed his ego. It’s a little mean – but he never wanted to feed mine.” Doubtless these recordings were a way to work through a lot of personal conflict.

The younger Hadden was at boarding school when he realized his father was a spy. Suddenly oddities like the Dimona picnic, or finding a drawer full of handguns, came into focus. “Bits of memory were knocking loose like old plaster, revealing the bricks underneath,” he writes in his typically graceful style. Upon construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, when the author was only 8, “a cold, gray vein of reality took hold of Pop’s life.”

Hadden Sr. was famous for his ability to create a “labyrinth of clues and deceptions,” and interviewing him gave firsthand evidence of this skill. “To let the reader be lulled and misled, as I was,” the author decided to maintain the interview format in the book. It was a daring choice. Linked by his observations, either for context or opinion, it works well most of the time. As with any conversation verbatim, the thread is sometimes a little hard to follow. Just occasionally, he sounds forced as he eggs or goads his father on.

More often, the results are just what he wanted. For anyone who knew John Hadden, reading “Conversations” will bring back a character who was larger than life. For those who didn’t, it is a fascinating, if bleak, glimpse into the mind of a spy.

Thomas Urquhart is a former director of Maine Audubon.

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Book review: Sisters compete with danger in ‘Roses and Rot’ Sun, 07 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 What would you be willing to sacrifice to be the best in your field? What would you give up to achieve artistic success beyond your wildest dreams? Those questions lie at the center of New Hampshire writer Kat Howard’s debut fantasy novel, “Roses and Rot.”

The novel is set at Melete, a prestigious artists’ retreat situated somewhere near Manchester and named for the muse of meditation. When estranged sisters Imogen and Marin arrive to begin their nine-month stay there, it marks the first time the young women have lived under the same roof in a decade. Marin is the younger sibling, a dancer ready to make the leap to the next level of excellence but fearing that a year away from performing in public will rob her career of its momentum. A writer obsessed with fairy tales and accustomed to working in solitude, Imogen is less conflicted about residing at Melete, even as she feels guilty for having abandoned her sister for 10 years to the abuse of their scheming mother.

Both women, however, quickly fall under the spell of the institution. Everything that might enhance a student’s creative spark or future career is provided, from meals to social excursions, as well as intimate guidance from world-renowned mentors. Imogen and Marin discover that Melete is literally a magical place, a gateway into Faerie and subject to the realm’s interest and influence. (Why Faerie, usually depicted as intersecting with England or Europe, has an outpost in southern New Hampshire is never really explained. Perhaps something to do with Brexit?)

The plot begins to take off once Imogen and Marin embrace their enchanted predicament. Awarded a charm that allows them to cross the bridge to Faerie and enjoy its pleasures on Halloween, the sisters revel in feeling special, their talents truly appreciated for the first time. Each takes a lover with connections to the Fae, and soon they find themselves in competition for a grander prize, one with a dangerous catch.

Given its cast of high-strung artists and their seemingly endless conversations about the rewards and pitfalls of creativity, “Roses and Rot” sometimes seems in danger of slopping over into preciousness, the characters concerned too deeply with ephemeral matters when anyone else in their situation might just knuckle down and get to work without complaint. But Howard keeps her fantastical story grounded in genuine emotion, and she does an excellent job of delineating the supporting cast, depicting their foibles with a keen eye and a nuanced ear.

There’s also a delicious darkness to the proceedings. Faerie glamour can’t hide the rivalries and lingering grudges that roil just beneath Melete’s veneer of untrammeled creativity. Imogen and Marin discover exactly how treacherous the Fae can be, even as they attempt to sort out their own tangle of human emotions.

In devising the conflict between the sisters, Howard may have miscalculated in one instance. One of the prime drivers of the plot, Imogen and Marin’s awful mother whose poisonous dependence continues to torment them, is kept off-stage for nearly the entire book. Even encountered only through her daughters’ descriptions, she’s a formidable presence, to the point where one can’t help but wish she would show up and wreak some chaos first-hand.

At one point, Imogen says of her mother, “Having a daughter who was a writer was a flashlight shone into corners that ought to be kept dark so that no one saw the monsters tucked away in them.” A visit from Mommy Dearest would not fit Howard’s tightly knit plot, but some readers may regret not being able to see the greatest of those monsters up close.

A nominee for the World Fantasy Award, Howard is noted for her short stories, but she proves more than capable of handling the intricacies of a novel. “Roses and Rot” ably captures the beauty and the ruinous nature of Faerie. It’s a smart and affecting meditation on art, magic and ambition.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at and on Twitter @mlberry.

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Book review: Neighborly justice and jealousy fuel complex Maine drama in ‘Straw Man’ Sun, 31 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 An elderly woman needs trees cut to quickly raise cash in an emergency. Jack McMorrow, a freelance writer for The New York Times, and his two buddies, Clair Varney and Louis Longfellow, former combat Marines, drop everything to head off into the woods to aid her.

In such circumstances, the people of Prosperity, Maine, are fortunate to have such good neighbors. The same is true should everything go terribly south in those woods. The trio is quite capable of dispensing rough justice as their moral bearings deem necessary, often working at the far fringe of the law – and then some.

This makes for a volatile mix in Maine writer Gerry Boyle’s new novel, “Straw Man,” the 11th installment in his Jack McMorrow mystery series.

Boyle gets right to it in the first chapter, when the good Samaritans encounter an “outlaw” crew taking trees that don’t belong to them. The friends try to be civil but direct in correcting any misunderstanding the intruders might have about whose land they’re on.

Doesn’t matter to the lowlifes. Civility goes only so far when a knife is pulled and a gun brandished.

McMorrow and his buddies bare-handedly dispatch the four tree bandits with a beating they never saw coming and won’t soon forget, sending one to the hospital with a horribly broken arm.

Humiliated, the bad boys, a mélange of girlfriend-beating, sex-offending, gun-running troublemakers, are fueled for payback. The dispute spills out of the woods and into the community, threatening McMorrow’s wife, Roxanne, and their 8-year-old daughter, Sophie.

To complicate things, Roxanne McMorrow is involved in promoting an educational program promoting peace and nonviolence in the local school. Her teaching partner is a well-to-do neighbor who is the single father of Sophie’s best friend. This sets up a tortured conflict over pacifism versus violence between McMorrow and his wife, with jealousy thrown in, McMorrow growing suspicious about the true intentions of his wife’s colleague, a man with more money than sense and a yearning for lovely Roxanne.

Meanwhile, an isolationist settlement of strict Old Order Mennonites seeks to live simply in the area, wanting to preserve their 500-year traditions and protect their children from the seductions of the world. The bishop tells McMorrow when they first meet, “Wide is the gate and broad is the way to destruction.” Keeping the gate closed by edict, however, is insufficient, and the bishop’s family gets disastrously drawn into the conflict.

Boyle handles all this masterfully. His plotting is tight and his characterizations, for the most part, are compelling. Varney and Longfellow are richly developed, fearless yet sympathetic. The bad guys are merely stock characters, vile and evil, but they get what they deserve.

The subplot around the Mennonites is fascinating and a perfect foil for the madness that swirls through the wider community and the world.

“Straw Man” is a great book to take on a plane, to the beach or to bed if you don’t really want to sleep. Boyle is a deft craftsman and a wonderful storyteller. With “Straw Man,” he sets high expectations from the start, and he doesn’t disappoint.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer and ghostwriter whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named as a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver. Smith can be reached via his website:

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Book review: A mother dances with disaster in Alaska in Eggers’ latest Sun, 31 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Among his best-selling literary fiction peers, Dave Eggers alone is engaged in a sustained effort to write about contemporary America. He’s been going at it so regularly and so swiftly that he’s keeping pace with the times, if not getting a half-step ahead. Perhaps he knows what’s next for us: In “Heroes of the Frontier,” his protagonist Josie runs off to Alaska after her life falls apart.

Josie used to be a dentist but isn’t really anymore; she used to be in love with Carl, the father of her children, but now she recalls him with loathing. He was too whimsical to get married and told her he was against the very idea of marriage – but after their split, he got engaged and wants their kids to come to his wedding.

This precipitated her Alaskan escape. She “was fully justified in leaving,” she rationalizes on the book’s second page. “Carl had no idea she had taken the children out of Ohio. Almost out of North America. And he could not know,” she says a little later.

And so it begins: A woman has absconded with her children, and we are on her side – even while realizing at some level that this is an uncomfortable place to be.

For most of the book, we travel along with Josie in a precarious rented RV that she dryly calls the Chateau. On board she has 8-year-old Paul, 3-year-old Ana, too much wine and an abundance of self-recriminating thoughts.

There is a destination of sorts – her sister’s place, but it’s not exactly her sister, and she won’t be around for a few days yet. So Josie drifts from one overpriced campground to another or, worse yet, random roadsides, inattentive to the people she meets, failing to be moved by the landscape’s arresting beauty.

“Where was the Alaska of magic and clarity?” she wonders. “This place was choked with the haze of a dozen forest fires, spread around the state like a prison break.”

This is the stuff of hyperbolic nightmare: America’s largest, northernmost state, with a subarctic climate, its forests in flames. But in 2015 that did happen, with more than 5 million acres – an area as large as Massachusetts – lost to wildfires.

If Alaska can’t remain safe from fires, and if Josie can’t help steering toward that danger, what hope is there for her, for us? When Eggers draws the present into his fiction, it’s there not just as window dressing or setting; it tells us something about ourselves.

In 2014, Eggers published the challenging, didactic novel “Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Will They Live Forever?” The book was a series of dialogues about America’s failures – wars, police brutality – that took place between a troubled man and the people he kidnapped. It was not much of a people-pleaser.

But its predecessor, the 2013 best-seller “The Circle,” was. It featured a young woman who went to work at a Silicon Valley behemoth who gamely shaped herself to become a star of its always-connected selfie- and social media-sharing culture. A film version, starring Emma Watson with Tom Hanks, John Boyega and Patton Oswalt, is due this year.

It’s bound to fare better than the adaptation that came and went in April of “A Hologram for the King,” Eggers’ 2012 novel of an aging executive who (after exporting his business to extinction) has one last shot to start over by selling irrelevant technology to Saudi royalty. The book was a successful, melancholy meditation on America’s lost manufacturing base, the erosion of a shared sense of national purpose, and one middle-class man left adrift.

Work, politics, the end of America as an economic powerhouse. And now a woman who’s at the end of her rope, in a place of salvation without the wherewithal to seek it, as its promise goes up in flames.

Josie keeps turning, despite herself, toward those fires. Even when guided by the authorities, in a slapstick episode that becomes terrifying, she winds up going the wrong way. The children are sleeping, and there’s nothing to do but drive on: The idea of pursuit by her ex is a greater danger than the fires to the north.

Yes, this is a terrible decision; she is full of them. To avoid using any traceable cards, she’s living off a bag of cash she’s stashed under the RV’s sink. When she meets up with someone who offers her kindness, she drinks too much, acts out or pushes off in a hurry – usually some combination of the three. She takes things she shouldn’t. Disaster is only a hairbreadth away.

She makes so many bad choices, you half expect her to point to Christopher McCandless’ bus and say, “Hey, kids, that’s our destination!”

But this is not “Into the Wild,” thankfully. She doesn’t have a grand narrative goal, like McCandless or Don Quixote or Odysseus or Dante. Instead, she’s driven by a nagging, restless dissatisfaction – one that’s very human.

“She could be content, and could do her work, or feed her children, or temporarily love a man like Carl, and live in the town she lived in, in the country she’d been born in,” she realizes in a buzzy reverie, “but a thousand other lives presented themselves to her daily and seemed equally or more worthwhile.”

This, of course, is the story of her trying to choose another life, an act that’s harder than it seems. She’s wrestling with a past – full of pain, anger, guilt and stifled flights of fancy – that is slowly revealed.

And she’s a loving parent but almost criminally free-range. She allows her hyper-vigilant son and tiny terror of a daughter to fend for themselves. They are better at taking care of her and of each other than she is of them.

It’s something Eggers deftly lets us see around the edges of Josie’s world.

But it takes a while to reach that point. On the first page, Josie sees herself in her own “personal slum,” and the language is so harsh that it’s hard to tell what we’re supposed to think of her.

Eggers takes a little too long before giving us the tools to understand that he’s not looking down on her, that the criticisms come from Josie.

Funny, sharp and exasperated with everyone – especially herself – she can be a relentless narrative companion.

When relief comes, it’s not really nature that’s the balm – although it helps – but a combination of solitude, other grown-ups and the act of creation. To grow, Josie has to connect.

And the landscape does reveal some healing powers. How could it not? On fire or not, it’s America’s last great unspoiled, untamed wilderness. If there is no hope for Josie and her children there, there is no hope for any of us.

]]> 0, 30 Jul 2016 22:59:11 +0000
Signings, etc.: Joyce Lovely to speak at Belgrade library Sun, 31 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Author Joyce Lovely will talk about her new memoir, “Ice Cream, Gas Masks and God,” which tells of her childhood in 1940s Liverpool and trying to live a normal life during World War II amid regular nighttime spells in the air raid shelter as the bombs fell.

WHEN: 6 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: Belgrade Public Library, 124 Depot Road, Belgrade


INFO: 495-3508;

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Book review: ‘Night Work’ wades with style into 1950s New York Sun, 31 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Finishing David Taylor’s “Night Work,” I immediately regretted not having read its predecessor first. Titled “Night Life,” it came out last year and introduced Detective Michael Cassidy, a hard-boiled New York cop.

Wading into a whodunit series – in this case, it’s actually a who’ll-do-it – midway means missing out on the pleasures of prior suspense. Secrets that would have been fun to puzzle out in the first book become just so much backstory in the second.

Still, “Night Work” is the best piece of crime fiction I’ve read in years, so good that I will start again with “Night Life.”

This is a genre laden with booby traps, not just for the detective, but for the writer as well. Entering a world dominated by Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler is not easy without producing either a slavish imitation or a send-up pastiche.

“Night Work” gets it exactly right. Taylor, who grew up in New York, worked in the TV and film industry and now splits his time between Boston and midcoast Maine, lets the reader revel in the uncertain mood of 1950s New York, with its fedoras and flashy ties, while taking us deep into the frenetic criminality of pre-revolutionary Cuba. It’s all recognizably noir, but fresh and stylishly written.

It helps that nothing here is quite as it seems, beginning with our hero. Like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Hammett’s Sam Spade, Michael Cassidy is a tough loner with few illusions, but he has dreams that sometimes foretell the future. He is not Irish (as one might expect a New York cop called Cassidy to be). His father, Tom Cassidy, changed his name from Kasnavietski when he arrived in America as a fugitive from the czar’s army.

Tom married a millionairess and became a successful Broadway producer. (Taylor’s father was a famous Broadway playwright.) Michael is a product of New York’s Upper East Side, even if he has little time to enjoy it. As a hardened cop says, with grudging admiration, “You’re out there knocking yourself out on the street keeping the animals in line.”

The plot is set against Fidel Castro’s first visit to New York. Fidel has just delivered Cuba from the dictator Batista, but he has not yet become a full-fledged communist and American bete noire. Still, someone is out to assassinate him. Can Cassidy stop it? Taylor’s twists and turns amply compensate for the fact that we know he can.

Taylor is a diligent researcher. Story-spinning and the event itself dovetail seamlessly, even though there’s a bit of authorial license with dramatic possibilities that never made the news. Nor does he hesitate to incorporate actual figures in the story’s action: besides Castro, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and (slightly strangely) mobster Frank Costello, among others, have more than walk-on roles.

Though the author would have been only 15 in 1959, the year in which “Night Work” takes place, he exhibits the native New Yorker’s inherent empathy for the sounds and especially sights of his city over half a century ago. Little tidbits, such as the year 6th Avenue was made one-way (1957), are thrown in quite naturally, an event about which anyone living on Manhattan at the time would have had strong opinions.

With some of the minor characters, Taylor can’t resist a little “pulp fiction” fun. Of a trio of hoods, the one with the rifle “preferred to work up closer, because he liked to see the impact”; his brother “discovered an affection for explosives and could shape a charge in such a way that the target would lose his foot, his hand, or his entire being when he turned the key to his car.” The third was “a more straightforward goon who liked to work in close with a knife.”

The tone of the book reminded me a little of Alan Furst, whose works explore a similarly murky world, that of Europe teetering on the brink of World War II.

Cuba and New York are racier settings. Imbued with the smoke of Camels, Chesterfields and Luckies, and haunted by the strains of jazz, David Taylor’s novel recreates a similar, increasingly distant time that’s well worth such an exciting visit.

Thomas Urquhart is a former director of Maine Audubon and the author of “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

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Book review: In ‘Death at Breakfast,’ life experience serves the sleuths Sun, 24 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 The first pages of Beth Gutcheon’s “Death at Breakfast” are a gentle entry into a sometimes outrageous mystery. The book’s two protagonists, longtime friends Maggie Detweiler and Hope Babbin, have just begun a post-retirement vacation at a gorgeous Maine resort called Oquossoc Mountain Inn. Besides hiking and canoeing, they look forward to gourmet cooking classes with the inn’s chef.

But standing on a wide veranda the first morning of their vacation, Hope’s camera aimed at her friend, Maggie says something that hints at darker things to come.

“When your picture’s being taken,” she says, “don’t you always wonder if it’s the one that will run with your obituary?”

Hope jokingly calls Maggie “a strange woman” for entertaining such a weird thought. But with the arrival of troublesome guest Alexander Antippas, things get weirder.

A gigantic, ill-mannered man, he reduces the inn’s 23-year-old clerk to tears because she can’t rent him a room where smoking is permitted – there are none at the inn – or make special provision for his wife’s lap dog.

Inn owner Gabriel Gurrell temporarily pacifies Antippas by placing the man’s wife in a section of the inn where dogs are allowed, and giving her obstreperous husband a private room with a balcony where he can smoke his cigars.

Not long after, things turn deadly when a suspicious nighttime fire destroys part of the inn. All guests escape except Alexander Antippas, whose charred body is found in bed. First responders are hugely surprised when they discover a dead rattlesnake beneath the body.

Cherry Weaver, the same hotel clerk Antippas verbally abused and who was later fired for incompetence, is charged with murder. Her motive, as the police see it, is revenge.

But midlife vacationers Hope and Maggie disagree. They uncover facts about guests at the inn police have overlooked, and they suspect that Cherry’s confession may not be sound.

Readers sense from the outset that Cherry is innocent , and it’s a nice departure from the ordinary when two retired women unfamiliar with crime and law lead the charge to make things right.

Still, Gutcheon’s 10th novel has some shortcomings. Some characters seem unnecessary to the book’s plot, including guests at the cooking school described early in the novel.

And it seems an unlikely scenario for guests with a troublesome shared history to suddenly show up together in a relatively small inn.

Finally, the author might have created a faster-moving read if she’d kept her focus on the group at Oquossoc Mountain Inn. Revelation of a suicide in South Hampton, New York, and too much focus on Antippas’ family in California slow the plot.

Nevertheless, “Death At Breakfast” is an imaginative story about an original Vacationland misadventure.

Three cheers for Gutcheon for creating two super sleuths of retirement age whose sharp observation and life experience solve a crime and right a wrong.

Lloyd Ferriss is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Richmond.

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Book review: ‘Monterey Bay’ reimagines ‘Cannery Row,’ with the passion of a teenage girl Sun, 24 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Writer Lindsay Hatton takes a big gamble with her debut novel, drawing on both history and invention to explore a setting made famous by a Nobel laureate.

John Steinbeck begins his short novel “Cannery Row” with a declarative sentence both down-to-earth and loftily metaphorical: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

That’s a compelling opener, capturing the contradictory essence of the setting with a handful of choice phrases.

Hatton, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, occupies a more intimate point of view from the start of her novel, “Monterey Bay”: “When he’s fifty years dead, she dreams she’s gone back. Back to the small white house in the neighborhood that splits the difference between Monterey and Pacific Grove, back to the streets where the cannery workers used to live.”

Both passages acknowledge the power of the unconscious, seen in opposition to the mundane details of coastal life. Hatton’s opening might not possess the lyricism of Steinbeck’s, but those as-yet-undefined masculine and feminine pronouns hint that the story she’s about to tell has a tighter focus on at least two particular characters.

The protagonist of “Monterey Bay” is an extraordinary woman named Margot Fiske, viewed at two widely separated stages of her life. The novel opens in 1998, with Margot at age 73, but the bulk of the book is concerned with what happens to her at 15, in 1940.

After a disastrous stint in Manila, Margot’s ambitious but neglectful, entrepreneur father brings her to California. Anders Fiske specializes in seeing new opportunities in played-out ventures, and in pursuing his eccentric, yet usually profitable ventures, he has come to treat Margot more as an apprentice than as a daughter.

Adept at learning languages and skilled at negotiation, Margot takes physical stock of herself by musing, “She wasn’t a beauty queen, but with the possible exception of her height, she wasn’t a sideshow freak either.”

One day in Monterey, the wrong footwear causes Margot to slip in a tide pool, and the resulting head wound introduces her to the ministrations of “the biologist,” who stitches her scalp back together.

He turns out to be none other than Ed Ricketts, a few years away from being immortalized by his best friend John Steinbeck as “Doc” in “Cannery Row.”

Handsome and charismatic, Ricketts pursues a bohemian lifestyle, by day collecting sea life to preserve and sell as biological samples to colleges and universities, by night carousing in his laboratory with a select group of friends and hangers-on.

Among them is Steinbeck, unsettled by the public’s reaction to “The Grapes of Wrath,” depressed about his unraveling marriage, jealous of anyone else capable of attracting Rickett’s full attention.

Hatton juxtaposes episodes from Margot’s teen years with scenes of her at the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, an institution that, as an adult, Margot helped found.

Her immediate concern in this timeline is the impending release of the Mola mola, a giant sunfish that has outgrown its tank, but she is distracted by the mysterious beaching of hundreds of Humboldt squid. The stranded cephalopods remind her of her work as Rickett’s sketch artist half a century ago, when she was “younger, angrier, smarter.” The past keeps tugging at her, until she receives a humiliating reminder of her own mortality.

A Monterey native, Hatton is a former employee of the real-life Monterey Bay Aquarium (according to the book’s press materials, she wore a sea otter costume during parts of her internship). Her knowledge of the area and its history lend her novel an impressive richness of detail.

Her descriptions of the animals who live in the bay ring true, as does her re-creation of the daily activity in Cannery Row before the sardines disappeared due to overfishing, the canneries spiraled into ruin and the area was eventually redeveloped into a tourist mecca.

Readers familiar with the Portland waterfront or other East Coast seaports may be reminded of how dramatically such areas can be transformed by environmental and economic disruptions.

One of the many interesting aspects of “Monterey Bay” is the way it occupies a tertiary kind of narrative space. Hatton’s version pays homage to Steinbeck without taking what he wrote about Ricketts at face value, even as her version of Cannery Row and its inhabitants does not adhere strictly to the historical record. It’s a delicate balancing act, and Hatton accomplishes it with panache.

The book, however, hinges on Margot’s relationship with Ricketts and its impact on her father. Unaware that she is under-age, the biologist sleeps with her soon after their first meeting, a fact that Steinbeck is only too happy to reveal at the most devastating moment possible.

Margot refuses to apologize for her affair with the older man, even if it doesn’t give her the level of connection her passion demands.

Make no mistake, “Monterey Bay” is a thoroughly adult piece of historical fiction and Margot is no standard young-adult fiction heroine. Her sexual and intellectual precociousness may catch some readers off-balance, but Hatton mostly makes the case that someone with Margot’s background could behave as she does.

She is not a character to be trifled with, and the blunt ways she deals with obstacles in her path are what give “Monterey Bay” its narrative acceleration and emotional drive.

Toward the end of the novel, older Margot muses, “What is an aquarium except a gigantic heart? Fluid coming in and going out, fluid passing through multiple chambers and then returning to the larger body with new offerings in tow?”

More than mere pleasant reading for the beach, “Monterey Bay” gets to the heart of a remarkable place, a vanished time and a singular relationship.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: mlberry

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Signings, etc.: Stefanie Jolicoeur, author of ‘Devil’s Chair’ Sun, 24 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Author Stefanie Jolicoeur will discuss her debut adult novel, “Devil’s Chair.” The book is the story of a woman who buys a home near the legendary Devil’s Chair in Waterville, not knowing the history of the land. Soon eerie things begin to happen in the house.

WHEN: 10 a.m. Saturday

WHERE: Children’s Book Cellar, 52 Main St., Waterville


INFO:; 603-742-0876

]]> 0, 23 Jul 2016 19:59:31 +0000
Book review: How Teddy Roosevelt pulled voters into picking nominees for president Sun, 24 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 In the name of presidential ambition, is anything off-limits? If the recent primary season is any indication, the answer is a disheartening no.

Both entertainment and embarrassment, the tweets, accusations, proclamations and insults revealed a level of bad craziness that just might make Hunter S. Thompson envious. Little wonder if we dread the slugfest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, opening rounds last week in Cleveland and this week in Philadelphia. The next three months promise to be brutal.

But before we bid adieu to the 11-month spectacle, we can turn to Geoffrey Cowan’s account of the country’s first primary season, 1912, a year of possibly greater discontent.

Like most assured historians, Cowan reminds us that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, and from recent events, it would seem we have forgotten everything.

No musty account of top-coated and mustachioed politicians, “Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary” is a lively, relevant primer in the sausage-making of candidate selection.

While the story doesn’t have the lavish detail or scope of, say, Edmund Morris’ “Colonel Roosevelt,” Cowan, president of the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands and a professor at University of Southern California, isn’t interested in biography.

Instead, he’s after the origin of the primary system: how Roosevelt steered the political process in this country away from the decisions of men in back rooms to the will of the people.

Along the way, however, his story takes a surprising turn that challenges Roosevelt’s place in our presidential pantheon. No reputation is ever beyond reproach (witness Cowan’s incriminating assessment of the bribery charges against the famed defense attorney in his 1993 book, “The People v. Clarence Darrow”).

William Howard Taft had been Roosevelt’s protege, a hand-picked successor to the famous Rough Rider who in 1908 bowed out of American politics. Even though the men had vastly different styles – if Roosevelt was Trump, then Taft was Jeb – they managed to see eye to eye.

But during the years of the Taft presidency, Roosevelt could see his legacy being rewritten by conservatives and “stand-patters,” congressional leaders who preferred inaction to reform, and in 1912, he decided to stage a comeback.

Only Taft stood in his way. Backed by party bosses, federal officeholders and political cronies – all delegates to the June convention in Chicago – Taft was favored as the Republican nominee. Breaking that chokehold required articulating a more radical vision.

“We believe that unless representative government does absolutely represent the people it is not representative government at all,” Roosevelt told his supporters in Ohio, a sentiment that would soon lead to him endorsing a new system of selecting delegates: not from the party machinery but from the voters in each state.

Roosevelt’s gambit was a hard sell (not every state adopted it). It divided the Republican Party and represented a radical position for those, including Roosevelt, who believed that “only certain people are fit for democracy,” a reference dismissing the “Negro majority” in the South. Cowan makes clear it’s naïve to think that high-mindedness trumps ambition in politics.

There is Democracy, and there is democracy. If the former is ideal – a government of the people, by the people and for the people – then the latter is the messy, imperfect methods we have tried in 240 years to attain that goal, and in 1912 the stakes were especially high.

A decade into the new century, America had been whipsawed by a series of recessions. The abuses of the Gilded Age still rankled the citizenry who experienced as great a divide between rich and poor as had been seen. Labor unions fought for a place at the table, and some sought to rein in the influence corporations had on politics.

Then as now, populism seemed the best solution, and Roosevelt played it to his advantage, pacing the stage, tossing pages of his speech to the floor, even evoking Robespierre in one speech. Reporting on such a performance, the Nation magazine described “his violence of language, his recklessness of assertion, his apparent inability to reason coherently, make of him a spectacle disturbing to his friends and mortifying to the country” and concluded that “there appears the almost insane hatred of Mr. Taft.”

The frenzy polarized the party, and the convention in Chicago was anarchic. Thirteen states had held primaries, and after winning nine of those contests, Roosevelt and his followers felt entitled to the nomination. But the party leadership didn’t agree and defended its position by stringing barbed wire around the rostrum and enlisting guards and police for security.

When the dust settled, Taft had won the nomination, and Roosevelt, too proud to concede, formed the Progressive Party. But Cowan shows its promise was short-lived.

In courting the Southern white vote Roosevelt’s Progressives prohibited the Southern black delegates, who had left the GOP, from joining the new party.

Few historians have given this shameful chapter in the Progressive Party the attention it deserves, and Cowan’s documentation, drawn mostly from newspaper accounts from summer 1912, is compelling.

Roosevelt wrote, “I earnestly believe that by appealing to the best white men in the South, and by frankly putting the movement in their hands from the outset, we shall create a situation by which the colored men of the South will ultimately get justice.”

In the end, the theatrics and racism didn’t win the election. By splitting the vote, Roosevelt and Taft allowed Woodrow Wilson to beat the GOP in every state in the South and take the White House. Ironically, Wilson’s administration introduced a flood of discriminatory legislation.

“Let the People Rule” is a bracing reminder that we’re not above such tactics today. Congressional districts get realigned. New voting laws are written, and the intelligence of the electorate is questioned.

If the battle between Roosevelt and Taft had a rancor, vitriol, a passionate intensity that sounds familiar, then we would be wise to realize that in a contest where the ends justify the means, what a candidate represents is not who the candidate is. Roosevelt acted, as Cowan concludes, “like many and most politicians: doing everything necessary to win.”

Credit the strength of the republic that it doesn’t always work out.

]]> 0, 23 Jul 2016 19:54:13 +0000
Book review: ‘Good Man With a Dog’ a moving story of patrolling wilds of Maine, beyond Sun, 17 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Roger Guay grew up in Jackman, Maine, but he didn’t grow up wanting to become a game warden. “Back then, I didn’t consider poaching a crime. Nobody I knew did. The game warden was the enemy, and the crime was getting caught.”

So begins the first chapter of Roger Guay’s memoir, “A Good Man with a Dog,” about his 25-year career as a Maine game warden.

One of the earliest stories Guay tells in the book is about coming to see game wardens as protectors of an invaluable resource to ensure that everyone – including future generations – has the opportunity to know and enjoy hunting and fishing in the Maine woods.

Guay’s book, written with award-winning Maine writer Kate Clark Flora, is filled with wild chases, stakeouts in the middle of the night and harrowing rescues of lost and injured people. Two things become abundantly clear. Game wardens are indeed the good guys – if not often heroes. And the Maine woods can be a dangerous, unforgiving place.

During Guay’s time in service, he was involved in recovering over 200 bodies of people who’d gotten lost, come ill-equipped and/or made fatal decisions. Maine winters, in particular, have taken their share of people from away who have no idea of the risks they’re taking in the woods. Maine winters also are not timid about claiming people who have always lived here. All too often, the searches and recoveries require Herculean efforts to extract the bodies so loved ones can have some form of closure.

The beginning of the book is loaded with stories of poachers, hunting and fishing in clear and purposeful violation of the law. A heavier hand editing this section would have served the book well, as the stories tend to become repetitious. Stories of rescues, however, are more compelling.

Where the book really comes together, though, is in its latter half, when Guay recounts how he almost single-handedly resurrected the Warden Service’s use of search dogs. The details of handlers training their dogs are fascinating. The K9 unit garnered such a reputation for its work that wardens with their dogs began to be called into service to assist searches outside of their jurisdiction, including out of state.

Other law enforcement agencies would call them in as a last resort, and then complicate and delay the searches by withholding critical information, or information that they didn’t deem important. Trust had to be slowly built for the teams to be able to do their jobs in the unique manner required.

The book ends with the incredible story of Guay and a partner being called to New Orleans in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster to help find and recover countless victims of the devastation.

The sheer magnitude of the destruction, and being forced to take direction from a layered hierarchy that hadn’t a clue about how highly skilled K9 teams work, is a tale of massively oppressive ineptitude. That the recovery became almost solely focused on creating positive PR opportunities is a tragedy unto itself.

The psychic toll on Guay resulted in his becoming yet one more victim, suffering grievous post-traumatic stress that tore at the fabric of his soul, his family and his career.

“A Good Man with a Dog” is a moving book. For anyone who loves the wilds of Maine, Guay’s memoir pays great tribute to the men and women who seek to protect them and their visitors from harm.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. He can be reached via:

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Signings, etc.: Wendy L. Miller Sun, 17 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Wendy L. Miller will talk about and sign copies of her just released book, “Sky Above Clouds: Finding Our Way Through Creativity, Aging, and Illness,” a work that is both manual and memoir, showing a couple’s journey through aging and illness.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: Camden Public Library, 55 Main St.


INFO:; 236-3440

]]> 0, 16 Jul 2016 20:27:22 +0000
Writer Carrie Jones’s values shine through Sun, 17 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Young-adult novelist Carrie Jones took to heart the words her beloved Uncle Richard spoke to her at the end of his life. After decades of working as an attorney, he instructed Jones to “pick up the gauntlet” as she pursued her own career in writing.

During a telephone interview, the 45-year-old writer recalled her interpretation of his words: “If you can, you should always fight for others. And if you can, you should always work towards good. And if you can, you should pick up the gauntlet and try to make society better.”

That philosophy has not only informed Jones’ fiction for middle-graders and young adults, it has led her to engage in public service: serving on the Ellsworth City Council, running for the state House of Representatives, co-editing a collection of nonfiction essays about bullying and working as a part-time police dispatcher and a volunteer firefighter. She lives in Bar Harbor with her husband, Shaun Farrar, three dogs and a cat.

Over the course of her writing career, Jones has produced an eclectic mix of books, including non-fiction, high school melodrama and paranormal romance. She has recently embarked on two major ongoing projects: “Time Stoppers,” with roots from her earliest days as a storyteller, and “Flying,” to be published Tuesday, which has allowed her to explore a genre that’s new to her, science fiction.

Jones grew up in Bedford, New Hampshire. “I was pretty much the poor kid in an affluent town, which in the end truly benefited me,” she said.

Attending Bates College brought her to Maine. Meeting Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney at a campus event proved to be a turning point, Jones said.

“He told me you didn’t have to be wealthy to be a poet and you didn’t have to fit in and that you can be who you are and still be a writer,” Jones said. “At that time in my life, that was a very important lesson for me.”

While at Bates, Jones contracted both mononucleosis and the Epstein-Barr virus, which she said attacked her brain and gave her seizures.

“If you’re going to have epilepsy, you should have it my way,” Jones said. “I can’t tell you how lucky I was. I don’t have to take medication. It was horrible in college, but I’m blessed in that I was able to get over it and know what will trigger it again.”

Following her graduation, Jones embarked on a career in journalism, working as a reporter and editor at the Ellsworth Weekly and as a reporter at the Bangor Weekly and the Ellsworth American.

She discovered her facility for fantasy storytelling while driving to reporting assignments with her young daughter, Emily. She began spinning a story about a girl named Annie Nobody who discovers Aurora, a magical town near Mount Desert Isle. Eventually, the plot became too complicated to keep in her head, so Jones began writing it down.

“I’d write like five pages every day and give them to Emily to read in the car. She’d be like ‘Five pages? Is that it, Mommy? Really?’ ”

Years later, Jones resurrected and expanded the story of Annie Nobody. The effort led to the first volume of the middle-grade “Time Stoppers” saga, published in May by Bloomsbury USA.

“It’s the story that made me a writer,” Jones said. “In that sense, it’s the most special to me. There’s more magic in it and more hope than I might necessarily have in writing for young adults.”

In 2007, Jones enrolled in a master’s of fine art program at Vermont College. “It taught me so much about craft and exploring different genres, style,” she said. “It brought to my writing a sense of responsibility.”

By her second year in the program, she had sold two novels, “Tips on Having a Gay (Ex) Boyfriend” and its sequel, “Love (and Other Uses for Duct Tape).”

Since then she has written the “Need” series of internationally best-selling fantasies, “Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender,” “Girl, Hero” and “After Obsession” (co-written with Steven E. Wedel).

She also co-edited, with Megan Kelley Hall, “Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories” a collection of essays. Jones said that the experience gave her a new perspective on the subject and on her colleagues.

“That their experiences of being bullied still resonated and hurt so much, that was incredibly eye-opening to me, that the pain could last so long for people I consider so strong and sturdy.”

Jones’ latest book is “Flying,” to be published by Tor Teen on Tuesday. Something of a departure for her, the novel is science fiction, rather than fantasy.

Jones said she wanted to write a book with a female protagonist who starts out as weak and grows stronger as the plot advances. “I chose science fiction because I wasn’t seeing a lot of characters like that (in the genre).”

Mana, the protagonist, leads a sheltered life until her mother disappears and is revealed to be a professional hunter of extraterrestrials. The narrative contains elements of both “Men in Black” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

“The inspiration probably came from driving home really late at night and there was some kind of random UFO conspiracy show on the radio, which I had never heard before and which kind of piqued my interest,” Jones said. “Now I know too much about UFO conspiracy theories.”

Despite juggling multiple writing projects, Jones has maintained her habits of community service. Having served as city councilor in Ellsworth for a time, she tried her hand at politics again in 2008, running as a Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives seat in Maine District 38. She did not win that election.

“The truth is I’m not tough enough to be a politician. I’m far too wimpy, and I don’t have a thick skin,” she said.

She has, however, been able to help her community by working as a part-time police dispatcher and as a volunteer firefighter, with people who are committed to working for the greater good.

“It’s exactly what my uncle was talking about, picking up the gauntlet, but in a way that’s very different from politics,” she said.

Even with accolades and contracts for more books in hand, Jones claims to suffer occasionally from “impostor’s syndrome.” The trick, however, is to keep working.

“I don’t ever not write,” she said, “because I feel so lucky to be a writer.”

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: mlberry

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Book review: ‘Cold Blood, Hot Sea’ tries mystery novel pacing with heavy dose of climate science Sun, 17 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 In “Cold Blood, Hot Sea,” Charlene D’Avanzo’s first mystery novel, Mara Tusconi is a scientist with the Maine Oceanographic Institution. Headquartered in Spruce Harbor, Maine, the institution is an international leader in climate change research. Tusconi’s particular field of study is climate change’s effect on ocean temperatures.

As the book begins, she’s taking off on a research cruise to record April temperature gradients in the Gulf of Maine. The trip turns deadly when one of her colleagues is crushed by a heavy buoy. Was it just an accident? Were all the people on the boat at the time – scientists, crew and an unexpected passenger – actually on board for the right reason?

The answer involves an increasingly dangerous group of climate change deniers, a mystery email suggesting that fraudulent science is being practiced somewhere close to home, a sinister multinational oil company, and young Tusconi’s initiation into the rough world of sleuthing. (This is the first of a projected series of Mara Tusconi Mysteries.)

D’Avanzo herself is a marine ecologist who has studied the New England coast for 40 years.

So it’s a fair bet that when it comes to research vessels, labs and scientific protocols, she knows her stuff. In addition to the research background, she packs in a lot of facts and figures about global climate change.

Welcome to cli-fi, a new literary genre. Publisher Torrey House Press, according to its website, is dedicated to the belief that “culture is changed through conversation and that lively contemporary literature is the cutting edge of social change.” And its goal is to “develop literary resources for the conservation movement, educating and entertaining readers, inspiring action.”

Lively contemporary literature notwithstanding, it’s really not possible to apply the usual benchmarks of good storytelling – character development, pacing, realistic dialogue – to books like “Cold Blood, Hot Sea.” Using a mystery story as the vehicle for a dissertation on climate change is like trying to mix oil and water.

The science is simply too voluminous to be integrated into the narration’s forward motion without bogging it down. In an effort, presumably, to make this expository lemon into lemonade, the author has Tusconi coached in making climate science accessible to the public. “Scientists speak in code,” her instructor tells her. “When you talk to the press, you must use plain language.” Problem solved? Not really.

Considering these straitening factors, however, D’Avanzo does a fairly good job of crafting her story. At least she is confident enough to allow her protagonist to say to her friend, without obvious irony, at one point, “Damn, Harv. You make this sound like a cross between a soap opera and a cheap mystery novel.”

She introduces us to a handful of mostly believable men and women, whose characters are filled out in various subplots. Motive and rationale for turns of plot are sometimes a bit of a stretch, but the action scenes are genuinely thrilling page-turners.

Statutory red herrings – required to keep the mystery fan guessing – are nicely handled. And as a bonus, there is an enormous lobster called Homer (Homarus americanus being its scientific name).

The problem, as the master of it, British humorist P.G. Wodehouse, once said, is with “what we authors call dialogue.” It’s tricky enough to master the skill of making human interactions sound natural instead of stilted. When you have to also include a lot of exposition about climate change or ocean acidification, it is well-nigh impossible. For instance:

“What did you think about that paper I sent you about acidification and oyster larvae?”

“Well, it’s the first credible study that shows larvae might be able to adapt to low pH and grow normal shells.”

The Down East setting is, of course, a plus for Maine readers who will find most of the scenery recognizable, even if they won’t find the places in the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer.

There are curious inconsistencies, though. The Portland newspaper is the Ledger, but mention is also made of the Kennebec Journal, the Augusta paper’s real name. MITA – the very real Maine Island Trail Association – gets a shout-out. “Sign up when you get home, or I’ll come after you,” Mara tells the man she has her eye on.

All in all, Mara Tusconi is an attractive enough character, dealing compellingly with issues I care about, that I wouldn’t mind encountering her again.

But I can’t help questioning the publisher’s apparent assumption that any climate change-denying mystery aficionados picking up this book will become eco-converts as a result.

Thomas Urquhart is a former director of Maine Audubon and the author of “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

]]> 4, 16 Jul 2016 20:28:27 +0000
Book review: Gayle Lynds’ latest tale of espionage filled with surprises Sun, 10 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Six men find their way through the back streets of Baghdad toward the National Museum of Iraq in early April 2003, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, their faces masked by scarves, heavily armed against any surprises they might encounter.

They are a mixed group of international assassins formerly hired by Saddam, seeking now to steal a precious tablet from antiquity to recoup the second payment they never received after the ruler’s fall.

Inside the museum, they encounter Republican Guards that interrupt their getaway, causing one of the men to drop the tablet, which fractures into a dozen pieces. Several are wounded, one seriously, but he is not abandoned. The thieves quickly gather up the pieces of the tablet and make their getaway into the night.

This is the opening of best-selling author Gayle Lynds’ international espionage thriller, “The Assassins,” originally published in hardback, recently released in paperback. Everyone makes it out alive, but barely. They disperse, the tablet fragments scattering with each of them as well.

The leader, Burleigh Morgan, a Brit, recovers from multiple wounds in Beirut, then goes on to Cairo. He emails his comrades that the tablet could still be valuable, and they should assemble the pieces. Members of his team from around the world reply skeptically.

Several years later, he leaves the apartment of his girlfriend, goes out to get in his Cobra, and a devastating explosion leaves nothing but smoke and the mangled wreckage of his car.

“This was not just about murdering some old assassin,” Lynds writes. “Someone powerful had sent a message.”

Once there were six assassins with pieces of an ancient Sumerian tablet – and then there were only five.

“The Assassins” is a taut and cleverly crafted thriller with layer upon layer of complexity woven into the unfolding tale from the start.

Maine writer Lynds exhibits compelling command of the narrative, but also of the shadowy realm of professional assassins and the geo-political world they traffic in.

Such professionals do not refer to their specialty as assassinations or killings, but rather as “wet work.” No two are alike, and Lynds presents a rogues’ gallery that is as diverse as it is fascinating.

There is the Padre, a former Basque separatist who dresses to appear as a kindly Catholic priest and is looking for the Carnivore, whom the Padre believes is coming after him. The Carnivore, the so-called “assassin without a face” nobody has ever been able to identify because of his mastery of disguise, is also a master of making his kills look like accidents, suicides or natural deaths.

There is also Eli Eichel, the Choirmaster, who is ex-Mossad; and Krot, who is ex-KGB; and Seymore, who is an Islamic jihadist.

The story moves from Baghdad to Cairo to Paris and then London. From Washington, D.C. and environs, to Marrakesh and back to Baghdad.

The narrative turns around Judd Ryder, an assassin for a black-op CIA unit, and Eva Blake, a former curator of antiquities for the Getty Museum who is in training at Langley to become a CIA operative.

Early in the story, Ryder returns a day early from Baghdad, where he’s been on assignment. As he approaches his home on a snowy night, he sees someone walk out the front door: his identical double. As the double starts to cross the street, he gets mowed over in a hit-and-run.

The Padre proves to be behind both the creation of the double, and his public murder. He is also responsible for the subsequent kidnapping of Eva, only “Eva” is also a double he’s created. Both acts were designed as cover, the latter to entice Ryder to try to rescue Blake, so the Padre can capture and interrogate him about the whereabouts of the Carnivore, for whom the two previously worked.

Things don’t turn out well for the Padre, nor for other members of the assassins team from Baghdad. Ryder and Blake come to suspect something other than the desire of one assassin to collect all the fragments of the tablet is at play. But what?

There are more twists in the plot than turns in the meandering streets of Marrakesh. Nobody seems to be who they say they are, and nothing is as it appears. Alliances and double-crosses abound.

Assassins are, by their nature, loners who do not trust anyone, and Lynds has created a resonating echo among some of them that the loneliness and life in the shadows is wearisome, spawning a desire for normalcy and respectability – and even love.

The drama never lags in “The Assassins.” At nearly 500 pages, it is still a fast read. The ending is richly satisfying, though a reader never sees it coming.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel “Dream Singer” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by Shelf Unbound, an international review magazine. “Dream Singer” was also a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by novelist Barbara Kingsolver “in support of a literature of social change.” Smith can be reached via:

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Signings, etc.: Author to talk about his Joshua Chamberlain novel Sun, 10 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Author Matthew Langdon Cost will talk about his latest book, “Joshua Chamberlain and the Civil War: At Every Hazard,” a historical novel about one of that war’s genuine heroes, a college professor with no formal military training who, together with a small company of men, turned the tide of the battle and the war with a bayonet charge at Gettysburg.

WHEN: Noon Wednesday

WHERE: Portland Public Library, Rines Auditorium, 5 Monument Square, Portland


INFO: 871-1700;

]]> 0, 12 Jul 2016 18:56:19 +0000
Book review: Science at heart of personal drama Sun, 10 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Eileen Pollack’s “A Perfect Life” is an analytical and emotional tale of the troubling reality of degenerative diseases, told through the lens of a young biologist hot on the trail of the mutant gene for the fated Valentine’s chorea, a rare and terrifying illness.

The novel’s young, bright protagonist, Jane Weiss, is linked to Valentine’s by more than her cutting-edge research: It’s the same disease that killed her mother. The tension and fear of the 50 percent chance that she, too, carries the gene for the illness complicate her life with an unhealthy level of doubtful self-involvement and dysfunctional relationships that snarl the story line.

Pollack, who has a degree in physics from Yale University, artfully simplifies the complexity of a precise science and transforms the mundanity of technical research into clear, clean prose. She showcases her talent in a “Bill Nye the Science Guy” way, making the study of DNA exciting and accessible.

In describing genetic mutations and the seemingly random way in which they manifest, she writes, “It was as if, long ago, God had handed out a set of colored handkerchiefs, two to each person. Some handkerchiefs were red, others were green, or yellow, or blue. In one family, everyone who had inherited a red handkerchief might carry the gene for Valentine’s, while those members of the family with other colors did not have the gene. In another family, the green handkerchief might be the lethal marker. In healthy families, a red or green handkerchief meant nothing at all, because no one had the gene.”

While Pollack’s clarity in writing about science deserves praise, her simple style falls flat when a small population largely affected by Valentine’s is discovered living on Spinsters Island off the coast of Maine.

A jackpot for genetic testing, the development is crucial for the plot line. However, Pollack’s depiction of the islanders as uneducated, poor, struggling with addiction and, perhaps, a little inbred, could be offensive to the real-life residents of Maine’s islands.

Upon arriving on the island, where she plans to recruit research subjects with beer, Jane sees “six shabby houses stood farther up the hill, their yards strewn with mangled bikes, toilet seats, and clothes wringers. How could anyone live in such a place?”

This type of superficial approach is rampant throughout the book and diminishes the larger themes, including research ethics and funding, animal testing and abortion, and the personal realities of dealing with tragedy and death, that at times read a bit glossed over.

Pollack tries to flesh out these themes by weaving them into the personal discussions between Jane and her love interest, Willie. The two, who both cared for and watched a parent die, are twisted together by Valentine’s like a double helix in an intimate, yet unsettling way.

Awkwardly, they become step-siblings when Jane’s father and Willie’s mother bond over losing their spouses and decide to marry.

Their unusual relationship, plus the shared stress of being potential victims of such a hopeless disease is complex, and the reader may find it hard to relate.

Still, this novel raises important questions at a time when advances in genetic testing present personal and societal choices around uncovering the mysteries of disease and what to do with the answers we might find.

Marae Hart is a graduate of the University of Iowa and the Salt Institute. She is a freelance writer and can be contacted at:

]]> 0, 09 Jul 2016 20:16:01 +0000
Book review: Maine bank robber’s exploits make for absorbing tale Sun, 10 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 In his humorous and sometimes poignant book, author Ron Chase tells how decorated Vietnam veteran Bernard Patterson robbed his hometown’s Mars Hill Northern National Bank of $177,000 in 1971 and escaped to Europe with suitcases stuffed with money.

Patterson, who died in 2003, eluded an international manhunt for 11 months while living a decadent life in France, England and Switzerland. His favorite hideout was Villars-sur-Ollons, a skiing destination in the Swiss Alps where Patterson rented a mansion with his ill-gotten wealth and, for an entire winter, lured dozens of women to share his food, fine wines and bed.

When law enforcement eventually traced Patterson, he fled by motorcycle to Yugoslavia. Further wanderings brought him to Morocco, where he swapped his motorcycle for a camel in a near-fatal attempt to cross the Sahara Desert.

“The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” succeeds as a fast and exciting read through Chase’s thorough research into life events that turned a poor Mars Hill native into a man who faced life-threatening danger in his quest for wealth.

If there’s a fault to the book, it’s the author’s occasional portrayal of his character as a folk hero who, like Robin Hood, goes about redistributing wealth.

Patterson did give some money away, including a handful of franc notes handed to an elderly woman down on her luck.

But Patterson is basically a crook and a womanizer with an alcohol problem that hastened his early death.

Still, Chase tells a fascinating story of a driven man’s rise and fall.

Growing up mostly parentless in Mars Hill, Patterson quit school after eighth grade, but he was a math genius. “Bernard could learn more in two days than the rest could in a week,” Chase quotes a teacher as saying.

Seminal experiences that shaped Bernard were three tours of duty in Vietnam in which he volunteered as a tunnel rat – a high-fatality job for American GIs who descended into Viet Cong tunnels to kill the enemy with handguns and knives.

Five feet, three inches tall, Patterson “excelled in this violent perilous world,” Chase writes. He was awarded four Bronze Stars and recommended for a Silver Star for valor.

Off duty in Vietnam, Patterson was no hero. He traded currencies on the black market. He sold American military equipment to the Vietnamese, and he came home on leave with marijuana that he sold in Maine.

The army denied Patterson’s request for a fourth tour of duty as a tunnel rat. “Perhaps,” the author writes, “the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had already manifested themselves.”

Home in Mars Hill and once again poor, Patterson picked November 1971 to rob the local bank. In preparation, he stashed a rubber get-away raft next to the Prestile Stream that runs through town.

On a Friday evening when the bank was open late, he faked a fire alarm that had police and firefighters rushing out of town.

Then, Patterson walked into the bank wearing a reddish brown wig, his face disguised with a potato picker’s blue bandanna. The gun he carried was a toy.

Tellers obligingly dumped cash into two large bags. Staggering out the door with his load, the former tunnel rat crossed Main Street and struggled down an embankment to the rubber boat he hoped to float downstream to Canada.

It immediately overturned, drenching both moneybags and Patterson in 40-degree water.

The story of escape from early disaster in the murky Prestile to high life in Europe gets a lot more bizarre, and Chase reveals details in a way that makes for a page-turner.

Patterson is, of course, eventually caught. Because he’s a Vietnam hero likely suffering from PTSD, a Maine judge gives him a relatively lenient sentence in a federal lockup, where Patterson studies marijuana culture in the prison library, leading to a final adventure deftly told in “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery.”

Lloyd Ferriss is a writer and photographer who lives in Richmond.

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Book review: In Jodi Paloni’s linked stories, a desire for more Sun, 03 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 There is a powerfully arresting line near the end of Jodi Paloni’s collection of linked stories, “They Could Live with Themselves,” that, when you come to it, you simply cannot push past it.

It is in the story of Charlotte Cook, a young girl who fears that her mother won’t be home for her 12th birthday. Her mother is away being treated for addiction. Charlotte goes out the back door of the house, but skirts the line of crows that always perch on the fence above the trash can. “I hate them,” she thinks. “They want and they want.”

That line rises like the report of a tolling bell, declaring what lies at the heart of all 11 stories in the author’s deeply affecting debut book. The line’s sparse eloquence, naked as a heartbeat, lays bare the yearning of the dozen or so main characters, each with their own regrets and losses, yet striving still to reconcile their lives to the circumstances they find themselves in.

“They Could Live With Themselves” is as much a story about place as it is about the characters who live there. Stark Run is a Vermont community, a small town in its nature, and though Paloni enables the reader to richly experience the place, she provides little physical description to define it. The reader discovers the soul of the place through the struggles that hold and shape the daily lives of those who live there.

It is akin to Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” providing readers with voyeur-like glimpses into the often-crushing weight of individual events and decisions that, in many cases, happened long ago but still haunt people’s lives.

All ages and stages of life and love are included, from 11-year-old Charlotte in “Mabel, Mabel,” to Maeve Bellamy in “Ms. Bellamy,” the 69-year spinster English teacher at the high school who still lives at home with her mother.

Yes, they can live with themselves, but it is never easy.

In “Deep End,” Jillanna is at the pool when her little brother Elliot goes under unnoticed and drowns. She blames herself for distracting the lifeguard, but carries her guilt stoically until, at a gathering of women around her mother in their living room, she blurts out, “It was not my fault.”

After the women have left, “her mother turned – one quick motion – and slapped Jillanna across the face with a flat hand.

“Jillanna’s cheek stung. She realized that they were the only two in the room.”

Paloni packs the weight of a small novel into this single story.

“Wonder Woman” is the story of a lonely girl who gets caught in a mismatched friendship of hate, envy, attraction, betrayal, redemption and desire with a popular girl in town. “Accommodations” tells of a woman seeking to break free of the interior “story” she repeatedly tells herself about what kind of person she is.

“The Third Element” focuses on Meredith Wade, an elementary art schoolteacher who appears in several other stories. She had gone off to live the bohemian life of an artist in Philadelphia but returned to care for her ailing mother. She now lives alone in the house she grew up in.

The static routine of her existence is altered when Sky Ryan, one of her former students, talks his way into painting her house and working in her yard. While he works, she secretly sketches him.

“Drawing him feels like summer should, no stress, no thick dull strain of grief inside her chest.” Later, in the privacy of her studio behind the house, she works on an assemblage of objects, “replicating a woman’s body before disease took the whole thing.” It is an expression of her secret wanting to be whole as well. “As a teenager, she could hardly stand to be near her mother for more than a few hours, but now an absence fills her chest cavity in spurts, like buckshot, leaving tiny spaces for hot and cold to seep in and send her into hiding.”

The last story, “The Physics of Light,” brings Sky Ryan and Meredith Wade together again. She had encouraged him to take photography at the local community college. Late one night, he slips from his girlfriend Emily’s bed and goes to see Meredith, seeking counsel on the photos he’s selected for a one-man show. “He wants to do a series, tell a story, twelve images starting with Emily half-clothed on the rocks, then asleep in her bed.… He’d place an image of the vacant riverbed at the end. The audience could interpret the linear progression however they wanted based on their personal view of the world – beauty, love, nature, loss.… (He’d) invite his audience to feel.”

Meredith assesses the 12, then while he is out on the porch, looks at all the photos in his portfolio. Realizing that he’s holding back, yet wanting to break free, she tells him, ” ‘You know there’s something more you have to do in this project, something more difficult.’ ” She asserts that he knows what it is, then presses him to identify it. “He closes his eyes.… ‘The honesty,’ ” he says.

” ‘Yes.’ Meredith spins around. ‘They’re all about the dream, the desire.’ ”

She encourages him to shoot more that night in her studio. It is a transformative interlude for the both of them. Ultimately, he “pisses off more than a few people” with his show. There is nothing left for him to do afterwards but what Meredith encourages him to do.

” ‘So now you need to get out of here and become a Stark Run legend.’ ”

Paloni, who lives in Maine, has a natural ease in her storytelling and an unsentimental yet compassionate depth of understanding of human foibles and desires. She also possesses the honesty not to unnecessarily gloss them, allowing them to faultlessly blend together, inviting her readers to feel.

She is masterful in her craft but also leaves readers to, as Sky suggests, “interpret the linear progression” of her stories however they want “based on their personal view of the world – beauty, love, nature, loss.”

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel “Dream Singer” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by Shelf Unbound, an international review magazine. “Dream Singer” was also a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by novelist Barbara Kingsolver “in support of a literature of social change.” Smith can be reached via:

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Book review: ‘Miracle on Monhegan’ reveals family’s secrets in waggish, dark tones Sun, 03 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 “The Miracle on Monhegan” balances light and dark in a swift, engaging story. The Monahan family of Monhegan Island engages with past and present drama sparked by mental illness, religious fervor and familial strife. As a tabloid reporter visiting the Monahan family describes it, the narrative explores “Faith. Belief. Truth. Lies. Consequences. Fathers. Sons.”

The Monahan men create and respond to the wild events that propel “The Miracle on Monhegan.”

Pastor Ragnor, the family patriarch, leads a congregation that is part Yankee puritanism and part circus sideshow. In the beginning of the story, his eldest son, Spark, has returned home after years away. He left when his son Hally was a baby, leaving the boy to be raised by the pastor and Spark’s younger brother, Hugh.

Each character is developed fully, grounding their responses to unbelievable events in a fully developed reality. All are likable in their own way, even as the reader is led to question the pastor’s motives, berate Spark for his bad choices or grow weary of Hugh’s long-suffering sacrifices.

Readers get to know each character equally because the story is narrated by the fifth member of the Monahan family and the only one with four legs – Ned, Spark’s loyal dog with his own secret past.

Author Elizabeth Kelly’s unlikely choice of a narrator adds humor and surprise to some of the story’s darker moments. Perspective is distorted (descriptions weighing heavily on scent and views below the knees) and readers get details that a human observer wouldn’t offer.

Describing Pastor Ragnor’s congregation, Ned said: “I glanced around and saw so many thick ankles crammed into so many cheap pairs of shoes, for a moment I imagined a herd of cows had wandered into a Payless.”

At the same time we get a charming view into the imagined world of our narrator. “I lay my head between my paws and thought about Old English mastiffs,” Ned said. “Seemingly the sanest of breeds, or so humans think … they make you feel as if you could bounce a dime off their taut intelligence, but really, as every dog will tell you, they are mad as apples.”

Madness – who defines it, what it means and how it is identified – is behind much of the controversy in “The Miracle on Monhegan.”

The story’s turning point takes place at Black Head (spelled in the book as two words), the island’s rocky cliffs. There, after dropping a match into a mason jar of bullets, Hally reports that he saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary.

This event, combined with his grandfather’s spiritual opportunism, sends the family headfirst into a rapidly unfolding series of events that involve a stalker, religious fanaticism and the steady uncovering of family secrets.

“The Miracle on Monhegan” ends more quickly than it began. It is as if, after sprinting uphill during the first 308 pages, Ned collapsed, panting, and let the last two chapters roll along without him.

Not all questions are answered and not all secrets are revealed. But along the way, in addition to offering us a set of endearing characters and an astute narrator, Kelly shares pithy bits of wisdom about family and faith, while never letting any of it get in the way of her ultimate aim: a rollicking story.

Heidi Sistare is a writer who lives in Portland. Contact her at:

Twitter: @heidisistare

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New books, new exhibit help put Acadia’s 100th anniversary in perspective Sun, 03 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 The natural beauty and serenity of Acadia National Park is inspiring. The evidence lies not only in the millions of people who visit but in all the books, essays, paintings, photographs and poetry the place has spawned.

This year is the 100th anniversary of Acadia’s founding – as Sieur de Monts National Monument – and a good time to look at some of the most recent literary, artistic and historic interpretations of New England’s only national park.

Among several new books out this year are a coffee table book of photos with essays and a new biography of George Bucknam Dorr, the park’s first superintendent. One new book focuses on the art and artists inspired by the land while another features stories about the park’s human and natural history. There’s also a new museum exhibit, at Maine Historical Society in Portland, focused on the design of the park.

While this is by no means a comprehensive lists of books and events tied to Acadia’s centennial, the five works mentioned here give a good idea of just how inspiring the park’s physical beauty and history are.

“Acadia National Park: A Centennial Celebration”

With photographs by Tom Blagden Jr. Rizzoli. March 2016. Hardcover. $50

Blagden published his first book of pictures of the park, “First Light,” in 2003. He continued to take photos with an eye on another book, focused on capturing the park’s wildlife and wild beauty. For “Acadia National Park: A Centennial Celebration,” he spent five years coming up in every season, watching and waiting for the perfect pictorial moment.

Fox kit near Seal Harbor, Mount Desert Island.

Fox kit near Seal Harbor, Mount Desert Island.

Like when he went looking for a fox den, and then waited patiently for a fox kit to come out.

“The wildlife isn’t dominant, like in Yellowstone, so you have to work harder at getting the wildlife shots,” said Blagden, 64, a freelance photographer who lives most of the year in South Carolina. “I don’t really plan a shot. I target an area and then see what I find.”

Blagden’s work included scrambling to certain spots in a light rain so he could catch a rainbow, or waiting for mist to rise in the morning from an inland pond. Blagden’s book has more than 220 pages, most of them with color photos. The photos are starkly focused on nature, with no people and few man-made structures. There are essays by David Rockefeller Jr., Dayton Duncan, a writer and collaborator of filmmaker Ken Burns, and several others.

“I like to work in a certain style, photographing pure wilderness, the untrammeled quality of nature,” said Blagden. “I wanted to stick with that for this book and try to reveal the great diversity of nature there.”

DORR_EPP_CoverZ_Dorr-Down.indd“Creating Acadia National Park: The Biography of George Bucknam Dorr”

By Ronald H. Epp. Friends of Acadia. April 2016. Paperback. $20.

Epp decided to write a complete biography of George Bucknam Dorr because, as a visitor and lover of Acadia, he wanted to know more about the man labeled the “father” of the park.

“Once I started coming to Acadia, I found myself dissatisfied with the ignorance of Dorr, and what he brought to Acadia,” said Epp, 73, a retired philosophy professor and college librarian who lives in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

Dorr was born in a well-off Boston family in 1853. His family started visiting Mount Desert Island in the 1860s, having been influenced by paintings of the place by the famed Hudson River School artists. He went to Harvard then traveled abroad for several years, without a fixed vocation. His father bought a farm on Mount Desert Island, and in 1896 Dorr started a nursery business there.

He and other wealthy men who had become “seduced” by the island’s landscape, began to realize that the stream of visitors would not stop and that the land needed to be protected, Epp said. Dorr began buying up land as part of his preservation effort, sometimes with his own money, sometimes with backing from John D. Rockefeller Jr., one of the park’s better-known benefactors, Epp said.

For his book, Epp drew upon letters written by Dorr, Rockefeller and others.

“In their letters, they talked about being overcome by the beauty of the place and seeing that beauty as being threatened,” said Epp.

804447 Historic Acadia Nati“Historic Acadia National Park: The Stories Behind One of America’s Great Treasures”

By Catherine Schmitt. Lyons Press. May 2016. Paperback. $16.95

Schmitt, a science writer for the University of Maine’s Sea Grant program, has written 12 stories on various aspects of the park’s natural and human history. She says she tried to find stories and facts that weren’t well-known, including some in her own area of expertise.

Schmitt found that people started venturing to the top of Cadillac Mountain, one of the most popular spots in the park today, because of a federal coastal survey that took place in the 1850s. The survey team built a road up the mountain so they could make astronomical calculations. Once the road was built, tourists followed.

She also found, in her research, that scientists had a role in creating the park, a role that most people probably don’t think much about. Beginning in the 1800s, scientists came to Mount Desert Island to study nature in its pristine form and realized that as more visitors came, opportunities for study could be destroyed.

“If you look at the founding legislation, it makes it clear how important it was to keep the land protected as a place for science,” Schmitt said.

804447 Art of Acadia cove“Art of Acadia”

By David Little and Carl Little. Down East Books. July 8. Hardcover. $50

This book is the second time that brothers David and Carl Little have collaborated on a work about art inspired by the Maine landscape. David Little, an artist himself, wrote “Art of Katahdin” in 2013 about the art inspired by Maine’s most famous mountain. Carl Little was the editor.

For this book, the two wrote about a wide range of art inspired by the land that became Acadia National Park, starting with 17th-century German prints and artists brought in to help

804447 Carroll Tyson (Somes

Carroll Sargent Tyson’s “Somes Sound from Bordeaux Farm,” circa 1910, from “Art of Acadia.”

with map making. The book’s time traveling continues to today, with 90 or so artists working in and around the park. There are some 350 images in the book.

There is a chapter on the Hudson River School of artists, including Frederic Church and Thomas Cole, who came to Mount Desert Island in the 19th century and whose paintings of the land helped spur tourism.

“These artists showed their works in East Coast galleries, and wealthy people started saying, ‘I’d like to go there and see this place,'” said Carl Little, who lives on Mount Desert Island and has written some 25 books on art. “It was the great demand to see this place that led to efforts to protect it, to create the national park.”

“Designing Acadia: Creating Maine’s National Park Experience”

At the Maine Historical Society, 489 Congress St., Portland, through Jan. 14; $2-$8;

Rusticators on a hike in Acadia National Park, circa 1920, is among vintage images on view at the Maine Historical Society.

Rusticators on a hike in Acadia National Park, circa 1920, is among vintage images on view at the Maine Historical Society.

This exhibit looks at the designing of the park, including the building of auto roads in the 1930s. Of the more than 60 artifacts on view, there are old postcards, photos of workers and many maps. There’s also a 1927 Ford Model T, so people can get a sense of how early tourists used the park’s first roads. The exhibit begins with a history of the land, from the earliest native people to live there who created the first trails, to early tourists and the people who built the park itself.

Visitors will get a sense of how much thought and planning went into the park as it is today, said Kate McBrien, chief curator at Maine Historical Society.

“What surprised me was how much thought went into everything, into planning for a certain view. They would plan out that, if a car was driving on this spot, and the passengers looked to the right, this is what they would see,” said McBrien.

FOR MORE INFORMATION on events during Acadia’s centennial year go to


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Book review: ‘White Trash’ delves widely, not so deeply, into U.S. attitudes about class Sun, 03 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Among our many failings, Americans are forever being taken to task for our willful blindness about social class – even though everybody seems perfectly aware of it, and the topic pervades our literature. Twain, Dreiser, Wharton, Cather, Lewis, Faulkner, Fitzgerald – the list of important American authors alert to class distinctions goes on and on.

Yet there’s no denying class inequities have been pushed off center stage in recent decades. During World War II the long struggle for progressive social change shifted from economic issues to civil rights, and since then the focus has been on achieving full citizenship for blacks, women and others who were traditionally marginalized. The rise of identity politics, driven in part by multiracial immigration, has further obscured the role of class and the claims of its victims.

In “White Trash,” a provocatively titled cultural history of attitudes toward poor Southern whites, historian Nancy Isenberg argues that America has never been the egalitarian “city on a hill” we’ve been led to believe (no debate there), and that our hateful attitudes toward the people variously known as crackers, hillbillies and rednecks are as deeply rooted in our history as is our class anxiety.

The strength of “White Trash” is the author’s prodigious research, by means of which she traces the concept (the term “white trash” was popularized in the 1850s) all the way back to the earliest days of European settlement in the New World, when frustration with the poor “waste people” of England helped drive colonization.

The book is particularly good on the pre-Revolutionary and Civil War periods, but takes in Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton and Bill Clinton as well.

Yet this wealth of material ultimately proves a snare, entangling author and reader alike. One wishes Isenberg would look up now and then from her furious research (and it is furious, in every sense of the word) to take account of the massive changes going in the society she is writing about.

There is no sense of the republican energies unleashed by the American Revolution, or the country’s evolution from something like an aristocracy to a largely middle-class society, whatever the difficulties of the perennially tenuous middle in recent years.

A century and a half of technological and social change are entirely missing in this chronicle of a static nation built on unchanging hatreds and delusions.

Even worse, this is a book concerned with poor white Southerners but says almost nothing about who they are, where they live or how many they number.

“The theatrical performances of politicians who profess to speak for an ‘American people’ do nothing to highlight the history of poverty,” Isenberg writes, yet the lives and voices of actual individuals in poverty are almost entirely absent from her account, which tells us almost nothing about the traditions, religious practice, origins or culture of those who are its ostensible subject.

During World War II, for example, poor Southerners – white as well as black – came north in large numbers to seize the well-paid jobs available at factories desperate for workers, yet the author skips over this historic migration.

Because Isenberg tells us so little about the “white trash” with whom (one imagines) she sympathizes, and because she has been so industrious in sifting every hideous caricature and slur from a historical record centuries long, the portrait of poor Southern whites we are left with is largely the one drawn by their many antagonists.

The clear implication is that poor whites have been shafted for 300 years – but the author never grapples with the implications of this argument.

Should we really be extending affirmative action to the children of black brain surgeons and not white sharecroppers? Is it time to reorient the focus of “social justice” away from its obsession with identity, gender and so forth back in the direction of economic fairness? What do we owe the nation’s disadvantaged citizens if they happen to be white?

“White Trash” is informative but strangely narrow for such a sprawling work, and readers may find themselves distracted by all the noise of axes being ground.

If you really want to learn about poor Americans in the rural South (and, eventually, in the urban North), read Isenberg’s book with Harriette Simpson Arnow’s heartbreaking 1954 novel “The Dollmaker.” It has its failings – Appalachia before the war was a lot less like Eden than the writer would have us believe – but you’ll never think of human beings as “white trash” again.

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Gay Talese will promote ‘Voyeur’s Motel’ Sat, 02 Jul 2016 18:54:56 +0000 NEW YORK — Gay Talese has disavowed his disavowal.

A day after saying the credibility of his upcoming book, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” was “down the toilet” because he felt he had been deceived by the story’s primary source, the celebrated writer said he will be promoting it.

“Let me be clear: I am not disavowing the book and neither is my publisher. If, down the line, there are details to correct in later editions, we’ll do that,” Talese said in a statement through publisher Grove Atlantic

“Voyeur’s Motel” tells of a Colorado motel owner, Gerald Foos, who allegedly spied on his guests. On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that some events in the book happened after Foos sold the motel, in the 1980s.

– From news service reports

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Book review: War on terror hero from Maine pulled into absorbing ‘First Strike’ Sun, 26 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 How do you define the modern American hero? In the age of international terrorism, when guns are drawn, bombs armed and missiles launched, don’t you want someone who is, above all else, competent? Not necessarily a stone-cold killer – although a single-minded implacability can come in handy – but someone who can get the job done right, with maximum focus and minimum complaining?

In the realm of espionage fiction, the guy you want may well be Dewey Andreas, the never-give-up hero of Ben Coes’ six-book series of international thrillers. Fresh from foiling a plot to detonate a 30-kiloton nuclear bomb near the Statue of Liberty in last year’s “Independence Day,” former Army Ranger, ex-CIA operative and Maine native Andreas returns to the Big Apple for a deadly assignment in “First Strike.”

Although it boasts a present-day “ripped from the headlines” plot, “First Strike” is actually a kind of alternate history, one in which the United States government provides the funds for creating the Islamic State terrorist group. In the opening chapters, Mark Raditz, the deputy U.S. secretary of defense, makes a covert $2 billion arms-for-influence deal with Tristan Nazir, an imprisoned, Oxford-educated finance expert groomed to be the most powerful leader in the Middle East.

941528_880186 strike.jpg

In exchange for weapons, Raditz expects Nazir to decree the United States and its allies off-limits from terrorist attack. Nazir instead double-crosses Raditz, creates the organization now known as ISIS and, years later, literally brings the war on terror to the hapless bureaucrat’s doorstep by kidnapping and threatening to kill his daughter and ex-wife unless he provides another shipment of guns and missiles.

Meanwhile, Marwan Al-Jaheishi, one of Nazir’s most trusted subordinates, has the evidence of Raditz’s black ops program and plans to use it as a bargaining chip in seeking asylum in the West.

At the behest of his good friend Hector Calibrisi, director of the CIA, Dewey Andreas finds himself being dropped into Syria by the Israeli military, with orders to extract Al-Jaheishi and his information. He arrives in Damascus just in time to watch the entire operation go up in a storm of gunfire and blood.

From that point, the plot of “First Strike” drops into high gear, with Andreas confronted with one life-or-death situation after another. His mission will eventually take him back to the East Coast, where Nazir has coordinated a deadly attack on a Columbia University dorm. As luck would have it, one of the hostages just happens to be Daisy Calibrisi, daughter of the CIA director and Dewey’s potential romantic interest.

Coes lives with his family in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and has a residence in midcoast Maine. A speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Coes has worked for T. Boone Pickens and was campaign manager for Mitt Romney’s successful run for Massachusetts governor. “First Strike” reveals him as an author comfortable with military and policy jargon but also capable of choreographing intricate action scenes.

The book mixes the technophilia of Tom Clancy with the lone-wolf ethos of Lee Child, with a dash of John McClane’s working-class insouciance from the cinematic “Die Hard” franchise.

For a reader new to the series, though, Dewey is a hard character to get a handle on. It’s clear that he’s led an insanely eventful life. Coes writes, “Since Boston College, Dewey had been a soldier, a roughneck on a succession of offshore oil platforms off the coasts of the UK, Africa and South America, a ranchhand, a CIA agent, and for a brief time, an accused murderer rotting away in a Georgia jail cell.”

He has also lost a son, a fiance and various friends and colleagues. He’s been physically injured, mentally abused and somehow managed to put the pieces together again.

Yet for all those details, Dewey remains somewhat opaque as a main character. Although he has a reputation as a rogue agent, he pretty much does what is expected of him, even when he has a knife at his throat. (He snarls at the ISIS military commander, “We’re going to kill every last one of you [expletive].”)

Dewey’s no-nonsense demeanor actually works in his favor, though. When terrorists are throwing college students out 10th-story windows, perhaps you don’t need a hero who gets tied up in a lot of soul-searching. Better to rely on a man of action with direct access to – and the complete confidence of – the president of the United States. (One named J.P. Dellenbaugh, who most assuredly is not based on Barack Obama.)

There’s not a lot of thematic ambiguity in “First Strike.” The good guys and the bad guys are readily distinguishable.

Coes gives Nazir a little bit of backstory to explain his hatred of the West and why he wears an eyepatch, but the revelations are not particularly illuminating. The ISIS attackers at Columbia are ciphers with names like Sirhan, Fahd, Omar and Ramzee and few other distinguishing features.

At a time when some people seem quick to equate particular ethnic and religious backgrounds with terrorism, the lack of counterbalancing Middle Eastern characters in the novel might strike readers as troubling.

But “First Strike” delivers what it promises as a thriller – hard-hitting action scenes, well-researched settings, sudden plot reversals, and tough, likeable characters who know how to keep America safe.

Its greatest asset is the slightly inscrutable and seemingly indestructible Dewey Andreas.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: mlberry

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Book review: ‘Maine Nursing’ testifies to the evolution of the profession Sun, 26 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Within today’s medical community, be it in hospital, hospice, home care or the frontline of battle, nurses are the highly trained and compassionate individuals who hold everything together. Yet theirs is an occupation that has only won respect incrementally, evolving from a volunteer calling in the 19th century to a complex, many-pathed profession in our time. The years in between have seen great struggle, low pay, long hours, sexism and actual progress.

941540_226235 nursing.jpg

“Maine Nursing: Interviews and History on Caring and Competence” treats the subject from roughly the establishment of the Maine State Nurses Association in 1914 to the present. A team of writers with impressive nursing experience and many academic degrees all but guarantees the correctness of the book’s data. Consider that Valerie A. Hart is an author and professor of nursing at the University of Southern Maine; Susan Henderson taught for 35 years at Saint Joseph’s College before retiring in 2011; Juliana L’Heureux was a home care and hospice manager and editor of the ANA-Maine Nursing Journal for two years; and that Ann Sossong is a professor of nursing at the University of Maine, Orono.

Together the four provided a very readable text for the general reader. However, it must be noted that the six chapters making up the frame of the text are chronological, while the substance of each chapter is made up of fascinating interviews with scores of nurses.

The result is less a comprehensive history of Maine nursing than a smorgasbord of very substantive, enjoyable but sometimes overlapping events. The index proves truly necessary in this case. A glossary of terms and associations would have been a useful addition.

The introduction teases the reader with mention of Marguerite-Blanche Thibodeau Cyr, the volunteer “nurse” credited with saving numerous Madawaskan families during the Black Famine of 1797.

But after this, the authors share only a smattering of early Maine nursing history with no reference to native born Dorothea Dix (save a facility named after her) or much about the Civil War years.

Martha Eastman’s doctoral dissertation of 2006 includes marvelous statements from early public health nurses including Clarissa Johnson who wrote in 1915, “She comes in working dress and is very willing to give a bath, make a bed, change a dressing.”

Throughout we see the tasks faced: influenza, polio, HIV/AIDS, the growth of medicine and health care, and the expansion of nursing education to meet the changing situations and needs.

The interviews are enlightening. We witness a Maine nurse in a 1960s Boston hospital asking to listen in on a “famous heart surgeon” during rounds and being told “you are not needed here.”

She did not say anything, “but that helped to frame for me what I wanted to do, and I really started to think about the value of nursing,” said Margaret Hourigan, who has continued to achieve throughout her distinguished career, earning a doctoral degree and serving as chair of the Nursing Department at Saint Joseph’s College.

Backs are scrubbed when needed, but nurses work on such things as genomics, global health and informatics. They are, as this book strongly proves, no longer “handmaidens of physicians.”

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored or co-authored seven books, including “The History of Sweetser-Children’s Home” and “The AIDS Project: A History.” He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.

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Book review: ‘The Life of the World to Come’ probes love and death heartfully Sun, 26 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 An entertaining protagonist pursues big questions after heartbreak.

“The Life of the World to Come” begins at the end. The reader is swiftly brought up to speed on Leo Brice’s charming but ungrounded relationship with Fiona Haeberle. Then, at the culmination of Chapter 1, it’s over. Fiona leaves, unceremoniously, and what follows is, as Leo puts it, “an epilogue.”

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The epilogue covers a lot of ground. Leo explores the afterlife through his relationship with a death row inmate. He charts new territory in communication with his housemates – an aging abuela and her dog. And he struggles with love – what it means, what it meant, what it could be.

Leo is a sharp, entertaining and melodramatic narrator. Sometimes, his hyperbolic statements border on irritating, but only because they’re real and familiar, the kind of familiar that’s uncomfortable to look at: “I was blown open when she left – blown open, and I couldn’t get closed. Everybody knows that, when you’re talking about a person, open things can get infected and closed things cannot. That’s basic medical science. And I lay there, open, taking in all the world’s bacteria.”

Writer Dan Cluchey tells a good story. He was born in Portland and, like his protagonist, graduated from law school. He was a speechwriter and adviser for the Obama administration. As a fiction writer, he scales vast ideas with levity and speed. He is adept at playing with words and their meanings, but it never distracts from the narrative. It only drives us deeper into Leo’s mind and a world where each sentence entertains.

Words become a parallel to the story, a way of highlighting Leo’s challenges and lessons. When considering Michael Tiegs, the inmate on death row, Leo says, “Now think of two people, and all of the damage that words can do. Contronyms carry their inner tension the same way that we carry ours, hunched on the fulcrum of context.… Michael Tiegs was about to change his meaning, maybe. For the scant months I’d known him, the words of his name had always been wholly attached to a living person – but here, now, he was poised at any moment to mean the precise opposite of that.”

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Michael Tiegs is the perfect counterpart to Leo’s desperate philosophical wonderings. The two meet when Leo is assigned to Michael’s case by The New Salem Institute, a nonprofit advocacy organization that provides legal support to death row inmates.

In the decade since he arrived in prison, Michael had read every book in the library and studied the history of world religions. He is neutral on the subject of his case and whether death will come sooner or later.

Michael provides Leo with an external release to the conversations going on in his head. As Leo says, “I was growing increasingly certain we shared questions.… We shared, at the very least, some fundamental mystery; we were dying to understand.”

In the end, Leo understands that he doesn’t get to know. What he does get, as narrator, is the ability to track the themes that he has uncovered in his epilogue, unveiling small but potent lessons for the reader.

He leaves us wondering about big questions even as we are satisfied by a surprising, well-crafted story.

“This is not the version where everything is okay.” Leo says. “This is the version where I ask if there is a version where everything is okay.”

Heidi Sistare is a freelance writer who lives in Portland. Contact her at:

Twitter: @heidisistare

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Signings, etc. Sun, 26 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Author Monica Wood will talk about her latest book, “The One-in-a-Million Boy,” about a young boy, an elderly woman and the transformative powers of cross-generational relations. Wood will be on hand to sign copies of the book, which also will be for sale. Space is limited. Please register with Barbara at 892-1908.

WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: Windham Public Library, 217 Windham Center Road


MORE INFO: 892-1908;

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Book review: Writer and naturalist Barbara Hurd hears deeply in ‘Listening to the Savage’ Sun, 19 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 In the hands of acclaimed author and naturalist Barbara Hurd, the essay is a living, breathing thing, not unlike the natural landscapes she describes. Her essays expand and contract, meandering here, receding there, with frequent unexpected detours.

The locus of her new collection, “Listening to the Savage: River Notes and Half-Heard Melodies,” is the mountains of western Maryland, where Hurd is a volunteer for the local watershed group that monitors the eponymous river. It’s an ideal setting for the author to rove along trails, crouching on the ground to listen for a particular species, while trying to hear with less bias.

That’s the daunting task she sets for herself in this book. Our ears are antennae, ever alert, an early warning system. Yet as we attune ourselves to certain sounds, we miss and misread others, failing to hear our surroundings fully. Hurd takes us on an auditory trek through the woods, by the river, to her piano lessons and more, as she contemplates what, and how, we hear. The result is a poetic and provocative guide to attentiveness.

Unlike some naturalists who are all science, or others with a bone to pick, Hurd, who teaches writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, is an observer whose politics are secondary. Although she worries about the prospect of fracking in her region, she’s more concerned with the quieter signals of disruption among plants and wildlife.

“Consciousness means we have to worry about what’s underground (literally and figuratively), what’s making unexplained ripples, what’s likely ahead,” she says.

Yet she’s both playful and irreverent, refusing to bow down to the usual altars. To those who profess a reverence for nature, she warns that such veneration distances us from ourselves and our experience.

“The trouble with a preexisting reverence,” she says, “is that it doesn’t trouble us enough into discovery.”

And discovery is really what she’s after. In her piano lessons, Hurd’s 85-year-old Juilliard-trained teacher, Betty, encourages her to hear the richness within dissonances, rather than smoothing the edges – to enlarge her notion of harmony. Hurd would be the first to admit that she’s no Van Cliburn, but this exercise in listening slowly works.

In a chapter on dissonance, Hurd describes hearing a flock of geese suddenly swooping overhead, then landing on the water. A sense of foreboding fills the air. Later, while playing a jarring measure in a Mozart piece, she links the two occasions: “The trick to distinguishing dissonance from mere discord is, perhaps, keeping an eye on one’s wish to mythologize.” Like many of us, Hurd longs to find meaning where there may, or may not, be any. Sometimes a flock of diving geese is just that.

The joy of Hurd’s book derives, in part, from the intimacy of the whole enterprise. Hurd’s writing is, at times, so personal and meditative that readers may feel as if they’re eavesdropping, recipients of a secret knowledge. Equally winning is her constant looping back and forth between the natural terrain she observes and the parallels to her own life – and ours – in the 21st century. All this, interspersed with references to the Mozart sonata she’s studying in her piano lessons and to other composers – Pachelbel, Messiaen, Schoenberg and Cage – who have filled the cultural canon.

By the book’s final chapter, Hurd is listening on a broader scale to the multiple voices of animals, the river, different instruments. This is what Betty means in her instruction to “listen orchestrally.” As Hurd starts to hear the discrete parts in a Bach fugue, she understands the value of such distinctions.

“Attentive discernments unblur the world and layer it deep,” she says.

This book about listening proves also to be a surprising adventure. Hurd’s probing mind, her knack for keen questions and her lyrical prose easily pique our interest. Moreover, the author has an engaging sidekick through much of the book, her 5-year-old granddaughter, Samantha, who serves as a metaphysical imp. Samantha’s unguarded curiosity and her absurdist patter, as they hike alongside the river, only add to the book’s abundant charm.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

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Book review: Using navigation both personally and more grandly Sun, 19 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 In exploring “how navigation makes us human,” George Michelsen Foy makes a brave attempt to harness a handful of themes and drive them toward a common end, his thesis that “navigation in its myriad forms is not only a crucial survival tool but the prime expression of living.”

So that we understand navigation is more than its nautical associations, he offers some immediate illustrations: wending our way through an unfamiliar office building (check); finding the bathroom at home in the dark (OK); but “emailing a friend in San Francisco, situating him mentally three thousand miles away”?

For the foundation of his literary edifice, Foy borrows from his Norwegian family history: the saga of great-great-grandfather Halvor, a merchant marine captain who went down with his ship in a blizzard off the coast of Norway in 1844. An artist’s impression of the vessel buffeted by its final storm hangs in the family house on Cape Cod. Having stared at it all his life, Foy decides to make two trips, one to the coast of Norway to try to find out what actually happened to Capt. Michelsen, the other to recreate his voyage (short of its catastrophe) with one of his own.

Around these two projects, the author weaves a variety of disparate threads: intimate loss, particularly of his beloved brother; various scientific endeavors that point to navigation’s centrality in evolution; and a couple of travelogues to places that he hopes will do the same.

Foy’s enterprise starts in a lay-by on an interstate, when he awakes with no idea where he is. The feeling triggers a terror inherited from some close navigational calls in his own life, and apparently the omnipresence of his seafaring ancestor’s fate throughout his childhood.

To ease himself into the treacherous waters of exploring his “personal navigational panic,” he starts small and at the very beginning: how an embryonic cell “navigates its way” to becoming a specific part of the body.

A leader in this field of study is at New York University, where Foy teaches creative writing, and he interprets the professor’s complex findings with some neat metaphors: “It’s as if the cell were a saloon patron, trying to find a place at the counter with a crowd at one end that thins progressively towards the other.”

In London, Foy meets with the head of the Animal Navigation Group (a 92-year-old “Energizer bunny”) at the Royal Institute of Navigation, and an expert on the hippocampus who scans living brains with a high-powered MRI that looks like a hair dryer in a beauty salon. From these, he finds that mammalian navigation is controlled by the same system as memory. He also goes to the Knowledge Point School, where London cabbies learn the intricacies of their city’s streets in a two-year (minimum) course that involves traveling 100,000 miles on a motor scooter.

For more exotic local color, he visits a Greek island that was the home of the Dioscuri, the celestial twins who protect sailors. In Haiti, he tries to take ship with a coaster that may or may not use the stars to steer. And in Norway, he stolidly pursues the tiny links in the chain that led to his great-great-grandfather’s death, until he pinpoints the place where the ship went down. A Norwegian sailor takes him to the site where, with endearing embarrassment at his foible, Foy tosses two cigarillos overboard, one for his ancestor and one for the Dioscuri.

The book’s narrative climax is the voyage he makes through the Gulf of Maine, from Buzzard’s Bay to the Fox Island Thorofare, using only the navigational aids available to his unfortunate forebear.

He mostly succeeds, although the drama is somewhat self-inflicted. For someone so aware of “how bad stuff occurs” – one little glitch making the next one more likely and more serious, and so on – Foy seems to relish carelessness. His homemade safety harness, he lets on, is a rope with a carabiner. On another occasion, after kayaking through a “half-frozen bay,” he boasts of not wearing a life jacket.

Foy asks pertinent questions, such as, “Will putting all our faith in GPS and related technologies diminish us in some way?”

But his musings are frequently marred by sophomoric smugness – “I once spent a week, in bed mostly, with a pretty Sarajevan” – and a condescending attitude to others. “Most people don’t care where they are,” he writes. “They have absolutely no conscious idea or interest in the place where, through the continuing miracle of jets… they have landed safely.”

As one of the first microhistories, “Longitude” – Dana Sobel’s book about the man who invented the chronometer – has become the model for writing these narrow but deep slices of history that investigate a particular event, person or thing, and are often qualified in the subtitle along the lines of “The (fill in the blank) That Changed The World.”

“Finding North” takes an issue closely related to “Longitude” and deconstructs it. While containing plenty of interesting material, it never quite jells into a coherent whole.

Thomas Urquhart is a former director of Maine Audubon and the author of “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

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Signings, etc. Sun, 19 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Author Razcr Weed will talk about “The Flats of Webb’s Cove,” a family memoir set in post-Depression-era Maine that chronicles the grit of a large family growing up in abject poverty. Weed will be available for questions and book signing.

932894_672604 the flats of Webb's.jpgWHEN: 2 to 4 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: Waterville Public Library, 73 Elm St.


INFO: 872-5433,

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Game warden can’t shake his father’s past in ‘Widowmaker’ Sun, 12 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Mike Bowditch seems finally to be passing out of the shadow of his father’s infamy in “Widowmaker,” the latest installment in Paul Doiron’s mystery series starring the often impetuous Maine game warden. This is the seventh book in the series, and it comes full circle, tying back to Doiron’s first novel, “The Poacher’s Son,” that centered on Bowditch’s father, “a legendary poacher turned cop-killer and fugitive.”

Early in “Widowmaker,” Bowditch summarily observes that he has struggled for years “to separate myself from the man and his crimes, successfully, for the most part. In my mind, at least, I had buried Jack Bowditch once and for all.”

Not so fast, Mike.

Bowditch has, it is true, matured. He’s no longer quite so defiant with authority figures, nor as petulant and impulsive with a chip on his shoulder. But the effects of being his father’s son are not entirely “buried” – not yet.

“Widowmaker” opens late on a winter night with Bowditch confronting a woman who is parked outside his house near Sebago Lake. The attractive, middle-aged woman talks her way into his house, then reveals that she needs his help to find her missing son. Bowditch is resistant, increasingly so when she shares the disturbing news that her son is actually his half-brother. Bowditch is stunned, and incredulous, though it isn’t beyond belief that his womanizing father could have left other offspring in his wake. Bowditch asks her to leave. She backs her claim before she goes by handing him his father’s military dog tags.

Bowditch subsequently gets called to check a nervous resident’s claim that a wolf walked through her yard stalking a deer. Bowditch disbelieves her claim, as well, but on greater merit, knowing that there are no known wolves living in Maine. Checking out reports that the woman’s neighbor has a big dog, he goes to investigate, sees the wolf-like dog – and nearly gets killed by its owner, a drug addled waif. She’s arrested, the illegal wolf dog is confiscated, and Bowditch is commanded to take several days off so his wounds can heal.

Stacey Stevens, Bowditch’s girlfriend, is physically absent from the story. A state game biologist, she has flown north with a team of colleagues to investigate a moose die-off. With Stacey gone and idle time on his hands, Bowditch can’t help but let his curiosity turn to the claim that Adam Langstrom is his supposed half-brother.

Mystery series crafted around a single protagonist, if done well – as Doiron’s is – are built more like an extended serial saga than a set of individual, standalone stories. Each book is somewhat akin to a long chapter in the complex, unfolding life of the main character. Doiron is exceptional at the craft of linking one book to the next. He is comparable in this to C.J. Box, who writes the stellar Joe Pickett mystery series, which also stars a game warden, this one in Wyoming.

Though Bowditch is impatient, Doiron is clearly not. It took three books for Bowditch to move from being smitten by Stacey Stevens to her becoming his girlfriend, though they are not yet living together in “Widowmaker.” When viewed as a “long chapter” in the Bowditch saga, however, “Widowmaker” is not as tight as other books in the series.

The premise of the story – an unknown half brother who resurrects Bowditch’s tortured love-hate relationship with his father – is compelling on the face of things, but it isn’t fully realized in the plotting. The book also would have benefited from stronger engagements from the cast of central supporting characters in the series.

There is no shortage of exceptional books in the Bowditch series, including “Massacre Pond” and “The Precipice.” “The Poacher’s Son” showcased real literary prowess and was an Edgar Award Finalist. “Widowmaker” does deliver a critical reveal in the series, in Bowditch’s realization that others in the warden service and in law enforcement now see him more in his own right as a tenacious and talented game warden, outside and beyond his father’s reputation. The book also excels at laying the groundwork for stories to come.

Bowditch and Stacey seem to reach solid ground that offers rich storytelling potential. The hybrid wolf-dog seems destined for a return, potentially a starring role. And Bowditch – more seasoned, more temperate, more respected – seems on the verge of a major promotion that could place him in a new realm of authority.

Doiron is skilled at balancing action – the hallmark of mystery series – with rich character development. From the beginning, Bowditch is someone readers come to care about. He has his foibles, but they serve chiefly to make him more intriguing and appealing. In this regard, “Widowmaker” marks a clear turn in Mike Bowditch’s increasingly nuanced character.

Frank O Smith’s novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. Smith can be reached via his website:

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Book review: ‘Death of Fred Astaire’ a touching, funny exploration of family, love and gender Sun, 12 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Leslie Lawrence’s collection of essays, “The Death of Fred Astaire: And Other Essays from a Life Outside the Lines,” offers a marvelously rendered and insightful journey about living and loving as honestly as possible.

In the opening essay from which the book takes its title, Lawrence writes that as a child she “lived in dread of so much as a raised eyebrow.” Born in the 1950s, coming of age in the 1970s, and coming out as a lesbian in the 1980s, Lawrence offers readers a deep probing of what it means to be brave enough to “dance outside the lines,” lines that constrain us all, independent of sexual orientation. There is much here for anyone interested in discovering where those lines are and the power that accrues in crossing them.

The book is more a memoir of linked essays than truly separate pieces, though several were separately published elsewhere in one form or another. The book has a narrative arc that gathers critical weight as several central themes thread together, including sexual orientation, motherhood, partnering and a desire to become a writer.

The book’s opening line stresses motherhood, but intimates other themes to come: “When I was a child I accepted without question that I would one day be a mother.” Despite Lawrence having been in relationships with men, passionately at times, “I had discovered that when I was with women I felt more fully myself and more deeply loved.”

Pieces of Lawrence’s story are firmly set when she meets Sandy, her future partner, and is joyous learning that she, too, is interested in having children. Her parents are far less joyous about the nexus of Lawrence’s new nuclear family.

“I want you to know what a great disappointment it is,” her father tells her. This was the summer that Fred Astaire died, marking in Lawrence’s mind the passing of her parents’ era and the rigid notions for where lines lie.

An essence of the book is felt early on in an essay about the historical expectations that women “fit” in, coupled with her deep desire to be a writer. She writes, “I can see now how my journey to become a writer is bound up with my search for a version of womanhood I could live with.” Fitting in isn’t a part of the calculus. Lawrence wants to be free to be her true self.

There are priceless treats throughout the 18 collected essays here.

In “King for a Day,” a colleague at the small New England’s women’s college where Lawrence is an adjunct professor encourages her to sign up for the faculty development “Cross-dressing Workshop.” Lawrence conjures a persona to take on, a mustachioed Jeff Sykes: “Mighty Man: crude, virile, self-assured, smug, and successful in all the ways I wasn’t. Handsome, of course, bisexual; a rising sculptor with a tenured position.”

The challenges to transform herself into Jeff Sykes are fascinating, and immensely revealing, at least in this male reader’s mind. They’re like gleanings in a funhouse mirror of how women perceive the differences between the sexes. Men, Lawrence writes, don’t stop to check things out on entering a room, “but charge in like you own the space.” Also, she advises, cross-dressing women should never end a sentence “in a questioning tone.” And they should look slightly to the side of the person they’re addressing. “If things get tense, just imagine your own eyes set way back in the rear of your skull so as to create a feeling of distance – and safety.” Further, Lawrence observes, men flop into chairs, they don’t perch like women.

At a dinner, when she is still in “costume” but removes her mustache, she doesn’t know what to do with it. A friend tells her to just toss it “under the table… That’s what a man would do.”

Another essay describes the “new normal” of women’s lives at the millennium, where Lawrence writes about she and her partner raising their son, Sam. “How I agonized over what Sam’s unusual family would cost him… I dreaded the inevitable questions: Where’s my Daddy?” Not to worry. “We were midway through a new book enjoying the splendid watercolors illustrating a baby horse and his mother (referred to as ‘foal’ and ‘mare’), grazing peacefully in a meadow. ‘But where,’ Sam suddenly asks, with all the intensity his toddler voice can carry, ‘where’s the other mare?'”

Lawrence’s essays cover a rich spectrum. One deals with how women are trained to keep themselves “buttoned up;” another revels in a favorite uncle who stressed life was “all about attitude,” how he possessed a “genius to make people happy.” She writes about how the love of a dog opened her to the possibility that she could be happy as a mother; and about the travail and joy of traveling with a group of women friends. One essay is about substitute teaching in a low-income, inner-city school, about her students’ successes and her own failures. Teaching, and learning, are themes that pervade the book.

There is a long section toward the end entitled “On the Mowing” that delves more deeply into her journey as a writer and her relationship with Sandy, covering a period of years where they summer in a cabin in New Hampshire. The “mowing” refers to the open field that sits below the cabin, the field that won her heart the first time she went to inspect the place.

Over the years as they return summer after summer, the mowing reveals how everything, including the landscape, is constantly changing. It becomes a place of peace and love and joy, and also loss. While she and Sandy are there, Sandy’s terminal cancer enters the frame of their lives.

The journey that Leslie Lawrence recounts in “The Death of Fred Astaire” is funny, poignant and sad. In this time of bitter culture wars over sexual orientation and gender identity, “The Death of Fred Astaire” is a hopeful story. And ever so human.

Frank O Smith’s novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. Smith can be reached via his website:

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Book review: ‘Goodnight, Beautiful Women’ a glimmering collection Sun, 12 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 The interior life is often a complicated one – and the women in Anna Noyes short story collection, “Goodnight, Beautiful Women,” are no exception. In this quietly menacing book, there are external negative forces that influence the characters, including pedophiles and dead parents. But just as challenging are the internal predicaments.

The author is from Maine, where many of the stories are set or associated with. Her characters drink coffee brandy and read Stephen King. And on more than one occasion, she writes about women who are grappling with darker versions of the selves they present to others. In “Werewolf,” Claire comes to terms with lies she told as a child, including accusing her cousin who has Down syndrome of sexually assaulting her, when in reality it was someone else. She realizes “…all the sweetness and kindness and feelings and tears that she displays to the world could be driven by some essentially bad second self.”

Similarly, in “Changeling,” a woman whose mother left her when she was young contemplates her own dualities. She turns to an eccentric stranger she meets on a bus for some kind of maternal comfort, mistaking her for her lost mom. But it’s she herself who is misplaced. “Every day I had nice, quiet thoughts. Kept my shadow self at bay. She was there, in the mirror. Frenzied and dangerous, her body a cloud of buzzing beetles.”

What lurks beneath the surface of Noyes’ characters? Uncertainty and sexual tension, frustration and fear. In “Safe as Houses,” a teenager named Jenny is reminded of the dangers waiting everywhere when a vacationer is raped by a stranger. It’s not just a story about a predator, though. It’s also about the transition from childhood to adulthood. “Sometimes her fear takes the form of an imagined man in a black mask, and it isn’t so much what he could do to her that scares her, but that when he did it she’d be alone. That afterward she would never be let back into her life the way it was before.”

These stories deal with life changes, big and small. Lovers leave each other, mothers die, and some people yearn for home while others flee from it. In the title story, the narrator’s mother leaves her partner of 10 years while she’s visiting from boarding school. “Going home is a terrible feeling. It’s like film moving backward, a butterfly’s blood sucked back to the center of its body with a swift collapse of wings, the return to the chrysalis. It makes me feel sick.” But in another story called “Homecoming,” a 25-year-old moves back to her hometown with her future husband, and spends much of the time wishing she was at her parents’ house. This is perhaps the weakest story in the collection – one that involves a not very believable makeout session with a “summer girl” she remembers from her youth. There’s something forced about the interaction that comes across as slightly removed, unlike a different story involving a lesbian love affair, “Drawing Blood,” which is as vivid and painful as a paper cut.

Short story writers have minimal space to make a reader care about the topic and the characters. There’s an economy to it, and Noyes is a master. Take this description, for instance, from “This Is Who She Was”: “She wore her collarbones like jewelry.” I’ll never think of collarbones the same way again. These are stories that are built on everyday details told in deceptively simple ways, like this line: “Winter was a tarped boat and the windows dark by three thirty.”

“Goodnight, Beautiful Women” glimmers with the hopes and failures of the girls and women Noyes’ writes about.

Michele Filgate is VP/Awards for the National Book Critics Circle and a contributing editor at Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Salon, The Paris Review Daily, and many other publications.

Twitter: @readandbreathe

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Book review: Stephen King brings trilogy to a bloody good ‘End’ Sun, 05 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Begun in 2014 with “Mr. Mercedes,” Stephen King’s Bill Hodges Trilogy has proved to be a welcome change of pace for the best-selling Maine author. This is the first time King has produced three related thrillers in rapid succession, and the exercise has proved to suit the author’s storytelling temperament well.

The trilogy’s final installment, “End of Watch” opens with a flashback to the foggy April morning in 2009 when a sociopath named Brady Hartsfield drove a stolen Mercedes-Benz into a crowd of job-seekers, killing eight and injuring 15. Almost seven years later, one of the grievously injured survivors, Martine Stover, is the victim of a suspected murder-suicide. The case comes to the attention of retired cop K. William “Bill” Hodges, one of the original investigators of the massacre. He and Holly Gibney, his partner in the Finders Keepers private investigation firm, come to believe that the tragedy has a close connection to the Mercedes killings.

Following his hit-and-run bloodbath, Hartsfield tried to facilitate an even more deadly plot, planning to blow himself up at a sold-out teen concert. Only the fast, skull-crunching action of Holly at the end of “Mr. Mercedes” prevented a second tragedy. In “End of Watch,” Holly calls Hartsfield “an architect of suicide,” an expert at goading the vulnerable into taking their own lives. She’s more right than she knows.

Hartsfield has resided at the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic for seven years, and he usually appears unresponsive, trapped in a vegetative state. But Hodges and others suspect there’s something malevolent going on behind his blank stare, especially when the window blinds ripple and picture frames fall over without anyone touching them. What they don’t know is that a high-ranking neurologist has been secretly treating Hartsfield with an experimental drug that seems to boost the killer’s brain function and latent telekinetic abilities.

Thanks to a defective hand-held gaming device, erstwhile computer genius Brady finds a way to let his mind leave the confines of his ruined body and convince his enemies and innocent bystanders to harm themselves. Once again, he sees the opportunity to wreak havoc while exacting revenge on Hodges and the people closest to him.

“Mr. Mercedes” and “Finders Keepers” are each reasonably realistic crime thrillers. Much of their enjoyment comes through watching Hodges, Holly and their tech-savvy teen friend Jerome Robinson solve crimes through the power of logic and the force of their individual personalities. The ways in which King has developed Hodges’ friendship with Holly are especially well constructed, their scenes marked by a charming poignancy, as she learns to tame the anxieties that have dogged her since her traumatic childhood and Hodges marshals the patience and kindness to support her in her new, less circumscribed life.

Each volume in the trilogy has its distinct merits. “Mr. Mercedes” won last year’s Edgar Award for Best Novel on its strength as a propulsive cat-and-mouse thriller. “Finders Keepers” is a smart and accomplished meditation on the powerful bond between writers and their audiences. “End of Watch” adds to the mix a strong dose of the paranormal only hinted at in the first two books.

In addition to the clandestine regimen of experimental drugs, King justifies Hartsfield’s mind-control ability by referencing a notorious real-life incident, in which an episode of the animated “Pokemon” TV series induced seizures in some unsuspecting young viewers. As a rationale for a high-tech suicide-inducing weapon, the correlation borders on the far-fetched, even as it makes a satirical point about the addictive nature of cartoons and social media.

For some readers, this strong note of unreality may be tonally jarring, as if the members of “CSI: Cyber” had to track down a suspect who can time-travel. But both the mundane and the magical have always been part of the King multiverse. Maybe there is no good reason to keep them apart here, despite the potential grumblings of hard-boiled crime fiction purists.

In any case, once the plot of “End of Watch” gets up and running, most readers will be flexible enough in their suspension of disbelief to enjoy the creepy twists, clever callbacks and poignant revelations. The wintery, blood-soaked climax of the novel provides a fitting resolution not only to the action at hand but to the trilogy as a whole.

King will always be best known for his tales of supernatural horror, but it’s great fun to watch him experiment with form, genre and subject matter. He has more than his fair share of laurels, but he never seems to rest on them.

Here’s hoping King can maintain the creative momentum of the Bill Hodges Trilogy as he heads into the next uncharted literary territory.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: mlberry

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Book review: A tale of a dog and his neurotic human in ‘Lily and the Octopus’ Sun, 05 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Every dog owner has a dog story or 500 to tell. Typically these are doled out in three-minute increments to fellow pet people at the dog park, who are always game to listen (as long as they get their turn) or on the sidewalk to anyone who stops and expresses even a mild interest in whoever is at the end of the dog owner’s leash. Having a dog often means having a running narrative in one’s head about the dog, whether it is about the animals imagined inner life or perhaps his or her undying devotion to the owner.

Steven Rowley’s novel “Lily and the Octopus” is a 320-page dog story about an owner’s devotion to his animal, complete with magical realism and various all-capped renderings of the thoughts of a dachshund named Lily, which run to the ecstatic. Here she is licking tears off her own highly emotional owner Ted Flask’s face: “THIS! EYE! RAIN! YOU! MAKE! IS! FANTASTIC!”

If you are a cat person the proceeding likely made you immediately cross “Lily and the Octopus” off your must-read list. Probably a good idea. Even I, a serious dog lover with a tendency to narrate my dog’s every puzzled look, got worried that I was entering the danger zone of cutsie dog stories.

My fears proved true. Ted would be exactly the neurotic kind of owner who fusses over his dog and makes me take abrupt turns down other paths if encountered on a walk. Twelve-year-old Lily has a tumor on her head, although Ted, who is 42, or 294 in dog years, as he tells us on page 1 of this bludgeoningly sentimental novel, prefers to call it an “octopus.” He’s a pop culture maven from Maine who lives in Los Angeles and also manages to mention Ryan Gosling and Ryan Reynolds on that first page. (Rowley grew up in South Portland and has made a living as a screenwriter in Los Angeles.)

Ted refuses to call the cancer a cancer, although he realizes the octopus intends to consume sweet Lily. Over martinis and Valium, he tells his best friend Trent – himself an “octopus” survivor – “It cannot have her.” When Ted, who is burdened by sorrow over breaking up with his unfaithful long-term lover, Jeffrey, finally tells his therapist about Lily’s illness, he is again insistent on calling the cancer an octopus. Understandably, she’s confused, then uncertain and, finally, pitying.

Yet, Ted is nothing if not self-aware, wondering to himself as he sits in therapy, “Maybe I, too, am suffering impairment from the presence of the octopus, seizures in reason. My thoughts of late have resembled those of a small child more than the thinking of a grown man: the magical rationalization of needing to be gone so the octopus can leave; my desire to be intimidating, bigger than I am, to have the hurricane in me; the need to express everything in a tantrum.”

Tantrum. It’s just the right word, because there are many ways in which “Lily and the Octopus” is like observing an exhausting tantrum. Ted makes various forays against the octopus, purchasing six large inflatable sharks (pool toys), blowing them up and placing them around his backyard to prey on the octopus. He buys an octopus in Chinatown, hacks it up with a cleaver and feeds pieces of it to Lily. In a tedious overly long sequence he and Lily go to sea in a boat called Fishful Thinking, hunting octopus. Maybe it’s meant to be a scotch-fueled hallucination or a “Life of Pi”-style puzzle, but mostly, it comes across as writerly over-indulgence.

Rowley does supply some moving emotional rationale for Ted’s behaviors and fantasies. Ted believes that some bad kharma has earned him the impending death of his dog (never mind that she’s 12) and comes to the revelation that he is both “driven more by revenge than by forgiveness” and suffering from a deep self-loathing. The connection Rowley makes between this last and Ted’s early life as a closeted gay man are thought-provoking. Even more so is the question he raises about the ways in which dog owners, in their devotion to these beings who are so much easier to deal with than the average human, become emotionally withdrawn from the rest of the world, developing something called Enclosed World Syndrome.

But this emotional breakthrough doesn’t feel earned through an organic evolution. Instead the whole octopus business comes across as a coy device, simply the means by which the writer stalls the inevitable breakthrough and death scene with enough padding to make it a book.

Journeys of farewells and grieving take all sorts of shapes, of course, and they appeal in different ways to different people. Simon & Schuster’s reportedly large advance for Rowley’s novel suggests that his publisher sees the potential for a “Marley & Me”-sized reception. One person’s cloying is another person’s successful tearjerker. Undeniably, Rowley practically makes you see Lily (“her ears flop back and forth and the familiar chime of her collar and dog tags jingle the room alive”). She’s a dear little dog. But I liked her enough to picture her saying, “ENOUGH! WITH! THE! OCTOPUS! SHTICK!”

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Signings, etc. Sun, 05 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 A Writer’s Loft presents New York Times bestselling author Rinker Buck, who will discuss his just-out paperback edition of “The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey,” an award-winning account of traveling the length of the Oregon trail the old-fashioned way – in a covered wagon with a team of mules, while accompanied by his larger-than-life brother and a filthy Jack Russell terrier.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: The Music Hall Loft, 131 Congress St., Portsmouth, N.H.

HOW MUCH: $31, members $29

INFO: 603-436-2400;

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Book review: Kids, meet Bach Sun, 29 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 More complex than pop music and written by composers who in many cases have been dead for a long time, classical music can be difficult for children to access. Writer Mike Venezia has a solution. His project is to make learning about great composers fun, and he succeeds in doing so in his marvelous introduction to Bach for children.

Venezia is an artist by training who wrote a successful series of children’s books about the world’s greatest artists. When he finished that series he embarked on several others, including one called “Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Composers,” among them Johann Sebastian Bach.

The book is only 32 pages long but surprisingly comprehensive and engaging. It contains a short biography of Bach and briefly describes some of his most important compositions in simple but effective terms.

In discussing Bach’s cantatas, for example, Venezia writes that church services in Bach’s time could last up to five hours, so “people depended on cantata music to keep them interested and awake.”

He writes that Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor “is filled with big, powerful sounds,” adding that “it had an energy and force that had never been heard before.”

Venezia brings the feel of Bach’s music to life for young readers when he writes that “many of (Bach’s) mighty organ pieces have been known to cause church rafters and windows to shake.”

Of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Venezia writes they “take you on an amazing sound trip. They start out peacefully, build to a swirling musical whirlwind, and drop you back off where things are nice and calm again.”

He concisely and accurately describes the entire genre of Baroque music as having a “grand, decorative feeling.”

Images make up at least half of the content on any given page in the book. These include Venezia’s colorful and often funny illustrations with captions that are likely to draw in young readers. He also presents images of paintings of Bach and his era, and he includes a photograph from a church where Bach conducted.

Venezia urges readers to listen to Bach, noting that his music is widely played on classical stations and elsewhere, including at community concerts.

This book is a wonderful way to introduce children to Bach and to the Portland Bach Festival, which runs June 19-24 and will include several events for children, including children’s concerts.

Dave Canarie is a Portland attorney and adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern Maine and Saint Joseph’s College.

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Book review: Bach revealed as a rebel in ‘Music in the Castle of Heaven’ Sun, 29 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Why read a book about Johann Sebastian Bach? Isn’t the time better spent listening to his music instead?

Those are good questions to consider, especially before embarking on a book like John Eliott Gardiner’s 628-page “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven,” a deep and erudite dive into the music of someone who many consider the greatest composer of all time. And with the inaugural Portland Bach Festival coming in June, the questions are timely, too.

A book can provide context leading to a deeper understanding of a composer’s meaning and importance. For example, it’s one thing to listen to the Beatles and say they revolutionized music in the 1960s. A much richer perspective of their role in a post-war world becomes apparent when one learns that they developed their music chops by playing in Hamburg, Germany a mere 15 years after the end of World War II.

Gardiner, an acclaimed conductor, became a first-time author at age 69 when this book was published. He brings a conductor’s perspective to writing about Bach’s music, observing with practiced insight that, as a composer, “Bach appears to have stretched every imaginative muscle in his body to engage with his listeners.” For Gardiner, Bach was “like a chess grand master able to predict all the next conceivable moves” in a musical score.

Bach had a difficult childhood. Both of his parents had died by the time he was age 10, his family home was dismantled and he had to move in with a distant relative. As a young adult, he was disdained by those who held themselves out as the local intelligentsia because he lacked a university education.

Bach came from a family with six generations of musicians, and while that certainly provided momentum for his musical career, Gardiner writes that a commitment to hard work and craftsmanship, combined with a singleness of purpose, were keys to Bach’s success.

Gardiner methodically explains how Bach disrupted the musical establishment of his time and became “an unlikely rebel” who could be thought of as “genuinely radical or subversive” in the music world. Bach simply refused to be tied down by convention in any musical genre, a perspective that comes in stark contrast to the notion many people have of Bach from stodgy images of a “bewigged, jowly” old man, and of classical music as an art form that is resistant to change.

“Music in the Castle of Heaven” explores many dimensions of Bach’s life and music, but Gardiner says he does not mean it to be a comprehensive book about Bach. He writes that he focused only on the music he knows best, which Gardiner describes as music “linked with words”: Bach’s cantatas, masses, the St. John Passion and the St. Matthew Passion.

Gardiner’s discussion of Bach’s music is scholarly, energetic and at times passionate, but it feels incomplete. It lacks coverage of Bach’s monumental body of music that is not linked to words, including his sublime works for organ, cello and clavier and his chamber or orchestral music. (Fortunately, all types of Bach’s music will be performed during the Portland Bach Festival.)

Even today, Bach’s music “continues to affect people of all ages, religions and backgrounds.” Gardiner writes that it is a “beautiful and profound manifestation” of what humans are capable of and helps us access what is at the “emotional core of human existence.”

Dave Canarie is a Portland attorney and adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern Maine and Saint Joseph’s College.

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Signings, etc. Sun, 22 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Hancock Lumber president and author Kevin Hancock will talk about his book, “Not for Sale: Finding Center in the Land of Crazy Horse,” at a Lunch ‘n Learn event. Winner of a 2016 National Indie Excellence Award, the book details lessons Hancock gained on solo trips to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, after a diagnosis of a rare voice disorder at a challenging time for his family’s business. Copies of the book will be available for purchase and signing, with $10 from each sale benefiting the Scarborough Public Library. Bring a lunch; beverages and dessert will be provided.

WHEN: Noon Thursday

WHERE: Scarborough Public Library, 48 Gorham Road


INFO: 725-1727,

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Book review: Young readers will find ‘Girl Called Vincent’ full of romance and struggle Sun, 22 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 In her introduction, Krystyna Poray Goddu describes her discovery of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry as a 12-year-old, in a scene likely to be re-created by young readers of “A Girl Called Vincent”: In an attic bedroom, pre-adolescent drama and dreams as company, Goddu read and reread Millay’s poetry, “feeling chills and heat and fascination.”

“A Girl Called Vincent” is a biography of Millay, written for middle-schoolers and younger teens. Goddu drew upon archives from Vassar College Libraries and the Library of Congress to include images and quotations from Millay and her family and friends. She also includes excerpts from Millay’s poems throughout the book.

The story is chronological, beginning with Millay’s birth in Rockland, Maine, and ending with her death in Austerlitz, New York.

Until she left for college at Vassar in 1913, Millay lived with her mother and two sisters, mostly in coastal Maine, which proved the perfect backdrop to her childhood, containing both the romance and struggle that marked much of the writer’s life.

When Millay was still a child, her mother asked her father to move out. Millay’s mother supported the family as a nurse and her jobs often kept her away from home for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. Those early years of responsibility and autonomy shaped Millay’s personality, strengthening her independent spirit.

Millay’s relationship with her mother is central to her development as a writer. Her mother was passionate about the arts and taught her girls to “sing, play the piano, perform, and write poetry when they were very young.” Without explicitly addressing it, Goddu highlights the historical pressures applied to women and the feminist qualities expressed by both Millay and her mother.

More than half of the book focuses on the first 25 years of Millay’s life, exploring her early development as a poet, adolescent yearning for love and adjustment to life in New York.

Excerpts from Millay’s diaries reveal a depth of thought and feeling knocking up against fabricated melodrama as she wrote to an imaginary lover. Her own words make Millay relatable, even as she is making waves in the literary world at age 20.

The quotations Goddu carefully selected to bring Millay’s voice to the story clearly reveal her personality. She responds to an editor, correcting his salutation: “It may astonish you that I am no ‘Esquire’ at all, nor even a plain ‘Mister’; in fact, I am just an aspiring ‘Miss’ of twenty.”

And in her history entrance exam for Vassar, Millay wrote, “At precisely this point the pleasant lady in an Alice-blue coat … requests us all to bring our papers to a close. As I know a great deal about American history which I haven’t had a chance to say, I am sorry, but obedient.”

Even as she includes these charming excerpts from Millay’s own writing, Goddu does not shy away from the challenging realities of Millay’s life.

She documents her financial struggles, tension between independence and relationships with men, pain, a reliance on morphine and drinking, and hospitalizations for both physical and mental ailments.

It’s no surprise that Goddu was a school librarian and middle-school writing teacher – she has written a book that will engage both students and educators.

As all good stories do, “A Girl Called Vincent” creates opportunities for readers to experience a different time and place through someone else’s life.

The care and interest Goddu conjures for Millay will translate to social issues, historical events and poetry itself.

Heidi Sistare is a writer and social worker who lives in Portland. She attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and has work published in The Rumpus, Slice Magazine and other publications. Contact her at:

Twitter: @heidisistare

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Book review: Life of Maine congressman and death in a duel examined Sun, 22 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Jonathan Cilley is remembered today as a freshman congressman from Maine mortally wounded in a 1838 duel with another congressman.

The point of honor on which the action was waged is convoluted and largely forgotten, though the more attuned historical readers probably know that Cilley graduated with the famous Bowdoin College class of 1825, which included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a U.S. senator and two other subsequent congressmen.

Shortly after Cilley’s dramatic death, there was a barrage of editorial memorials and a biographical sketch by classmate Hawthorne. By the time of the Civil War, Cilley and the once notorious incident were regulated to footnote status.

In 2002, Eve Anderson published the attractively packaged volume, “A Breach of Privilege: Cilley Family Letters, 1820-1867,” a 500-page compendium focused on the politician and his family up through the rebellion. This provided important documentary insight and wonderful illustrations.

Now follows a fascinating psychological and political biography of Cilley by Wells psychologist Roger Ginn. “New England Must Not be Trampled Upon” is a clear, thoughtful book examining what would motivate an intelligent, ambitious, educated individual to meet another supposedly like-minded person with loaded rifles on the so-called field of honor.

In fact the Code Duello had been outlawed in Washington, D.C., by the very body the duelers served in. To satisfy honor, they had to step into the pastures of Maryland.

The duel was a way of life among Southern gentlemen who saw themselves in the upper strata of society. Among New Englanders, it was considered bad form and a “stupid” way of solving an impasse. However, it was often a defining fact in the Early National Period: Aaron Burr fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton, Capt. Stephen Decatur was shot dead by a rival officer, and President Jackson, who was just leaving office, was a walking receptacle for old shot gained in dueling.

Ginn does a wonderful job of capturing the era, attitudes in the various regions concerning honor and arms, codes and belief systems. He also delves into Cilley’s personality, family, community life and political beliefs.

Ginn does well by Cilley’s adversary, Congressman William Graves of Kentucky, as well as newspaper owner James Watson Webb and all those around Cilley.

The crux of the dispute, well told by Ginn, concerned a letter from Webb to Cilley, delivered by hand by Graves.

Cilley refused to take Webb’s letter, setting off a series of ridiculous and seemingly reversible events.

Where does the blame lie? That’s for readers to discern.

For all his agonizing over a trifling affair, Cilley sacrificed life, love, family and even reputation.

Indeed, Ginn’s study shows the congressman to have been somewhat hollow, more interested in his career and what people thought about him than the great issues of the day.

If there was a tragedy, it was of Cilley’s own making.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.

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Book review: ‘Joe Gould’s Teeth’ an eye-opening story of truth, or lack thereof Sun, 15 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Joe Gould was a bohemian charmer whose Harvard connections provided the springboard to a literary life. His friends included e.e. cummings and John Dos Passos, William Saroyan and Ezra Pound. Gould dubbed himself “the most important historian of the twentieth century.” He devoted his waking hours to a seemingly endless, groundbreaking work, “The Oral History of Our Time,” in which he detailed his conversations with, and observations about, everyday people in New York.

That’s one view of the man. Another is that Gould was a psychopath who bounced between magazine jobs and mental hospitals; a beggar, a stalker and a drunk.

The question isn’t which version of Joe Gould is more accurate; it’s how we ever came to know about this strange, sad man, and the myth-making that surrounded him.

And what ever happened to that self-proclaimed brilliant tome that Gould was writing, anyway?

Enter acclaimed historian and bestselling author Jill Lepore, whose fascinating book, “Joe Gould’s Teeth,” is a tragicomic tale of a madman at the intersection of history, fame and fiction. Lepore began with a simple enough premise: Teaching a course on biography at Harvard, she was compiling a syllabus on how to research and chronicle people’s lives. She sought material that would illuminate the difficulty of truly knowing any person. Among her reading selections were two well-known profiles of Gould, written by Joseph Mitchell, that ran in The New Yorker. The first, “Professor Sea Gull,” in 1942, launched Gould into the public eye with its praise for the pioneering oral history he was writing. The second, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” in 1964, was a reassessment of the earlier piece, questioning the oral history’s very existence.

Lepore’s book is not only a work of scholarship, but a layered gem of storytelling. It’s a puzzle, mystery and archaeological dig rolled into one. Lepore details her travels to libraries and archives, unearthing boxes and files of material relating to Gould. It became clear that Joseph Mitchell knew he’d been duped early in the game. In the course of his research, he had seen only a few pages of Gould’s so-called history. But Mitchell also knew something about invention, having “composed” a novel in his head that never made it to the page. He recognized himself in Gould.

The book proceeds to entertain with numerous subplots and intrigues, assorted exchanges among luminaries, and more than one unreliable narrator. Joe Gould was a liar and fabulist by definition; he was clinically delusional. And it turns out that Joseph Mitchell had a sketchy relation to the truth, as well. In certain New Yorker pieces, he fabricated scenes and quotes, even a profile of a man who never existed.

“Joe Gould’s Teeth” depicts a charismatic, deranged man who lost everything he ever touched – his eyeglasses, his false teeth, the manuscripts he was writing – and ultimately succumbed to mental illness. And it renders Joseph Mitchell a collaborator of sorts, with his own quirks and obsessions.

“A century on, Gould looks bleaker, his mental illness looks more serious,” Lepore writes. “Gould’s friends saw a man suffering for art; I saw a man tormented by rage. … Mitchell met one man; I met another.”

This is a book about how we record history and what constitutes the historical record. It’s also about the line between fact and fiction. At bottom, the book highlights the limitations of observing and reporting on other people, and the inevitability of bias.

It’s easy to imagine Lepore’s vivid, unsettling book listed on a syllabus of some future course on biography. As she trains her lens on Joe Gould, and widens out to his broader circle of prominent friends and abettors, she offers a cautionary tale for us all. The world is inextricably our mirror; we see ourselves everywhere. Our blind spots come with the territory. Which is how the story of Joe Gould ever saw the light of day.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

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Book review: More than disaster porn, ‘The Fireman’ burns with its own light Sun, 15 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Haven’t all the good apocalypses been taken by now? Is there any doomsday scenario left that hasn’t been exploited for its entertainment value?

Those are the questions facing Exeter, New Hampshire, author Joe Hill as he delivers “The Fireman,” his massive account of one young woman’s experience of the rapid, fiery fall of civilization. The older son of Stephen King, Hill attempts to put his own distinctive stamp on a subgenre that has captured the popular imagination for decades and now seems more relevant with each depressing news cycle.

As “The Fireman” opens, Harper Grayson is a dedicated elementary school nurse, and she possesses the perfect temperament for the job, nearly matching Mary Poppins when it comes to doling out sweetness, compassion and grace under pressure. Like everyone else, though, she is caught off guard when a mysterious, spore-borne plague begins to spread across the country. People spontaneously combust, bursting into flame after their bodies have been marked by black and gold fungal blemishes known as “Dragonscale.” New Hampshire seems to be under martial law, and much of the state of Maine is one giant inferno.

Committed to volunteering at Portsmouth Hospital, Harper spends 18 hours out of 24 in a full-body rubber suit that had been designed to repel Ebola. Even such precautions can’t prevent her from contracting Draco Incendia Trychophyton. When her would-be-writer husband, Jakob, discovers that she’s infected, he almost immediately assumes that he, too, is doomed. He insists that they should make plans to take their own lives together, before they individually go up in smoke. The fact that Harper is pregnant with their first child does not deter Jakob in the least.

For all her sweetness, though, Harper has a fierce will to live and to protect her unborn child. She receives help from John Rookwood, also known as The Fireman, a mysterious figure who speaks with an English accent, carries a formidable excavation tool known as a halligan bar and wears a dirty yellow firefighter’s jacket. Thanks to Rookwood’s assistance, she’s able to escape her unhinged husband’s clutches and make her way to refuge at Camp Wyndham, a summer camp converted into a sanctuary for those afflicted with ‘scale. There she meets a group of survivors who claim to have found a way to control their infection, to use its mind-altering properties in a spiritual communion that limits the possibility that they will suddenly burn to death.

Hill knows that many readers will have other post-apocalyptic novels in mind as they follow Harper’s journey, chief among them “The Stand” and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” He doesn’t let those inevitable associations hinder him, though. He acknowledges his literal and literary forebears, cheerfully sprinkling the text with references to the Stephen King multiverse, from “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” to “Firestarter” and “The Dark Tower” sequence of fantasy novels.

Although Hill employs a wide narrative canvas, he keeps his focus tight, concentrating on a handful of vivid characters operating mostly within the limited geographic area of the New Hampshire Seacoast. Much of the action takes place in and around Camp Wyndham, and the creepy conformity of the refuge’s leadership will remind readers of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Dissident campers are forced to keep stones in their mouths as penance, a perfect metaphor for their fear of people speaking against them.

As bad as some of the campers are, however, their villainy pales in contrast to Jakob’s new band of friends. The self-styled Marlboro Man spews vitriol over the abandoned airwaves, and he and his Cremation Crew are often on patrol, looking for “burners” they can murder in the name of contagion containment. It’s inevitable that they and Harper’s hidden community will clash calamitously.

Although nearly 800 pages, “The Fireman” never feels like a slog. Hill definitely knows how to ratchet up the suspense, even if he sometimes relies too heavily on “had they but known!” chapter endings. There’s plenty of well-choreographed physical action and artfully employed plot twists, but it is Harper’s developing relationship with John Rookwood that proves to be the heart of the novel. Both strive mightily to maintain their basic decency as the world falls apart, and their acts of unselfish courage are what make “The Fireman” more than simply another example of disaster porn.

Without giving too much away, it can be said that aspects of the ending of “The Fireman” seem a little too neat. Most readers probably won’t be bothered by the slight air of contrivance, given the quality storytelling Hill has delivered until that point.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: mlberry

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