The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram » Books Sun, 26 Jun 2016 15:38:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 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.

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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.

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“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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Book review: They defied al-Qaida to save precious manuscripts Sun, 08 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Joshua Hammer’s narrative of Abdel Kader Haidara’s effort to save thousands of priceless manuscripts dating back centuries is so much more than a story of a rescue effort.

There’s an urgency to the story that unfolded in modern times, reaching its climax in 2012 when the collection was threatened after al-Qaida seized Timbuktu. Contacted by email while traveling in Afghanistan, Hammer wrote that the immediacy of the story was a help and a hindrance when it came to conducting interviews.

“The contemporary aspect of the tale gave it an immediacy and also allowed me to weave scenes of firsthand, first-person reportage into the narrative, capturing the sights, sounds and feel of the places I was writing about,” he wrote. “On the downside, yes, some of my sources were reluctant.

“It was very difficult to get Abdel Haidara’s nephew, Mohammed Touré, to be forthcoming, for instance, in large part because al-Qaida is still active in the region and I sensed that he feared retaliation.”

Haidara, the central character in “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu,” may be familiar to some. His efforts to collect, restore and, in the end, protect ancient, handwritten texts have been told in National Geographic, The Economist and, of course, by Hammer in Smithsonian.

Haidara is an everyman who plunged into the world of ancient scripts at age 17 when his father bequeathed him the family’s collection. He begins the tale as a bewildered teen, not quite sure why he was chosen from among his 11 siblings as the keeper of the texts.

His story is irresistible. “A single individual organizing a clandestine resistance against a violent, extremist group struck me from the start as something that could have widespread appeal,” Hammer wrote.

He added, however, that it wasn’t an easy sell to publishers.

“I’m grateful that Priscilla Painton of S&S (Simon & Schuster) – a former foreign editor at Time magazine – looked beyond the remoteness of the story and instantly saw its potential,” he wrote.

A former Newsweek bureau chief and foreign correspondent, Hammer’s holistic knowledge of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Islam and jihadists, gives the book a voice of authority and authenticity.

Hammer explains that these texts are cherished heirlooms, not only in Haidara’s family, but in families throughout the region. Many were buried or hidden in trunks left to deteriorate from time and termites.

As a young man, Haidara is recruited into helping collect and preserve the texts. His reluctance is quickly replaced by a passion that is unmatched. In his email, Hammer wrote that this is one of his favorite parts of the story.

“I like it because it defines Abdel Kader’s character – his courage, his resourcefulness, his persistence, his willing to undergo all sorts of hardships in the service of his country’s culture, in recovering Mali’s largely lost national patrimony,” he explained.

“I think that once you see Abdel Kader riding camels through the desert and trekking for weeks on the hunt for a rumored trove of manuscripts, you begin to understand what drives the man, you come to admire him, and so you can’t help rooting for him once the trouble starts a few chapters later,” he said.

Hammer crafts a thoughtful history of the Middle East and Africa in a narrative that goes beyond the one- and two-dimensional views that are popular today. He writes matter-of-factly about the intellectual depth and integrity of ancient civilizations that have long been dismissed or disputed by Western scholars.

He also provides a geopolitical explainer that gives context to the development of radical Islam. Much of the conversation about radical Islam often seems centered around Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. But Hammer broadens this viewpoint and details how Mali and Haidara’s hometown of Timbuktu have been swept into the maelstrom of violence.

The strictures of radical Islam not only endanger the citizens of Timbuktu, but also the manuscripts. As Hammer explains, the writings represent an enlightened and sometimes secular view of the world that is in direct opposition to that of the extremists.

He goes a long way to explain how the various policies and decisions, not only by the U.S., but other Western governments, helped fuel the jihadists. For example, he illustrates how the taking of Western hostages – the U.S. and Britain were in the minority in their refusal to pay ransom – was a lucrative scheme that netted millions over time.

He also explains how the State Department and the military, with their distinct missions, have also unwittingly created a vacuum that allowed jihadists to thrive. He does this not as a political indictment of an administration but rather to show how the vagaries of trust between various departments can undermine overarching goals.

The highlight of the story, however, is the tale of how Haidara led the efforts to protect the manuscripts from jihadists who seized Timbuktu.

Hammer’s narrative of the rescue of the texts is so much more critical because of his details on their meaning to Mali and the world at large.

Haidara rescued an estimated 500,000 manuscripts over an 18-month period. His work was recognized with Germany’s 2014 Africa Prize.

The book’s title isn’t overstated. Haidara, and those who aided him, truly are “bad-ass.”

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Book review: ‘Beacons’ shines a light on a national treasure Sun, 08 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 In the winter of 1849, Maine newspapers were flooded with complaints from mariners about a local lighthouse whose beacons no longer burned after midnight. When confronted, the new keeper, who hailed from the center of the state, replied assuredly; “Well, I know they don’t, for I put ’em out myself then, for I thought all the vessels had got by by that time, and I wanted to save the oil.”

A Yankee desire to save pennies, political appointees with no knowledge of things maritime and no training required, were just a few of the problems facing America’s lighthouse efforts between the early national period and the Civil War, as documented by Eric Jay Dolin in “Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse.” Then, of course, there were shoals, fog, storms and sundry acts of God.

While there have been a score of books on Maine lighthouses in the past few decades, this is by far the best national coverage since Francis Ross Holland’s “American Lighthouses: An Illustrated History,” from 1972. Dolin, whose earlier books include “Leviathan” (2007) and “When America First Met China” (2012), is a sure-handed researcher and a most enjoyable author. Though “Brilliant Beacons” updates and illuminates Ross Holland, don’t ignore the latter. They are deserving of the same shelf.

In the early days of the American republic, more than 90 percent of the federal budget came from custom house duties, making aids to navigation a top national priority. Indeed, Portland Head Light was begun by Cumberland County and completed under orders from George Washington. In its long history, the establishment would be overseen by various departments, including Commerce, Treasury, the civilian Lighthouse Service and the Coast Guard. While Dolin offers the expected overview, flecked with vivid adventures of heroic rescue and endurance, he also provides what may be the most instructive anatomy of a federal bureaucracy ever penned. Anyone interested in the function, use and abuse of government, and its eventual return to sanity, should read this.

In colonial times, there were few lights along the American coast, frequent shipwrecks and a need to solve this very real human and commercial problem. Things started well enough following European models with towers, argand lamps and reflectors. However, in 1820, Stephen Pleasonton, fifth auditor of the Treasury, was appointed superintendent of lighthouses, a sinecure he would hold in cold hands until 1852. Early on, he teamed with Cape Codder Winslow Lewis, a manufacturer of reflectors who would gain a virtual monopoly over the next three decades as the number of beacons grew from 55 to 325.

The whole point of a lighthouse or a light system was to create a landmark, day and night, to save lives and cargo at sea and, increasingly, on lakes and rivers. For Pleasonton, it was the bottom line. He ran the cheapest light service in the western world, and the most dangerous. England and France made rapid advances in construction and improved lighting and training. In America, little was done, despite frequent complaints from numerous maritime interests, including Matthew C. Perry, commodore of the U.S. Navy, and Edmond Blunt, notable publisher of nautical charts in the American Coast Pilot. The development of the Fresnel lens in France and its adoption by most of the world led to a trial or two in America, with Pleasonton pronouncing it too expensive.

Just prior to the Civil War and the destruction or darkening of many lights, Pleasonton was fired and the United States started to catch up with the rest of the modern world. The new Fresnel lens used less whale oil than the old reflectors, but the cost soon led to the search for illuminates including lard, kerosene and eventually electricity. In 1910, a commissioner of lights was appointed. In 1918, the man who held the position, George R. Putnam, established “the first retirement system enacted in the United States for Federal Service Workers.” These were the days of the classic keepers. On the 150th anniversary of the service, President Franklin Roosevelt put the service under the Coast Guard, which did a superb job through the post-World War II era. By 1990, all American lights except Boston Light, were automated. Newer optics, navigation and radar improvements changed the game. Lighthouses seemed to be an endangered species of architecture, but Dolin unfurls the story of involved citizens, grants and the historic preservation movement that saved most of the classic lights. Maine, as he notes in both text and a helpful appendix of current lighthouse organizations, has played a key role in that ongoing mission.

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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Signings, etc.: Robert E. Cyr Sun, 08 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Author and holistic health coach Robert E. Cyr will discuss his new book, “Zombie Truckers,” detailing his formerly unhealthy lifestyle, filled with demanding work schedules, little sleep and poor diet. After trying endless fad diets and exercise regimes, Bob was eventually able to turn his life around. He shares his amazing story and the knowledge he gained during the journey. Healthy snacks to be served.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: McArthur Public Library, 270 Main St., Biddeford


INFO: 284-4181;

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Book review: ‘Free Refills’ tells a doctor’s story of opiate addiction Sun, 08 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 The numbers are startling: Overdose deaths in Maine increased 31 percent last year, killing 272 people. Nationally, there was a sixfold increase in deadly heroin overdoses between 2001 and 2014, and overdose deaths more than tripled in the same time period.

More startling than the numbers are the human losses. The people who are killed by overdose and the people who continue to struggle with addiction aren’t just data points on a trend line. They are children, parents and lovers. To understand addiction and find effective solutions, we have to understand the nature of addiction on a personal level.

Dr. Peter Grinspoon describes his personal experience as an addicted physician in “Free Refills: A Doctor Confronts His Addiction,” a fast-paced account of his descent into drug use and his slow and uneven path to recovery, which included several relapses.

Grinspoon, a primary care physician in the Boston area, provides an eye-opening view into the lengths he went to to obtain drugs. He would write fake prescriptions, pilfer drugs from the supply cabinet at his medical office, scarf up drug samples from pharmaceutical companies, and steal pills from the medicine cabinets of his dinner hosts. Sometimes he would even go back to his office at night and inhale “hits off the tank of nitrous oxide in the neighboring doctor’s office.”

Grinspoon didn’t confront his addiction voluntarily; he was compelled to do so after being arrested on three felony charges for fraudulently obtaining narcotics. Describing his sense of horror when law enforcement agents appeared in his medical office, he said his “universe started collapsing, even imploding, like a balloon stuck with a pin.” Instead of responding by calling his wife, his lawyer or his therapist, Dr. Grinspoon hurried to his drug stash and took eight oxycodone pills.

With criminal charges pending, Grinspoon tried to preserve his medical license by meeting voluntarily with the Society to Help Physicians, a program for physicians confronting substance abuse. But he was in a state of denial and would admit only to smoking pot and taking medicine for migraines and insomnia. Immediately after the meeting he congratulated himself on how “easy” it was “to fool” the addiction doctor. Nevertheless, he knew his “addiction was fighting for its life” and he quickly headed to his supply of Percocets for chemical reinforcement.

Initially, Grinspoon was able to keep his medical license by agreeing to random drug testing. But he used drugs and failed a drug test, setting off a “chain reaction of ever more painful and long-lasting consequences.” The first of these was that he “voluntarily” surrendered his medical license. Shortly after that, he found himself locked out of his medical office (“I’m sorry, Dr. Grinspoon, the locks have been changed and I’ve been instructed not to let you in.”)

Looking back at this incident, Grinspoon now agrees with the lock-out decision because, he writes, “Addicts, myself included, are scary and they steal. They are nothing but trouble.”

Soon after, his wife threw him out of their house and Dr. Grinspoon went to live with his parents. He describes the “cosmic irony” of having to move into his parents’ house because of addiction problems: His father is a prominent psychiatrist who specializes in substance abuse. He realized that he was facing a serious challenge and needed to “wake up and start paying attention.”

After beginning a 90-day residential treatment program in North Carolina, Grinspoon at first vehemently rejected the idea that he had anything in common with other people addicted to drugs. During his stay, he came to see that, even though he was from “the heights of Harvard Medical” and other residents were Kentucky miners “from the darkest depths of the coal pits, we were brought to the same place by the same drug.”

Grinspoon traces his addiction to three factors, starting with access to an abundance of illicitly obtained Vicodin during medical school. He writes that “thirty minutes after swallowing my first Vicodin, I felt a rapid rise of bliss in my heart, swelling to a state of happiness I had never known.” His addiction counselor would later say that this first experience with Vicodin “changed [Grinspoon’s] brain forever.”

The second factor, Grinspoon notes, was the stress early in his medical career from long shifts, sleep deprivation, emotionally challenging patient care and trouble in his marriage. He found pills to be “a quick fix” for life’s challenges.

Thirdly, he notes that, as a physician before the prescription drug crisis was recognized, he had almost unfettered access to drugs at the hospital, in other doctors’ offices and in clinics where he practiced. When he got his medical license and a prescription pad, it was like “giving a book of matches to a pyromaniac.”

Access to drugs was nothing new for Grinspoon. Growing up “we always had abundant weed” from his “dad’s reefer closet,” but he remains skeptical about what impact his early marijuana use had on his later addiction to opiates.

After completing the 90-day inpatient program in North Carolina, Grinspoon was clean for a while but then started taking a “few pills here and there.” He initially avoided detection on random drug testing by analyzing, with scientific rigor, the probability of being tested on a given day and mastering the steps he could take to get the drugs out of his system faster, without appearing that that he was trying to do so.

He relapsed again during a family trip, but this time he reported the slip to his probation officer, who – in what turns out to be a wise use of her discretion – did not report him to the judge.

By this time “the pain-to-pleasure ratio” of continued drug use was “worsening by the hour.” He felt “an almost physical sensation of a new resolve forming within me.”

Eventually Grinspoon got his license back and returned to the practice of internal medicine where, as is probably common in medicine today, some of his patients are addicted to opiates. Unlike the times years before when he thought he was so different from street addicts, he now reflected that “our brain disease was identical.”

Throughout the book, Grinspoon’s sense of humor and ability to see irony and absurdity in his circumstances is constant. Recognizing the difficult and at times humiliating nature of his journey, Grinspoon writes, “You can laugh or you can cry.” For the most part, Grinspoon chose to laugh.

It was difficult for Grinspoon to get to a place of stable recovery, but his personal circumstances increased his chances of success. He had money for a 90-day residential treatment program and a comfortable home in tony Brookline, Massachusetts. He was also motivated by the desires to be with his two children and to return to the practice of medicine. He even had a fallback home he could go to when his wife asked him to move out. Despite all these advantages, he relapsed repeatedly.

Imagine how much more difficult recovery must be for addicts who don’t have financial stability, a support system and access to good treatment.

Even for Grinspoon, who has been drug-free for almost a decade, recovery is an ongoing project. “Over time,” he writes toward the end of the book, “these pills sing to me less, but if I listen carefully they still quietly beckon.”

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: ‘Seasons in My Garden’ reflects on growth and rootedness Sun, 01 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 It is common for those who embrace the monastic life to refer to it as “a calling.” This is how Sister Elizabeth Wagner describes her response to reading a book on Teresa of Avila that a teacher gave her in high school. “My heart opened, my dreams expanded, and I knew my calling.”

In her collection of essays, “Seasons in My Garden,” Wagner tells of the journey that led her to a monastic life at Transfiguration Hermitage near Windsor, Maine, and the nature of her daily life there. She writes that the journey had its trials from the start. “I had fallen in love with a dream of a contemplative life, but there were some major hurdles – such as not being Catholic, not thinking I actually believed in God, not having any idea of how to find a monastery or how to enter it.”

“Seasons in My Garden” follows Wagner’s life through the cycle of the seasons of the year. Her life is ordered by the Liturgy of the Hours, the set of prayers and hymns the sisters gather to recite each day, and by the work she does in tending to the hermitage’s extensive gardens. Her book not only takes the reader inside the walls of the small cloister, but inside Wagner herself, into the interior, spiritual garden that must also be carefully tended to ensure that her faith and her connection to God continue to blossom.858932_4576 9781594716348.jpg

The book is divided into four sections framed by each of the four seasons. The contemplative life she describes is neither easy nor idyllic. In the short prologue, she writes, “I didn’t come to Maine gladly … it felt as if I’d been exiled to Siberia.” She begins the story in winter, which is the hardest season for her. She writes of how the leafless trees are reflective of her interior mood and her struggle with faith, stripped to “bare bones,” where boredom is prevalent, confined as she is largely to her cell to do her readings and prayers. “The cell,” she writes, “is so very often the place of struggle and combat,” for life in the cloister offers few distractions, such that the struggle “looms enormously large.” She misses the touch of naked earth in her hands, beneath her feet. Winter is a trial of faith that makes her anxious to the point sometimes of wanting to flee.

“Winter in Maine is truly a crucible: a slow chalice of transformation. One is pushed deep down into oneself by the weight of winter; long snowy days; long snow-covered months.” A time of standing “far off in unworthiness… in fear – for God will judge us.”

Her winter lament makes for a difficult start of the story. But moving into the spring, the story begins to open more, like new life in the garden. The writing is less discursive, the mood less somber, the specificity of detail stronger, though her struggle with faith remains ever constant.

Summer is a time of urgency, for there is much to do in tending the profusion of growth in the garden that warm weather brings. It also brings one afternoon a sudden deluge that floods the central garden and the bell tower used to call the sisters to Vespers, the evening prayers. Wagner does not want to put boots on to go out and ring the bell, so she runs through the cloister knocking on doors to summon everyone.

The next morning, the Gospel for the day was Matthew 14:22-33, about Jesus walking on water in a storm to be with his disciples in a boat out at sea. Peter, seeing this, likewise steps out upon the water, begins walking, but when he looks down he loses faith and sinks. Wagner dwells on this, drawing a comparison to her avoidance the day earlier to proceed through the water to ring the bell. “Walking on water is what Jesus did at a moment of urgent necessity for his disciples, and it was also a moment of epiphany, a revelation of who he is and what all of God’s salvation history is about. Walking on water is what we do also, each day of our lives, when we step out in faith… Walking on water, the garden tells me, is possible. Even in a storm. Even when drowning. Even when – especially when – we don’t realize the amazing story we’re caught up in.”

Wagner repeatedly draws parallels between ordinary events and spiritual lessons. Every event is pregnant with possible spiritual gleanings, she attests. “The texture of our simple daily experience is the privileged place of God’s presence. We need only to become more aware of it.” The challenge is indeed to be aware of it.

 Sister Elizabeth Wagner

Sister Elizabeth Wagner

“Rarely do we focus on the simple place where we are right now. Yet, it is only here and now in the present – this time, this place, these thoughts, this task – where God waits for us to be present.”

In “Stillness,” the last chapter in the “Autumn” section, Wagner comes full circle in her reflections on winter, how autumn begins to prepare one for the hardship. Here, in contrast to her tone and mood in the opening section, she views in a new light the returning to the time of snow and being forced inside. She realizes that winter brings its own rich gifts.

“Winter brings quiet. Winter brings stillness.” The contemplative life is all about cultivating stillness. Late in November, the first snow comes. “The snow enforces physical stillness. Inner stillness arrives by sheer gift. There are times when God’s hand hovers over us, and all our inner noise is hushed. We are dropped into a place beyond words, below thoughts, far from emotion and desire. All is stilled, and we are in Presence.”

Monasteries have been likened to “great engines of prayer.” Wagner also makes clear that they are places of extraordinary ordinariness, where one cannot flee from the profound nature of daily existence. This time, this place, these thoughts mark the journey. As Wagner makes clear, being fully present in those things is the only means of being in the “Presence” of that which one seeks.

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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For author Tess Gerritsen, success brings more artistic freedom – finally Sun, 01 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 CAMDEN — Although she’s published 26 books, had a TV series based on her characters, and lands regularly on best-seller lists, Tess Gerritsen worries about whether her work will sell.

She has seldom relaxed enough to just write what she wants to write. Until now.

Her latest book, “Playing with Fire,” focuses intensely on music, something Gerritten has been passionate about most of her life. She plays piano and violin, and hosts Celtic music jam sessions at her home. But never tried to publish a story about music or musicians before. She didn’t think it would be commercial enough.

“I have ideas deep in my heart that I know are not commercial. I have a little voice in my head that says, ‘Can you sell this?'” Gerritsen, 62, said. “Now is the time to stop thinking about whether it’s commercial and just see if there are stories I’m dying to tell.”

“Playing with Fire,” which came out in October, is about a violinist who finds a mysterious piece of sheet music in Italy, which she believes has horrific powers. Her family, meanwhile, begins to think she’s ill or perhaps crazy. Gerritsen herself composed the supposedly-cursed piece, “Incendio,” for the book. She’ll perform it on keyboard Tuesday at One Longfellow Square in Portland, along with Maine violinist Tracey Jasas-Hardel, as part of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram’s Maine Voices Live series.

Gerritsen didn’t sit down one day and decide to write about music. The idea came to her unexpectedly, in a dream, almost forcing her to consider it. “Playing with Fire” has gotten critical praise but readers have been “hot and cold” about it, Gerritsen said. She has an email address on her website, so readers can easily tell her what they think. Many feel like the book’s ending tricked them, she said, but Gerritsen said the clues to the eventual ending are visible throughout the book.

Writing “Playing with Fire” has started Gerritsen on a path of pursuing projects she has a definite passion for.

She’s working on a horror film called “Island Zero” with her 32-year-old son Josh – she wrote it, he directed. She also is considering making a documentary film about man’s long fascination with the pig, from Roman mythology to wild boar hunts to pigs as companions.

And she’s become something of an advocate for creative rights. She sued Warner Bros. in 2014, claiming she was owed more than $10 million of the profits from the Oscar-winning film “Gravity.” She had sold the film rights to her 1999 novel “Gravity” to New Line Cinema, later acquired by Warner Bros. But Warner Bros. never paid Gerritsen the money she says she was owed under the contract, claiming they did not acquire New Line’s contractual obligations. The book and the film both focus on a woman in a space shuttle or space station, and include perilous crashes and collisions in space.

Gerritsen says she learned how hard it is for writers to protect their work at times, and that some 50 similar suits filed by writers against studios over the last 20 years were all unsuccessful. She eventually dropped her suit, she said, partly so she could retain the right to speak publicly about it.

While her own drive to succeed is strong, she also has a strong desire at this point in her career to take a stand on behalf of other writers. There’s a page on her web site titled, “My Gravity Lawsuit and How It Affects Every Writer Who Sells to Hollywood.”

Best-selling author Tess Gerritsen in the backyard of her Camden home, which overlooks Penobscot Bay.

Best-selling author Tess Gerritsen in the backyard of her Camden home, which overlooks Penobscot Bay. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


Gerritsen credits her parents for pushing her to be successful and well-rounded. When she was 7 years old Gerritsen told her father, a Chinese-American restaurant cook, that she wanted to be a writer. He told her to study hard and seek out a career that would be more secure, maybe science or medicine. Wanting to please her parents, Gerritsen compromised. She became a doctor, then a writer.

The two disciplines have meshed pretty successfully for Gerritsen. Her medical school lessons and five years as a practitioner have come in handy, helping her create the popular “Rizzoli & Isles” book series about a medical examiner and detective working together. Her characters, Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles, are the basis of the TNT TV series “Rizzoli & Isles.” She’s wrapping up work on the 12th book in that series, “Strange Girl.”

And her musical mastery was crucial in “Playing with Fire.”

“I have to be thankful that I had parents who were very demanding,” said Gerritsen, whose father was born in America while her mother was born in China. “I think it was an immigrant thing, striving to succeed, to push their children to succeed. When people talk today (negatively) about immigration, they forget the great energy added to society because of these strivers.”

Though her parents may have pushed her to learn specific skills, like medicine and music, Gerritsen’s natural curiosity has been central to her success as well.

“Curiosity is something you’re born with. I’ve learned about so many things through my writing, from mummies and the space program to music and Venice,” Gerritsen said, sitting in the living room of her oceanfront home in Camden.

Gerritsen usually starts her novels not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. But the basic idea for “Playing with Fire” came to her pretty much intact, in the form of a dream, while on vacation in Venice, Italy.

She dreamt that she was playing the violin, and she knew the piece was disturbing, but beautiful. There was a baby sitting next to her, and the baby’s eyes began to glow red. The child then became a monster.

When she woke, her mind was first filled with questions about what the dream might have meant. Her daughter-in-law was pregnant at the time, so could the dream be somehow connected to anxiety about her first grandchild? Soon the big question on her mind was what kind of book this idea might spur.

“It was clearly not a crime novel. So I walked around Venice and thought about it,” Gerritsen said.

She walked into the Ghetto, the Jewish section, with its many memorials to Jews who were deported from Venice during World War II. On one plaque she saw the names of deported individuals and noticed several with the last name Todesco. She imagined they were a family. In her book, the Todescos are forced from their home, including violinist Lorenzo Todesco. “I’ve never had a book where the beginning, middle and end is all there for me,” Gerritsen said.

The book also features a contemporary violinist and mother who discovers a mysterious piece of sheet music that apparently makes her child turn vicious when she plays. The book intertwines her story with the story of Lorenzo Todesco and his family.

Though Gerritsen felt comfortable writing about the musicians and music in the book, she was not as comfortable at first writing about the plight of the Italian Jews, something she knew little about before doing research. But she felt she understood Lorenzo, as a fellow musician.

“I took it from the point of view of the tribe of musicians, the fact that you can put the same sheet of music in front of a violinist from China or Italy and they can both play. So I thought I could write this story because I’m in that tribe,” Gerritsen said.

Gerritsen’s home has the trappings of an active, passionate musician. There’s an old black upright piano in the living room, the piano Gerritsen learned on as a child. In a room off the living room is a sparkling black grand piano, which Gerritsen plays today. Then there’s a case with her violin, bought in the violin-making center of Cremona, Italy. Gerritsen has opened her home to musician friends for jam sessions, mostly involving Celtic music. On vacation in Ireland a decade ago, she brought her violin with her and found that playing in pubs got her free Guinness every night.

Gerritsen’s “Incendio” has been recorded by Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, a solo violinist who tours internationally and performs with major orchestras around the world. Hou said when she began reading the music Gerritsen wrote, before she knew what the book was about, the piece spoke to her.

“It was like a magical portal opened, and I started picturing things, even though I had no idea what the book was about. It was haunting and beautiful and pulled me in,” said Hou, who has performed with Gerritsen during book promotion events. “I think it’s absolutely astonishing that she was able to convey so much with this piece of music.”858986_139475 FIRE34.jpg


Gerritsen grew up in San Diego, where her father was a restaurant cook and her mother a social worker whose parents sent her to America when Communists took over after World War II. Gerritsen’s mother never saw her parents again.

Gerritsen said San Diego was “more like small-town” when she grew up. Her family was “firmly middle class.”

She eventually attended medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, where she met her husband, Jacob Gerritsen. The couple moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where both worked as doctors, and they lived there for 12 years.

Gerritsen practiced medicine for about five years, before having her two sons. She says what she liked most about being a doctor was meeting people from all walks of life and hearing their stories. She didn’t like the unpredictable hours and emergency calls late at night.

Staying home to care for her oldest son, Gerritsen decided to start writing, when he was napping or at night. Her first novel, “Call After Midnight,” was published in 1987. But it was her first medical thriller, “Harvest” in 1996, that marked her debut on the New York Times Best Sellers list.


Though Hawaii was a beautiful place to live, Gerritsen said she always felt slightly unsettled living on an island, cut off from the world by water. After vacationing in Maine, she and her husband decided to move to Camden, about 25 years ago.

They rented a home at first, and Gerritsen didn’t feel “financially secure enough” to buy the oceanfront home they now live in until 2003.

One day while Gerritsen and her son were weeding the garden at Josh’s Lincolnville farm, Gerritsen started talking about making a film about killer pigs.

“She said to me, ‘Let’s make a horror movie. They’re fun, and they have a great rate of return,'” Josh Gerritsen remembered. “And I loved the killer pig idea.”

They soon decided to make a movie together. Though not about killer pigs.

Instead Gerritsen wrote a script for a horror film called “Island Zero,” about the horrific happenings on a Maine island after the ferry stops coming. Global warming figures in the plot, as Gerritsen explores what sort of monstrous things might be “dredged up” from the ocean by man’s tampering with the environment.

The film’s best-known cast member is Laila Robins, a veteran actress who played the ambassador to Pakistan on the Showtime cable series “Homeland.” It was filmed around Camden in March and funded by the Gerritsens. They hope to complete editing and post-production this fall and submit the film to festivals, with an eye for a possible release to theaters next year.

Tess Gerritsen says that if the film “makes back its budget,” she’d like to make another one with her son.

But she hasn’t given up on pigs. Instead, she’d like to make a documentary film about mankind’s fascination with pigs. She’s considering a documentary, instead of a book, because of the visual possibilities. Her son is experienced with drone photography, and Gerritsen likes the idea of using drones to film a wild boar hunt. She says the film could explore Roman myths about pigs, truffle hunting, pig slaughters, the personality of pigs and why so much of the world’s population won’t eat pigs. She doesn’t know everything there is to know about pigs, yet, but she knows how to ask questions.

“I’m always asking questions, and that’s the cool thing about what I do,” Gerritsen said.

Her questions lead to stories, stories she can’t wait to tell.


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Book review: ‘Greenpeace Captain’ tales inspire awe, action Sun, 01 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Peter Willcox has led an exciting life, and he tells about it with gusto in “Greenpeace Captain,” his autobiography “as told to” a sailing buddy, Ronald Weiss. The author is captain of one of the vessels with which Greenpeace often makes the headlines.

At this point, after 30 years, he is their most experienced captain, and he is clearly very good at his job. In one sortie described in the book, he puts his ship through a hair-raising pas-de-deux with a Soviet tanker.

Greenpeace itself hardly needs introduction. Willcox has mostly been involved with the organization’s efforts to “bear witness” to environmental degradation and, as its website puts it, to use “high-profile, non-violent conflict to raise the level and quality of public debate.”

When not at sea doing the Lord’s work, Willcox lives with his wife on Islesboro.

“Greenpeace Captain” starts with a bang: on board the Rainbow Warrior, the environmental group’s flagship, in a New Zealand harbor when it was mined by French intelligence agents in 1985. One of his comrades died in the attack.859010_617617 Greenpeace Captain c.jpg

The book ends with the story of the “Arctic 30,” Greenpeace campaigners arrested by Russian Special Forces in 2013 for protesting oil drilling in the Arctic Circle. He gives an account of the two months the team spent in a Russian prison in Murmansk with a possible 15-year sentence hanging over their heads. In the end, the protesters were released as part of an amnesty before the Sochi Olympic Games, along with the female punk band Pussy Riot.

In his 30 years with the organization, Willcox has been involved with some of Greenpeace’s most celebrated and most controversial actions around the world. That includes protesting whale-killing off the coast of Peru and in the Bering Sea (think of that dramatic image of an inflatable boat in front of a harpoon gun), nuclear testing in French Polynesia (the reason for the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior), nuclear waste dumping in the Sea of Japan, and trade in “conflict” timber between Africa and the Mediterranean.

As a child, Willcox’s favorite reading was the Hornblower books by C.S. Forrester, and like a good naval hero of that era, he has also led raids on land, in one instance breaking into a coal-fired power plant in Turkey, on another delivering (by fork-lift) toxic waste to the American Embassy in Manila.

In all these adventures, Willcox and the Greenpeace crew variously maneuvered their boats into harm’s way, swam, climbed, dangled, locked themselves to anchor chains and generally played for time and publicity. What they never did is cause damage or deliberately risk violence with the authorities or with whoever they were protesting against. That is Greenpeace’s cardinal rule.

The use of publicity is key, and Greenpeace’s international network is astonishingly good at getting it exactly where and when it’s needed – and succeeding in its cause. Willcox lists a number of occasions when his actions could be credited with bringing environmental abuse to a halt.

He and the crews he leads – Willcox is far from done with the sea or Greenpeace – are truly brave people and deserve our admiration. Most of the book is a real page-turner with the reader rooting for the guys in white hats.859010_617617 Peter Willcox (c) Gr.jpg

Yet, from time to time, an oddly obtuse tone seeps in. His Russian cellmate in the Murmansk prison “enjoyed being in the cell with me,” relates Willcox, “because he knew we weren’t going to get picked on for keeping the TV on too late at night. I was probably the best thing that was going to happen to him for the rest of his life.” The Russian was going to get 25 years in Siberia for selling pot.

On another occasion, while facing jail time in Peru for boarding a whaler, surprisingly, Willcox didn’t know it might be construed as piracy – he admits he hoped the action would get him “noticed” at Greenpeace headquarters: “For me getting noticed wasn’t about climbing the corporate ladder so much as it was about getting the cool assignments.”

But these are small reservations. I came away from this book feeling inspired by the energy, courage and determination of men and women like Peter Willcox.

Even as he relaxes in front of a roaring fire at home for the first time since being freed in Russia, he’s looking ahead. “There’s a long-standing maritime tradition to come to the aid of anyone at sea who is in peril. So when the ocean itself is in trouble, I can’t refuse the call.”

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: Richard Russo proves you can go home again Sun, 01 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Richard Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool,” published in 1993, isn’t a novel that clamors for a follow-up. A long book about small-town life in upstate New York, it seemed to have accomplished what its author set out to do, capturing with humor and compassion some pivotal moments in the lives of fictional North Bath’s working-class residents, chief among them Donald “Sully” Sullivan, unambitious day laborer and town gadfly.

Set 10 years later than the original, the sequel finds Sully, now financially independent thanks to a lucky off-track bet, at another personal crossroads. The main focus of the narrative, however, shifts to concentrate largely on one of the bit players from the first book. Douglas Raymer, then an easily rattled police officer, is now the town’s equally self-doubting chief of police. It is he who undergoes the greatest degree of change over the course of a few jam-packed days.

As “Everybody’s Fool” opens, Raymer reluctantly attends the burial of a local judge, and even at the graveside he cannot stop obsessing about the strange garage door opener he found in his wife’s car. Before she died in a freak accident, Becka Raymer had planned to run off with her secret lover, and Raymer believes that the wayward remote control will somehow prove with whom she intended to leave, a notion that causes him great psychological turmoil.

Russo writes, “Since losing Becka, he had come unmoored. Somewhere along the line he’d lost not only his wife but his faith in justice, in both this world and the next.” Raymer’s mental unmooring is strong enough to cause him to faint in the heat and send him tumbling face first into the judge’s open grave.

Raymer’s is not the only close confrontation with mortality in Bath that day. The wall of a dubious real estate enterprise known as The Old Mill Lofts, undermined by a lake of septic goo bubbling up underneath it, collapses and nearly kills a passing driver. At Raymer’s run-down apartment building, a wayward contraband cobra incites a panicky evacuation. And then there’s Sully predicament in the wake of his visit to the VA cardiologist, the diagnosis of encroaching congestive heart failure, with the prognosis of two years, “but probably closer to one” if he chooses to do nothing about it.

Whether still among the living or not, most characters from the previous book show up eventually in this one. Rub Squeers, Sully’s partner in horrible odd jobs, frets that he’s being replaced in his best friend’s affections. Sully’s off-and-on married lover, Ruth, is less concerned with their haphazard relationship, more worried that her daughter has taken up again with her abusive and unpredictable ex, Roy Purdy. Beryl Peoples, Sully’s eighth-grade English teacher and former landlady, has long since passed away, but Sully is still haunted by the question she was fond of asking him, “Does it ever trouble you that you haven’t done more with the life God gave you?”

A lot happens in the roughly 48-hour span of “Everybody’s Fool,” perhaps too much. Raymer in particular suffers more indignities and experiences more epiphanies in two days than is strictly believable, even after he’s struck by lightning and experiences a disconcerting episode of dual personality. Sully’s son and grandson, so crucial to the first book, are mostly kept off-stage this time, which is just as well, since the accumulation of plot threads is already remarkably heavy without their presence.859028_609409 fool.jpg

A number of sad and distressing events happen in “Everybody’s Fool,” but it is at heart a comedy. Russo keeps the jokes coming with well-practiced regularity, and no one is likely to complain that some are overly broad, when the majority hit their mark.

Like a 15-year high school class reunion, “Everybody’s Fool” ends up feeling not entirely necessary but worth experiencing if circumstances allow. Even at nearly 500 pages, it manages to not wear out its welcome. Sully and his North Bath cohorts still have an irrepressible gift of gab, and it’s a pleasure to hear them trade wisecracks and a few unpleasant truths.

If “Everybody’s Fool” lacks the depth and moral heft of Russo’s “Bridge of Sighs” or the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Empire Falls,” it seems on an equal footing with the campus comedy “Straight Man” and feels more substantial and well-tuned than “That Old Cape Magic.” No matter where it ranks amid Russo’s output, “Everybody’s Fool” displays his trademark style, that easy, sardonic and yet not unkind authorial voice that reveals the characters’ inner lives, full of well-worn habit and surprising contradiction, with honesty, humor and compassion.


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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Portlanders Susan Conley and Winky Lewis document a year’s journey through ‘motherland’ Sun, 01 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Winky Lewis and Susan Conley didn’t stop time, but they came close.

Their new book, “Stop Here, This is the Place,” is a collaboration between friends and neighbors, between a photographer and a writer and between mothers whose children are best friends. At the beginning of each week for one year, starting in the spring, Lewis, the photographer, sent a photo to Conley, the writer, who responded by sending a small story back.

Most of the photos involved their kids and the wide West End street that serves as their playground. One house separates them. Their five kids – Lewis has three, Conley has two – are interchangeable parts. “We’ve raised our kids together,” said Lewis, who spoke about the book with Conley in a Portland coffee shop. Both families moved into the neighborhood on Bowdoin Street in Portland in 2001, at roughly the same time.

859058_927715 Stop Here book cover.jpgThe photos and text tell a very small story about a very small place in a very big world. Motherhood doesn’t allow actual slowdowns, but the project enabled them to pause long enough to appreciate the small moments that often go unnoticed.

They’ll discuss their book Thursday night at the Portland Museum of Art. Portland illustrator Scott Nash will guide a discussion about their collaborative process, as artists and friends.

Their book, published by Down East, celebrates, as they say, “a year in motherland.” These are photos of children at play that capture moments of exploration and growth and friendship. They began the project in spring 2013, when the youngest of the child tribe was 9.

The book includes 52 photos and stories, one for each week.

From a writer’s perspective, the process was liberating and a bit terrifying, Conley said. On one hand, it was wildly fun, because she never knew week to week what the topic would be. The creative dialogue always began with the photo, which Conley treated as a blueprint or outline.

The challenge, she said, was finding her voice. Looking at the photos reminded her of growing up in rural Maine and allowed her to say things she’s always wanted to say about that. On one page, she writes with the authority of a mother:

“Right before the boy fell asleep, he asked his mother what he should dream about.

He was on his stomach with his little face towards the wall, leaving her already.

His dreams called to him, and the pale flowers rang like chimes.

Oceans, the mother said. And rivers. And trees.

That is how much I love you, she said.

More than these three things.”

On another page, Conley writes with the precocious imagination of a little girl:

“Flying. Yeah. It’s something I do whenever I can.

I fly in the morning when the sun rises.

I fly at night when there’s no moon.

I fly with my eyes opened or closed.

It’s the very greatest thing.

Sometimes I wear my new back-to-school outfit when I’m flying.

Sometimes I just put on my wings and practice lift off.”

Winky Lewis photo

Winky Lewis photo

The process allowed what she calls “the indulgence to go back in time.” She described her small stories as poetry, which was an early creative output for her writing. Writing poetry again – and writing about being a young child – felt like a gift “with a bow,” she said.

For Lewis, the photos allowed her to drop in on the lives of the children as an objective observer. Looking at the photos from the perspective of three years, she’s sometimes surprised at the range of emotions that are part of the year-long narrative. There are sprinkler fights and children dancing in the street, and there are pouty faces that underlie the trauma of being 12. “There are issues that are really real,” Lewis said.

The friends began their project in spring 2013. They barely talked about it, and neither edited the other’s work. They just reacted, as artists and mothers.

Lewis sent Conley a photo each week, and Conley wrote quickly. She often looked only briefly at the photo at first in search of her initial emotional reaction, and tried to write from that spot.

After a few months, they wondered if they were writing a book without realizing it. Lewis sent photos and text to her brother, a designer. Monty Lewis laid out of a draft of what a book might look like.

When Down East said yes, they realized their little world had suddenly become much bigger.

Initially, they wondered if it was a good idea to share the photos and stories of their children with strangers. Whatever fears they had were allayed by the reaction to the book.

Their kids like it, too – even the older boys who thought it was kind of dorky at first.


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Signings, etc.: Steve Callahan at Camden Public Library Sun, 24 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Author Steve Callahan will discuss “Ocean Survival: From Fish Guts to Pi” as part of the celebration of Maritime Month at the Camden Public Library. Callahan’s 2002 book “Adrift” details his survival at sea in a life raft for 76 days. The book remained on The New York Times bestseller list for more than 36 weeks.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursdays

WHERE: Camden Public Library, 55 Main St.


INFO: 236-3440;

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Book review: Oy gevalt! ‘Dinner Party’ a Seder gone wild and funny Sun, 24 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Sylvia Gold, an upwardly mobile doctor’s wife in Greenwich, Connecticut, is in a tizzy. Her overachiever med student daughter Becca finally has a boyfriend – and he’s a Rothschild. Of the Rothschilds, the richest and most powerful Jewish family on Earth. And he and his parents are coming for dinner. Not just any dinner, but Passover Seder.

Quick, she has to redecorate the entire house, hire a chef, buy new table linens and plan the seating arrangements. This last chore is doubly complicated because her other daughter, Sarah, is dating an Italian auto mechanic, and he’s bringing his mother, a completely unpresentable person prone to hysterics. But Sylvia doesn’t know the worst of it yet: The mother has arranged a pre-dinner video chat with her husband … from his cellblock in jail.

Oy gevalt!

Few writers could have more fun with this premise than Muttontown, New York, author Brenda Janowitz, whose satirical rendition of the aspirations, problems and prejudices of a certain class of American Jews is hilariously precise. She’s got Passover nailed: ” … it can go one of two ways. It can be a long and somewhat depressing service. (Slavery. Ten plagues brought upon the land. The slaying of all the firstborn children.) Or, it can, in the right hands, be a joyous family celebration. (Four cups of wine. A children’s song about Moses floating in a basket. A sandwich made out of apples, walnuts, red wine and cinnamon.)”

Historically, the Golds have been in the second group, but this year their Seder veers into uncharted territory.

One of the running jokes revolves around chef Michael’s upscale substitutions for the family recipes the Golds and their guests are expecting. No beloved standbys this year. For chopped liver, they get foie gras. For latkes there is a “deconstructed potato pancake,” which daughter Sarah is forced to spit into her embroidered napkin. The only thing anyone recognizes is the wine, and they embrace it fervently.

An unsuccessful menu turns out to be the least of Sylvia problems. Becca’s beau, Henry Rothschild, is far from the prize son-in-law of her dreams. Henry “hadn’t gotten into any of the colleges his father had hand-picked for him. His grades from his third-tier Manhattan prep school were atrocious, and his SAT scores were even worse. His father had been counting on Henry’s college application essay (which he had paid good money for) and his own connections to get Henry into Princeton, his alma mater. What did they think those enormous endowments were for, anyway? Dartmouth rejected him mere hours after receipt of the application, and Brown didn’t even have the grace to send a rejection.”

One daughter with an auto mechanic, the other with a spoiled dope, and then, in the middle of dinner, the girls’ brother Gideon arrives home unexpectedly from Sri Lanka with a new fiancée on his arm. She is a black woman named Malika. “I think I need to lie down for a minute,” says Sylvia after introductions are made, and slips out of the room.

A few days later, the mailman greets Sylvia with a friendly “How are the kids?”

She pauses. Her “shining star” has returned to Sri Lanka, Becca is having a breakdown and Sarah and she aren’t speaking.

“Kids are doing great, Don,” she says. “Thank you for asking!”

This exchange could be straight out of a humorous self-help book I remember from my childhood, “How to Be a Jewish Mother.”

Having begun in the spring at Passover, Janowitz winds up her tale in the fall with Rosh Hashanah. But while the Seder gets 42 little chapters, the reassembly of the party for the Jewish New Year gets only two. Why so fast? We were just getting comfortable. Despite the rushed resolution, this is a party you won’t want to miss.

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Book review: ‘Father’s Day’ reveals dark secrets slowly, masterfully Sun, 24 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Early in Simon Van Booy’s new novel, “Father’s Day,” there is a phrase describing a bad dream that Harvey, a young American woman living in Paris, has before the man who raised her, Jason, arrives for a visit. The dream weaves “the details of her life conjured from emptiness and longing.” As the story of Harvey and Jason’s lives unfold in “Father’s Day,” that phrase settles deep like an anchor in a dark place, curiously capturing not just the emotional undercurrent of the story but its structure as well.

Simon Van Booy

Simon Van Booy

“Father’s Day” is a stark departure from Van Booy’s earlier stories. The prose is lean, stripped of the lyricism of “Everything Beautiful Began After.” It is at times brutally raw in contrast to the melancholia of “The Illusions of Separateness.” Despite its stunning differences, “Father’s Day” is every bit as probing into the mysteries of what it means to be human, and is deeply moving when those mysteries are at last finally revealed in their entirety.

The story swings between Harvey and Jason’s backstories and their present lives. Harvey’s coming-of-age story is rooted in the fact that she was orphaned at 6 when her parents were killed in a car accident. Jason’s backstory slowly reveals his dark and violent past. Their lives are linked in the crucible of Jason taking in his dead brother’s daughter and struggling to raise her. The contours of the story are shaped by powerful secrets that are slowly revealed. In “Father’s Day,” Van Booy again deftly demonstrates that he is a master at the craft of storytelling.

Jason has lived alone since he was released from prison for blinding a man in a bar fight with a broken bottle. A kindly caseworker bends the bureaucracy – and Jason’s heart – to place Harvey in his care. Though she’d never met Jason before, Harvey is predisposed to like him because of the stories her father had told her about his “older brother.” The boys’ own father had been a violent alcoholic, but Jason always interceded to protect his younger brother, often shielding him with his own body.

The dance Van Booy crafts between the two – one impish and relentless in her pursuit to change her uncle-now-father, the other clueless about parenting – is alternately richly entertaining and piercingly heartbreaking. Through Harvey’s ministrations, the reader witnesses glimmerings of the brave, protective brother that Jason has long hidden away. In the process, Harvey opens Jason to the vast love in his heart for others that was his birthright.

Twenty years on, Harvey is living in Paris, working in a design firm. She is beside herself with excitement that Jason accepted her offer of a plane ticket to visit her. Harvey has engineered his weeklong visit so that he’ll be there on Father’s Day. She plans out the week, as well as carefully planning a trove of presents he is to receive, “objects from childhood, and each one stood for some vital moment of their lives.”

“Father’s Day” is a departure from Van Booy’s earlier work in part for the leanness in the writing, but more significantly for the penumbra of darkness at the edges of light, and for the sharp, short sketches of violence.

Father's Day cover

And yet, “Father’s Day” could be viewed as fated in Van Booy’s growing oeuvre. Before Van Booy penned any of his fictional books, he curated three volumes of philosophy, on love, fate and violence. This is an intriguing mix on the face of it, but all the more so when one considers the trajectory of Van Booy’s stories. What precedes “Father’s Day” are investigations of the themes of love and fate, earning Van Booy growing critical acclaim and ever more eager readers. This latest work forcefully addresses violence, its dark origins and its painful consequences. One cannot help but wonder about the dimensions of the worldview that Van Booy seems to be working out through his fiction.

“Father’s Day” leads to a dramatic, poetic ending that the reader never sees coming. It makes manifest the fatefulness of two characters’ lives made whole by finding one another. And it reveals the deep belief the author obviously harbors in the power of love and fate to lift people above the darkest obstacles and to change their lives forever.

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. Smith can be reached via his website:

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Book review: ‘Ghost Buck’ a story of changing place, and the family that changes with it Sun, 24 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Dean Bennett’s new volume, “Ghost Buck: The Legacy of One Man’s Family and Its Hunting Traditions,” does everything it sets out to do and, in sticking to that, accomplishes far more. But, first of all, it is fun to read and neatly constructed. This is a book for our time and will be enjoyed and treasured far into the future.

As the title states, “Ghost Buck” is focused on family and hunting as a lifestyle. It is also about the evolution of the town of Greenwood; Oxford County; Maine; New England, and the greater United States. It moves with deliberation through at least nine generations – think Longfellow’s “long, long thoughts.”

Dean Bennett

Dean Bennett

Bennett was born in the Greenwood village of Locke Mills, taught in a variety of places including the University of Maine at Farmington, and is the author of a distinguished, much underrated decade’s worth of books about Maine’s regional and natural history. These include my previous favorite, from 1996, “The Forgotten Nature of New England: A Search for Traces of the Original Wilderness.”

“Ghost Buck” is, in a sense, more personal, but no less professionally handled. Personal enthusiasm is grounded by documentation, maps and a continued reportage of statistical change in the physical environment, the size of the deer herd, the nature of the Bennett clan, and changes in hunting laws and ethics.

Few writers are better positioned to orient the reader in such fields, and there are none to my knowledge that can do it with such strength, grace and economy of words.

The core of “Ghost Buck” is Camp Sheepskin in Greenwood, built by the Bennetts in 1936. The number of villages and place names, including “Greenwood City,” Shadagee, Bryant Pond and Locke’s Mills, should be enough to put off any reader “from away,” but Bennett’s prose unfolds the centuries with ease and with the clarity of a master historian explaining the clearing of the forest, the planting of orchards and fields, the arrival and abandonment of county roads, and the appearance then disappearance of villages as railroads changed course.

"Ghost Buck" cover

Bennett attempts to explain why he and other people hunt, and he more than answers the question. The book is honest and documents not only one family’s experience but an element of Maine life through the generations.

It also includes absorbing stories, such as the quasi-myth, and perhaps a plausible explanation, around what hunters have seen in the woods. Bennett muses about what the camp may mean for his grandchildren and other family members in the future: “I am unable to imagine,” he writes. “I can only hope that this camp, or a place like it, will be a part of their lives, enriching theirs as it has mine with family, friends and perhaps a little mystery.”

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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Signings, etc.: Jeffrey Thomson on ‘fragile’ Sun, 17 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Author and poet Jeffrey Thomson talks about his new book “fragile” in the Brown Bag Lecture Series. The book is part memoir, short stories and poetry, detailing his travels around the world over the years.

WHEN: Noon Wednesday

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


INFO:; 871-1700, Ext. 723

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Beverly Cleary at 100: A salute to the beloved author Sun, 17 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 When we first meet Ramona Quimby, she’s only 4 years old and already showing signs of greatness.

She can secretly summon 15 friends to her house without her mother suspecting a thing – at least until the children start arriving on the doorstep, expecting a party. She can ruin two birthday cakes in a single day, turn the house upside down with only a box of apples, and make herself the center of attention anywhere, any time – with or without the paper Easter bunny ears she proudly dons for, say, a trip to the library.

And back in 1955, when she made her title-character debut in “Beezus and Ramona,” the little girl with big brown eyes and a talent for trouble was just getting started.

Over the next six decades, she would appear in seven more books, a Hollywood movie and libraries from coast to coast. Amy Poehler would celebrate her girl power. Generations of schoolchildren would embrace her as one of their own. Judy Blume characters would walk in her footsteps.

Beverly Cleary in 1971.

Beverly Cleary in 1971.

“Ramona was kind of ground-breaking,” says Diane Foote, curator of the Butler Children’s Literature Center at Dominican University.

“She wasn’t really that likable a character. The book was ‘Ramona the Pest,’ and she’s a pest – but somehow she resonated. She resonated among kids who had little sisters like that, and she resonated with kids who maybe also act like that themselves. Until then, you needed almost an heroic – or at really likable – main character, and this was really the first kids’ book to show kids in all their flaws, and all the good, the bad and the ugly. I think Judy Blume’s books come out of that. I think it opened the door for books such as ‘Harriet the Spy.'”

Not bad for a kid with a green-haired doll and questionable impulse control.

And not bad for Beverly Cleary, the beloved author of the Ramona books, the Henry Huggins books, “The Mouse and the Motorcycle,” and the Newbery Award-winning “Dear Mr. Henshaw.” Cleary, who turned 100 on April 12, has created books that have remained outrageously alive and effortlessly entertaining despite the transition from phone booths to cell phones, Elvis Presley to Taylor Swift, Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama.

What makes Cleary so great, so lasting, so likely to be read in the decades to come?

The simple answer is the kids she creates. Consider the debut of her first hero, Henry Huggins:

Henry Huggins was in the third grade. His hair looked like a scrubbing brush and most of his grown-up front teeth were in. He lived with his mother and father in a square white house on Klickitat Street.

We all know little girls as self-righteous as Ramona’s kindergarten classmate Susan, or big sisters as long-suffering as Beezus, or little sisters as full of life as Ramona herself:

She was not a slowpoke grown-up. She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting she had to find out what happened next.

Before she was a children’s book author, Cleary was a librarian leading story time in Yakima, Wash., and her books are a master class in the action and humor that that keeps a fidgety young audience transfixed. She’s never short on mischief, tension and surprise, and she pulls off great comic feats with the simplest of tools.

Want to see a bus turned into a whirlwind of chaos by a single skinny dog? Check out what Cleary does in “Henry Huggins” with just a steep hill, an unwieldy package and some apples. When those apples go skidding down the aisle, along with the standing passengers, you see the disaster with your own eyes, heard the thuds, feel the rising panic of the well-meaning dog.

Cleary spent her early years on a farm in Yamhill, Ore., then moved with her parents to Portland when she was 6. In first grade, she and was placed in the lowest reading group, the Blackbirds, according the Oregon Public Broadcasting documentary “Discovering Beverly Cleary.”

By third grade Cleary had caught up; she became an avid reader who dreamed of becoming a writer. She became a children’s librarian, but in 1949, when she was in her 30s, living with her husband, Clarence, in California, she retreated into a spare room, determined to finally write, according to the documentary.

Children's author Beverly Cleary turned 100 on April 12. MUST CREDIT: HarperCollins

Children’s author Beverly Cleary turned 100 on April 12. HarperCollins

“I expected to write about the maturing of a sensitive female,” she says in the documentary. But when the words didn’t come, she thought of a little boy who had confronted her when she was a librarian in Yakima, Wash.: “Where are the books about kids like us?” he said.

Soon she was writing “Henry Huggins.” She continued writing after she became the mother of twins – Marianne and Malcolm – in 1955.

Cleary, who lives in a California retirement home, recently told the Washington Post in a sharp and feisty interview that she intends to celebrate her birthday with a piece of carrot cake, “because I like it.” She’s a winner of the National Book Award and a National Medal of Art from the National Endowment of the Arts; in 2000, the Library of Congress gave her a Living Legend Award.

In her introduction to a recent edition of “Henry Huggins,” Judy Blume writes, “Beverly Cleary is the best. And … I’m not exaggerating. There’s no one else like her. She was my inspiration when I began to write. I’d go to the public library and come home with armloads of books. As I read them I’d divide them into piles. These books are boring. I don’t want to write boring books. Boring pile. These books are pretty good. Good pile. And then there were books by Beverly Cleary.”

Cleary’s books focus on the universals of childhood, and, even in the era of the Internet, they don’t seem dated. A modern kid might wonder about what a phone booth is or why children are saying “golly,” but no more than they might wonder about muggles and owl mail the first time they read Harry Potter. Everything makes sense in context, and Cleary writes with such marvelous clarity that even if you don’t know what a phone booth is, you know exactly what Henry is doing when he ducks into one to call his mom.

At Pleasantdale Elementary School in La Grange, teacher-librarian Maggie Smith says little kids still laugh at Ramona’s shenanigans and relate to her long-suffering sister Beezus.

“Oh Ms. Smith it’s so good,” they’ll say after they try their first Cleary book. “Do you have any more?”

Smith, who discovered Cleary in 1973, is happy to oblige.

“It’s a thrill,” she says. “And I do tell the kids: I remember reading her when I was little – and loving her.”

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Book review: ‘Lesser Beasts’ is a fascinating history of pigs Sun, 10 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 A slim book on a weighty topic, “Lesser Beasts” is the most fascinating history of pigs you’ll ever read.

Don’t say you won’t read a history of pigs. That just proves what author Mark Essig knows: Swine are automatically loathed – slandered as unclean, undisciplined, unloved.

“The anxiety about pigs starts with their omnivorous appetite,” he writes.

“In addition to acorns and rice hulls, pigs happily devour that which most disgusts us – rotting garbage, feces, carrion, even human corpses. Of all the animals commonly eaten by humans, the pig is the only one that will return the favor.”

831811_862741 Pig book.jpgIntrigued yet? Consider these bits of pig history:

Medieval French courts tried and convicted wayward pigs, as if a publicly lynched animal would send other beasts a message not to get carried away licking food crumbs off little children.

 Hungry, free-ranging colonial pigs helped drive American Indians east by ravaging their crops. They also competed with Indian women, waiting for low tides in order to dig for clams.

 Efficient pork-packing plants set the stage for Henry Ford’s assembly lines.

A pig’s snout is almost like an elephant’s trunk, “a miraculous fifth limb that allows the pig to react to its world in ways unknown to other hoofed mammals” (like rooting without moving its head). The pig is the most intelligent, and the most abused, farm animal.

In 19th century America, hogs were driven to market like cattle or sheep. Pig drives actually were bigger and went on longer than the fabled cattle drives. A “swineherd,” however, doesn’t have the same romantic ring as “cowboy” or “shepherd.”

The lesser-known pig drives, in fact, are what intrigued Essig, who grew up in St. Louis but now lives in Asheville, N.C. Asheville even has a sculpture of pigs, a historical marker of local hog drives. Can you herd a pig, the author wondered. With a doctorate in history, Essig knew how to find out.

Research into swine impressed him with the animals’ versatility, their ability to live in woods, under outhouses, in backyards. A Spanish explorer could drop a few pigs off on a Caribbean island and a couple years later there would be pork meals available for the next ship of explorers.

Essig found, though, that the popularity of pork has waxed and waned. And when it’s scorned, political or social reasons may be to blame: The wealthy view pork as a food for poor people.

“It’s a food resource that poor people could keep on their own,” he says, talking by phone from Asheville. “In the American South,” he writes, “the landless poor ran their hogs in the woods. And even in the heart of Victorian cities, pigs scavenged the streets and wound up on the dinner tables of the poor.”

Essig quotes Edmund Burke, who warned that if democracy prevailed “learning will be cast into the mire, and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude.”

“As the wealthy saw it,” Essig writes, “both the poor and their pigs bred quickly, lived in filth, and threatened the social order.”

Pigs, in fact, are extremely clever. And although they have no sweat glands and seek water and mud to cool off, they actually prefer not to sleep in excrement. “They don’t wallow in their own waste if they are in a big enough place,” Essig says.

But most pigs today are housed no better than caged hens, with no room to even turn around. “Hogs in confinement endure a litany of horrors,” he writes. Essig says he knows too much about these barbaric conditions to be comfortable buying supermarket pork. He does occasionally buy pork at local farmers markets.

Which leads to his explanations about why followers of some religions do not eat pork. Essig’s chapters on pork eating are complex, but here’s a short summary: Jews were told that to remain clean for God, they could eat animals that chewed their cud (and thus are vegetarian). Pigs, omnivores, do not chew cud and were considered unclean because they will eat meat with blood. Men who ate unclean flesh would contaminate the temple.

But many people in the arid Near East didn’t raise or eat pigs anyway, so “you might say that Jewish leaders banned something that didn’t need banning,” Essig writes. (The Jewish ban would influence the pork prohibition in another Abrahamic Near East religion, Islam.)

The ban didn’t became a major signifier of Jewish identity, however, until pork-eating Greeks conquered the Persian Empire, including Palestine, about 333 BC. Later, when Romans conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC, the rulers’ pork feasts helped reinforce divisions between Jews and Romans: “One people defined itself by rejecting pork, the other by embracing it. … Between them, Jews and Romans set the terms that would define the pig throughout the history of the West,” Essig writes.

He found so much to write about pig history that Essig concentrates on the Western world. But the Chinese love pork, so perhaps another author will pursue “Lesser Beasts in the Far East.”

For Essig, who is also the author of “Edison and the Electric Chair,” he’s not sure what his next project will be. But he’s reading more about animals, including another beast that domesticated itself and also has been both loved and vilified: the dog.

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Book review: ‘Vexation Lullaby’ goes on the road with a rock star of Dylanesque proportions Sun, 10 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 What is it about live music that inspires such fascination, loyalty and obsession? Why are audience members willing to pay so much for bad seats in overcrowded venues, looking for something new in songs they’ve heard a hundred times before? What drives some to put their own lives on hold as they follow a band from state to state and attempt to parse the hidden meanings within purposefully obscure lyrics? Portland writer Justin Tussing explores some of those questions in his new book, the tender, acerbic and carefully observed rock ‘n’ roll road novel, “Vexation Lullaby.”

At the center of the story sits 11-time Grammy Award-winner Jim Cross, variously called “a genius, a lovable misanthrope, a national treasure, a fraud.” At age 70, with more than 90 million records sold, the Dylanesque Cross is still on the road most nights of the year, although sometimes he can’t seem to remember why.

Justin Tussing

Justin Tussing

As the book opens, Peter Silver, a young physician dumped by his longtime girlfriend, sits adrift in an unsellable condo, when he receives a telephone call from none other than Jim Cross, who says he’s “trying to reach Judith Silver’s son.” Although unaware of any connection between the musician and his mother, Silver finds himself making a house call to the aging superstar’s hotel room.

Cross is worried about the hallucinations he’s experienced lately and some other mental lapses. The elusive performer tells Silver he’s worried about his mental acuity, saying, “I spent half my life trying to give people the slip, and now I’m scared some vital part of me will split without leaving a forwarding address.”

That impulsive house call has far-reaching repercussions for Silver. At first, his hospital is ready to fire him for breaching patient protocols, but thanks to the machinations of an attorney provided by Cross, Silver’s superiors are eventually more than eager to have him take a leave of absence. The young doctor is appointed to be “the first physician to embed with a touring rock band.”

Even as he considers the appointment a boondoggle (and the reader wonders about the likelihood of this plot turn), Silver accepts the job, and soon he’s getting to know all the other collaborators and hangers-on that accompany a musical living legend as he works the onstage magic that keeps his fans coming back for more. Also along for the ride is Cross’s irresponsible son, Alistair, condemned to live forever in Jim’s shadow and worried that Silver will push him further away from his dad.

If Silver can be counted among Cross’s least ardent fans, at the opposite end of the spectrum lies Arthur Pennyman. With an ex-wife in California and an estranged grown daughter in Tennessee, Pennyman has reduced his adult life to one basic fact; “…What sets me apart from the other seven billion souls on this earth is this: since July 27, 1988, I’ve attended every one of Jim Cross’s public performances.” Living mostly out of his ’96 Toyota Corolla Wagon, Pennyman posts setlists on his website ( and offers commentary on what the selection of songs and their order in the show might mean. When he spots Paul Silver, he wonders what a doctor’s presence on the tour might portend, and he is eventually compelled to search among Cross’s song titles for clues.831818_13966 VEXATION LULLABY cove.jpg

Tussing, the author of “The Best People in the World” and director of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program, provides a narrative set-up whose trajectory might seem not difficult to predict. Silver is the uptight professional, the homebody who needs to loosen up. Pennyman is the blinkered obsessive who needs to tighten his connections to the people who still care about him. Cross is the cryptic holy fool who might help both protagonists achieve their goals. The narrative alternates between Silver’s third-person/past tense point of view and Pennyman’s first-person present. (Jim Cross never takes center stage as a viewpoint character.) It’s a tidy set-up that highlights the contrasts in the characters and allows the story to develop its easy comic rhythm.

With an ear for nuanced dialogue and a steady hand when constructing scenes that reveal character, Tussing wisely refrains from letting the plot veer too far into either the mundane or the outlandish, presenting Silver and Pennyman on complementary narrative tracks without many intersections, their scenes leading to an encounter that’s restrained and realistic. Cross remains an enigma, but Tussing imbues him with enough humanity to prevent him from turning into a VH1 Behind the Music cliché.

At one point, Cross tells a journalist that “… being a fan is how we teach ourselves to love.” There’s something a little too glib about that observation, but it contains a nugget of truth. Fandom has its crazy side, but with the right song at the perfect time, moments of grace are possible.

Tussing’s novel is all about people learning to love, often failing, and occasionally succeeding. As its title suggests, “Vexation Lullaby” can be both prickly and soothing. Its graceful language, sharp character work and open heart bring home life on the road and leaves the reader satisfied with the trip.

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: When a ‘beast’ descends on an Irish backwater Sun, 10 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Edna O’Brien’s new novel opens in familiar territory for this author: a small village in western Ireland, a “freezing backwater that passes for a town and is named Cloonoila.” O’Brien grew up in County Clare in the 1940s and ’50s, and her first novel, “The Country Girls” – a sensation after being banned in Ireland in 1960 – followed its two heroines through a repressive, isolating village upbringing.

But “The Little Red Chairs,” O’Brien’s 23rd work of fiction, is set in the present day, and into this traditional setting she has introduced an exotic outsider, one described by the barkeep, when he turns up at the local pub, as looking “like a Holy man with a white beard and white hair, in a long black coat.” His name is Dr. Vlad Dragan, he claims to be from Montenegro and he will establish a clinic specializing in “Holistic Healing in Eastern and Western Disciplines.”

The villagers are fascinated by Vlad – at once skeptical and entranced – and none more so than the novel’s protagonist, Fidelma, a beautiful dark-haired shopkeeper in a childless and vaguely unhappy marriage to an older man. Soon Fidelma has begun an affair with the mysterious Vlad, hoping to conceive a baby, and imagining “she had broken through to the real him, the poet, the man of feeling, that she always knew to be there.”

Fidelma and the village will learn that they don’t know “Dr. Vlad” in the least. On an outing for a picnic and poetry reading, their hired bus is pulled over and Vlad taken into custody by police. He is, it turns out, the man called the “Beast of Bosnia,” and will be taken to The Hague and tried for war crimes committed during the Bosnian war of the 1990s. (The book’s title, explained only in a short note at the beginning, refers to the red chairs installed in Sarajevo to commemorate the 11,541 people – and particularly the children – killed in the siege of Sarajevo.) I happened to be reading “The Little Red Chairs” in the week when Radovan Karadžic was convicted of crimes against humanity by a United Nations Tribunal; it was impossible not to see the inspiration for O’Brien’s novel and the dark moral dilemmas – and outright violence – this terrible figure ushers into to her “backwater” Irish town. The aftermath, for Fidelma, is shattering.

The novel’s first half unfolds this tragedy through many points of view, including Fidelma’s, her husband’s, various villagers’, and even that of the foreign workers – “Burmese, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Slovakian, Polish” – who have found themselves in western Ireland for work. The second half follows Fidelma as she drifts through London, essentially exiled from her marriage and from Cloonoila. In a remarkable series of vignettes, Fidelma finds night work as a maid in an office building, room and board with an African immigrant and her daughter, a last confrontation with Vlad in The Hague and finally a kind of redemption at a center for refugees. We hear many of the refugee stories – which, in a lesser author’s hands, might have felt like frustrating digressions. But O’Brien weaves them into her larger theme, the forces of war and misery that monsters such as Vlad unleash – and how they ripple out into the world, touching even the most innocent of us.

“The Little Red Chairs” is a capacious novel full of exquisitely rendered miniatures – the frightened taxi driver who has been hired by the thugs who threaten Fidelma, the garrulous man from Mozambique who hires cleaners at the office building, the eccentric neighbor girl whom Fidelma befriends in London. O’Brien has long been recognized as a gifted short story writer – a collection of her best tales, “The Love Object,” was published to acclaim last year – and here she employs her gift for closely observed moments in the service of a novel that is deeply intimate but global in its vision.

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Signings, etc.: Thomas Moser celebrates the release of his fifth book Sun, 10 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Renowned furniture designer Thomas Moser will celebrate the release of his fifth book, “Legacy in Wood,” which reflects on his career and offers thoughts on his creativity, inspiration and design aesthetic, while providing an intimate look into the life and work of a pioneering craftsman. Moser will debut his newest chair design “The Auburn” and sign copies of his book.

WHEN: 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Thos. Moser, Handmade American Furniture Showroom, 149 Main St., Freeport


INFO:; 865-4519

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Book Review: “Spain in Our Hearts” tells the story of Americans fighting fascism before World War II Sun, 03 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 The Spanish civil war, which ran from 1936 to 1939, is most notable to historians for how it foreshadowed the horrors of World War II.

Yet few distant conflicts are so burned into our culture and consciousness.

Ernest Hemingway, who covered the war, made it the setting of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “the best goddamn book” he ever wrote. George Orwell, who fought in it, called his popular memoir “Homage to Catalonia.” Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” perhaps his most famous painting, captures the agony of that city being bombed to rubble. Robert Capa’s “The Falling Soldier” is iconic combat photography.

Visitors to the front included singer Paul Robeson, poet Langston Hughes and film star Errol Flynn.

Less well known are the 2,800 American men and women who defied U.S. policy and risked their lives to defend Spain’s democratically elected government. Avowedly leftist, these Republican fighters received antiquated weapons and other supplies from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Outnumbered and outgunned, they were defeated by Nationalist insurgents led by right-wing Gen. Francisco Franco. He was reinforced by modern tanks, fighter planes and troops from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, who used Spain to test weapons and tactics that soon would devastate Europe.

Battling isolationists at home, President Franklin D. Roosevelt carefully kept America neutral. But his refusal to allow arms sales to the embattled Republicans helped seal their fate.

The tragic story of the Americans in the doomed Lincoln Brigade – who bore some of the toughest fighting and heaviest casualties of any unit – comes vividly to life in Adam Hochschild’s compelling “Spain in Our Hearts,” a long-overdue book that explores this conflict.

Hochschild cautions he hasn’t written a history of the war or even of the Lincoln Brigade. He instead focuses on a handful of Americans to tell the larger story of why Spain loomed so large at the time.

Mining letters, unpublished memoirs and other archives, Hochschild recounts how Americans like Bob and Marion Merriman, graduate students from Berkeley, were drawn to what they considered a utopian society and what they rightly saw as the opening round in a global battle against fascism.

Tall and taciturn, Merriman was a rare volunteer with military training and he rose to help lead the Lincolns, as they were known, in combat. Hemingway supposedly used him as a model for Robert Jordan, the American hero in his novel.

Merriman disappeared in April 1938 during a chaotic Republican retreat. Reports suggest he was captured and executed by Nationalists. He was one of about 800 Americans who died in Spain.

Like most of them, the Merrimans were communists, an ideology that lured many Americans in the turmoil of the Depression. If their politics have failed the test of time, the actions of the Lincolns – and an estimated 35,000 other foreign fighters – have endured. They went to war against Hitler while Europe’s leaders sought to appease him.

“There seemed a moral clarity about the crisis in Spain,” Hochschild writes. “Rapidly advancing fascism cried out for defiance; if not here, where?”

Many Lincolns shared idealism verging on naivete. Once they had hiked across the snowy Pyrenees from France, they often marched to war without uniforms, maps or modern weapons.

Lois Orr, who went to Republican-held Barcelona from Kentucky with her husband, Charles, in 1936, exalted in a letter home that she was “living the revolution” in a workers’ paradise where “anything was possible, a new heaven and a new earth were being formed.”

Yet she didn’t speak Spanish, barely acknowledged the privations around her, and was given a luxurious apartment, confiscated from the German consul, that most Spaniards could never hope to attain.

The Americans came from nearly every state and all walks of life: professors and union organizers, coal miners and a former governor of Ohio. About 90 were African American. About a third came from New York. Close to half were Jewish.

“For us it wasn’t Franco,” wrote one veteran. “It was always Hitler.”

What to make of the era’s Republicans? They opened all the prisons in the areas they controlled, releasing violent criminals as well as political prisoners.

Hochschild, thankfully, recounts a leader who died in the battle for Madrid after “murmuring the anarchist lament, ‘Too many committees!’ ”

Some Americans had their passports seized when they got home or were targeted in the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s despite fighting honorably in World War II. Some played key roles in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

The heartbreak is what lingers longest in “Spain in Our Hearts.” The title comes from Albert Camus. Men learned in Spain, the French novelist wrote sadly, that “one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.”

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Book review: In ‘One-in-a-Million Boy,’ the title character is gone, but not fully Sun, 03 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 The boy is dead. Readers learn that on the third page of Monica Wood’s new book, “The One-in-a-Million Boy.” They will, however, never learn his name. He is referred to simply as “the boy.”

Yet he is a present and unifying force throughout this intricately woven novel, which tells the story primarily of Ona Vitkus, a 104-year-old Lithuanian woman who lives alone in Portland, and Quinn Porter, a guitar-playing dreamer past his prime and the forever-perplexed father of the Boy.

The boy is both there and not there, in many dimensions. He is present in the richly textured backstory of a run of Saturdays he spent with Miss Vitkus to fulfill a Scout commitment to perform community service. He is present, and yet not quite, in an intriguing set of tape recordings he made interviewing Ona about her life for a school project. He is not there, but paradoxically not-quite not there, in lists of Guinness records he kept on birds, travel, family, patience, amazing feats and more.

He is also there, but not-quite not there, in the entire unfolding of the story of how Ona and Quinn forge an offbeat friendship when, after the boy dies, Quinn comes to her house to fulfill his son’s service commitment. And he is, as well, there and not there as a wonderfully drawn actual character, a boy with Asperger syndrome-like behaviors, with a fixation on world records and facts about the world he gathers and recites in sets of 10.

The boy rises in the story like an otherworldly being, yet at the same time he is a thoroughly real and lovable presence.

Both Ona and Quinn feel there is something “wrong” and puzzling about the boy. But Ona comes to adore him, his unfiltered questions and responses in their exchanges, his unbeguiling, plainspoken truthfulness, prompting her to reveal her life secrets to him, secrets she has hidden for decades.

Quinn, conversely, never becomes comfortable in his son’s presence and cannot manage to establish a connection with him. In one immensely painful scene, Quinn tries to share his love of music and guitars with the boy but misses by a million miles:

” ‘You hear the solo coming in now,’ Quinn tells the boy as they sit listening to Eric Clapton. ‘Listen to that call and response.’ He shook his head in wonderment, as he always did, but it felt, again for the first time, like a learned gesture, and he was beginning to blame the boy for ruining one of his trustworthy sources of bliss. ‘It’s a conversation he’s having with himself. You hear that? It’s like something rising out of the goddamn sea. Just listen.’ ”

“The One-in-a-Million Boy” is Maine native Monica Wood’s most ambitious book yet. It is, like all her stories, about love – love not given, love given generously, love not understood and love as simple and uncomplicated as a songbird’s call.

It is an intricately layered story, though some plot threads in the latter half of the book seem unnecessary. But “The One-in-a-Million Boy” is provocative, and it evokes Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” for its twin story lines and the theme of endless searching for an anchor point.

The ending is a deeply affecting surprise. It peals with the notion that love and understanding and connection are not always recognized, but that they can still be present in an unseen dimension. That possibility should never be discounted.

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. Smith can be reached via his website:

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Signings, etc. Sun, 03 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Author Russell Heath will talk about his novel “Broken Angels” during a Tea and Talk event hosted by the Woman’s Literary Union of Androscoggin County. Set in Alaska, this thriller tells the story of a young woman coming to grips with the murder of her estranged mother.

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Woman’s Literary Union, Foss Mansion, 19 Elm St., Auburn

HOW MUCH: $5, members free

INFO: 783-5630;

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Book review: ‘The Queen of the Night’ a blockbuster in decadent detail Sun, 03 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Opera buffs will be intrigued by Alexander Chee’s second novel, “The Queen of the Night.” The title is a reference to the coloratura soprano in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and by extension her devilishly difficult vocal music.

But, while the fan will not be disappointed, “The Queen of the Night” is much more than a celebration of the high-strung excesses that popularly accompany opera, as was, for instance, James McCourt’s delightful 1975 novel, “Mawrdew Czgowchwz” (pronounced “Mardu Gorgeous”). Snatches of “Faust,” “Carmen” and “Il Trovatore” are to be enjoyed throughout, but besides that, the book is as full-blooded as a blockbuster out of the late 19th century, which is, not coincidentally, when the action takes place.

The reader lives through the waning years of France’s Second Empire, the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War, the calamity of the Paris Commune and the rise of the Third Republic and the belle epoque. Chee recreates these years with considerable aplomb, but as with “opera lit,” he transcends the genre of “historical fiction.”

“The Queen of the Night” is a fabulous saga of an indomitable woman, an orphan from the pioneer farm country of Minnesota who becomes the toast of Paris as the greatest opera singer of her age.

Inevitably her hubristic rise is followed by “The Undoing,” as the book’s final section is called. As to whether this is also a redemption, Chee lets the reader decide. As he put it at the very beginning, is it the “fulfillment of a dream or a trap for the soul”?

Chee, who grew up partly in Cape Elizabeth, introduces Lilliet Berne as she dresses for a ball in Paris. The dress, from one of the city’s best dressmakers, is a disaster. “The fichu seemed to clasp me from behind as if alive – how had I not noticed?” By the end of the first page, the writer has established his authority on the customs and tastes of the times, as well as demonstrated an eye for descriptive detail ranging from a skirt’s flounces to the light that chandeliers reflect off the “ancient mirrors” of the Luxembourg Palace.

All of it flows off the page without the slightest sense of being a lecture on a particularly grandiose historical period. And at the same time, he has created a compelling narrative drive, essential for a book of nearly 600 pages.

It is revealed at the ball that someone has written a novel with various episodes that have a more than coincidental counterpart in Lilliet’s real life. Now a mysterious composer wants to turn it into an opera in which she will play the leading role.

Most of the book consists of flashbacks as Lilliet strives to find out who from her past is being indiscreet. She has four likely candidates – two men and two women – each of whom has had some kind of hold over her. In the end, the diva finds she is inextricably caught in a spider’s web of love, court intrigue and international espionage.

While there are no whips, her bondage to a German tenor is as remorseless as O’s in the erotic 1954 novel “Story of O.” Having found her in a high-class brothel, the tenor makes Lilliet into a star and, in so doing, becomes obsessed with controlling her. He will only be satisfied by their singing a particular opera together on the Paris stage. (There are shades of Gatsby’s green light, as he keeps trying to reinvent their past.)

Lilliet’s life is ever poised on the border between reality and opera, and the reader’s task akin to solving a Rubik’s cube. As the stories from the past are overlaid on each other, they leave a trail of events large and small that eventually will interlock. How Chee manages to keep them all in sight is a miracle. More than once I found myself flipping back to find a half-remembered event that was suddenly taking on new meaning.

What makes Lilliet Berne such a compelling heroine is the tension in her situation. Never able to fully free herself from the straitjacket (and danger) of her time’s social and political mores, her inner conviction that she is better than all of them is never in doubt.

While she frets and fights, the reader dines with the Verdis (on risotto cooked by Giuseppe himself), plays theatrical games with Georges Sand and lives for a while with the great soprano Pauline Viardot, in a ménage à trois with her husband and Ivan Turgenev. It’s like going to a grand opera; or reading Proust. Take your pick.

Thomas Urquhart is the author of “For the Beauty of the Earth: Birding, Opera and Other Journeys.”

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Book review: ‘Carry Me’ weaves past, present and place for a story of many layers Sun, 20 Mar 2016 08:00:00 +0000 “Carry Me,” the latest novel by part-time Mainer Peter Behrens, is both poetry and cartography. The narrative layers themes on top of one another, phenomena that could have symbols on a map key: war, dreams, nationhood, decomposition, light. The story is told by Billy Lange but is, as he says, “the story of a young woman, Karin Weinbrenner. Her story is not mine, but sometimes her story feels like the armature my life has wound itself around.”

Billy is born in 1909 on the Isle of Wight, and “Carry Me” takes us through his life until he is an adult, living in Canada. Karin is a childhood friend and later Billy’s lover, daughter of his parents’ employers. Their lives and the lives of their parents are marked by the impact of the First and Second World War. “Birthplaces, nationality – such details have consequences in this story.” War, and its justifications, require that readers follow the complex intersections of birthplace, ethnicity, religion, and language, details that lead to Billy’s father’s internment, Karin’s father’s death, and Billy and Karin’s ultimate passage from Germany to the United States in 1938.


The story is told in patchwork, beginning as Billy’s reflection and then sliding back and forth between 1938 and earlier years, titled by person and place: Irish Sea, when Billy and his mother travel to Ireland to live with her father; Mick, Billy’s childhood friend in Ireland who shows up again later in the story, a horseman on the Isle of Wight; The Danubian Oddball, the story of when Karin and Billy hear Hitler speak in 1927. The narrative includes a collection of documents interspersed between chapters. There are excerpts from Billy’s grandmother’s diary, records from ship logs, letters sent between characters, and pieces of Karin’s notebook, which she titled “Kinds of Light.”

This notebook is Karin’s own map, memories of place characterized by the quality of light. It also contains excerpts from her reading, including the books of Karl May, a German writer who penned American Westerns. The American West threads its way through the story, beginning when Karin and Billy meet as children and Karin, already entranced by May’s stories, gifts Billy her bow and arrow. The setting of May’s books, “El Llano Estocado,” becomes a world of dreams, where both Billy and Karin build futures.

It’s only later, years later, driving through that Staked Plain country, that Billy notes, “Of course there really is no country of dreams that also exists outside of the dreams.” Behrens, who lives part-time in Brooklin, likely, has his own map of dream country. He grew up in Montreal but in his 20s spent time working on ranches in the Canadian Rockies and leading white water trips on the Rio Grande. He spends a few months each year in Marfa, Texas.

In this novel, Behrens has mined truths so skillfully that in reading they can slip by unnoticed; they’re never glaring or contrived. They leave the reader with a feeling Billy describes as he’s driving across Germany: “I experienced for the first time the tranquility and poise that most of my life has been accessible only in liminal space, at speed, on highways across open country, occasionally in airports. The pure air of transition.”


Great writing keeps readers on this threshold, in liminal space, wanting to know and understand more than literature or life will allow, anxious for the next big lesson. “Carry Me” is full of this kind of searching, characters looking for a way to map their lives against war and love and change. In a beautiful scene on the Isle of Wight, a young Billy and his mother examine atlases. They find the birthplace of Billy’s father and then of Billy, in each place Billy said, “my mother would prick a tiny, discreet hole with the tip of a sharpened pencil… When she pricked the map I could almost feel the pencil point’s sharp little nudge. Here you are. Here. Here. Here.”

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: ‘President’s Salmon’ combines White House fish tales, history of species Sun, 20 Mar 2016 08:00:00 +0000 In July 1988, I spent a morning in Bangor on the Penobscot River with members of the Penobscot Salmon Club, learning about the problems dams create for fish. I also learned about the tradition of presenting the U.S. president with the first salmon caught each year. But I don’t remember them telling me that the president that same year actually had received the second one. As Catherine Schmitt recounts in “The President’s Salmon,” the first fish was hooked by a logger who refused: “President Reagan just cut my income in half,” he said. “He didn’t need my salmon, too.”

These annual offerings to a selection of presidents give a book on salmon restoration an interesting backbone. Alternating chapters begin with a vignette that combines angling on a still-wintery Penobscot – the season originally opened April 1 – with the prevalent tastes and preoccupations of the White House’s incumbent. They segue nicely into the epoch’s socioeconomic and political issues as they affected fish and river.

The Maine tradition started in 1912, when Bangor Republicans had just rallied behind the re-election of William Howard Taft. “Sending the eleven-pound, silvery-coated fish to Washington,” they decided, “would ‘contribute to the city’s need of honor and respect.'”

The custom ended with a botched attempt to present the first fish to Vice President Al Gore. After three months of bureaucratic runaround, it was eaten – in Bangor, not Washington – by the angler and his dog. Two years later, only catch-and-release was allowed on the Penobscot, and after the Atlantic salmon was listed as endangered, no fishing at all.


Even when the salmon did reach D.C., the ceremony did not always go as planned. Schmitt regales us with some comic examples. Before the formalities could begin in 1929, his over-enthusiastic cook had already decapitated Herbert Hoover’s salmon. It was reconstituted with cotton and needle and thread, but as the photographers snapped away, “the cotton kept oozing out of the fish.” Sixty years later, then-Governor Joseph Brennan found himself struggling to hold on to a “wet and thawing fish” while its “watery blood” dripped onto the carpet of the Roosevelt Room.

Interspersed with the politics, chapters – named for different stretches of the river as it descends from headwaters to the sea – explore more ancient history and ecology. Schmitt demonstrates a pretty turn of phrase. I will never again think of freshwater mussels as anything but “peeling bronze coins half-buried in mud.”

Her twin narratives branch out into a plethora of fascinating accounts. Besides the history and effects of damming the river, the reader gets a brief primer on, for instance, fly-fishing (“a gentle art”); other first-fish traditions (I had no idea that “Westminster Abbey is rooted in salmon fishing”); and the canning industry, pioneered by Mainers initially on the West coast canning Pacific salmon.

As a measure of the author’s research, “The President’s Salmon” includes 40 pages of notes, not to mention five pages of bibliography. However, the accumulation of so much information comes at a price. From time to time, the sheer quantity overwhelms the book’s flow and, therefore, the reader. As with all things environmental, there are no easy dividing lines, and in this case breaking them up into antiphonal sections often creates confusion.

Schmitt also has a tendency toward over-arching statements that ring curiously hollow. After the Water Quality Act of 1965 (Ed Muskie’s signature achievement), she writes, “the real clean-up had to wait; for the rest of the decade, federal attention was turned to the jungles of Southeast Asia.” But that decade ended in Earth Day, 1970, and Southeast Asian jungles continued to loom well into the next.

And one can only wonder in what way the tradition of the president’s fish “kept alive a vital connection between people and the surroundings that sustain them.”

“The President’s Salmon” comes to a surprisingly abrupt end. Most of the old Bangor anglers “doubt they will ever fish again.” So crucial in fighting the dams, this constituency parted company with conservationists over listing the Atlantic salmon as endangered; exploration of that divide would have been interesting. As it is, the 10-year old Penobscot River Restoration Project, surely the river’s last best hope, gets remarkably short shrift. It is certainly not Catherine Schmitt’s fault that success on the Penobscot remains elusive, but I wish she had left a clearer sense of where, for better or worse, she sees the effort headed.

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.: Barton Seaver at Rising Tide Cafe in Damariscotta Sun, 20 Mar 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Author and chef Barton Seaver will talk about and provide samples of recipes included in his new book, “Superfood Sea Greens” at a tasting reception. Seaver’s book touts the benefits of eating greens harvested from the ocean that may become the next big superfood craze. After a Q&A, Seaver will sign copies of the book.

WHEN: 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Friday

WHERE: Rising Tide Cafe, 323 Main St., Damariscotta


INFO: 563-5556,

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Book Review: ‘American Character’ elucidates opposing forces at work in American politics Sun, 13 Mar 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Colin Woodard’s previous book, “American Nations,” made the current state of American politics at least somewhat comprehensible. Who has not wondered why people from one part of the United States, as intelligent, educated and informed as those from another, come to diametrically opposed conclusions on how the country should be run? By subdividing America into 11 different “nations,” Woodard made a persuasive case that it all goes back to how and from whence the early colonists came to these shores. The book was an eye-opener.

Now comes “American Character,” in which the same author looks at the same “American nations” through the lens of two opposing – and defining – values: “Individual Liberty and the Common Good,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. A healthy democracy needs to balance the two; either one alone leads to disaster.


Colin Woodard

Communism and fascism are cited as the result of unalloyed collectivism. As for social Darwinism (when individualism runs amok), today’s “failed states” qualify, Woodard says, but he finds a more compelling example closer to home. Deliberate minimization of restraints on individuals (at least, the elite) was the hallmark of the landed gentry who settled Virginia and the bullies from Britain’s sugar-growing colony in Barbados who established the same ruthless order in the Deep South.

“Political conflict in the United States is often said to be between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives,’ or between ‘elitists’ and ‘hardworking Americans,’ or between Democrats and Republicans,” writes Woodard, who is state and national affairs writer for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. But such tags have routinely swapped places in balancing the rights of individuals and the public weal. More relevant are the traditional differences in the “character” of each community.

The social democratic norms that work in Scandinavia will always be a poor fit for the United States because there is no single “American” character. Rather, says Woodard, one political side tends to increase its power until it overreaches and triggers a backlash, thereby setting up the other side to repeat the process. In this endless seesaw, the various “nations” realign themselves from time to time. However, the poles remain steadfastly represented by the descendants of community-minded Puritan Yankees and Southern libertarians.

America is “far too individualistic to tolerate social democracy, let alone socialism,” Woodard admits. And yet, he is much too loyal a communitarian “Yankee” to make any bones about his political affiliation. The current crop of “radical libertarians” are the “greatest present threat to individual freedom and America’s world-changing, 250-year experiment with liberal democracy.”

“American Character” adds a further prism to the public-private spectrum. “The struggle for freedom is not bilateral, but instead triangular,” Woodard writes. “The participants are the state, the people, and the would-be aristocracy or oligarchy. Liberal democracy … relies on keeping these three forces in balance.”

The history of that struggle is a big-dipper ride through four centuries as first collectivists then individualists take their turn at managing the country.


Lurking just below the surface are always mirrors reflecting our own times. As frontiersman Andrew Jackson deposes the patrician line of the founders, one can only think of Donald Trump. “The duties of all public offices,” said Jackson, “are so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance.”

In absorbing a colossal amount of research, Woodard employs an understated style with a nicely sly edge when needed. In the predominantly Hispanic Southwest, “government is seen as an agent of the common good, even if there is little expectation that it will be able to perform its role without prejudice in favor of the region’s elites.” Of the meaning of freedom to the capitalists of the Gilded Age: “People, in short, had to remain free to be exploited.”

The dialectic tension that is the subject of “American Character” has a metaphysical counterpart in the balance between generalization and the exceptions that may or may not prove the rule.

Woodard somewhat overbills American exceptionalism in his comparisons with other nations. Certainly the French, with their famous 350 or more cheeses, would be surprised to see themselves held up as a model of national uniformity. To say that at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, “voters were having a hard time distinguishing between the two parties” – and to confirm it with a quote from Ralph Nader – is, in my view, harsh. As is calling Obama a “liberal Republican … more akin to Eisenhower and the first Bush … than Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Johnson,” a statement that is similarly backed up by another polemicist, Cornel West.

But such disagreements are matters of degree. Colin Woodard’s essential thesis is vital to understand. It’s not his fault that it cannot explain the silliness of this year’s primary season.

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: ‘Penny Poet’ the story of an unyielding artist and his changing city Sun, 13 Mar 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Katherine Towler’s new memoir is more than an account of her odd friendship with Portsmouth, New Hampshire, poet Robert Dunn. Although she paints a vivid portrait of the eccentric and intensely committed writer, Towler also recollects a New England seaport in transition. By juxtaposing the steadfast poet and the transforming small city, she asks compelling questions about the longing for creative solitude and the need for community.

Having spent her post-college years moving from one location on the Eastern Seaboard to another, Towler, author of the novels “Snow Island,” “Evening Ferry” and “Island Light,” arrived in Portsmouth in 1991 wondering whether she would finally be able to put down roots.

Writing is her life, she says, “the reason for getting up in the morning and going to bed at night, the justification for any number of choices that sometimes baffled” her friends and family. Towler desperately wanted to be a novelist, and she was obsessed with “an intense desire for months of uncharted time and hours of unbroken silence.”

While exploring the rough-edged but low-key colonial city, Towler kept running into a shabbily dressed, lone walker who barely acknowledged her as they passed.


Katherine Towler

She writes, “This strange little man moving like a leaf nudged by the wind, his body bent in such a stoop that he appeared not much more than five feet in height, though he was clearly taller, belonged among these streets that had once been cow paths. He struck me as a figure, like so much in the landscape of Portsmouth, out of another century.”

This anachronistic individual, whom Towler suspected to be homeless, was Robert Dunn, the renter of a second-floor room on Towler’s street. Dunn, she learned, was noted for producing tiny volumes of verse and selling them for a penny a piece. Give him a dime and he insisted on returning nine cents in change.

Dunn worked afternoons as a custodian at The Athenaeum, a private library on the town square, but few folks in town knew much about his personal background. He lived without a phone, car or computer and appeared to take sustenance mainly from coffee and cigarettes.

As Dunn and Towler struck up a tentative, prickly friendship, she began to glimpse the uncompromising power of his poetry (many examples of which are included in this memoir). After Dunn was appointed Portsmouth’s first poet laureate, she came to understand how well respected his work was and how many people cared about his welfare.

She writes, “I treasured Robert the way many people in Portsmouth treasured him, as someone who helped to make our town unique and, walking the streets as he did, gave them character.”

The connection between the poet and his environment is central to Towler’s book. She writes, “He made Portsmouth his canvas and for thirty years covered these streets with an eye to picking up every unexpected treasure, every small revelation, every window into other lives.”

Towler provides her own deft portrait of Portsmouth at a time before property values skyrocketed and long-time local businesses gave way to hotels and upscale chain stores. There’s an elegiac quality to her descriptions, and she carefully leads the reader to an understanding of how difficult it would be now to maintain a lifestyle as spartan as Dunn’s, when housing is less affordable, inexpensive food is scarce and fellow citizens are more distracted and too harried to lend a hand – or even notice the need itself.

She writes, “What is happening in Portsmouth is no different from what is happening in thriving urban centers on either coast of America: the widening gap between rich and poor and the homogenization of our public spaces, with money, not a shared vision of community life, as the driving force behind it all.”

Dunn needed solitude, but time spent alone on the fringes of society often comes at a cost. Beset by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Dunn eventually found his health on an ominous trajectory. He pulled himself through one hospital stay after another, but was only able to do so with the help of friends and acquaintances, especially Towler.

Towler and Dunn’s relationship didn’t always run smoothly. He resented many of her intrusions into his private life, while at the same time making demands on her time and attention. She admired his uncompromising attitude toward his creative output, while chafing under the responsibility of looking after him.


She writes, “He let me in, but only a little, and only because he had no choice. In the end, I was someone indefinable to either of us, part family, part nurse, part surprised bystander.”

It is through this push and pull between vulnerability and self-reliance that Towler brings Dunn to vivid life on the page. With illuminating anecdotes and clear-eyed observations, she lets the reader see how he both celebrated his art and maintained a private space within himself. The scenes at the end of his life – as he chose to accept the inevitable with as few compromises as possible – are especially poignant, without drifting into sentimentality.

As Towler discovers, real life doesn’t provide the kinds of neat answers fiction allows. Dunn’s story remains, she writes, “riddled with certain mysteries, just as his life remains a book of blank pages on which he left only the poems.”

Those poems alone might have sufficed as a legacy, but “The Penny Poet of Portsmouth” succeeds in helping keep Dunn’s artistry alive.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 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.: Jamie Rooney at York Public Library Sun, 13 Mar 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Author Jamie Rooney will discuss her new book, “Black to Blue,” her life story of growing up in poverty, surrounded by extreme substance and physical abuse, and how she turned things around, pursuing a career in law enforcement and helping others find direction and achievement against the odds. Copies of the book will be available for purchase and signing.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: York Public Library, 15 Long Sands Road


INFO:; 363-2818

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Book Review: Plot aplenty in ‘Truth Beat,’ the latest Joe Gale mystery Sun, 06 Mar 2016 09:00:00 +0000 “Truth Beat” is Maine author Brenda Buchanan’s third Joe Gale mystery. It starts not with a bang – those come later – but with more of an audible gasp when Father Patrick Doherty of St. Jerome’s Catholic Church is found dead in the rectory garden. Gale, a reporter for the Portland Daily Chronicle, is fast on the scene after getting a call from one of his most reliable sources, 80-year-old Stella Rinaldi with eyes like a hawk, about an ambulance that had pulled up at the church just after 6 that morning.

News spreads fast in the small suburban community of Riverside, just outside Portland, Maine. When Joe drops by the Rambler, the town diner and gossip hub, to gather reactions to the news for his story, details are still scant, but speculation abounds. A heart attack is the general consensus. That speculation, however, shifts when another source, one of the first responders who had been on the scene, later provides Joe with the information that an empty pill bottle was found in the priest’s pocket. When the state toxicology report comes back, however, an overdose is ruled out. Instead, the death becomes a homicide investigation, as the autopsy shows blunt force trauma to the head as the cause of death.

Even before this point in the story, the author begins to weave intriguing threads of possibility. The most significant is grounded in the fact that Father Doherty, though beloved by most in the community, was something of a pariah in the diocese for publicly repudiating the bishop a decade earlier for the church’s paltry response to the widening priest sexual abuse scandal. It won Doherty no favors among the church hierarchy; instead, he was put in charge of the wrenching consolidation of parishes in southern Maine brought on by declining membership and escalating legal judgments stemming from the scandal.

Digging into the private details of the priest’s life, Joe learns that Father Patrick was apparently involved in fencing religious artifacts from the decommissioned churches through contacts he’d made with Boston mobsters. He also learns that Father Patrick was a member of a group of mostly middle-aged men who gathered regularly to share stories and support one another. The group, known as “Frig It” – a derivative of “Friends Will Get You Through” – kept communal secrets, including the fact that Father Patrick was even a member.

Slowly, Joe begins to learn more of the hidden truth and rumors about Father Patrick’s life, including that he was possibly gay. This gets coupled with rabble-rousing street protests against the church, spearheaded by an outsider wing-nut who has come to town. Speculation about a relationship that Father Patrick may have been involved in thickens the mystery.

The arc of the investigation is further complicated by a series of bombings around the local high school. Could the death of the priest and the bombings be linked in some way?

The premises of the story are intriguing and compelling, and the plotting is handled fairly well. Problematic from the start, however, is character development, greatly compounded by the large cast of primary and secondary characters. Fifteen different characters are introduced in the first two chapters, with little or no substantive, memorable detail defining many of them. The author also fails to adequately develop the relationship between Joe and his girlfriend, Christie Pappas, a waitress at the local diner. The chief purpose she seems to serve in the story is to introduce the role of her teenage son, Theo, who proves seminal to resolving a central tenet of the plot.

Developing a series based on a recurring central character such as Joe Gale always presents a challenge: how to ensure that each installment can stand on its own without being redundant. While the background on characters in “Truth Beat” is sparse, hobbling the story’s momentum, the fundamental plot kept me reading.

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 best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver “in support of a literature of social change.” Smith can be reached via his website:

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