Books – Press Herald Sun, 25 Jun 2017 19:09:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 In ‘The Girl of the Lake,’ Bill Roorbach does many things at once Sun, 25 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Short story collections are famously unreliable. Often they start well, then peter out, or they never manage to get off the ground. Unevenness is a common complaint. Bill Roorbach’s new collection, “The Girl of the Lake,” suffers from a problem that most authors could only wish for: So many of the stories are standouts that the others, which are merely strong, seem a bit lackluster by comparison. This is a fitting commentary on the author’s recent work. Larger-than-life characters and scenarios are his stock-in-trade. He writes in a palette of intense hues. Not that ordinary life gets short shrift, by any means. Roorbach imbues dailiness with a lusty energy. It just can’t compete with the operatic mien and scale of his bigger stories. It’s no coincidence that one of his bestselling novels is titled “Life Among Giants.”

In the current collection, the stories range widely enough in style and type that one could reasonably mistake it for an anthology of work by various authors. Or perhaps Bill Roorbach is a pseudonym for the multiple personalities that inhabit this versatile writer. Fact is, this book is all over the place, literally. Its narratives roam from Maine to Maui, from Ibiza to Belfast, with storylines as diverse as their locales. Roorbach moves deftly among different genres – adventure, romance and coming-of-age; suspense, drama and satire.

In “The Tragedie of King Lear,” a summer theater group breathes new life into a retiree still haunted by the loss of his wife. In “Princesa,” a famous actress turns heads and hearts at an over-the-top resort. In “Murder Cottage,” an old crime scene becomes the unlikely backdrop for an offbeat midlife romance.

In each story, Roorbach depicts his characters and scenes in lavish, sometimes excessive detail, showing them inside and out, bringing us into their world. Then he’ll insert one of his grand summations, a compiling of essence. Of a teen’s arrival at his grandmother’s house, Roorbach writes, “She smelled of cookies and lotion and woodsmoke and patted at his back as he patted at hers, hugged him longer than he’d been hugged since he was five, pushed him away to look at him, drew him back in.”

Roorbach is at his best when he navigates the often slippery terrain of human relations. Mating rituals, especially, provide ample fodder. In “Some Should,” a widowed pastor and a divorcée link up through an online dating site, then decide to meet. Their repartee, with its volleys of guile and deceit, is part rom-com, part psychodrama. And the writing is so vivid that readers will be hard put to turn away. Roorbach has reinvented the short story as page-turner.

“The Girl of the Lake” is a poignant, complicated, smart, sexy book, big-hearted in ways that matter. Roorbach is a keen observer of people, with enough fellow-feeling to go around. He confers a respect and humanity on his characters, regardless of their conduct. The only wonder is why this esteemed Maine author isn’t more widely known. In a state that boasts some of the nation’s top literary names, Roorbach surely ranks among the best.

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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Danger and cultural intrigue in North Korea drive ‘In the Shadow of the Sun’ Sun, 25 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Peaks Islander Anne Sibley O’Brien is an esteemed children’s book author and illustrator with numerous titles and awards to her credit. With “In the Shadow of the Sun,” her first novel, she writes for middle-grade readers while keeping to her longstanding themes dealing with multicultural diversity.

“In the Shadow of the Sun” is the story of 12-year-old Mia Andrews, who, along with her older brother, Simon, accompanies her father to North Korea on a special tour. Her father is involved in providing food relief to the starving nation. Mia is South Korean, adopted by the Andrews family as a baby, and returns to the peninsula for the first time on the tour. Her overwhelming observation is that here, “everyone is Korean… Being surrounded by Korean people was surreal… no one noticed her,” unlike back home in Connecticut, where she always gets stared at. In North Korea, it is her father and brother who stand out and garner suspicious looks.

The book is described as a “political escape thriller.” Early in their tour, Mia is presented with a special gift by a North Korean official but told not to open it until they return to America. In the privacy of her hotel room, however, she can’t resist. She opens it to find an elaborate wooden box. Inside the wooden box she finds a North Korean cell phone. Fond of electronic games, she powers it up and starts playing a version of one of her favorite games. Suddenly, the game aborts and photos appear on screen. Horrible photos of oppressive conditions in North Korean work camps, photos of starving and dead people, including children and babies.

Later, while she and her father and brother tour prominent national sites, she takes her brother aside to show him the photos. From a distant remove from the group, they witness the sudden arrest and abduction of their father. Knowing that they are in grave danger, too, they flee.

Thus begins their high-stakes, daring journey to safety. Compounding the difficulty is that the two siblings are estranged, Simon angry at his sister for supposedly ratting him out for a secret trip he took to attend a concert in New York City. He blames her for his having to come on the trip with their father. Simon is surly and dismissive. Usually acquiescent and deferential to her brother, Mia struggles to assert herself. Slowly, she comes to see herself in a new light. She recognizes the power that comes in being the one who blends in, who speaks Korean from years of classes back home, and because of her keen curiosity about the culture and geography of the country, she’s the one who is critical to their survival.

Anne Sibley O’Brien

“In the Shadow of the Sun” is a compelling thriller gauged to young readers, but is also an incisive and insightful portrait of a closed society that is largely unknown to the world. O’Brien uses short, parallel stories interspersed throughout of ordinary North Korean youth, providing quick portraits of the struggles, hardships and fears of living under repressive totalitarian rule. The portraits are fascinating and illuminating, never didactic or disruptive. O’Brien’s book mirrors the best of mainstream fiction in terms of its power to expand worldviews on complex situations and issues.

The story is well researched, but also comes somewhat naturally to O’Brien, as she spent several years growing up South Korea when her parents worked there as medical missionaries. She also has an adopted daughter who is Korean American. She brings her background and her ample gifts as a storyteller to her first novel, creating a stirring, satisfying read.

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 and was 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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U.S. attorney fired by Trump working on book Thu, 22 Jun 2017 23:21:22 +0000 NEW YORK — Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney fired by President Trump, has a book deal.

Alfred A. Knopf announced Thursday that Bharara was working on a book about the “search for justice” that would come out early in 2019. Bharara was U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for 7 1/2 years. His prominent cases included the conviction of Sheldon Silver, former Speaker of the New York State Assembly.

Bharara was fired abruptly by Trump in March and has since said the president tried to cultivate a relationship with him, potentially compromising his independence.

– From news service reports

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Painter Linden Frederick will talk about ‘Night Stories’ at Print Sun, 18 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Belfast painter Linden Frederick will talk about his new book, “Night Stories: Fifteen Paintings, Fifteen American Writers,” at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 22, at Print: A Bookstore, 273 Congress St., Portland.

Maine writers Richard Russo and Lily King will join him. They are among the 15 writers who contributed short stories or screenplays to the book, based on the “Night Stories” paintings by Frederick. He created 15 paintings of scenes at dusk — the time that screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan describes as “the magic hour” — and asked writers to complete the narrative by writing stories to accompany them.

An exhibition of the paintings from “Night Stories” will open at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland on Aug. 18. It is on view at Forum Gallery in New York through June 30. The book “Night Stories” will be released nationally in the fall. Before then, it will be available at the two exhibitions, and at Print beginning with this event.

Russo, who is friends with Frederick, helped line up the authors. In addition to Russo and King, writers who contributed to the project include Luanne Rice, Lois Lowry, Andre Dubus III, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Patchett, Anthony Doerr, Tess Gerritsen, Ted Tally, Dennis Lehane, Joshua Ferris, Daniel Woodrell, Louise Erdrich and Kasdan.

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Donald Trump in the White House? This author saw it coming Sun, 18 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Naomi Klein’s new book, “No Is Not Enough,” is a bit of a told-you-so. And here’s the thing: She really did tell us.

Klein’s past writings – “No Logo” (1999), on the rise of corporate super-brands; “The Shock Doctrine” (2007), on how governments and industries exploit natural and manufactured crises to impose pro-corporate policies; and “This Changes Everything” (2014), on the battle between business interests and the environment – form a trilogy of left-wing, anti-globalist manifestos. Unlike those works, her latest offering did not take long to research and write. “Just a few months,” Klein admits. That’s because, in her view, all the forces she has been chronicling for two decades come together in the ascent of one Donald J. Trump.

“Trump is not a rupture at all, but rather the culmination – the logical end point – of a great many dangerous stories our culture has been telling for a very long time,” Klein writes. “That greed is good. That the market rules. That money is what matters in life. That white men are better than the rest. That the natural world is there for us to pillage. That the vulnerable deserve their fate and the one percent deserve their golden towers. That anything public or commonly held is sinister and not worth protecting. That we are surrounded by danger and should only look after our own.”

So she’s been expecting Trump, or something like him, and now looks upon him with disdain and weary recognition. Trump the mega-brand. Trump the neoliberal standard-bearer for the entitled rich. Trump the disaster capitalist. Trump the climate-change denier. If he truly embodies the worst nightmares of the Klein oeuvre, now Trump the president has the chance to make them real. No wonder Klein wrote this book quickly.

The constant crisis mode characterizing the Trump presidency thus far may reflect the incompetence of an administration that is overreaching and underprepared, but Klein sees something more nefarious at work. Trump’s vision “can be counted on to generate wave after wave of crises and shocks,” she writes, and the administration “can be relied upon to exploit these shocks to push through the more radical planks of its agenda.”

We know, of course, that White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon has ominously called for the deconstruction of the administrative state. But when aides and agencies are constantly being undermined by the president and policy is made and unmade via tweetstorm, it’s hard to spot an underlying master plan, let alone see a 3-D chess match underway. (I think it’s more like tic-tac-toe.) Whatever agenda Trump is pushing at any given moment, however, Klein argues convincingly that it is entirely self-serving – because 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is but the latest set for the Trump show.

“The presidency is in fact the crowning extension of the Trump brand,” she writes. “His brand is being the ultimate boss, the guy who is so rich he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and to whomever he wants.” In this context, Trump’s endless conflicts of interest are not pitfalls, they are the point of it all.

“The conflicts are omnipresent and continuous, embedded in the mere fact of Trump being president,” Klein explains. “That’s because the value of lifestyle brands fluctuates wildly depending on the space they occupy in the culture. So anything that increases Donald Trump’s visibility, and the perception of him as all-powerful, actively increases the value of the Trump brand, and therefore increases how much clients will pay to be associated with it.”

His prior reality show, “The Apprentice,” capitalized on and even glamorized income and wealth inequality, so it’s little surprise that as candidate and president Trump would prey upon the financial and cultural insecurities of the American worker. But what happens, Klein wonders, when the jobs don’t come back, and when Trump’s trade deals boost corporate fortunes rather than factory wages?

“In all likelihood,” she writes, “Trump will then fall back on the only other tools he has: he’ll double down on pitting white workers against immigrant workers, do more to rile up fears about black crime, more to whip up an absurd frenzy about transgendered people and bathrooms, and launch fiercer attacks on reproductive rights and on the press.”

And if that’s not enough to stoke the base, “of course, there’s always war.”

Yes, Klein worries that Trump, obsessed with flashing his alpha male credentials to the world, will play the commander in chief card. “There is little reason to hope he will be able to resist putting on the show of shows – the televised apocalyptic violence of a full-blown war, complete with its guaranteed blockbuster ratings.” Klein writes that a terrorist attack on U.S. soil could propel Trump to launch a large-scale conflict abroad as well as severely restrict freedoms at home. This is one of the shocks she fears most, and her scenarios are dire.

“We should be prepared for security shocks to be exploited as excuses to increase the rounding up and incarceration of large numbers of people from the communities this administration is already targeting: Latino immigrants, Muslims, Black Lives Matter organizers, climate activists. It’s all possible. And, in the name of freeing the hands of law enforcement officials, (Attorney General Jeff) Sessions would have his excuse to do away with federal oversight of state and local police. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that, in the aftermath of an attack, judges would show the same courage in standing up to Trump as they did immediately after his inauguration.”

At one point, Klein even suggests Trump is treating the United States the way U.S. envoy Paul Bremer treated Iraq. That’s cold.

Klein’s prose feels overwritten at times; actions are not just unjust or corrupt, for instance, but “defiantly” unjust or “manifestly” corrupt. The hyperbole is unnecessary, and she is more persuasive when she simply outlines what the president does or proposes. “The Trump administration does not choose between amping up law and order, attacking women’s reproductive rights, escalating foreign conflicts, scapegoating immigrants, setting off a fossil fuel frenzy, and otherwise deregulating the economy in the interests of the super-rich,” she writes. “They are proceeding on all these fronts (and others) simultaneously.” Trump embodies a sort of reverse intersectionality, linking and assailing all progressive causes at once.

“No Is Not Enough” is one of the bigger-name works so far in the emerging resistance-lit genre, and the barrage of high-profile left-wing endorsements – from Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Bill McKibben, Danny Glover and more – signals the intended audience. (I must say, though, 11 blurbs on the back cover may be too much virtue to take.) Klein, whose liberal proclivities fall in the Bernie-pining and Hillary-maligning camp, argues that American progressives were largely silenced after 9/11, washed away by the moment’s patriotic fervor. “That left the economic-populist space open to abuse,” she writes. “Politics hates a vacuum; if it isn’t filled with hope, someone will fill it with fear.”

But the left’s new call to resistance is insufficient on its own. Klein prefers a new kind of shock doctrine, one that capitalizes on the crisis of Trump’s presidency to unite liberals in a radical and comprehensive policy platform – the affirmative counterpoint to her book’s title. A $15 minimum wage. A carbon tax. Demilitarization of police. Free college tuition. One hundred percent renewable energy. A Marshall Plan to fight violence against women. Reparations for slavery and colonialism. The abolition of prison. The abandonment of “growth” as a measure of improvement. Hey, Trump is going for it all, so why not her side, too?

Klein understands that liberals can be their own worst enemies – she regards the Obama years as a massive missed opportunity and worries that the left is too inclined to compete rather than collaborate, and shame rather than sympathize – but she still feels that the time to strike alliances may never be more propitious, paradoxically because conditions are so grim. “After decades of ‘siloed’ politics, more and more people understand that we can only beat Trumpism in cooperation with one another – no one movement can win on its own,” she writes. “The trick is going to be to stick together, and have each other’s backs as never before.”

This book is a “road map for shock resistance,” the author writes, one that celebrates the “rekindling of the kind of utopian dreaming that has been sorely missing from social movements in recent decades.” So for all her concerns about shock tactics, Klein is not above taking advantage of a crisis to push through radical ideas. They just need to be radical ideas that she likes.

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Victorian crime fighters team up with formidable female ‘monsters’ Sun, 18 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Whether they root for the Avengers or the Justice League, comics fan loves a good team-up. Iron Man is enjoyable in his own right, but put Tony Stark together with Thor and the Hulk, and you potentially have a superhero saga that’s greater than the sum of its parts. This mash-up technique works well with many other beloved characters from popular culture, especially if they are in the public domain.

In “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter,” Theodora Goss, author of “The Thorn and the Blossom,” remixes some of the best-known heroes and villains of the Victorian Age into a high-spirited monster story with a feminist twist.

The novel opens just after Mary Jekyll’s mother has passed away, leaving the young woman penniless and forced to terminate the services of her household staff. Searching for solace among her parents’ effects, Mary turns up clues relating to suspected murderer Edward Hyde, her late father’s mysterious, long-missing friend. There is still a 100-pound reward for Hyde’s capture, enough to rescue Mary from impoverishment if she can claim it. Not knowing where else to turn, Mary heads to – where else? – 221B Baker Street.

If there is a single figure whose presence is almost mandatory in this sort of Victorian literary exercise, it is Sherlock Holmes. Holmes and Watson appear early in “The Alchemist’s Daughter,” and Goss’ take on them is pleasingly straightforward and traditional, with no intention to reinvent Conan Doyle’s vision of the Great Detective. Watson is suitably brave, loyal and resourceful. Holmes appears as one expects, arrogant and brilliant, able to deduce the minutia of a subject’s personal history from a handful of observations.

Theodora Goss Photo by Matthew Stein

But this Holmes doesn’t resemble Benedict Cumberbatch: “He was tall, with a high forehead, and the sort of nose they call aquiline. He looked, Mary thought, like an inquisitive eagle.”

As it turns out, Holmes and Watson are already embroiled in an investigation of a series of brutal murders that may have connections to the Jekyll family. The mutilated corpses of prostitutes have been discovered in Whitechapel, each missing a different body part, each removed with surgical precision. The killings gradually connect to Mary’s search for the truth about her father, and they appear to involve a secret cabal of power-mad scientists, known as the Societe des Alchimistes.

Mary Jekyll doesn’t immediately find Hyde’s whereabouts, but she does discover that the brutish man left behind a teenaged daughter, Diana, raised by nuns but not the least bit well-mannered. Mary reluctantly takes the feisty, insolent girl into her home.

The murder investigation leads Mary, Diana, Holmes and Watson to three women experimented upon by members of the Societe des Alchimistes. Beatrice Rappaccini’s breath is poisonous and her touch deadly. Catherine Moreau started life as a puma but has been transformed into more human shape. And finally there is Justine Frankenstein, a traumatized “giantess” built to be the mate of the doctor’s original male creation.

At one point Catherine muses, “I wonder which of them would win, in a contest for worst father? Frankenstein, Rappacini, Jekyll, or Moreau?” It would be a close race, indeed. The authors who created or inspired those characters – Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Louis Stevenson and H.G. Wells – gloss over the plights of women in their work, but “The Alchemist’s Daughter” puts the predicaments of its female characters front and center.

Goss is a senior lecturer at Boston University specializing in late 19th-century and early 20th-century British literature. She’s best known as a writer of short stories and is the winner of the 2008 World Fantasy Award for “Singing of Mount Abora.” Her collection “In the Forest of Forgetting” was published in 2006, and “The Alchemist’s Daughter” is her second novel.

This book brims with Goss’s confidence and expertise. The novel features women who are underestimated and constrained by society at large but who succeed despite neglect or outright abuse. The narrative, written by Catherine, includes running commentary from each of the “monstrous” women, giving them the opportunities to tell their stories and state their truths. For example, Mary says, “I’m not a monster, and that book is a pack of lies. If Mrs. Shelley were here, I would slap her for all the trouble she caused.” It’s a metafictional strategy that could easily backfire, but Goss makes it work.

“The Alchemist’s Daughter” will remind some readers of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s series of “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman” graphic novels. Goss’s novel isn’t as intricate in its references to other pop cultural trivia, but by featuring a disparate band of strong female characters, she brings something new and invigorating to her project.

The book leaves a lot of plot threads dangling, suggesting that another volume eventually will be available. At least two other possible new antagonists come to mind, given the references to Dracula and Jack the Ripper.

Mary and crew are a fun and formidable band of “monsters,” and their sisterly solidarity makes for a riveting thriller. Like a literary magpie, Goss snaps up some of the shiniest bits of Victorian popular culture, but she makes them her own, seeing the possibilities beyond the efforts of their original creators and constructing an intelligent and engrossing 21st-century adventure.

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

]]> 0 GossFri, 16 Jun 2017 16:09:37 +0000
A gruesome find begins ‘Knife Creek,’ the best of the Bowditch mystery series Sun, 11 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Paul Doiron’s “Knife Creek” is the best yet in his impressive Mike Bowditch Mystery series. It’s taut, disturbing and consummately told.

The book opens with a horrific scene: Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch and his girlfriend, Stacey Stevens, a biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, are out in the woods hunting feral hogs. Two sows and a boar are shot, but not before Stevens is gashed in the leg by a boar’s tusk. Half a dozen piglets scatter. Amidst the slaughter, they find the partial remains of a newborn baby that one of the sows was feasting on.

The scene is soon swarming with law enforcement, including local police and Maine state troopers, among them Danielle “Dani” Tate, a former game warden and Bowditch’s colleague who was infatuated with him in an earlier book in the series. Among the scant evidence at the scene, Tate finds the initials “K.C.” incised in a beech tree by fingernail.

Bowditch is instructed by the state trooper in charge of the investigation to stay clear of getting involved. Forever curious and prone to skirt the commands of others, he is soon back in the woods, ostensibly looking for the piglets. He comes upon an isolated, derelict house, decides to check it out, and encounters two women in red wigs whose behavior and reluctance to engage with him raises suspicion. Their bizarre behavior prompts him to call Tate the next morning to ask her to meet him there. He is standing on the porch looking in the window of what is now an obviously abandoned house when Tate drives up. He realizes almost too late that the strange hissing he hears is propane escaping from the stove. He jumps and runs barely ahead of the blast that craters the structure.

Paul Doiron

Bowditch is still a maverick, but he has matured, gaining respect and even admiration from his superiors, who’ve encouraged him to put in for a promotion as an investigator. “Knife Creek” showcases Bowditch’s prowess as such, though he’s not yet gotten word on whether the new job is his. He’s the first to suspect that the baby’s death is a murder and that it is tied to a cold case of a young teenager girl who disappeared while rafting the Saco River four years before. He makes the case that the younger of the two red-wigged women was Casey Donaldson, the missing rafter. When Donaldson’s DNA from the previous case is matched with Baby Jane Doe’s, it generates shock waves among law enforcement personnel who were involved in the search for Donaldson. Bowditch’s assertions riles old suspicions, grudges, and conflicts that have simmered for years between many major players in the case.

“Knife Creek” is a gripping, well-plotted tale. His characters are vibrant and unforgettable, and the climatic scene is completely unexpected. Doiron has reached a new level in his craft, putting him, without a doubt, among the best crime writers working today.

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. His novel 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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‘Do Not Become Alarmed’ is a psychological thriller crowded with compelling characters Sun, 11 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Maile Meloy’s new novel, “Do Not Become Alarmed,” is, in a word, ambitious. The reader gleans this in the first two pages when the author introduces eight central characters, then proceeds to add another dozen or so as the deft plotting of this literary thriller unfolds like a journey through a maze in the dark.

The story begins with a Christmas cruise that two families embark on together from Southern California, heading off to the Panama Canal. There’s Liv and Benjamin and their two children, Penny and Sebastian, 11 and 8 respectively; and Nora, Liv’s cousin-almost-a-sister, and her husband, Raymond, and their two kids, Marcus and June, 11 and 6 respectively. The cruise is Liv’s idea for how to simplify the holiday, negate the pressure of getting together with in-laws, and help Nora cope with the emptiness of losing her mother to pancreatic cancer earlier that year.

It all starts carefree enough until the ship stops in Panama. Benjamin and Raymond go off to play golf with Gunther, an Argentinian they’ve befriended on the cruise. And Nora and Liv go off with their children, joined by Camila, Gunther’s wife, and her two teenagers, 15-year-old Hector and his younger sister Isabel. Pedro, a handsome, unflappable young crew member arranges to be their driver and guide for the day. When their van breaks down, Pedro confidently assures them it’s not a problem. There is a beach nearby where they can swim while waiting for another van to be delivered.

The kids take to the water on inner tubes, Liv and Camila imbibe a bit of alcoholic fruit drink that Pedro provides, and then both fall asleep on the beach. Pedro leads Nora into the jungle so he can show her some exotic birds.

Maile Meloy

Things take a terrible turn when an incoming tide carries the flotilla of frolicking kids up an intertidal river. Hector decides to swim back to the beach along the edge of the river where the current isn’t as strong to tell the mothers where they are. After he departs, the children become frightened, spying an alligator sunning on the far bank. They hear a car off through the bush and head for it. They come upon three people burying a body in a shallow grave. The children are forced by the gravediggers into their vehicle and taken deeper into the jungle to a mountainside enclosed compound.

Liv and Camila panic when they awake to find their children gone and start screaming. Nora and Pedro come running. Recriminations erupt immediately, Liv wanting to know what Nora and Pedro were doing in the jungle; Nora castigating Liv for not looking after the kids. Camila’s son, Hector, never appears to tell them what happened.

The tale splits here into two major storylines, one portraying the fear and hysteria of the grownups, shame and blame pervasive, and the other set in the compound where the children are held hostage by a narco clan. The older children seek to navigate the treacherous unpredictability of the group’s leader while also attending to the younger ones. A third storyline is interlaced, that of Noemi, a 10-year-old peasant girl from South America who is being driven north by a man she’s never met so she can eventually slip into the United States and join her undocumented parents in New York City.

Meloy peels layer after psychological layer away from the veneer of each of the grown-ups, probing their weaknesses and also the issues of infidelity, race, male posturing and female rage. At the same time, she explores the resiliency and resourcefulness of the children, especially the two eldest cousins, Penny and Marcus. They discern who they can trust at the compound and take daring risks to attempt gaining their freedom. Meanwhile, Noemi wins over her taciturn, mysterious guardian, learning the truth of his obligation to see to her welfare.

Award-winning author Maile Meloy lays confident claim to the thriller domain, expands it greatly, and makes it all her own. That she makes nearly a score of characters compelling and vividly memorable is reason enough to read this book. Meloy is a consummate storyteller, and “Do Not Become Alarmed” will grip readers to the end.

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. His novel was also a finalist for the Bellwether Prize “in support of a literature of social change.” Smith can be reached via his website:

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On the eve of her 20th book, Ann Beattie talks about mastering subtleties and surprise Fri, 09 Jun 2017 21:21:34 +0000 Ann Beattie does not consider herself a “Maine writer,” despite living half the year in York. Nor does she consider herself a “Florida writer,” though she spends the other half in Key West. Geography is beside the point for this celebrated contrarian novelist and short story writer whose 20th book, “The Accomplished Guest” arrives this week. Even in a story collection that revolves around visiting, the sense of place is merely a backdrop for the drama that ensues.

“When the concept is ‘visiting,’ people know that their time together is limited,” Beattie says. “It’s always in the back of their minds. That idea of things being in flux, of this being a transitional state, is also pretty useful literarily. When people are under pressure, they act differently. It certainly cues the reader; the reader is on tiptoes.”

Beattie spoke recently from her Florida home about teaching and humor, predictability and surprise. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: I loved the last story in your book, “Save A Horse Ride A Cowgirl.” That’s quite a title.

A: It’s really true – that was a bumper sticker that I saw on Route 1, in Maine. That was the genesis of the whole story. At The New Yorker, they asked, “How do we punctuate this?” And I said, “You know, there was no punctuation.”

Q: When you sit down to write, what is it that you have in mind – a particular idea, a character, or even a bumper sticker?

A: This won’t make me sound very sane and professional, but what I have in mind is seeing if there’s something that I could tap into that, if I didn’t sit down, I would never know was there. I don’t write with any outline in mind. The stories are never supposed to evolve toward some particular end that I know. My writing process is to keep seeing as I’m going through. I mean, there’s dialogue in my stories, and I do hear it, but the thing that really orients me toward the material is looking, and looking again. So I’m often surprised. It’s not like looking at a mirror; it’s quite the opposite. It’s almost just being there to have a vision and transcribe it.

Q: In what ways has your fiction changed over the years?

A: I’m more willing to put myself in the story, but I don’t mean me, as Ann Beattie. I mean I’m more willing to let it be seen that this story is fictional and that’s it’s being shaped. I’m less hands-off than I used to be. I don’t mind grappling with more.

Q: I remember reading your early New Yorker stories back in the ’70s. They seemed much more hands-off.

A: Yes, it was almost like I was trying to be a camera eye. I wasn’t hiding directly, but I didn’t know how to keep as many balls in the air and still be subtle. Now I think I just can master that better. Not always – believe me, a lot of what I write just ends up in the trash.

Q: You’ve said that you discard about a third of your writing.

A: At least. If I don’t start to get a lot of information back from the text I’m creating, then I don’t want to just be writing something that’s bullish or, you know, a disguised essay.

Q: How far into a piece might you get before deciding to dump it?

A: Sometimes to the last paragraph. I write at the computer, I write quickly, and I’m the only one who sees my rough drafts. But I can pretty much tell whether I can shape the piece in a way that doesn’t just seem predictable.

I’m working on a story now that I’m revising, but that’s only because I judge it viable. The good thing about freelance is that nobody’s sitting there just praying that my manuscript will come whizzing in to them.

Q: What aspects of story writing have become easier or more difficult over time?

A: Well, I wouldn’t say that anything has become more difficult. I’ve always had certain reservations about what I didn’t want my work to be, and if it teeters on that, or if it doesn’t please me, I’ve always had a lot of things that I discard. And that’s fine; it’s my working method. I’m very careful of my perceptions because I don’t want to be so noticeable in my work that I’m repeating myself.

Sometimes people come back to something way, way later. You’ve probably read interviews with George Saunders, who’s had such a success with “Lincoln in the Bardo.” He’s very forthcoming about how many years it took him for this to gestate, and for him to even get to it at all.

Q: I gather you and Saunders are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

A: I’ve never done it that way, in my life – nor do I aspire to. Nor, certainly, does George Saunders aspire to write the way I write! Everybody’s different.

In a lot of ways, writers build difficulties into their life so that they’re not writing. I mean, some writers are helped by daily writing, and that’s great. I don’t write everyday, but there’s no universal rule.

Q: You just mentioned knowing what you don’t want your work to be. What does that consist of?

A: Well, I read a great number of stories, too. I guess I don’t want to read any story and not, on some level, be surprised by it. In other words, I don’t want to just read something that’s well-executed. I do appreciate good prose and complete stories. But my personal sensibility, my personal interest is in something more fleeting than that. I like that moment of being jarred by something you never could have out-guessed the writer on. And if I can apply that to myself, better yet.

Q: In your new book, there are lots of small, surprising, funny touches. For example, there’s a restaurant scene where you write, “Compote basically meant a little cup containing not enough of a substance.” Was that completely impromptu?

A: Yes. That’s one of the delights of writing, really. I enjoy telling anecdotes. I never tell jokes – I don’t enjoy them on any level. But a joke is different than a funny thing, and if I didn’t happen to be writing, I don’t think I would have had any reason to think about compote – ever! Again it’s that visual sense. When I was looking at that little dish, I thought, “Oh, that’s right, there’s never enough. You always want more of that stuff.”

Q: That, and a guy sitting in a restaurant, with a larger appetite, looks at the compote and thinks, “What the hell is this?” It’s just great!

A: Thank you. I laughed out loud when I wrote that. Sometimes my humor is missed, I assure you.

Q: The short story is clearly having a moment right now. Beyond our dwindling attention span, what’s contributing to this?

A: MFA Programs. That is the default form – not novels. The short story is the form because it fits within the seminar period – it’s discussable and it’s convenient. That’s what’s going on. I mean, you have to look at the number of writing programs now versus even, say, 20 years ago. I don’t really know what “MFA workshop fiction” is, but I don’t disparage it because I think a lot of it is within a tradition of newer work commenting on older work.

Q: What’s the most difficult thing to teach students about writing?

A: There are a great number of difficulties – learning to have a distinctive voice, to shape the story. There are all kinds of abstract ideals about what their work might be. But, for my way of reading, the reader has to be a participant, even in fiction. If you’re not allowing for the reader, then you’re just writing a disguised diatribe, as far as I’m concerned.

Q: What makes a great short story?

A: From the writer’s end – and I wouldn’t limit this to short stories – doing something that’s beyond what you’re capable of in that moment, and doing it anyway. I mean, athletes will tell you that happens all the time. They’ll go out to run, and they’ll say “I don’t know why it was a bad day,” and they attribute it to things that can’t be proved or disproved, like psychological resistance or fear of success. I think these things are universally true that people don’t know why they just can’t get things to work some of the time.

Q: From a reader’s standpoint, what makes a great story?

A: My training is in literature, so when I read, I rarely can judge something except in the writer’s own context. When you see that certain things are escaping the context, or are a one-off, that’s often extremely interesting.

One of my pet peeves that I would express in my teaching is that your strengths work both ways – they’re also your weaknesses. Being able to write good prose can also work against you. I hope my stories don’t seem pre-determined when you get to the end. That would be the absolute kiss of death.

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

]]> 0, 11 Jun 2017 22:12:39 +0000
Well-placed outrage makes ‘The Refrigerator Monologues’ an entertaining read Sun, 04 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 If you haven’t kept up with superhero comics for the past 20 years, you might initially not know what to make of Catherynne M. Valente’s new collection of linked stories. Stick with the book, though, perhaps after Googling “girls in refrigerators.” You should be able to catch on pretty quickly, and the extra effort will have a definite payoff.

With illustrations by comic book artist Annie Wu, “The Refrigerator Monologues” is set in Deadtown, a version of Hell where it’s always autumn and always the middle of the night. Paige Embry presides over the Hell Hath Club in a cafe there, hosting an expanding and contracting group of women who are “mostly very beautiful and very well-read and very angry.”

They all have good reasons for that anger. Each member of the Hell Hath Club has experienced firsthand the downside of being the girlfriend or wife of a superhero. Or perhaps they dared to don the cape and cowl themselves, before paying the ultimate price. They have been raped, tortured, mutilated, brainwashed, driven insane or disabled.

While some of them are briefly resurrected through sorcery or science, Paige has learned not to expect any second chances for herself. As she says, “If there’s a constant in this universe, it’s that Paige Embry is dead. I am a permanent error page. 404: Girl Not Found.”

The book begins with Paige’s own story, of how she was responsible for her boyfriend becoming Kid Mercury, how she supported him in his campaign against crime and how she died in his arms after he accidentally snapped her neck while battling Doctor Nocturne.

Catherynne M. Valente Photo by Heather Miller

If you’ve been ingesting superhero media fairly regularly, it’s probable that you’ll recognize that Paige Embry is an analog for the late Gwen Stacy. Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s blonde girlfriend was killed during a battle with the Green Goblin in infamous issue number 121 of “The Amazing Spider-Man.”

“The Night Gwen Stacey Died” had a big impact back in 1973, when comics were mostly still for kids and hardly anyone – not even the villains – ever died in them.

Fast-forward to 1999, in the wake of Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” and Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” two seminal creations that brought a new dark sense of reality to comics. Some American comics creators, predominately men, felt the need to keep things grim ‘n’ gritty by imagining various kinds of violent deaths for their female supporting characters. Too many creators relied on the chauvinistic trope of having a woman die only so that a male hero could be sufficiently motivated to go out and avenge her murder or assault.

Perhaps the most notorious instance of this cliché was the one in which Kyle Rayner, a new member of the Green Lantern Corps, arrived home to find his girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, dead and stuffed into the refrigerator by the villainous Major Force. That storyline inspired comics writer Gail Simone to start “Women in Refrigerators,” a website dedicated to tracking the abuse of female characters in comics.

Peaks Island resident Valente turned the world of fairy tales inside out with her children’s series that began with the crowdfunded “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.” What are superhero comics but fairy tales for modern times, full of outsized characters, arcane rules and stories that get told over and over again with a few variations?

The linked stories in her latest book allow Valente to vent her own anger at the entertainment industry’s misogynistic behavior and sexist rhetoric. Because she doesn’t have the creative rights to characters owned by Marvel and DC, she built a superhero universe of her own, one peopled by heroes and villains a shade different from their more familiar, original versions. So it’s Julia Ash instead of the X-Men’s Jean Grey who exists in multiple timelines and wields incredible destructive power. Pauline Ketch is the one in love with the insane Mr. Punch, instead of Harley Quinn pining over the Joker. Even poor Alexandra DeWitt gets to tell her own story, in the guise of doomed artist Samantha Dane.

The business of comics is still largely run by men, but the medium seems more welcoming to female creators these days. Writers and artists such as Kelly Sue DeConnick, G. Willow Wilson and Hope Larson are lending their talents to mainstream comics projects that actively celebrate the experiences of women and young girls, superpowered or not.

While “The Refrigerator Monologues” depends a great deal on an insider’s knowledge of comic book lore for maximum enjoyment, those readers adventurous enough to parachute into unfamiliar literary territory will be rewarded by Valente’s biting wit, outlandish world-building and well-focused sense of outrage.

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

]]> 0 M. ValenteFri, 02 Jun 2017 16:11:38 +0000
Denis Johnson, prize-winning writer, dies at 67 Sat, 27 May 2017 01:01:20 +0000 NEW YORK — Denis Johnson, the prize-winning fiction writer, poet and playwright best known for his surreal and transcendent story collection “Jesus’ Son,” has died at age 67.

Johnson died Wednesday, according to his literary agent, Nicole Aragi. Johnson died of liver cancer at his home in The Sea Ranch, outside of Gualala, California.

“Denis was one of the great writers of his generation,” Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said in a statement Friday. “He wrote prose with the imaginative concentration and empathy of the poet he was.”

Johnson’s honesty, humor and vulnerability were intensely admired by readers, critics and fellow writers, some of whom mourned him on Twitter. He won the National Book Award in 2007 for his Vietnam War novel “Tree of Smoke” and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for “Tree of Smoke,” and, in 2012, for his novella “Train Dreams.” His other works include the novel “Laughing Monsters” and “Angels,” the poetry collection “The Veil” and the play “Hellhound On My Trail.” The story collection “The Largess of the Sea Maiden,” his first since “Jesus’ Son,” is scheduled to come out January from the Penguin Random House imprint Dial Press.


Many remember him for “Jesus’ Son,” which in hazed but undeniable detail chronicled the lives of various drug addicts adrift in America. The title was taken from the Velvet Underground song “Heroin,” the stories were sometimes likened to William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” and the experiences were drawn in part from Johnson’s own struggles with addiction. Much of “Jesus’ Son” tells of crime, violence, substance abuse and the worst of luck. But, as related by a recovering addict with an unprintable name (his initials were F.H.), the stories had an underlying sense of connection, possibility and unknown worlds. In the story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” the narrator looks upon an accident victim, a bloodied man taking his final breaths.

“He wouldn’t be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down into great pity upon a person’s life on this earth,” Johnson writes. “I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.”

Reviewing the book for The New York Times, James McManus noted that “Mr. Johnson’s is a universe governed by addiction, malevolence, faith and uncertainty.”


“It is a place where attempts at salvation remain radically provisional, and where a teetering narrative architecture uncannily expresses both Christlike and pathological traits of mind,” McManus wrote.

The book was adapted into a 1999 film of the same name, starring Billy Crudup and including a cameo by Johnson. In 2006, “Jesus’ Son” was cited in a Times poll as among the important works of fiction of the previous 25 years.

The son of a State Department liaison, Johnson was born in Munich, Germany, and lived around world before settling in the Far West. He was a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop and studied under Raymond Carver, whose raw accounts of addiction and recovery would be echoed in Johnson’s work. Johnson was married three times and is survived by his third wife, Cindy Lee Johnson, and their three children.

In a 1984 interview with The New York Times, Johnson cited a wide range of influences.

“My ear for the diction and rhythms of poetry was trained by – in chronological order – Dr. Seuss, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, the guitar solos of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, and T.S. Eliot,” he said. “Other influences come and go, but those I admire the most and those I admired the earliest (I still admire them) have something to say in every line I write.”

]]> 0 Fri, 26 May 2017 21:44:00 +0000
‘Tarted up’ and dancing Sun, 21 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 In just a few years, Trudy Irene Scee, a former instructor at Husson University and Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada, has begun to reshape our shared understanding of Maine history through her books. Within five years, starting in 2010, she published “City on the Penobscot: A Comprehensive History of Bangor, Maine,” “The Mount Hope Cemetery of Bangor” and “Rouges, Rascals and Other Villainous Mainers.” Although she revels in the shady side of the street, Scee’s writings always deliver the rest of the story. She is capable of such works as the solid biography, “Moving the Earth: The Life and Work of Herbert E. Sargent,” published in 2015. Scee seems to be in perpetual motion.

Now she takes on a portion of Down East history that has been long overlooked. As late as 1973, the Maine Catalogue confidently proclaimed that “dance and Maine don’t appear especially attracted to each other.” The statement flew in the face of fact. Dance was central to Wabanaki culture and to the immigrant groups that subsequently pirouetted into the landscape. There have followed such noted Maine dancers as Molly Spotted Elk, Grace DeCarleton Ross and Anthony “Chan” Spotten. And the state has been home to important dance companies and dance festivals and, of course, studios that have taught ballet, tap and modern dance to generations of people.

Scee has an abiding interest and knowledge in Maine dance as a whole, but in “Dancing in Paradise, Burning in Hell,” published last year by Down East Books, her focus is on “working class female dancers,” which she places in an industry stretching back some time. To my knowledge, aside from independent historian Candace Kane, who wrote about the Martin Dance School in Bangor in the 1860s, few Maine historians have paid any interest to dancing women and their role in society. If mentioned at all, scholars have placed female dancers of the 19th and 20th century in the company of criminals, prostitutes and dubious goings-on, perhaps for a prurient giggle in a dry text.

In some sense, the book’s title is a shill, a come-on in the carnival midway. Scee parts the historical curtain, but there are no visuals, no smutty images. The interest is in individual women, passing through Maine, who chose to make an independent living in an occupation other than factory girl, school teacher, nurse or secretary. Often scantily clad and always “tarted up,” this was an “industry” looked down on by proper citizens (whomever they may have been).

In 1910, a Bangor news reporter wrote that is was agonizing to watch “a leading citizen of East Weedybumps separating himself from his hard earned and honestly earned and modest savings to gaze upon the mysterious beauty of the Orient, who probably lives in one squalid room near the Gas House Patch in South Boston.”

To this Scee adds, “The woman might have been both beautiful and poor, and both Eastern in ethnicity and a resident of Boston.”

Though there is a clear lack of statistics – they simply were not kept – the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming and Scee builds on the best documentary proof, including the Martin Dance School manuscripts, moral reform reports and newspaper notices.

We are given clear descriptions of hurdy-gurdy girls, saloon dancers, Nautch dancers, hootchie-cootchie, strippers, and today’s belly dancers, and how women in each category made a living. Indeed, “as time passed,” Scee notes, “belly dancing became increasingly respected and specialized but retained some of its mystique from the earlier years. And, even in the mid-2010s, not everyone respected the dancers.”

In this wonderful book we learn about the yearning to dance, the desire to watch dancers, the great Keith Circuit and other dance venues including roadhouses, circuses and fairs. Sexual history, labor history, women’s history, entertainment and social history are rolled into one. Intrigued? Put down your money and step into these vivid pages.

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.

]]> 0, 19 May 2017 17:18:45 +0000
A family continues after a death in ‘I Know It in My Heart’ Sun, 21 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 As a clinical psychologist, Mary E. Plouffe has counseled many people who deal with the grief caused by the death of a loved one. Her memoir, “I Know It in My Heart,” tells of a time when death and grief settled in the midst of her own family. The lost loved one is her younger sister, Martha, who is diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and embraces an experimental therapy that might give her the chance to see her 3-year-old daughter, Liamarie, grow up.

Plouffe’s memoir is poignant and heartbreaking. It opens the door to what is fundamentally a most private journey into and through trauma. Plouffe, painstakingly and with keen insight and heart, invites the reader on that journey. It is a story with many parts. These include her sister’s journey, Plouffe’s own story, and centrally, the journey of Liamarie.

Plouffe and her sister Martha couldn’t have been more different. “There were three and half years between us,” she writes, “but personality separated us more than age.” The author grew up as an introvert, a “watcher of all the Irish subtext” in her father’s extended family. She was self-conscious and moody. Martha “had her own agenda, and couldn’t care less what adults were doing unless it interfered with her plans.” She was a natural comic and happy to take center stage.

Martha was also a radical activist and often scolded Plouffe for not taking politics more seriously. Martha and her husband, Herb, were so politically involved that it surprised the family when she became pregnant with Liamarie, who was born of delicate build. “But she was whip fast and quick with words, startling those who heard her,” Plouffe writes. “She spoke full sentences at two, with extra words thrown in whether she was sure of them or not.”

The heart of the story begins with a phone call from Martha in January 1997, telling her sister she has a tumor. The two women, who had never been especially close, are drawn tightly to one another, with Plouffe becoming her sister’s confidante and sounding board, and Martha becoming a most precious friend. Martha ends up opting to pursue a promising treatment involving bone marrow transplants at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Plouffe and her husband, Bill, agree to take Liamarie into their home whenever necessary to accommodate the treatment, as Martha’s husband has to travel for business. The Plouffe immediate family circle includes Plouffe – who Liamarie calls “Mary Beth” – Bill and their three children, fifth-grader Margaret, 15-year-old Matt and 20-year-old Justin. On the periphery are Bill’s mother, and Plouffe and Martha’s mother, both elderly and in deteriorating health.

Plouffe is masterful at storytelling and brings Liamarie alive on the page. Early on, Martha explains to Liamarie, “‘Papa has to work in Las Vegas, and I need to go to the hospital for a few weeks. So you will stay with Mary Beth and Bill in Maine.’ At first Liamarie resisted in her usual self-assured way. ‘No Mama. I don’t think I will do that. I will stay with you.'”

Plouffe is also generous in giving readers a basic, yet rich understanding of how 3-year-olds view and respond to the world. “Three-year-olds also have little internalized visual or verbal memory,” she writes. “So, it is not the thought or picture of Mom that brings feelings of separation and sadness. Rather, sensory memory rules, and sensation triggers loss. A hurt, a fall or the feeling of crawling into bed, associated with a mother’s warm touch – all these bring out the craving for Mom.”

The story tells of momentary delights of having a precious 3-year-old join a family. Liamarie easily bonds with Plouffe’s children, but especially with Margaret, with whom she shares a room. But she struggles to fathom her two older cousins. Matt, who is in high school, is always coming home and then leaving again to go to sports practice, to be with his friends or to play music. Liamarie wants to know why. Plouffe attempts to explain, but it still makes no sense to Liamarie. Plouffe tells her, “‘He’s a teenager, Liamarie,’ an explanation I offered with a shoulder shrug that implied this was a mysterious state that could not be understood. She adopted that gesture and phrase with a mix of awe and annoyance… ‘He’s a teenager. There he goes again.'”

The memoir deals with the trauma of Martha’s illness in detail. It is stressful and dispiriting for everyone. When it becomes clear that the experimental treatment is failing and Martha lapses finally into a coma, Plouffe, her husband, and Liamarie’s father debate whether Liamarie should be given the opportunity to see her mother in the hospital for what likely would be the last time. “The visual impact in Martha’s room was overwhelming, even to an adult. If we brought her in, she would see her mother bald, eyes half open but unseeing, arms struggling against restraints, legs pushing and pulling as if she were trying to walk away in place. Tubes and IV lines emerged from every corner of the covers. The bright blue vent tube protruded from her mouth…”

They finally decide to ask Liamarie what she wants. The scene was explained to her. Liamarie considers it, “then said softly, ‘No, it would be too scary for me.'”

The entire book is great testament to the suffering and resilience that comes after the death of a loved one. But the section on grief is profoundly provocative. In a chapter called “Condolences,” Plouffe deals with the universal awkwardness that people in this culture have around acknowledging death. The worst of all strategies, Plouffe writes, is avoidance. “When you ignore me, I become invisible altogether… No, see my shadow, name my pain, even if I cry, or bring you sadness. It makes me feel I still exist.”

The last section, “Growing,” marks the passage of Liamarie into adolescence and the continuation of life in the extended family, chronicling the ordinary and extraordinary, including graduations and marriages.

The trajectory of Plouffe’s story falters for having what are essentially two endings. One is for the story that is told, the other for one that isn’t. The last formal chapter of the book tells of Liamarie’s quinceañera, an important, joyous celebration with roots in Latin America of a girl’s 15th birthday.

Then, the epilogue, focused on her sister’s course of treatment, begins: “There is part of our story I have not told. I cannot weave it into the narrative because I am not sure if it is true. That’s not true. I know that the pieces are true.”

The second ending causes the story to falter because Plouffe has not adequately prepared for including it, and it dramatically disrupts the arc of the story that she – and the reader – have already invested in. Early in the book she writes, “Traumatic memories break all the rules. They do not sit logically sequenced in a familiar pattern of beginning to middle to end.” But that theme is not threaded through the story, so that when the reader reaches the epilogue, it is a jolt. As a result, it mutes what is otherwise a wise and moving story.

Correction: This review was updated at 2:55 p.m. on May 21 to correct the book’s title in the headline.

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. His novel 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

]]> 0, 21 May 2017 14:56:49 +0000
Better ‘Girl on Train’ author had leaped, not waded, into ‘Water’ Sun, 14 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 And readers thought that Rachel Watson, that girl on the train, was an unreliable narrator!

Paula Hawkins – whose debut thriller was the top-selling book in America for the past two years – has upped the ante in her good-but-not-great follow-up.

“Into the Water” is dripping with first- and third-person narration that cannot be trusted. While the heroine of “The Girl on the Train” had issues with alcoholism and blackouts, there are other reasons for literary deception in the new book.

Some of the characters are liars. Some have incomplete or willfully selective memories. Some are just crazy. All of these people have secrets.

The story is set in a small town called Beckford, a throwback riverside community in northern England. One particular bend in the river is a spot that has come to be known as the Drowning Pool. It is a place with a dark history, widely regarded as “a suicide spot.”

It also is ominously said to be “a place to get rid of troublesome women.”

This is how it has been in Beckford for centuries, as far back as 1679, when superstitious townfolk suspected young Libby Seeton of witchcraft, bound her and watched her sink in the water. The people living here now all know the old stories, but they don’t talk about them.

Then along comes Danielle Abbott, who grew up here, obsessed with the history of the Drowning Pool. Planning to write a book, she starts asking too many pointed questions, ruffles too many feathers, makes too many enemies. As they say in Beckford, she is a troublesome woman.

Perhaps inevitably, a 15-year-old girl – the best friend to Danielle’s just-as-troublesome daughter Lena – turns up dead, an apparent Drowning Pool suicide. The dead girl’s grieving mom blames Danielle.

Then, weeks later, Danielle herself dies suspiciously, her body pulled out of the very same water.

The woman’s estranged sister Jules, who nearly drowned here two decades earlier and is still deeply traumatized, wants to know why these tragedies keep happening. And a new police investigation, unlike the ones for previous deaths, is more than just a formality/cover-up.

Eventually, all of the secrets, past and present, like bodies in the Drowning Pool, will come to the surface: abusive relationships, illicit affairs, rapes, murders. Many of these crimes are interrelated – linked by one particular piece of evidence, a necklace, that changes hands more than a dog-eared library book.

The problem with “Into the Water” is that, while creepy from the get-go, it’s not the propulsive page turner that “The Girl on the Train” was.

It’s a slow starter. Glacially slow. Hawkins eventually gets it into gear, dropping bombshell after bombshell, chapter after chapter. But it takes her more than 200 pages to get to that point.

If the author didn’t have such stellar credentials – more than 20 million copies of “The Girl on the Train” sold worldwide – maybe her publisher would have insisted on revisions to a sluggish opening.

Most readers who have been eagerly awaiting her new book will probably have enough patience. But should they really have to wait?

It would be a much better book if, instead of dipping a tentative toe in the water, Hawkins had just jumped right into the deep end.

]]> 0, 12 May 2017 17:43:01 +0000
‘Anatomy of Innocence’ describes incalculable injustices Sun, 14 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 An unstated yet central premise of “Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted,” is that anyone – anyone – can be sent to prison for murder.

In the United States, this injustice falls preponderantly on people who are black. But as the stories in this book underscore, no one is immune. The snare of wrongful conviction can steal years and decades from the lives of daycare moms, law students, small business managers, and people innocently sitting in their car watching the ocean.

“Anatomy of Innocence” pairs the Kafkaesque experiences of 15 exonerated individuals with pedigreed writers who tell their stories. The list of contributors include Maine’s own international best-selling espionage author Gayle Lynds, writing here with her husband, John Sheldon, a former defense attorney, prosecutor, and judge; Lee Child, author of the popular Jack Reacher thriller series; and the late Pulitzer- and Tony-Award winner, playwright Arthur Miller, who years ago wrote an essay published here for the first time about a wrongfully convicted teenager. The book’s introduction is by best-selling legal thriller novelist Scott Turow.

The series of profiles follows a loose progression of events that typify the hellish journey through the penal system. Each profile focuses on one or two defining aspects of the journey, from what it feels like to be picked up, interrogated, tried and convicted, to imprisonment and the struggle to maintain hope and sanity against long odds, and finally to being exonerated and freed.

Esteemed mystery writer Sara Paretsky, tells of the cruel injustice that befell David Bates, a Chicago teenager, in 1983 in “The Trip to Doty Road: the Interrogation.” Bates’ ordeal started when detectives and uniformed officers showed up at his home, held a gun to his mother’s head and told her they needed to take her son in, “just to ask him some questions.”

Thus began a 24-hour interrogation, marked by brutality and terrorizing. In the early hours, Bates thought, “what they were doing didn’t seem criminal at first, it just seemed part of the territory, of being a black kid on the South Side.” He was slapped, kicked and punched. He wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom. He was suffocated with a plastic bag. The real horror, however, was the threat that if he didn’t confess, the tag team of officers would take him to the end of Doty Road on the edge of Chicago to the city trash dump, “and you won’t be coming back.”

They promised him if he signed a confession, they would let him go home. They coached him what to say. The forced confession, Child writes, “destroyed part of David’s sense of who he was.” Instead of going home, he went to prison for 11 years. More than 20 years later, he was exonerated and released. He still carries body memories of his torture. There are “days where he can’t walk,” Paretsky writes. “The powerlessness he felt at his torturers’ hands sweeps through is body, paralyzing him.”

In “The Fortune Cookie: The Lessons Learned,” Lee Child recounts the case of ex-Marine Kirk Bloodsworth, convicted and sentenced to death for raping and bashing in a 9-year-old girl’s head until she was lifeless. “When torn and bloodied and pulped 9-year-old corpses turn up in small towns… all bets are off,” Child writes. Two little boys who’d been near where the crime occurred provided descriptions of a man they’d seen nearby. After the artist’s sketch was broadcast, Kirk was fingered by a disgruntled neighbor as being the killer. Kirk suspected that the boys were coached in their testimony at his trial. Despite having numerous individuals corroborating his alibi, he was convicted.

Bloodsworth viewed his incarceration in a Maryland prison as “captivity,” and he drew on his Marine prisoner-of-war training to endure it. He’d loved Triumph motorcycles, and during his 10 years in prison, he endlessly disassembled one in his mind, cleaned and oiled the parts, then reassembled it. Evidence was eventually retested using DNA analysis, then a new and relatively little used technology. In 1993, Kirk became the first person on death row to be freed in the country based on such analysis.

“A Study in Sisyphus: Serving Time,” tell the story of Audrey Edmunds, a middle-class, stay-at-home mom who was accused and convicted of the death of a 7-month-old baby she cared in her home in Waunakee, Wisconsin. Gayle Lynds and John Sheldon tell the story of how an autopsy showed cranial bleeding, pointing toward “shaken baby syndrome.” Edmunds was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Lying awake in the middle of the night in her prison bunk, Edmunds was plagued by the “uncontrollable endless cycle of emotions… (how) fear of the guards turned into anger at them, which triggered anger at how the prosecutor had attacked her at trial, which recalled her disbelief at the verdict, and the pain of pubic disgrace, and how unjust the punishment was, and the horror of losing her family, missing (her husband), heartache for her children, despair that her prison time was passing so slowly… an on, and on, and over again.”

Through it all, “hope was the best anesthetic for Audrey’s wheeling emotions.” But hope often dimmed. An appeal was denied. Her husband divorced her, seeking sole custody of the children so he wouldn’t have to take them to see her. She kept to herself, did her work and was a model prisoner. The Wisconsin Innocence Project took up her case, but advancement was intermittent due to law students working on her case leaving at the end of the year. She was told at a parole review hearing that if she would confess, the time to the next hearing would be shortened. But she refused. She did not want to have “‘child murderer’ seared on her forever, poisoning her relationship with everyone, especially her children.”

Eventually, a circuit court of appeals granted her a new trail. Substantial new medical evidence called into doubt the reliability of shaken baby syndrome. The court ruled that the original trial judge’s decision denying a retrial was an abuse of his discretion. Today, Aubrey Edmunds lives quietly in a small Wisconsin town, enjoying her reunification with her four grown children.

A theme running through many of the profiles in the collection is the faith against long odds that justice would win out one day. Another common thread is the work many of the exonerees do after their release on behalf of innocent people who are still imprisoned.

“The Anatomy of Innocence” is a harrowing account of injustice and a tribute to the strength and resiliency of ordinary individuals facing cruel, dehumanizing circumstances. The book is also a tribute to those who work on behalf of their exoneration.

In 2013, U.S. prisons held 2.2 million prisoners – representing 25 percent of incarcerated people worldwide, making America the world’s leading jailer. It is impossible to know how many individuals now incarcerated are innocent, but estimates start around 5 percent. At minimum, that’s 110,000 people.

Whatever the number, it’s an incalculable assault on personal dignity. The foreclosed hopes and dreams – not to mention lost moments of tenderness and intimacy with loved ones – of innocent people punished for crimes they did not commit is nothing short of an American tragedy.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. His novel was also a finalist for the PEN/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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In ‘Saints for All Occasions,’ fate carries 2 sisters across the sea Sun, 07 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 J. Courtney Sullivan’s graceful and addictive novel traces 50 years in the lives of Nora and Theresa Flynn, Irish Catholic immigrant sisters making their way in America. As “Saints for All Occasions” opens, Nora is on the first leg of her journey to Boston, leaving her childhood home in County Clare, when we first bear witness to her life-long conundrum of personhood: She had dreamt of making herself over in America. “Yet here she was, not yet to the front gate,” Sullivan writes, “and it was already clear that Nora was stuck with herself.”

The book moves from that time, when Nora was still a shy yet take-charge 21-year-old traveling with her gregarious 17-year-old sister, through a series of unfortunate events, when Nora becomes a mother and is estranged from Theresa. Fifty years later, having settled on the East Coast, we find the two women reuniting after the death of Nora’s son, Patrick.

After decades of silence, Patrick’s sudden death forces Nora and Theresa to confront the choices they made so long ago that led them to their current lives. Nora is now a staunchly Catholic, bitter matriarch to four colorful children, and Theresa, her intrepid zest for life dimmed, is a cloistered nun living in an abbey in rural Vermont. Following the death, extended family members, too, are profiled in their journeys back home, and through this, we bear witness to the humanity and flaws of Sullivan’s incredibly three-dimensional characters.

The title of the novel comes from a box of prayer cards. Both Nora and Theresa have a devout connection to the Catholic patron saints, steady and reliable constants in their lives, though they fail repeatedly to emulate them. As each sister hopes to find grace in the obstacles they continue to face in their lives (accidental pregnancy, adoption, blackmail, greed, pride), they keep stubbornly refusing humility, emitting an air of condescension for those around them. Sullivan creates portraits of people who never seem willing to rise to the occasion (or will they?), but who are delightful and devastating to know. The characters remind us how stubborn and sensitive we can all be, and it’s difficult not to relate. For example, for four years, Nora attempted (and failed) for Lent to give up criticizing her tomboy daughter’s appearance. Or how once, when the feisty Theresa was a little girl, she was caught bringing a piglet into her bed and was hit on the bottom with a wooden soon. Of this pig incident, Sullivan writes, “It seemed a grave injustice [to Theresa] at the time, but when she thought of it now, she laughed and laughed.” These flawed and lifelike qualities are what makes this book interesting, to say the least, difficult to put down, and impossible not to identify with. And this is what makes Sullivan’s writing so good.

Sullivan is also the author of “Maine,” “Commencement,” and “The Engagements,” three well-received and similarly sprawling novels that chart the long-time coming together of characters around a certain object. She has proven herself adept at creating characters that are entertaining, if not charming, and eminently relatable, and whose stories speak to universal truths. And she places her observations so seamlessly in her character’s minds, that we forget we are reading, but rather we ourselves become the characters we are reading about. After a now-married Nora realizes that her wedding to her childhood boyfriend was less about romance for her than it was about a partnership, Sullivan writes, “Now she saw that marriage was like being in a three-legged race with the same person for the rest of your life. Your hopes, your happiness, your luck, your moods, all yoked to his.”

Sullivan’s technical choice of narrating in the third person affords her the freedom to move in and out of characters and the ability to step back and see the larger landscape of which they’re a part. She submerges the reader in her character’s minds, giving a sense of each person’s isolation. In their heads, we are reminded of the push and pull of freedom and entrapment. In their actions, we are reminded that fate is fate no matter who passes through it. Ultimately, this way of telling a story makes it not only accessible and incredibly readable, but it also gives the reader a fuller sense of how little we can know about someone and how, in the end, the only thing that traps us is ourselves.

“Saints for All Occasional” is episodic and doesn’t have a closing-the-door kind of ending. Life goes on, and on, and on, and Sullivan leaves us with a sense of bewilderment for the inner world of humans, in all their flaws, in all their holiness.

Mira Ptacin is author of the memoir “Poor Your Soul” (Soho Press, 2016) and the forthcoming book “The In-Betweens” (W.W. Norton/Liveright). She lives on Peaks Island. She can be contacted through her website:


CORRECTION: This review was updated at 7:10 p.m. on May 9, 2017, to correct a formatting error in the first paragraph that misrepresented a short excerpt from the book as the reviewer’s own writing. 

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In ‘Mother Land,’ the matriarch is both victim and oppressor Sun, 07 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Mother’s Day quickly approaches, and sons and daughters who wish to stay in their mom’s good graces should think twice before giving Paul Theroux’s new novel as a gift.

Or maybe not. There must be plenty of mothers with sufficiently cultivated senses of humor to be able to appreciate the dark satire of “Mother Land,” the fictional chronicle of one family’s struggles with the most manipulative of matriarchs.

Theroux’s new novel follows the adult members of the large and unruly Justus clan of Cape Cod, in the aftermath of Father’s hospitalization and eventual death. (“We think it’s best that we take him off his ventilator,” Mother announces. “He’s so uncomfortable.”) Although he was viewed as henpecked at home and unsuccessful in his career as a shoe salesman, Father’s demise consolidates Mother’s power in the family and gives her a new lease on life.

A former teacher seen by her neighbors as a pillar of the community, famous for her work ethic, unimpeachable piety and uncomplaining manner, Mother presents an entirely different personality at home, undermining the confidences of her middle-aged children at every available turn.

Eldest son Fred is a lawyer, a respected counselor and giver of wanted advice. The second oldest is Floyd, a caustic poet and university professor, whom Mother “despised and feared.” Next up is JP, the book’s narrator of questionable reliability, a writer who finances his novels through his travel journalism, brooding about his failed marriages and declining sales. The other male siblings include Hubby, a trauma nurse who is also handy around the house, and Gilbert, Mother’s favorite living child, a diplomat rarely in the United States, usually posted to some insanely remote political hotspot.


The female Justuses include Franny and Rose, school teachers who go out of their ways to keep Mother happy with presents of food and trinkets. Finally, there is Angela, who died at birth and therefore never did anything to disappoint her Mother, who claims to maintain a spiritual connection with the long-dead child.

As he recounts his version of his family story, JP acknowledges the unlikelihood of seven siblings existing in any kind of harmony. He writes, “Some of our desperation must have arisen from the fact that we knew our family was too big to survive, too clumsy to flourish, monstrous to behold, the grotesque phenomenon of another century, a furious and isolated tribe at war with itself, ruled over by an unpindownable presence – chairperson of the board, fickle queen, empress of Mother Land.”

The siblings often snipe openly at each other, but behind-the-back mockery is the currency that runs the Justus household. No embarrassing mishap or unintended slight is ever forgotten or forgiven. They are still talking about the trouble Hubby had with bedwetting as a child.

From a throne-like chair in her living room, Mother delights in collecting news and disseminating it wherever it will cause the most inconvenience and emotional damage. JP experiences this tactic firsthand when he confides in his mother about the commitment ring he intends to give his quasi-fiancée. The confidence is broken immediately. Not only do his siblings take umbrage at his secretiveness, but his girlfriend abruptly dumps him.

Mother’s children spend decades aggrieved at her behavior, but none is able to emerge victorious in the colossal battle of wills. When money and real estate become part of the stakes, tempers flare even higher. But even as the health of her offspring declines, Mother hangs in there, shrinking in size while undiminished in influence.

JP is at least able to acknowledge that he doesn’t fully understand his surviving parent. He writes, “I, who had prided myself on my clear sightedness, was confused. It was never completely clear to me if Mother was manipulating those of us she was giving money to, or were these people manipulating her? I looked for a villain. But it was Mother’s genius that she could seem both tyrant and victim, oppressor and oppressed.”

Theroux is a native of Medford, Massachusetts, a onetime student at the University of Maine and a longtime resident of Cape Cod and Hawaii. He is himself one of seven children, among them two other writers, Alexander (“Darconville’s Cat”) and Peter (“Sandstorms”).

Perhaps best known as the author of “The Mosquito Coast,” “The Old Patagonia Express” and “Saint Jack,” Paul Theroux has produced work in a wide variety of genres and styles, from coming-of-age tales to serial killer thrillers, apocalyptic science fiction to travelogues. He is also noted for employing elements of autobiography in his novels and stories.

Page by page, his “Mother Land” is engrossing and amusing, a sharp-eyed domestic comedy of greed, resentment and the ties that strangle. The trouble is, there are an awful lot of pages.

The Justus kids are clearly defined characters, each with recognizable tics and traits, but they don’t change much over time. Episodes of bad behavior are repeated again and again. That’s part of the joke, of course, but some readers may want the plot to develop a bit less repetitively.

Luckily, JP proves to be capable of change. In the book’s final chapters, once Mother is over 100 years old, he finds a way to come to terms with her and what they have meant to each other. Without stooping to sentimentality, the resolution of “Mother Land” is both moving and apt, the comedy and the tragedy deployed in equal measure.

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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Author Anita Shreve on the fury, inspiration and ‘health-giving’ nature of the ocean Sun, 30 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Best-selling author Anita Shreve’s favorite summertime activity, something that’s been drawing her back to the Maine coast for most of her life, is staring at the ocean.

She is constantly amazed at how inspiring, how “health-giving” looking at the shifting surf for hours on end has been for her over the years. Not to mention that it gives her fodder for novels.

Anita Shreve

For her 18th, “The Stars Are Fire,” Shreve was particularly inspired by a detail she read: How Maine’s devastating wildfires of 1947 forced some women, with children, to spend the night in the ocean to save their lives.

The day the book went on sale, April 18, Shreve talked with the Maine Sunday Telegram about it, as well as her long career and her emotional connection to Maine. That same day she drove to a medical appointment and two days later she canceled her book tour. It was scheduled to include two dozen stops and run into late July, ending with a talk in Biddeford Pool.

Shreve, 70, wrote on her Facebook page that she would be undergoing chemotherapy this spring but did not give more details of her illness. She said she hoped to see readers on subsequent tours and that it would be “a thrill” for her to hear from readers while she is recovering. A publicist for publisher Alfred A. Knopf said Shreve would not be disclosing further details of her illness, at least for now.

Meanwhile, the book received the kind of praise appropriate for a writer from whom compelling storytelling is simply expected. A USA Today reviewer said that “The Stars Are Fire” proves again that Shreve is “masterful at creating compelling characters whose inner conversations about love and intimacy are both heartfelt and heartrending.” A Washington Post review lauds the way “Shreve builds suspense with small details.” Even a critical Kirkus review, which laments thin character development, deems the book “worth reading for the period detail and the evocative prose.”

Shreve, whose books have sold 6 million copies, became internationally known when her 1998 novel “The Pilot’s Wife” was picked as an Oprah’s Book Club selection. It was later made into a TV movie on CBS. Her novel “The Weight of Water” was made into a film starring Sean Penn and Elizabeth Hurley and released in theaters.

Shreve, a Massachusetts native who first came to spend summers in Maine as a child, has been a summer resident of the Biddeford Pool area for more than 20 years and lived there year-round for several years as well. She now lives most of the year in Newfields, New Hampshire.

Q: What brought the fires of 1947 to your attention? What made you feel like you could set a novel during that time?

A: When I lived in Maine, I lived (near an area) in which 151 of 156 houses burned, and that would have been along Fortunes Rocks Beach. I would hear people say, “Oh my father remembers that. He took us by where it happened.” And then about a decade ago, I read a book on the fire (“Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned” by Joyce Butler), because I had an interest in it. And then I put the book away. More recently, one detail came to mind that I remembered from that book, that women had to go into the sea to save themselves.

So I began to imagine a woman, named Grace Holland, who lived in a bungalow with two very young children and her husband, Gene, and they are caught in the fire. What’s interesting about any fire in 1947 in Maine is that there was no early warning system. The best you could hope for was a car with a bullhorn on top, driving through town and telling people to evacuate. And if you didn’t have that, the next thing you’d have would be the smell of smoke. The fires broke out along the coast and some inland, around Bar Harbor and in York County, and they all seemed to break out within the same three- or four-day period.

And the reason for that was Maine had been in a situation of intense drought. It really hadn’t rained since the summer began. And, as August went into September, people began to be very alarmed. Not only because of fire, but farmers couldn’t set their seeds because the soil was so dry. The wells went dry. Farmers didn’t have water for their livestock. And of course everyone began to fear for people’s lives. There was a regulation handed down that you could not smoke a cigarette unless you put it out in a jug of water. It wasn’t good enough to put it out on the ground because it might spread.

Q: Do you recall where, what towns, women had to go into the sea because of the fire?

A: I sort of think (in the book by Butler) it was Kennebunk, but I can’t be sure. But many people in Fortunes Rocks went into the sea. It wasn’t just a one-time occurrence. That’s a fairly drastic thing to have to do, to save your life. Tough for a mother to keep her two children from either getting burned or freezing to death in the ocean. York County was very badly hit, Goose Rocks Beach, Cape Porpoise, what is now Arundel.

I want to emphasize I’m not an expert on history. I don’t write historical fiction. I often use a catastrophe or an historical incident, and it’s really a backdrop against which I want to write about my characters.

Q: Is the town in the book based on any one town in Maine?

A: It’s really an amalgam of all those York County towns that burned. I did not want to locate it anywhere, otherwise I’m really not writing fiction. It’s funny about fiction – if you write the exact town then you have to stay very true to the facts of that town and the precise people who lived there. I wanted to imagine Grace Holland and her children, so I had to change the name.

Q: You’ve talked about a house you saw in Maine, a white clapboard house with a mansard roof, that you have used in several of your novels. What specifically about that house caught your eye, or your imagination? And have you ever been in it?

A: I have now. I saw a beautiful white clapboard house with a wrap-around porch right on the water. Upstairs in the mansard roof it had many dormers, suggesting to me many bedrooms. I liked that house so much that, and this is the thing a fiction writer can do, you can pick it up and transfer it pretty much anywhere you want. And I transferred it to the New Hampshire coast. Sometime after “Fortune’s Rocks” came out, I believe, the owners of the house invited me in to see it. What was extraordinary about it was that almost nothing had been done to it. The bedrooms were precisely the same. There was a very primitive kitchen. So many of the features I had imagined for it were actually true.

Q: What time period was it?

A: Call it 1890s. I’ve taken it almost to the present day. I used it for 1929, 1930. I used it in the 1990s for “The Pilot’s Wife” and I used it in the 2000s for “Body Surfing.”

Q: Why did you move it to New Hampshire?

A: Because I didn’t want to bother the people who actually lived there. I wanted to set it off the New Hampshire coast because I had earlier written a novel, called “The Weight of Water,” set there. I should point out though that the house in the new book, “The Stars are Fire,” is not that house.

It’s a bungalow, probably built in the 1920s, a much lesser house. You’d probably say it’s in a working class neighborhood, in Maine.

Q: Your mother, like Grace in the book, would have been raising children in the late 1940s. She had no car and a ringer washer, like Grace. Is Grace modeled, at least somewhat, on your mother?

A: Only so far as her reliance on the neighborhood. We did live in a bungalow. She didn’t have a car. We could only go shopping once a week, when my father got home with his paycheck on Thursday night. Her life was very circumscribed. She was a housewife. She did chores. They were harder to do then than they are now. She didn’t learn to drive until she was in her 40s, I think. She is not a model (for Grace) however, because she and my father had a happy marriage for 56 years. Emotionally, she was never Grace.

Q: A lot of your books have strong women as characters, and on your website you mention women facing difficult circumstances or crisis situations as a theme in some of your writing. Where does that come from?

A: I think it comes from me. Not necessarily in my life. It really stems from writing “The Weight of Water” (1997). The question I asked in that book was, if you take a woman and you push her to the edge, how will she behave? There’s a huge difference between my imagining and my real life. My books are often dark, and I am not a dark person. I have a rich imaginative life, thank God. I used to joke that I’ve probably save thousands of dollars in therapy by being a fiction writer. The older I get, the more I think that might be true.

Q: What do you like to do when you come to Maine?

A: Here’s the deal: When I come to Maine, I sit on the porch and I look at the water. I’m sort of astonished at the number of hours you can spend doing this. You’re not remotely bored. You’re not wishing you were doing something else. You are just absorbing something very, very health-giving. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to meditating. And it’s not formal at all, you sit there and your mind just empties.

Q: Is that why water, or the sea in particular, has a central role in your books?

A: I keep looking at it (laughs). I’ve used that metaphor of the sea in a million ways. I might have exhausted that metaphor, but we’ll see. In “The Stars Are Fire” it saves (Grace’s) life. And in an earlier scene, it’s very menacing, because a woman who lives right on the beachfront is in serious danger of losing her house, because of the tidal surges. She is on the verge of putting sandbags in front of her house because, if the tidal surge gets much higher, she will get flooded out.

Q: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

A: I started writing right after college, and I was a teacher so it really wasn’t very feasible. Then I became a journalist and I did a lot of nonfiction writing, but I knew in my head that I would be a better fiction writer than a non-fiction writer. And so I said to my agent at the time, “I think I’d like to write a novel,” and she said immediately, “Don’t.” And her reasoning was, if you can make a living writing nonfiction, why on earth would you mess that up by trying to write fiction. So I wrote my first novel, “Eden Close” (1989), in secret. Then I showed it to her, and she sold it, and I’ve never looked back.

Q: But when did you know you wanted to write at all?

A: Oh, I knew it while I was teaching (high school English near Boston). And I quit teaching for that reason.

Q: So you didn’t think about writing when you were a kid?

A: (Writing) wasn’t on the radar screen. It’s very different from today. The average 9-year-old is encouraged to be a writer and a novelist. Well, that wasn’t happening in my family, and I don’t think anybody’s family that I knew. The idea was, really, go to (a secretarial school) and be a secretary. That was really the most potent message when I was growing up. My father was a very practical person, he lived through the Depression, and he felt that a really good job to get would be a secretary, and then you’d go be the boss’s secretary. I had different ideas. Although, my father had a great deal of wisdom and I followed it in many instances in life.

Q: Do you set aside the same amount of time every day to write? Or do you write sort of as things come to you?

A: This is now my 18th book. My routine has been the same from the beginning. I write in the morning. Pretty much as soon as I’ve had my coffee I go straight to the desk. The fewer things that intervene between waking up and when I go to the desk, the better off I am. And I often start by reviewing what I’ve done before, so I seldom have to sit at the desk and, just out of whole cloth, write. I edit what I’ve done the day before and that’s kind of the segue into continuing where I left off. And then I’m done by 12:30 or 1 o’clock. You know exactly when you’ve gone too far, because that will be the part that you edit out the next morning.

]]> 0, 29 Apr 2017 17:51:27 +0000
Signings, etc.: Mary E. Plouffe to talk about her memoir of grief Sun, 30 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000

Maine-based clinical psychologist Mary E. Plouffe will talk about her new memoir “I Know It In My Heart: Walking Through Grief with a Child.” The book details Plouffe’s grief following the death of her sister while also caring for her 3-year-old niece. The book gives readers an intimate look at childhood grief, adult sibling loss and the loving family ties that heal.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: Longfellow Books, 1 Monument Way, Portland


INFO:; 772-4045

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In shorter form, Richard Russo sets characters on a path to question the direction of their lives Wed, 26 Apr 2017 17:13:17 +0000 Richard Russo is anything but a minimalist. Don’t expect from him a stark 10-page vignette of some hazily defined protagonist experiencing a moment of enigmatic epiphany before continuing on with his or her ennui-infused life. The author of “Everybody’s Fool,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Empire Falls,” “Straight Man” and five other novels, the Portland writer works best with narratives of a certain heft.

Even when he does work at a shorter length, his stories tend toward the novella end of the scale. Such is the case with his first collection of short(er) fiction since “The Whore’s Child” in 2002. In “Trajectory,” Russo presents a quartet of stories that explore some of his familiar themes in new and revealing ways.

There is no individual piece titled “Trajectory.” Rather, each selection focuses on characters in early to late middle age questioning the direction, velocity and impact of their lives. Sometimes the characters’ self-assessments land far from the mark; sometimes they hit uncomfortably close to the bull’s-eye.

The collection’s opener, “Horseman,” takes its title from the poem “Windy Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson. (“All night long in the dark and wet,/A man goes riding by.”) As she prepares to confront a student suspected of plagiarism, English professor Janet Moore hears the stanzas echoing in her head for reasons she can’t define, even as they remind her of her own humiliating encounter with Marcus Bellamy, an “academic superstar” from her grad-school years.

Before becoming a full-time writer, Russo taught at Colby College. It’s no surprise that “Horseman” so impeccably captures the language of academe, the conversational give and take between colleagues, the rhetorical arguments employed by students caught breaking the rules.

Even as she considers her own current failures and disappointments, Janet finds herself dwelling on the past. Years ago, after witnessing an act of kindness by her supposed nemesis, Janet listened to Bellamy talk about “the greatest of mysteries”: what it feels like to be another person. “Literature. Life. They give us tiny glimpses, leaving us hungry for more,” he said.

Here in the present, as Thanksgiving break commences and the havoc of the extended weekend gears up, Janet re-evaluates her career, her marriage, her success as a parent. She acknowledges how hungry she has become behind the walls of protection she has built for herself. Her renewed self-assessment is heartbreaking, even as it leads to the possibility of hope and connection.

At nearly 100 pages, “Voices” is the longest piece in “Trajectory.” It also may be the most thematically substantial and accomplished.

At the end of his academic career, haunted by his unintentional mishandling of one of his students, Nate finds himself part of a group tour of the Venice Biennale. Part of the rationale for the trip is a reunion with Julian, his semi-estranged brother. Nate’s sibling seems to have reconsidered engaging in any way except through cryptic insults.

On the first day of the trip, Nate gets separated from his group and ends up wandering through the sinking city, never sure of where he’s going, relying on a malfunctioning smart phone to provide clues of his whereabouts.

As his frustration grows, Nate’s reactions are hilarious yet tinged with a deep sense of sadness. All he wants is some genuine contact with someone – his ex-fiancee; a pretty, recently divorced fellow tourist; even his disagreeable brother. By the story’s end, Russo demonstrates again how adept he is at conveying the plight of older men mired in confusion, as well as how carefully he constructs the possibility of eventual understanding.

“Intervention,” set during the Great Recession, focuses on Ray, a Maine real estate broker with health and money issues, trying to unload a house whose owner can’t seem to cut the final tie with her possessions. Ray wants to motivate his client to clean up the property, but he’s also distracted by fending off the ministrations of a pushy friend who wants him to see a new doctor.

Richard Russo
Photo by Elena Seibert

At the center of “Intervention” lies the puzzle of what happened to sour the relationship between Ray’s father and the older man’s brother. As in “Voice,” family ties prove paradoxically confining and fragile, and Russo drives the point home with a deft touch.

The volume’s final story, “Milton and Marcus,” takes place in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but is really set on the psychological outskirts of Hollywood. The story alternates between the narration of lapsed novelist Ryan and the old, unfinished script that may be his lifeline to medical insurance for his ailing spouse.

Russo has written the occasional screenplay, for adaptations of his own work, including “Nobody’s Fool” and “Empire Falls,” and on projects originated by others – “The Ice Harvest” and “Twilight.” Over the years, he seems to have picked up on the mind games played by the celebrated and the talented, and he delights in delineating a twisty La La Land double-cross.

“Milton and Marcus” is cleverly observed, but somehow it’s not as involving as the other stories in “Trajectory.” It’s often dangerous to introduce a story within a story, and in this case, the excerpts from Ryan’s script, even though they comment on the primary narrative, are not as engaging. The momentum of the tale slows whenever they are introduced, but the main story has enough satirical energy to avoid stalling out.

Last year’s “Everybody’s Fool” was the kind of big, robust, expansive work on which Russo has built his reputation. It would be ungrateful to ask for a follow-up of similar size so soon. But despite its slimmer page-count, “Trajectory” is a worthwhile trade-off – cogent, wry and satisfying in its own right. These shorter pieces only confirm Russo’s status as one of the most justly celebrated American writers.

Freelance writer Michael Berry is a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who has contributed to the Boston Globe, New Hampshire Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times and many other publications.

Twitter: @mlberry

]]> 0, 29 Apr 2017 20:00:38 +0000
Doree Shafrir softly skewers Silicon Valley in ‘Startup’ Sun, 23 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 A few years back, an article in The Atlantic explored the parallels between Wall Street and Silicon Valley. The writer hedged his bets, declaring more than once his warm feelings toward the Valley and positioning the article as a cautionary comparison, to prevent the greed and misogyny of the 1980s bankers from taking root in the entrepreneurs of the 21st century.

Would that it were so simple.

In her novel, “Startup,” Doree Shafrir smartly – but lovingly – skewers tech culture, its grandiose leaders and the naivety of thinking that good intentions, lots of money and a mindset of fun will prevent bad behaviors in the workplace.

Mack McAllister embodies much of that thinking. His company is a “startup” in the parlance of the technology sector, meaning basically that they’re operating on good intentions and the saleability of themselves as a future profit-printing-machine. To bear that designation, it’s also key that the company be poised to go big, and quickly – one restaurant isn’t a startup.

Mack’s company, TakeOff, has been developing an app to help workers take breaks and other self-care measures throughout the day. It’s already proving popular, and TakeOff is on the verge of securing a pile of money toward expanding broadly and quickly.

Running parallel to the tech industry are the media that have sprung up around it. It’s as much, if not more, a key element of the story, this look at how the news gets reported. Shafrir knows this well – she’s a senior culture writer at Buzzfeed News. Katya Pasternack is the ambitious young tech reporter in the story, feeling pressure from her website’s managing editor, Dan Blum, to break open a big story. Shafrir writes cuttingly about this industry, where stories are repackaged, retitled and disseminated widely and quickly across social media, while few actual news stories get traction.

On one side of the story is Mack, his company and his employees, who are mostly (and probably intentionally) interchangeable, one-dimensional characters. Two of them, Sabrina and Isabel, have larger roles to play. Isabel had recently been sleeping with Mack, a secret they kept from everybody else in the office. Sabrina is 10 years older and is married to Dan.

Mack, being Mack, is often given to petulant musings about things in life he has been denied. Isabel has moved on to a relationship with somebody else, but Mack wants to continue with her and one night makes the ill-considered decision to send her illicit pictures of himself. Isabel’s phone happens to be on a counter at a get-together when the notification appears, right in front of Katya and Sabrina. Katya sees it and uses her own phone to photograph the picture.

Katya knows she has an explosive scoop, one that needs to be known, and Dan – for reasons both professional and personal – wants to see Katya succeed. Sabrina’s marriage to Dan has been faltering, and work has become the only place she feels valued, and so she doesn’t know what to do with this new information.

Doree Shafrir Photo by Willy Somma

When Isabel asks Sabrina about how sexual harassment has changed over time – Sabrina is 10 years older – she says that harassment used to be more blatant, that guys could get away with more back then. She also acknowledges that the same things are happening today but have become harder to recognize with social media and technology changing the ways we interact.

Shafrir writes from inside the belly of the beast, dropping in commentary on various aspects of Silicon Valley culture, like the Googlers with their dreams of changing the world, their not-actually-revolutionary employment at Google, the “golden handcuffs” of their everything-provided workplaces that keep them from quitting.

The storytelling in “Startup” generates its own momentum, with the characters wrestling with thorny questions of loyalty, justice, consequences and relationships in ways that reject easy answers. It only loses that momentum when Shafrir indulges the characters’ internal monologues – a lengthy inventory of the contents of a handbag don’t serve any essential need – but these are minor bumps in the road.

Shafrir may, in some ways, be reinventing the wheel with “Startup,” but a novel doesn’t necessarily need to be astonishingly different in order to draw the reader in. It’s a familiar and engrossing story populated with people who want to see themselves as the next Mark Zuckerberg, or the next Bob Woodward, but can’t get out of each other’s – and their own – way.

Matt Tiffany is a mental health counselor and writer whose work has appeared in the Star Tribune, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Kansas City Star, Barnes & Noble Book Review and many other publications. He has always lived in Maine. He may be contacted at:

]]> 0, 21 Apr 2017 17:40:55 +0000
Book signing: Roger Guay and Kate Clark Flora Sun, 23 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Roger Guay and Kate Clark Flora will talk about their book “A Good Man with a Dog: A Retired Game Warden’s 25 Years in the Maine Woods.” The memoir recounts Guay’s nearly-25-year adventures as a Maine Warden Service officer and a K9 master trainer and certified K9 handler, along with his frequent companion, a little brown lab who was adept at finding discarded weapons, ejected shells, hidden fish and missing people.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: Louis B. Goodall Memorial Library, 952 Main St., Sanford


INFO: 324-4714,

]]> 0, 21 Apr 2017 18:49:46 +0000
Books for ticker Thu, 20 Apr 2017 15:29:15 +0000 0 Tue, 20 Jun 2017 13:46:53 +0000 Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel focuses on troubled lives at home Wed, 19 Apr 2017 14:12:27 +0000 Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, “Anything Is Possible” is a stunner. It is unblinking in its psychological portrayals of a cast of characters raised in socially impaired households in a small, Northern Illinois community.

The book is a sequel, of sorts, to Strout’s novel, “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” a story of the long shadow cast by a childhood spent in such a milieu. At the same time, Strout’s new book has creative resonances akin to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Olive Kitteridge,” in that both provide refracted glimpses of place seen through a series of linked stories. In her new novel, a score of major and minor characters are drawn in such rich, crisp detail that they sear the heart.

The character Lucy Barton has a significant if distant presence in “Anything Is Possible,” remaining off stage in New York City until the very end. Lucy has become a famous writer and a wife and mother, but she hasn’t escaped the shadow of being told throughout childhood that she “came from nothing,” from a family that was dirt poor, living in a shabby garage where she and her two siblings fed themselves by scavenging in dumpsters and were publicly castigated as society’s bottom dwellers. In “Anything Is Possible,” Lucy’s sister and brother remain sad outcasts on the periphery of the community where they grew up.

The main narrative is largely driven by portraits of the people the Barton kids grew up around, such as the “Pretty Nicely Girls,” Patty and Linda. Patty is now divorced and works as the guidance counselor at the high school. Linda married money and is a snob but lives a barren existence with a darkly perverted husband – though she and her husband are pillars and benefactors in the community.

What went on inside the Nicely girls’ childhood household, however, scarred them. Linda, despite her lavish lifestyle living in a glass house with no curtains and paintings by Picasso and Edward Hopper hanging on the walls, continues to refer to Lucy Barton as “trash.” In stark contrast, Patty comes away from reading Lucy’s new memoir feeling that Lucy completely “understood her.” Patty was especially struck by the line in the memoir about “how people were always looking to feel superior to someone else.”

Then, there’s the story of Charlie Macauley who went off to Vietnam and came back utterly changed. His marriage, so promising when he and his wife first met in college, turned out to be empty of substance, like scenes depicted in Peoria department store windows: You “could buy a snow blower or a nice wool dress for your wife, but beneath it all people were rats scurrying off to find garbage to eat, another rat to hump, making a nest in broken bricks, and soiling it so sourly that one’s contribution to the world was only more excrement.”

Harsh, dark gleanings.

But all is not bleak. There are moments of grace, too. As in a flashback when big-hearted Tommy Guptill, the high school janitor, showed compassion to the young Lucy Barton by not disturbing her when she stayed after school, alone, near a classroom heater to study where it was warm. Or when Angelina, who works with Patty Nicely at the high school, finally flies off to Italy to visit her mother who, after 51 years, escaped a mean, philandering husband to then go and marry a virtual stranger. Her mother escaped not just a bad marriage but also a lifetime of people looking down on her for growing up poor. Angelina struggles to understand how her mother’s life in a seedy apartment with a boorish Italian husband could ever justify her mother abandoning her daughter and everything that was familiar in Illinois. Angelina watches from a window in the apartment as her aging mother enjoys her daily ritual of sitting on a bench in front of the sea in the evening. She sees her mother suddenly rise and go to an old, tottering man as he crosses the street, taking him by the arm to assist him: “It was surprising to Angelina how quickly her mother moved to him; in the light from the streetlight Angelina saw the old man’s face, and it was not just the way he smiled up at her mother, it was the humanness of his expression, and his warmth and depth of his appreciation… Angelina saw then her mother’s face briefly in the light as well. Perhaps it was the angle of the light, but her mother’s face had a momentary brilliance upon it…” The two below on the street chat briefly and then the old man goes off, her mother returning to sit on her bench, looking out to sea.

The poignancy of Strout’s story sharpens in the last third of the novel, which includes Lucy Barton’s return from New York City to visit her brother, Peter, and her sister, Vicky. It is a ruthless scene – ruthlessness, interestingly, being something that Lucy was told as a young writer is essential to vibrant storytelling. The ruthlessness in the siblings’ reunion, however, turns to something touchingly humane, dissolving the estrangement that has long held them.

Strout strips away the false drapery of social class, revealing notions of sophistication as mere gildings of dress, manners and home décor. As Strout tells the story of Dottie, a Barton cousin, who likewise “came from nothing,” Dottie observes that “culture included class, which of course nobody ever talked about in this country because it wasn’t polite… (and) because they didn’t really understand what it was.”

The last two chapters intimate a pointed shift in the narrative, raising the question of whether the story is spinning away from the author. But what the ending two chapters offer is an invitation behind the stage curtain of human drama, where illusions and pretenses are cast away.

Strout’s gifts as a storyteller are evocative of Edward Hopper’s captured moments of American life. Like Hopper, in “Anything Is Possible,” Strout leaves impressions you’ll not soon forget.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer and ghostwriter whose novel, DREAM SINGER, was named as a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize, and named a Notable Book of the Year in literary fiction by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. Smith can be reached via his website:

]]> 0©-.jpgElizabeth StroutFri, 21 Apr 2017 14:07:02 +0000
Coming soon: The latest from three Maine Pulitzer winners Sun, 09 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Pulitzer Prize winners Richard Ford, Richard Russo and Elizabeth Strout will each publish a new book this spring. All three works represent a departure from the storytelling for which the authors are best known.

“Anything Is Possible,” by Elizabeth Strout. Release date: April 25

This book jumps directly off from last year’s bestseller, “My Name Is Lucy Barton.” Its narrative spotlights supporting characters from the previous book.

Strout said she wrote the books in tandem.

“Lucy’s mother is with her in the hospital and they’re talking about different people from Lucy’s background, and I would think to myself, ‘Hold on, let’s write a story about Mississippi Mary.’ I would push Lucy aside and scratch down scenes from these other stories. In my mind, it was sort of all of one piece. But it stands on its own as a book, as well.”

“Trajectory,” by Richard Russo. Release date: May 2

The story collection includes four long pieces, set in academe in Maine, Venice and Wyoming.

“It’s all stories about the trajectory of people’s lives,” Russo said. “A lot of them are middle-aged or older people who look at their lives and think to themselves, ‘How did I get here?’ Who were they when they were young and what decisions did they make that brought them to this particular place in time where they are questioning everything?”

“Between Them,” by Richard Ford. Release date: May 2

“Between Them” is a memoir of Ford’s parents’ marriage.

A traveling salesman, the elder Ford was absent from home during the workweek. He died of a heart attack in Ford’s arms when the boy was 16.

“The real challenge for me was that my memory was not very full of information about him,” Ford said about writing the memoir. “A lot of time had gone by, and I had tried to do what I always do, which is accumulate information. Every memory I had of him, everything he might have said, I wrote it all down.”

As hard as it was to write about his parents, Ford is pleased with the results.

“I think I did as good a job as maybe I’ve ever done at writing something,” he said. “But I had a long, long time to think about it.”

– Michael Berry

]]> 0 Sat, 08 Apr 2017 14:04:18 +0000
Crime Wave conference features discussion about real-life crime in Maine Sun, 09 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 This year’s Crime Wave conference for mystery writers will feature Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, who will talk about real-life crime in Maine. The day-long conference, on April 22 at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, also will honor Maine mystery writer Tess Gerritsen, who will receive the inaugural CrimeMaster Award at a reception on April 21 at the Gilman Family Library on the USM campus.

The conference will include discussions with authors and agents, and sessions designed to help writers improve their craft. Agents will talk about how to write an effective query letter, new writers will talk about how they got published, and veteran writers will talk about turning ideas into published books. Among those who will participate: Richard J. Cass, Kate Flora and James Hayman.

The conference is presented by the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. For details, visit

]]> 0 author Tess Gerritsen has been dealt a setback as she seeks some of the profits from the film version of “Gravity,” a book she wrote.Fri, 07 Apr 2017 16:51:36 +0000
In her fourth memoir, Dani Shapiro smartly tells her true story Sun, 09 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 How many memoirs can one person write in a lifetime?

Four, and counting, if the person happens to be bestselling author Dani Shapiro. The self-professed serial memoirist started her career as a fiction writer. She never envisioned writing a memoir, much less several. Then life detoured in unexpected ways.

A family tragedy, the author’s spiritual odyssey and her blog on the creative process led to three separate memoirs. And after each one, she swore she had written her last. Until, of course, her latest book materialized. “Hourglass” is a minimalist study of time and marriage, a meditation that’s intimate, wide-ranging, funny and smart.

“I wanted to write about marriage – my quite contented, happy marriage,” Shapiro says. “But I wanted to inquire: What is it to form oneself alongside and against and with another human being when you really do believe you’re in it for the duration? What is the beauty, the challenge, the inevitable disappointment of that?”

The author spoke recently from her home in Connecticut about Wendell Berry and woodpeckers, privacy and pattern-making. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Your book is so thought-provoking. I wonder if readers may consider it a springboard to examine their own lives.

A: I have been hearing from early readers that it makes people think of their own relationships. As I was finishing writing the book, I realized this is a love story in a lot of ways – a very grown-up love story. Someone just said to me that it should be a book that every mother-of-the-bride gives to her daughter. I loved that anyone would think of it that way – both emotionally instructive and gentle enough, too. It has things in it that are really saying, “It’s not about the bouquet, honey.”

Dani Shapiro Photo by Kwaku Alston

Q: You talk about the writer needing distance from the material, yet writing before the story becomes a “story.”

A: In recent years, that’s what has been most exciting to me as a writer: Finding a way to give shape to something that doesn’t yet have the shape of memory. Memory makes a shape out of things; it’s a story that we tell ourselves. And it’s always different. Memory changes each time we remember.

Q: Talk about fake news!

A: Right. Memory is a version of fake news. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a permanent truth. Our memories and our stories continue to shift as the years go by. All a memoir is doing is capturing this moment. It’s a snapshot of a life from the vantage point of the moment when the writer is telling the story.

Q: You’ve written about readers feeling that they know you better than they do. They assume that your memoirs are interchangeable with the person even though the book is a finished, finite thing.

A: And the book is also crafted. Ultimately it’s really a compliment. “This was so real to me, I feel that I know you, having read it.” And very often their next question is, “Does this make you feel exposed?” And it always strikes me that I don’t. I always sort of feel, well, should I?

Q: In the book, you raise the question about how much of the truth to tell.

A: The way I talk about it with my students is what do you leave in, and what do you leave out. I don’t feel that the writer of memoir owes the reader “the whole story.” It’s not autobiography. You haven’t picked up my book because you’re necessarily interested in me as a memoirist, the way you’d be interested in Barack or Michelle Obama’s book in a couple of years. You’re picking up their books because you’re interested in them – and therefore, everything goes in. Whereas with memoir, ultimately, it is a story – small “s” story – that the memoirist is telling.

So in “Hourglass,” I was very aware that the specific crevasse that I was mining was my younger self through time, my marriage through time. And anything that didn’t illuminate that in some way just didn’t belong.


Q: And where do you draw the line on privacy?

A: You know, I never think about my own privacy when I’m writing memoir. I do think about the privacy of others. I’ve always been extremely conscious of my son’s privacy. With my husband, it’s funny because I’d never really written about him before. I shared every page of “Hourglass” with him as I was writing. If he had, at any point, said to me, “I would really rather you not write this book,” I wouldn’t have written this book.

In the end, my family is more important to me than any single book.

Q: Tell me about the book’s structure.

A: It was more or less written chronologically. I didn’t have an outline. I had pattern-making in mind. With mosaic-style writing, which is a form that I absolutely adore, the writer has to be aware of white space and repetition, and a sense that mosaic ultimately does have a pattern to it. But the pattern isn’t uniform. For example, in “Hourglass,” there’s a woodpecker.

Q: I loved the woodpecker! I know exactly what you’re talking about!

A: Every person I talk to who lives in the country says, “I know the woodpecker! We have a woodpecker.” I love that. But, you know, once the woodpecker appears, he has to appear again. These things that are set in motion – the tidying up of the house, the basement, the woodpecker – have to return, and they don’t return in a narrative arc. They return in a kind of pattern-making. So there’s a math to it, a calculus that’s incredibly complicated.

It feels like the entire equation of the book has to be held in the writer’s head.

Q: As I was reading, I was very aware of the accumulation of pieces, the patchwork. I would think an enormous part of your work was just arranging the sequence of sections.

A: The way the passages lay out on the page, getting them exactly right, was of critical importance in this book. You know, what bumps up against what forms the music of it, in a way.

Q: When you started this project, did you plan to interweave all those phrases and passages from other authors that you’d collected over the years?

A: I think I did. I started very early on with a Wendell Berry quote, and then a quote from Joan Didion. It’s something that I’ve always done. In fact I had to hold back from doing more of it because I love the wisdom of others.

A friend told me that what I was doing for years with these notebooks of quotations was keeping commonplace books. I just hadn’t known what they were called. To me, they were my anti-Twitter. They were where I would go to slow down, and write something thoughtful, and something I wanted to remember and internalize.

But, yes, absolutely, I had wanted “Hourglass” to be almost a commonplace book of marriage.

Q: Using so many quotes from different authors has such an intriguing additive effect. It allows the book to open out more to the world.

A: Memoir, when done well, is an act of generosity. It’s such a misunderstanding of the form when people talk about the writer being overly self-involved or narcissistic. Memoir has to do with the aerial view. To be able to recognize the stories, the symbols, the ideas within one’s life is not to be blind to oneself.

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

]]> 0 ShapiroMon, 10 Apr 2017 10:00:50 +0000
The Pulitzer graces winners and Maine Sun, 09 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 The Pulitzer Prizes got their start in Maine.

Joseph Pulitzer reportedly conceived the idea for the annual awards recognizing excellence in journalism and letters while at his estate near Bar Harbor in 1902. Following the newspaper magnate’s death in 1911 and based on a bequest in his will, the Pulitzer Prizes finally came to fruition in 1917.

Maine has had its share of winners in the 100 years that have passed since, starting with Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards of Gardiner, who was recognized in the Pulitzers’ first year for a biography she wrote with her sister of their mother, Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist, suffragist and writer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Richard Ford Photo by Greta Rybus

Three current best-selling Maine writers – literary figures of very different temperaments, perspectives and backgrounds, but Mainers all, in their own ways – share at least one aspect in common. Elizabeth Strout, Richard Russo and Richard Ford each have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Ford’s “Independence Day,” the second novel featuring real estate agent Frank Bascombe, took the Pulitzer honor in 1996 and earned him a PEN/William Faulkner Award the same year. Russo’s turn came six years later, when he was honored for “Empire Falls,” the story of a Maine mill town in decline. In 2009, Strout won the award for “Olive Kitteridge,” a novel-in-stories about a prickly, small-town math teacher in Maine.

Novels hold a special place among the Pulitzer winners, Mike Pride, former editor of the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and administrator of the prizes, wrote in an email.

“Fiction is a special kind of truth-telling through imagination, character and narrative,” he said. “The winners over the years represent the American story in a special way. They inhabit many corners of life, sometimes reflecting history, sometimes reaching beyond it.”

Elizabeth Strout Photo by Leonardo Cendamo

That certainly applies to the work of Ford, Russo and Strout. On the eve of this year’s awards, set to be announced Monday, the three writers share what the Pulitzers have meant to them and to Maine.


“That was quite a day,” Strout, 61, said of the date when the Pulitzers were awarded in 2009. “I had been doing a lecture tour on the West Coast, and they had parked me in Las Vegas for the weekend. This fellow in charge of the event was driving me to the airport, and I noticed that my cellphone had a lot of messages on it. But I didn’t think it was polite to listen to them while I was chatting with (the driver.) Then his cell went off, and it was my agent trying to get a hold of me to tell me that I had won the Pulitzer.”

Russo, 67, was closer to home when the news arrived in 2002.

“I remember that I had written it off,” he said. Each year, the Pulitzer is the last of the major literary awards to be announced, and “Empire Falls” had not even been shortlisted for any other awards.

Russo, living in Camden at the time, kept his appointment for tennis with a friend. He arrived home later than usual and found his wife, Barbara, coming out of the house. “I took one look at her face and thought, ‘Either someone we love has died or I won the Pulitzer Prize.’ ”

Richard Russo Photo by Elena Seibert

Ford, 73, was at a writers festival in Rennes, France, when he got the Pulitzer nod. A dinner companion’s cell rang, but the call was for Ford, from his editor in Paris.

“He said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ ‘Yes, I’m sitting down.’ I thought he was going to tell me something terrible.”

But Ford said he never doubted the welcome news. “Anybody who said they didn’t believe (the news of the award) is lying, because I did believe it. I just thought, which is fairly typical of me, ‘Well, someone had to win.’ ”

There’s no doubt that a Pulitzer significantly affects a writer’s life.

“It brought me a lot more readers,” Strout said. “As far as what it’s done for my writing, I think that I have always been writing as best I can. That’s stayed the same. My responsibility to my readers has always been there, even when I didn’t have as many.”

To Ford, the award was validation.

“Most writers operate with a sense that they would like to be able to certify to themselves and to the world that they can actually do this vocation that is writing novels,” he said. “When I won the Pulitzer Prize, it made me think, ‘OK, you can do this.’ ”

Russo echoed Ford in the sense of validation that comes with a Pulitzer, the idea that “your talent has been spent wisely.” Plus, he said, the Pulitzer sells.

“Economically, I don’t think there’s another prize, not even the Booker, that sells more books than the Pulitzer,” he said.


The positive impact can also extend to authors’ local communities. Their literary profiles have allowed these three authors to support various nonprofits and educational institutions in Maine.

In 2015, Ford and his wife hosted the 40th anniversary fundraiser for the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. Russo takes an active role at The Telling Room literacy program in Portland. And both Russo and Strout have read and discussed their work in benefits for Wayfinder Schools.

For a state of its size and population, Maine boasts an impressive number of writers accomplished enough to have won a Pulitzer for fiction. In addition to Strout, Russo and Ford, recent recipients with significant connections to Maine include Annie Proulx, Michael Chabon and Paul Harding. Bowdoin College graduate Anthony Doerr won in 2015 for “All the Light We Cannot See.”

Maine is also well represented by winners in other categories of the Pulitzer Prizes.

Recipients include biographer David McCullough; two-time winner in the history category Alan Shaw Taylor; poets Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edward Arlington Robinson and Robert P.T. Coffin; and “special” prize recipients E.B. White and historical novelist Kenneth L. Roberts.

Reflecting on the abundance of Maine-connected writers, Strout suggested the state offers an inspiring setting.

“There’s certainly something about it for me,” she said. “The physical beauty of Maine is astonishing (and) there is a kind of isolation from the rest of the world, making possible the life of the mind to grow.”

Whatever reason for the seemingly outsized impact of Maine on the Pulitzers, Ford, Russo and Strout all said they feel their relationship to Maine is special.

Ford hails from Jackson, Mississippi, and now resides with his wife, Kristina, in East Boothbay.

“I’ve never lived anyplace as long as I’ve lived in Maine in my 73 years,” he said. “I came (to East Boothbay) because I wanted to live beside the ocean and I wanted to live in a really nice house, and I couldn’t afford any place south of there.”

“I find Mainers to be – at least the ones in my community – very accepting,” he said. “They’re used to people who are, as they say, ‘from away.’ But they’re also perfectly cordial.”

Ford also noted that he does not claim to be from Maine.

“I just go along as a Mississippian who happens to live in Maine,” he said. “They completely allow me to be who I am.”

Russo grew up in Gloversville, in upstate New York, and came to Maine in the 1990s to teach at Colby College. He had worried about being accepted by his new neighbors, at least until he received the Pulitzer.

“I remember the headline read, ‘Maine author captures Pulitzer.’ Wow! Not only wow for the Pulitzer Prize, but wow for that headline,” he said. “I was being accepted as a Maine author. It made me feel really good.”

Partly to be closer to his two daughters and his grandchildren, Russo now lives in downtown Portland.

“My roots here in Maine have just gotten deeper and deeper,” he said. “So it has evolved over the years from wondering how will the state react, to a kind of comfort knowing that my work has been embraced by people here.”

Unlike Russo or Ford, Strout is a Maine native. She was born in Portland, raised in South Harpswell and in Durham, New Hampshire, and now lives in New York City while maintaining a home in Brunswick.

“I am very much from Maine,” Strout said. “My parents were from Maine, my grandparents. … Maine is always with me.”

Strout said it took moving away from Maine, to New York more than 30 years ago, to realize what her Maine heritage meant. Eventually, she realized Maine wasn’t only her home. It was her subject.

“I had to be that removed for a number of years to realize that there was some low-bubbling feeling that drew me back to Maine,” she said.

Apart from their own good fortune, all three authors said they value the purpose of the Pulitzer Prizes in general. For Russo, the journalism awards carry a special importance.

“The prizes that are given for news reporting not only make individual people’s careers, but I think they’re the lifeblood of the democracy,” he said. “We’re living at a point in time when the president of the United States is labeling the press the enemy of the people. The Pulitzers suggest the very opposite of that, that the press is absolutely essential to a working democracy and that the work the best journalists do is nothing less than a patriotic act.”

The prize has been important to Strout ever since she learned at a young age that Rockland native Edna St. Vincent Millay won in the poetry category.

While this is an important year for the Pulitzer Prize, it’s an important time for fiction, too, she noted.

“When I was young, I realized fiction was a way of finding out what it might feel like to be another person,” she said. “This thrilled me then and still does. So let me add that, in spite of the state of the world right now – and maybe because of it – fiction is arguably more important than ever.”

Freelance writer Michael Berry is a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who has contributed to the Boston Globe, New Hampshire Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times and many other publications. Twitter: @mlberry

]]> 0, 09 Apr 2017 07:26:10 +0000
Memorable characters drive Ellen Meeropol’s ‘Kinship of Clover’ Sun, 02 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Ellen Meeropol’s new novel, “Kinship of Clover,” is heartbreaking and haunting, with a cast of finely drawn and deeply memorable characters.

There is Jeremy, a college sophomore and a botany major who is overwhelmed by the daily extinction of plants and who still suffers from the trauma of the deaths of two half siblings when he was boy. He sonorously recites strings of the Latin names of lost plants like a funeral dirge on his college radio show. “He savored how the Latin names balanced on his tongue, draped across his teeth, and fell from his lips. He didn’t speak their language, but he was fluent in its elegies,” writes Meerepol, who lives in Massachusetts and earned a master of fine arts from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. In his darkness moments, Jeremy secretly suffers delusions of plant tendrils growing from his arms.

And there is Zoe, a 16-year-old girl who uses a wheelchair and believes everyone holds powerful contrasting elements within. “I am able-bodied and impaired, whole and broken,” she says at one point in her journey of first love.

Flo, Zoe’s grandmother, was a firebrand as a young radical during the 1960s. Her grip on memory is eroding steadily under the advance of Alzheimer’s. Yet she is still fighting injustice, while also dispensing heartfelt guidance during moments of lucidity.

All good stories turn on conflict, but there is a plethora of discord and tension in “Kinship of Clover.” At times, it almost overwhelms the story, requiring attentive reading so as not to get lost in the entangling threads of drama.

Jeremy and his twin brother, Tim, grew up in a commune with numerous children and parents – but few adults. The commune ultimately collapses following a midnight bonfire in the woods during a snowstorm, a festival of music, dancing and drinking. Amidst the exuberance, Jeremy and Tim’s younger half-sister and -brother wander away and die of exposure. Their father is arrested for negligence and is sent to prison. Growing up, Jeremy can’t escape memories of the event, while Tim does everything he can to suppress them.

Zoe’s life is likewise complicated, living in a three-unit house, she and her mother on one floor, grandmother Flo on another, and her father – divorced from her mother – on the third.

Flo continues to maintain weekly contact with a cohort of women who’ve known each other since they were young political agitators. Her friends grow increasingly concerned at Flo’s inability to remain connected to the here-and-now. Flo, in turn, grows evermore absorbed by a dark secret from her distant past that she has never shared with anyone.

When people at Jeremy’s college become alarmed by his bizarre behavior, a woman at campus health services encourages him to visit his brother in Brooklyn. Though deeply bonded by their childhood, they couldn’t be more different – at least on the surface.

While in Brooklyn, Jeremy becomes acquainted with a group of young eco-terrorists. His brief, cursory association is enough to attract the attention of the FBI when the group’s activities turn violent.

Tumult and trouble is everywhere, but those with the most to lose, when asked how they’re doing, repeatedly assert, “I’m fine.” What they are actually doing is the best they can under the circumstances.

Jeremy and Zoe go to visit her grandmother in the assisted living unit she’s forced to enter. At one point, Flo stresses that what distinguishes a person as a radical is “making the commitment and following through, no matter what the consequences.”

Jeremy asks if she really believes that: “Because the consequences can be huge.”

“What happened to you… (t)o make you ask about consequences”? Flo asks. Before he can answer, she drifts off again, leaving Jeremy to ponder the existential question on his own.

Flo seizes hold of a moment of clarity in a subsequent visit to finally answer his question: “Whatever action you take… make sure that when the smoke clears… you can live with what you did.”

Flo’s succinct and cogent answer is central to the lives of all major characters in the story. And Meeropol’s close crafting of their storylines proves in the end to be both moving and wise.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize and a Notable Book of the Year in literary fiction by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. Smith can be contacted at his website:

]]> 0, 31 Mar 2017 16:12:13 +0000
‘Ice Ghosts’ tells the tale of an ill-fated expedition’s Arctic end Sun, 02 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Some books come with a soundtrack. With “Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition,” it’s hard not to hear the arching baritone of the late Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers keening about “the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea.”

It’s a chilling image, given our knowledge of how Britain’s Sir John Franklin set out in 1845 with two ships and 128 men to seek an open trade route through the Arctic to the Pacific – and disappeared.

Not until 2014 and 2016 were the Terror and Erebus finally discovered, sitting upright on the ocean floor, the culmination of decades of work by dozens of searchers.

Paul Watson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, tells how Inuit lore, British pride and modern technology often worked at cross-purposes, and also how people, sometimes for no logical reason, became obsessed with the ill-fated expedition.

“Ice Ghosts” is in three parts: the expedition, the initial search and the modern-day attempts. Drawing only from historic documents for parts one and two, Watson’s account is as exhaustively detailed as one would expect from an ace reporter but also, understandably, a little lifeless.

Franklin was desperate to repair a tarnished reputation when he persuaded the Royal Navy to let him lead a third attempt to discover the lucrative trade route.

When the ships failed to return, Lady Franklin was relentless in demanding and often funding search expeditions. But bad luck, a dismissiveness of Inuit accounts and the vastness of the Arctic led to failure. With Lady Franklin’s death in 1875, it appeared that the mystery would remain.

But the search and Watson’s writing are reinvigorated in part three. In Watson’s long relationship with an Inuk named Louis Kamookak is a deeper message revealed.

Kamookak was a boy in 1966 when he heard his grandmother’s stories of finding strange metal objects. He became fascinated with the mystery of Franklin and later began gathering an oral history of various elders’ accounts. Watson’s depiction of this work lends spiritual and physical insights into native life in the extreme conditions.

As Kamookak listened, he became convinced that native people knew what had happened to the ships. His work was patient, exhaustive – and discounted by the outside world.

Later searchers brought technology to the hunt, and indeed, the ultimate discoveries were a result of scientific advances (as well as some hardy scuba divers).

Yet mysteries remain: What exactly caused the ships’ demise? Was there mutiny or heroism? Debates continue.

But the ships’ locations vindicated what Kamookak had learned from the elders. Watson’s deeply felt understanding of that work heightens Kamookak’s sad satisfaction while enacting, at book’s end, an ancient rite over the sunken Erebus.

“Ice Ghosts” documents what happens when cultures collide. Or perhaps more pointedly, when one culture feels superior for no better reason than pride.

]]> 0, 31 Mar 2017 16:03:18 +0000
Register now to participate in Portland’s Edible Book Festival Wed, 29 Mar 2017 08:00:00 +0000 “Eat your words” has never been more true than during Portland’s annual Edible Book Festival, held for about a decade at the main branch of the public library but this year moving to Riverton Elementary School. The event is one of an international series of festivals that “unites bibliophiles, book artists and food lovers to celebrate the ingestion of culture and its fulfilling nourishment,” according to its Facebook page.

Around the world, the Edible Book Festival is timed for early April to coincide with the birthday of Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a famous French gastronome who wrote “The Physiology of Taste.” Even if you’ve never heard of him, you’ve probably heard his most famous words: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”

Participants make edible creations, often cakes, inspired by favorite books, punning on book titles or sometimes simply in the shape of a book. The entries are judged at the festival; then, they’re eaten. Past entries in Portland include To Grill a Mockingbird (a sheetcake iced in orange with black licorice grills, Oreo cookie grill trim, and a marzipan mocking bird lying on its side), The Lord of the Pies (a homemade pie topped with a marzipan decapitated pig and a pair of glasses) and The Gingerbread Man (four panels – or pages – made from gingerbread with a gingerbread man running through them, all set on a platter decorated with edibles to resemble Candyland).

Rachel Harkness, library programming manager and one of the organizer’s of this year’s Edible Book Festival, encourages anyone to enter. Part of the beauty of the event, she said, is that participants may be fairly low-skill but eager bakers, a creative kid with a fun idea, or a very gifted cake decorator with an intricate, complex edible work of art.

“It’s a very low bar to enter,” she said.

Organizers seek book lovers and bakers in a variety of age categories (elementary, middle and high school, adult) as well as group entries and those from “Food & Beverage Professionals.” The professional category is new.

“It’s a really fun activity to do with your family,” said Celeste Biron-Libby, a teacher at Riverton Elementary and also an organizer. “It’s a nice collaboration with each other. To do something – even old-fashioned – to read a book together, talk about the book, and create something with it.”

]]> 0"The Swiss Family Robinson," an entry from the 2013 contest.Tue, 28 Mar 2017 19:01:19 +0000
Book review: ‘In the Name of the Family’ makes the Borgias live again Sun, 26 Mar 2017 08:00:00 +0000 “Poison” is probably the first word that springs to mind when you hear the name Borgia. Followed rapidly by “incest,” “murder” and “plots.” Borgia is a historical name with a lot of resonance. So, for that matter, is Machiavelli. So imagine the history of the Borgias as witnessed by Machiavelli. That’s the irresistible combination in Sarah Dunant’s new novel, “In the Name of the Family.”

Late-15th-century Italy is fascinating: a sprawling crazy-quilt of powerful city-states, each with a ruling family. The Vatican – improbably – was one such city. The Borgias originated from Valencia and infiltrated Italy via the church. Dunant’s novel explores the lives of the three most infamous figures during the height of their ambition: Rodrigo, Pope Alexander VI; his daughter Lucrezia; and his son Cesare.

The outward story here is the attempt by the family to create their own Borgia state by conquering a string of the most important city-states and subduing them under Borgia rule.

Alexander, an expansive, charming, clever man of huge appetite, contributes the money, the political connections and the not-inconsiderable power of the papacy itself. (If you hold the power to excommunicate believers, they’re much more likely to do what you want.)

Cesare, an archbishop and then a cardinal in his teens (add “nepotism” and “bribery” to the Borgian taxonomy), leaves religion behind (in all ways) and raises his own army with which he sets out on a campaign of blood and terror, his father’s war-chest footing the bill.

Meanwhile, Lucrezia, beautiful, charming, twice-widowed and just as clever as her male relatives, is obliged to leave her small son to make a dynastic marriage with the son of the Duke of Ferrara, making Ferrara one city her brother doesn’t have to take by force. She finds a way for her spirit to survive even as she helps her family prosper.

But despite their very public lives, each of these characters has an inner story, too, and Dunant does a terrific job of showing us what makes them tick – both directly and through the eyes of Machiavelli, then an apparatchik for the city of Florence, sent to witness Cesare’s march across Italy. All in all, they’re a magnetic bunch, these Borgias. Often we’re shocked by their ruthlessness, but just as often they elicit our admiration and sympathy. These people and their times are drawn so well that we understand both on a visceral level.

Beyond the attraction of the characters and the history, Dunant has a great immersive style. Her hallmark is the penetrating detail, such as Alexander’s fondness for marinated anchovies and the “fishy burps” that result; the corners of a war chart hastily stuck on a wall, grease seeping through the paper. Death is raw and ghastly, bloody bones butchered in snow. Marital sex in the dark is fleshy and slippery, and Lucrezia’s husband makes terrible noises in bed.

The most important detail is a silent presence that winds its grisly way through the story: the French pox, fulminant syphilis. Sometimes dormant, sometimes virulent, it makes its own mark on history, maiming soldiers and politicians, whores and princes, killing children in the womb, its nature unbeknown to its victims.

In the end, what’s a historical novelist’s obligation to the dead? Accuracy? Empathy? Justice? Or is it only to make them live again? Dunant pays these debts with a passion that makes me want to go straight out and read all her other books.

]]> 0, 24 Mar 2017 17:12:29 +0000
Deft storytelling of herculean proportions in ‘Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley’ Sun, 26 Mar 2017 08:00:00 +0000 In “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley,” Hannah Tinti uses the mythical labors of Hercules as a springboard for a modern-day examination of the meaning of heroism. Even if there are no Nemean lions to capture, hydras to slay or Augeian stables to be cleaned in one day, the title character of this boisterous novel, like the Greco-Roman strongman, strives to make up for the sins of his past and ultimately earn a shot at immortality.

Tinti, who grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, spun an extravagant tale of 19th-century grifters adrift in a slightly alternate New England in her debut novel, “The Good Thief.” With her much-anticipated new book, she moves the primary setting to contemporary Massachusetts, with side trips to locales that include Alaska, Wyoming and North Carolina.

When professional thief Samuel Hawley brings his young daughter, Loo, to the Massachusetts seaside town of Olympus (standing in for real-life Gloucester), he’s tired of being on the run and wants to settle down where Lily, his deceased wife and Loo’s mother, grew up. At first it’s an uncomfortable fit as Hawley tries to earn a living as a fisherman, despite the underhanded efforts of his chief competitors.

He’s also preparing for the day when his past might catch up with him. Tinti writes: “Hawley was always watching. Always waiting. He got the same look when they went into town for supplies, when the mailman came to their door, when a car pulled alongside them on the road.”

Hannah Tinti Photo by Honorah Tinti

When Loo is 12 years old, Hawley teaches her how to fire a gun, and he’s good at conveying hard-won lessons in survival. What doesn’t get talked about in their household is what happened to Loo’s mother. Hawley keeps a kind of shrine of photos and mementos to her in their bathroom, but he isn’t forthcoming with many details.

As Loo grows up, she longs to know more about Lily and goes looking for knowledge in dangerous places. The reader encounters Lily only in flashback, but she’s a dynamic presence in the narrative.

Hawley is fashioned to be a classic reluctant hero, a no-nonsense, tight-lipped man who will do anything to protect the ones he loves and suffers mightily when he fails. His daughter proves equally tough-minded. Whether she’s dealing with bullies, her estranged grandmother or the local boy she comes to love, Loo faces each rite of passage – first kiss, first job, first heartbreak – with grit and a steel-eyed determination.

Both Hawley and Loo make all kinds of bad decisions, but it’s hard not to forgive them as they try to do right and still deal with their feelings of disconnection and loneliness.

Hawley is right to be overly cautious. Early in the book, he enters Olympus’s Greasy Pole Contest, a local tradition involving skill, determination, luck and a drunken willingness to get hurt. When he removes his shirt to traverse a slicked-up, 45-foot telephone pole and grab a red flag, he reveals that his body bears the physical evidence of decades of hard living. He’s marked by nearly a dozen bullet wounds, some minor, some near-lethal, at least one self-inflicted: “Across his body were rounded scars – bullet holes, healed over. One hole in his back, a second through his chest, a third near his stomach, a fourth in his left shoulder, another through his left foot.”

Hawley’s victory in the Greasy Pole Contest earns him the respect of his new neighbors. The old wounds are old news to Loo, of course, and they remind his daughter of craters on the moon. Like that pockmarked satellite, “Hawley was always circling between Loo and the rest of the universe.”

The narrative of “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” is structured so the main plot moves forward, while every other chapter flashes back to some earlier violent episode. The past and the present work in counterpoint across the years, heading toward a final confrontation that will test the bravery, resourcefulness and fortitude of both father and daughter.

Alternating flashbacks can be a dangerous storytelling technique, interrupting the main plot just as it gathers momentum. But Tinti expertly doles out and withholds information, dropping clues and amplifying the suspense with each backward-looking interlude, until all the details fall into place and drive the action to its explosive climax. Full of unpredictable twists, each “bullet chapter” complements the next step in Loo’s coming-of-age story. In less skilled hands, the mix of genres might grate, but Tinti justifies each of her choices.

Funny, suspenseful and heartbreaking, “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” is an engrossing story, a deeply pleasurable yarn, the kind that’s easy to get lost in. Tinti has set herself a herculean literary task, and she accomplishes it, not with brute force, but with wit, aplomb and a love of adventure.

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

]]> 0 Tinti Photo Credit: Honorah TintiFri, 24 Mar 2017 17:12:24 +0000
Colin Dexter dies at 86; created Inspector Morse Thu, 23 Mar 2017 02:09:14 +0000 Colin Dexter, a British grammar school teacher turned author who created Inspector Morse, a curmudgeonly detective who adores real ale, poetry, Wagnerian opera and crossword puzzles and who became the hero of more than a dozen novels and a popular television series, died Tuesday at his home in Oxford, England. He was 86.

In announcing his death, Pan Macmillan publisher Jeremy Trevathan said that Dexter “represented the absolute epitome of British crime writing.” No cause was provided.

Adapted for public television and shown in 33 episodes in 200 countries between 1987 and 2000, the mysteries of murder most foul – in the academic serenity of Oxford – were no match for the brains and wit of Inspector Morse, who eventually solved the fatal and fiendishly complicated riddles, sometimes long after the fact.

The show’s producers once claimed to The Washington Post that 1 billion people around the world watched Inspector Morse and his sidekick Sgt. Lewis bring culprits to justice or at least to public exposure. In reruns, the audience has only swelled.

Inspector Morse was played by John Thaw, a British actor who died in 2002, and Kevin Whately portrayed Lewis; Dexter often made cameo appearances, playing variously a tourist, a doctor, a prisoner, a bishop and a bum.

A spinoff series based on Lewis and starring Whately ran on British TV from 2006 to 2015. In recent years, actor Shaun Evans played a young Morse in the prequel series “Endeavour.”

In a measure of Inspector Morse’s popularity, there were tours of Oxford with visits to real-life pubs he was said to have frequented and stops at fictional murder sites.

Dexter’s awards included two Golden Dagger prizes from the Crime Writers Association of Britain and its lifetime achievement award in 1997, a Diamond Dagger.

Norman Colin Dexter was born in Stamford, England, on Sept. 29, 1930, a birthday he shared with the fictional Endeavour Morse. He did not reveal Morse’s first name until late in the series.

In the final Inspector Morse book, “The Remorseful Day” (1999), the title character dies a natural death, although perhaps hastened by alcohol, tobacco and too little care of himself.

“I didn’t kill him off,” Dexter told The Post. “He just died.”

On the day the last Inspector Morse book was published, the lights in London’s Piccadilly Circus carried the message “R.I.P. Morse.”

]]> 0 Wed, 22 Mar 2017 22:16:26 +0000
Telling the story of Russia – of now, and of then Sun, 19 Mar 2017 08:00:00 +0000

“Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia.” By Lisa Dickey. St. Martin’s Press. Jan. 31, 2017. 336 pages. $25.99.

It has been many years since I have been to Russia, but my interest in that fascinating country has never dimmed. When I visited in 1986 and again in 1991, it was still the Soviet Union, though the U.S.S.R. collapsed a few months after my second trip. (This was not my fault.)

While I saw significant societal change between those two visits – one on the cusp of glasnost, the other on the cusp of collapse – they weren’t as profound as the changes that Lisa Dickey has seen: She has visited the country three times in 20 years, which she writes about in “Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia.”

In 1995, Dickey, an American, was living in Russia when an opportunity dropped into her lap: Photographer Gary Matoso was looking for a writer to pair up with for a journey from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. He would take pictures, she would report and write, and the whole thing would be posted on this new thing called the internet.

She found the journey so interesting that she’s done it twice since – in 2005 and in 2015. Same route, same cities, and as many of the same people as she could find.

Lisa Dickey

Dickey drops in on lighthouse keepers, rabbis, cabdrivers, farmers, bankers and drag queens. The changes she observes are both superficial and profound: A country that once struggled to emerge from 70 years of isolation and communism is now rich in consumer goods – automobiles, internet access, cellphones, color TVs. Electronic billboards have replaced the old propaganda posters. Everyone is on Facebook. (Honestly, I cannot picture this.)

Dickey is a flippant writer, more a storyteller than a scholar, and while her book is amusing it does not delve into politics or even very deeply into anyone’s life. But her observations are keen, and it is poignant to read how swiftly and profoundly this fascinating country has changed.

A darker, deeper read is “The Girl From the Metropol Hotel,” a powerful memoir by Russian writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

Petrushevskaya is perhaps Russia’s most famous living writer, though it is only recently that her books have been published in the United States. They include the dark story collections, “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby” and “There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In.”

“The Girl From the Metropol Hotel.” By Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Translated by Anna Summers. Penguin. Feb. 7, 2017. 176 pages. $16.

In her memoir, Petrushevskaya writes plainly yet movingly about growing up in Stalin’s Russia as the granddaughter of an “enemy of the people.”

“I was lucky,” she writes. “I wasn’t left behind in a sealed apartment, as often happened to the infants of the arrested.”

But her “lucky” life meant a childhood of near-starvation (“like stray puppies, we rooted around everywhere, looking for something to eat”), scavenging for food from the neighbors’ garbage and begging on the streets. For years, she missed school because she had neither shoes nor clothes; she and her mother lived, for a while, under someone’s dining room table.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

But there is also lightness: sneaking into circus tents, befriending a stray cat, playing cops and robbers with shards of broken glass for treasure. One night she climbs a fire escape to the fifth floor of the opera house and is allowed inside during a performance of “The Barber of Seville.” She returns the next night, but the door remains shut. “I crawled back home like a punished dog,” she writes. “My whole life I remembered that duet between Rosina and Count Almaviva.”

The contrast between Dickey’s book and Petrushevskaya’s is stunning. You want a feeling for life in Russia? Read both.

]]> 0 DICKEYFri, 17 Mar 2017 17:40:10 +0000
Digging into St. Joseph’s College and what (and who) came before Sun, 19 Mar 2017 08:00:00 +0000 “Unearthed” is not Prof. Steven L. Bridge’s first published book, but it is his first venture into Maine archaeology and also the first imprint from St. Joseph’s College Press. On all counts it makes for curious, challenging and rewarding reading.

As a book, however, its organization appears a bit eccentric. In fact, many of the historical archaeology books I have reviewed have had similar problems in combining objects found in digs and historical documentation found in archives and libraries.

In many cases, they are presented in separate sections, and that is the case with this book about artifacts uncovered on the Saint Joseph College campus and the stories of the people who preceded the place. If the reader is looking for a seamless read on the historic archaeology of the Sebago Lake grounds, he or she will be disappointed.

This is not to say that Bridge is not an eloquent writer or the book not a treasure trove, but exploring what the researcher has to offer takes time. Entry into the book is made easier by a lucid foreword from college president Jim Dlugos, a first-rate preface from the redoubtable Michael C. Connolly and a necessary “users’ guide” by Bridge.

Next we are given the introductory section, including two chapters on the founding of Standish (originally Pearsontown) and the founding of, by the Sisters of Mercy, St. Joseph’s Academy (1907) in Portland. In 1954, the trustees bought 115 acres of the Verrill estate in Standish, moved the campus there and purchased more property, and the school has since flourished.

This provides the reader with a useful thumbnail sketch of the territory and school before their conjuncture. The chapters that follow detail and illuminate artifacts uncovered during Bridge’s digs on campus and offer entertaining biographies of some of the people who owned the real estate before the college. This proves the utterly enjoyable heart of “Unearthed.”

I was a bit taken aback by one of the first artifacts described, “Straight Sided ‘Coca Cola Bottling Co.’ Glass Soda Bottle (Portland, ME ca. 1926).” Not much of a find, it seemed to me, but I was surprised by its shape and the fact that it had been bottled in Portland. A few paragraphs in, I was both hooked and enlightened. How the national soft-drink industry grew and spread to Portland and its burbs is fascinating and told with wit.

Steven L. Bridge

The biographical chapters covered the founders and builders of Standish, beginning with triple-lot owner Moses Pearson (1697-1778), one of the great figures in the second founding of Falmouth (now Portland). Indeed, noted historian Charles E. Clark in “The Eastern Frontier” (1970) gives a whole chapter to the man as representative of both time and place. Pearson held multiple town, county and British offices, so it is no surprise that Standish was first named Pearsontown, or that the next double-lot owner was Pearson’s son-in-law, the Rev. Samuel Deane of Falmouth’s First Parish Church. The names of worthy men and women landowners in the backcountry roll on under Bridge’s guidance, and while not all settled in Standish, this early land rush led to farms and second houses pushing the frontier.

Though no megalopolis formed, the decision to move St. Joseph’s College campus from west Portland to Lake Sebago was part of a later phenomenon of the 20th century that saw the movement of churches, synagogues, child-care institutions and industries away from the inner city of Portland to the “more healthy” suburbs. All this made possible by street railroads, automobiles, telephones and continuing communications.

Here flesh and blood individuals are animated by archaeological finds, site reports and chains of ownership lot by lot, along with listings of the Leonard Shaw and Blake cemeteries.

“Unearthed” proves a massive piece of research providing information not available elsewhere. The chapters about the artifacts and the lot owners are fun to read and combine into a unique saga of how our backyard-west was won and a college firmly planted.

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.

]]> 0 L. BRIDGEFri, 17 Mar 2017 17:46:43 +0000
In ‘Rescuing Penny Jane,’ Amy Sutherland hopes to teach and inspire dog lovers Sun, 12 Mar 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Writer Amy Sutherland started volunteering at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland because she wanted to help dogs find homes. She soon found out this was a much larger and more complex task than she had imagined.

“It’s so rewarding to work as a volunteer, but it’s also endless. There are so many dogs that need homes,” said Sutherland, 57. “You get to help them, dog by dog, but there are always more dogs. I wanted to see if I could have an effect on a larger scale, and I also wanted some answers to the bigger questions about the various challenges shelters face.”

In her fourth book, “Rescuing Penny Jane: One Shelter Volunteer, Countless Dogs, and the Quest to Find Them All Homes,” released by Harper last month, Sutherland weaves her own experiences and stories about various dogs and dog lovers into an exploration of the nation’s shelter system. On Thursday she’ll be back at the Animal Refuge League in Westbrook to talk about it. The dog from the title, 15-year-old Penny Jane, likely will accompany her. Twenty percent of book sales made Thursday will benefit the shelter.

Sutherland is a former features writer for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. Two of her three other books also examined interactions between humans and animals: “What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage,” about using animal training techniques to improve human relationships, and “Kicked, Bitten and Scratched,” about a school for exotic animal trainers. She also writes the Bibliophiles column in the Boston Globe and has written for the New York Times.

In “Rescuing Penny Jane,” Sutherland writes about the history and evolution of animal protection groups, systems for sheltering and finding homes for dogs, and the changing attitudes about shelter dogs.

Author Amy Sutherland will talk about her new book “Rescuing Penny Jane” at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland in Westbrook on Thursday. T Book jacket image courtesy of Harper

“Most people’s view of what a shelter is is about 30 years out of date. So I wanted to tell people what they’re like now,” said Sutherland, who lives in Boston most of the year and part-time in Portland.

To do that, Sutherland writes about places like Muttville, a shelter for senior dogs in San Francisco, and the Cuyahoga County Animal Shelter in Ohio, which only takes stray dogs. Of the more than 3.7 million dogs taken to shelters each year, most are abandoned or unwanted, not strays off the street, Sutherland said. And of those, about 30 percent or more will be euthanized for a variety of reasons, Sutherland said.

In the book, she explains the myriad of behaviors shelter dogs might exhibit and why. She thinks a major obstacle to adopting is that people see the behaviors of a dog in a shelter, barking or jumping up, and think that behavior will stay with the dog and can’t be changed. But people need to remember that a dog in a shelter is living with dozens or hundreds of other dogs, in a confined area, conditions which can bring out troublesome behavior.

Sutherland writes of her own experiences, growing up with a family dog that freely roamed the neighborhood and followed her brother home from school each day. She spent years in apartments thinking she didn’t have room for a dog, then finally got her own dog while living in Portland in the 1990s – an Australian Shepherd named Dixie Lou. Dealing with an energetic herding dog gave her the courage to try to deal with other dogs. She had gotten Dixie Lou from a breeder, but began to think about all the dogs that aren’t lucky enough to go directly from a breeder to a loving home.

So she started volunteering at the ARLGP, walking dogs, washing them, and getting bitten and knocked down. She also fell in love with most of the dogs she met. One in particular, Penny Jane, needed some extra love and patience. She had been born on a farm, but it’s unclear whether she and her mother belonged to the farmer. She spent her early years living under a porch and was terribly afraid of humans when Sutherland met her.

Now she’s socialized and has been a well-loved pet for 15 years. Plus, she’s got her name on a book.

Part of Sutherland’s hope for “Rescuing Penny Jane” is that people will think more seriously about volunteering at shelters and about adopting shelter dogs.

“I know people are nervous about adopting. Some people say they don’t want to volunteer at a shelter because it will break their heart or they’ll adopt 30 dogs, which you’re not allowed to do,” said Sutherland. “You can say you’re an animal lover, but if you don’t do anything about it, what does it mean?”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

Twitter: @RayRouthier

]]> 0 Sutherland with her rescue dogs, Penny Jane, left, and Walter Joe.Mon, 13 Mar 2017 09:54:56 +0000
‘Bridges of Madison County’ author Robert James Waller dies at 77 Sat, 11 Mar 2017 00:34:04 +0000 NEW YORK – Robert James Waller, whose best-selling, bittersweet 1992 romance novel “The Bridges of Madison County” was turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood and later into a soaring Broadway musical, has died in Texas, according to a longtime friend. He was 77.

Scott Cawelti, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, said Waller died early Friday at his home in Fredericksburg, Texas. He had been fighting multiple myeloma, a form of cancer.

In “Bridges,” a literary phenomenon which Waller famously wrote in 11 days, the roving National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid spends four days taking pictures of bridges and romancing Francesca Johnson, a war bride from Italy married to a no-nonsense Iowa farmer. One famous line from the book reads: “The old dreams were good dreams; they didn’t work out but I’m glad I had them.”

Waller’s novel reached No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list and stayed on it for over three years, longer than any work of fiction since “The Robe,” a novel about Jesus’ crucifixion published in the early 1950s. The Eastwood-directed 1995 movie grossed $182 million worldwide.

Many critics made fun of “Bridges,” calling it sappy and cliche-ridden. The Independent newspaper said of the central romantic pair “it is hard to believe in, or to like, either of them.” (Publishers Weekly was more charitable, calling the book, “quietly powerful and thoroughly credible.”)

The New York Times was dismissive: “Waller depicts their mating dance in plodding detail, but he fails to develop them as believable characters,” reviewer Eils Lotozo wrote. “Instead, we get a lot of quasi-mystical business about the shaman-like photographer who overwhelms the shy, bookish Francesca with ‘his sheer emotional and physical power.’ ”

Readers, however, bought more than 12 million copies in 40 languages. “Bridges” turned the unknown writer into a multimillionaire and made Madison County, Iowa, an international tourist attraction.

“I really do have a small ego,” Waller told The New York Times in 2002. ”I am open to rational discussion. If you don’t like the book and can say why, I am willing to listen. But the criticism turned to nastiness. … I was stunned.”

The novel prompted couples across the world to marry on Madison County’s covered bridges. Around the town of Winterset, population 4,200, tourists arrived by the busloads, buying “Bridges” T-shirts, perfume and postcards. Thousands signed in at the Chamber of Commerce office, where they could use restrooms marked “Roberts” and “Francescas.”

Waller told The Des Moines Register in 1992 that “Bridges” was “written” in his mind as he drove from Des Moines to Cedar Falls after photographing the covered bridges in Madison County.

“It’s something that’s difficult to explain,” he recounted. “As I drove home, it just came to me. I had some sort of Zen feeling, a high. When I got home, I threw my stuff on the floor and immediately started writing.”

The film version was greeted warmly by audiences and critics. The New York Times said that Eastwood had made “a moving, elegiac love story.”

After the novel’s success, Waller left Iowa, where he had grown up, and moved to a ranch in Alpine, Texas, 50 miles from the nearest town. He also divorced his wife of 36 years and found a new partner.

]]> 0 James WallerFri, 10 Mar 2017 21:44:59 +0000
‘One Morning in Maine’ island donated to Nature Conservancy Tue, 07 Mar 2017 17:41:41 +0000 A Maine island made famous in the iconic children’s book “One Morning in Maine” will be protected as a place of inspiration and wonder, thanks to a donation by the family of writer and illustrator Robert McCloskey to the Nature Conservancy in Maine.

The conservancy announced the donation of the 6.2-acre Outer Scott Island in Penobscot Bay, off Deer Isle, on Monday. The McCloskey family donated a conservation easement on the property to the Nature Conservancy in 1974. Monday’s announcement of the ownership transfers further ensures its protection, the conservancy said.

“We’re honored that the McCloskey family has entrusted this special place to our care for so long,” Nancy Sferra, director of stewardship and ecological management for The Nature Conservancy in Maine, said in a press release. “And with this wonderful gift, they’ve ensured the permanent protection of an island gem.”

McCloskey wrote “Make Way for Ducklings,” “Blueberries for Sal” and “One Morning in Maine.” The latter, published in 1952, features Outer Scott Island in the story. McCloskey died in 2003 at age 88.

“My father was a part of this place,” daughter Sarah McCloskey said in the press release. “He wanted to make sure that future generations have a chance to enjoy it like our family did.”

In an interview with the Press Herald in 2015, another daughter, Jane McCloskey, said her father valued the privacy of his island home.

Outer Scott Island will be among the conservancy’s network of preserves in Maine and will be managed according to the restrictions outlined in the conservation easement placed on the island in 1974. Daytime visitors are welcome, and the island is only accessible by boat. There are no services or hiking trails on the island.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

Twitter: pphbkeyes

]]> 0 McCloskey's 1954 story 'One Morning in Maine' takes place on Outer Scott Island, which has been donated to the Nature Conservance.Fri, 10 Mar 2017 20:02:53 +0000
Book review: ‘The One-Eyed Man’ by Ron Currie runs deep and vibrant under surface satire Sun, 05 Mar 2017 09:00:00 +0000 In a recent essay, award-winning Maine author Ron Currie argues that reading is essential, especially in the age of President Trump. His argument is simple: When reason and sanity appear to be on the wane, displaced by taunts and tweets, reading becomes a survival tool. It opens up the world, bringing solace and perspective.

Currie’s third and latest novel, “The One-Eyed Man,” borrows heavily from the Trump playbook. In this dark satire, Currie has created a world gone awry, with familiar tropes. Political correctness, fake news, reality TV – all are present and accounted for. They find their spokesman in the protagonist, “K,” a philosopher-madman, human punching bag and all-around tact-free, truth-telling guy.

We meet K in a series of encounters that exemplify his newly acquired tic: Reading the label on a bottle of liquid soap at a friend’s house, he questions the use of language – “formulated with cleansing agents” – that deliberately obfuscates the product. As his annoyance reaches fever pitch, he hurls the bottle through a window.

“I was visited by the hammer-stroke certainty that the culture I counted myself a part of … had become proudly, willfully, and completely divorced from fact,” he says.

Then he confronts a stranger about the bumper sticker on his pickup, critiquing not only the slogan’s errant grammar, but dubbing the man a racist. K suffers a blow to the face as a result.

Truth is, K never used to be this way. Since his wife, Sarah, died several months before, he’s become totally unhinged. He spouts off about Einstein’s theory of relativity, the space-time continuum and the illusion of death. Stripped of any filter, he sees things in their most literal form and periodically erupts without warning. His friends are more than a little concerned.

The book’s action takes off when, waiting to cross the street, K notices a barista in his local coffee shop being robbed at gunpoint. He foils the attack and saves her life, sustaining a gunshot wound himself, which seeds the events that follow. K becomes a local hero. Reporters descend, word of K’s heroism spreads and he receives an offer to star in a reality TV show.

K and his sidekick, Claire, take their improbable show on the road, offending people as they go, which is the explicit goal of their new series, “America, You Stoopid.” They interview people around the nation, seeking out disagreement – the more vehement, the better. Of course the producer, Theodore, whose credits include the series “Pimp House,” doesn’t want K to be killed, though assault and light bloodshed are encouraged.

“I can’t seem to help rubbing people the wrong way,” says K.

“It’s going to make us famous,” Claire assures.

As fame accrues, K is recognized in public, asked for autographs. His misadventures escalate when he makes guest appearances on talk shows and discusses guns. Among his remarks, he states that NRA members are “men who collect firearms for precisely the same reason that little girls collect dolls.” The host wishes him well and suggests that he buy a good quality Kevlar vest. Alas, the subplot that follows goes off the rails, beyond even the excesses inherent in the story.

Currie has been likened to Swift and Vonnegut, among other revered satirists. No doubt, the timeliness of this sendup will appeal to readers suffering from the whiplash of our new administration, especially those who prefer vibrant prose to boastful tweets. Yet there’s more here than meets the eye. Hijinks and parody aside, Currie has written a tale whose backstory about the final months of K’s marriage may be even more compelling than the book’s political follies. As we learn in alternating chapters, K was a tender, solicitous husband, who (wrongly) blames himself for his wife’s death. His crazed, often aggressive, behavior is that of a grief-stricken widower whose world has turned upside down. This may be bad news for K, but good news for readers, who get to witness the sweep of Currie’s talent.

Currie navigates the funny-sad axis of human relations as well as anyone writing today. He writes eloquently on the complexity of marriage, conveying the gravity and humor at its core. He’s a consummate performer – engaging and generous, filled with provocative ideas and gorgeous language to express them.

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

]]> 0 CURRIEFri, 03 Mar 2017 17:32:57 +0000
‘Stranger in the Woods’ recounts ‘North Pond Hermit’s’ 27 years in the Maine woods Thu, 02 Mar 2017 16:45:00 +0000 When word broke that the man who had been stealing from residents of the North Pond area of central Maine for nearly three decades had been caught, Mainers were captivated by the tale that emerged of Christopher Knight’s life. As the decades had passed, many believed the rumored hermit of North Pond was a myth.

Michael Finkel’s engrossing new book, “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” makes clear that Knight was very much a real person. The main story Finkel tells in this book is familiar to anyone who followed news reports of Knight’s arrest or who read Finkel’s 2014 GQ article, on which this book is based. It is the story of a young man who, at age 20, literally walked away from his job, his family, his responsibilities and society. He set out into the forest of Maine without food or supplies for living outside for even one night, let alone 27 years.

While we never really find out what compelled Knight to walk into the woods in 1986, we do learn about what life was like for him and how he made it work for all those years. That is a fascinating and, at times, disturbing tale.

This story, for the most part, comes completely from Knight himself. Finkel exchanged handwritten letters with Knight while he was jailed and had nine jail visits with him. Since Knight supposedly lived alone and had practically no contact with people during his many years in the woods, his version of the “truth” of his experience – and his alone – is all we have.

Finkel unreservedly believes Knight, but he acknowledges that not everyone is sold on Knight’s story. Most residents of North Pond think Knight’s claims of never using a fire to heat his camp, that he never got sick or needed medical care, that he had no contact with his family (who never reported him missing) and that he spent every night in his camp, even through life-threatening winter conditions, are flat-out lies.

The author believes that Knight is “practically incapable of lying,” but he doesn’t provide enough evidence to support that. Knight lived an extreme lifestyle and worried about getting caught. To make his survival possible, he developed skills that enabled him to move stealthily among the residents of North and Little ponds. He studied these people so he knew their patterns and he went through their homes and their personal belongings. Intentionally or not (he claims not), he terrorized those residents for years. Is a person who is capable of doing all that incapable of lying?

In other areas, the evidence Finkel supplies to support Knight’s story as he tells it is strong. There’s the physical evidence of Knight’s camp, the decades of experiences of the residents of North and Little ponds, and the expertise (and belief) of law enforcement and other professionals who examined Knight and his case.

Finkel is a skilled storyteller, and those skills are clearly present in this book as he weaves psychoanalysis and medicine, the mechanics of outdoor survival and centuries of hermit history with Knight’s life story to create a tightly written, compelling narrative. Finkel has written for National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and other major publications. His 2005 book “True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa,” was made into a movie (“True Story,” starring Jonah Hill, James Franco and Felicity Jones, released in 2015).

But Finkel committed a journalistic sin that could have killed his career when he falsified parts of a 2001 story he wrote about child labor in West Africa by creating a composite character who was positioned in the article as an actual person. In the years since, the author has taken great pains to prove to the world that everything he reports is factual and that he is trustworthy, and he does that in this new book, as well. The transparency is welcome, but the heavy-handed insertion of himself into the story is not.

It may be that his efforts to prove himself a trustworthy journalist led him to insert himself into Knight’s story, or he may have been making a stylistic choice. If so, it was a poor one. Knight’s story is compelling enough to stand on its own.

Finkel’s presence in the story is distracting, sometimes annoying, and at times disturbing. The description of his pursuit of Knight seems more like the thoughts and actions of a suitor (and frankly, at times, of an obsessive stalker) rather than of an objective journalist. And they expose a bigger problem: From the beginning, Finkel readily concedes that he is captivated by Knight and his story – that he respects, admires and likes him – but the idea that Knight is a “true hermit” is clearly a construct of the author’s own imagination.

Even as he relates that Knight stole from and terrorized his neighbors, he comes across as smitten with the romantic notion that Knight sought a life of solitude for some higher purpose and that he has some wisdom to share as a result – even though he acknowledges that Knight never considered himself a hermit, doesn’t believe he has wisdom to share and actually expressed concerns about how Finkel and others would romanticize him in an effort to show their admiration for him.

Finkel does try to temper his admiration by repeatedly reminding readers that Knight is not a saint. However, these frequent reminders come across as more of an insurance policy so he can indulge unreservedly in his fantasy of Knight-the-hermit. Still, the book as a whole is thought-provoking and enduring, one that will leave readers thinking deeply about modern society, the search for meaning and the impact of solitude.

Stephanie Bouchard is a freelance writer and editor from Bath. Contact her at:

Twitter: @SBouchardME

]]> 0, 47, also known as the North Pond Hermit, was released from Kennebec County Jail in Augusta on Nov. 4, after he completed a seven-month jail sentence as part of a plea agreement. Knight pleaded guilty to 13 counts of burglary and theft in October, Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said on Friday.Thu, 02 Mar 2017 23:25:15 +0000
Jonathan White unravels the mysteries of the rise and fall of the sea in ‘Tides’ Sun, 26 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 A friend recently observed how little he knew about the tides. Surprised, because he is an experienced sailor, I muttered something foolish about high and low, twice a day, moons, etc. Oh no, he said, there’s much more to it than that. After reading Jonathan White’s “Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean,” I can only belatedly sigh, “And how!”

White has spent most of his life on the water, either sailing or surfing. For a while he conducted week-long seminars covering every imaginable topic aboard his 65-foot wooden schooner. His latest book finds the author on the exposed mudflats of the Bay of Fundy where millions of little shorebirds are fueling up on mud shrimp exposed by the Bay’s enormous tide. From here, he takes the reader on a tour of all the factors that make very different tides all over the world predictable. After that, he throws in a few surprises that can upset them all.

High-Low? Very little difference in Tahiti, and what “high” there is comes punctually at noon and midnight. Twice a day? Some ports in England have double high tides, others double low tides. The moon? The Pacific is more affected by the sun.

As he tries to make sense of all this, the author combines history, travel writing and science. From Sir Isaac Newton’s admirably straightforward theory (Newton ignored the effects of land forms, continental shelves, etc.) a model of astonishing complexity emerges, layer by layer.

At times it is tough going, particularly the science. I think that so-called “action at a distance” is the problem: a force you cannot see is hard to comprehend. So I cannot altogether hold it against White that some of his efforts at scientific explanation seem opaque. Attempts at metaphor are as likely to confuse as elucidate. Take the case of “resonance,” the key to the harmony of the universe, which we may experience as the point when one’s song in the shower makes the shower stall hum; thinking of the stall as the ocean and one’s voice the pull of the moon left me none the wiser.

However, other concepts are nicely handled by virtue of informative graphics. And his travel accounts – hallelujah! – are accompanied by excellent maps (a courtesy to the reader that is too often inexplicably missing). The author has picked out the sites of some of the world’s most extreme tides for personal inspection: besides the Bay of Fundy he visits Mont Saint-Michel, China’s Qiantang River for its tidal bore, and the San Blas islands off the coast of Panama, for example.

These forays into local culture give White scope for his considerable observational gifts and add another layer to the larger story. That the secrets of tidal motion are far from exhausted is obvious from the fact that, in the last 20 years, the Bay of Fundy’s record-breaking tides were challenged by those in Ungava Bay’s Leaf Basin in northern Quebec. It is currently considered a tie by no less an authority than the Guinness Book of Records.

It’s in Ungava Bay that White has one of his strangest experiences, collecting mussels under a canopy of ice in the precarious space temporarily left by an extreme low tide. Such an opportunity once represented a critical source of fresh winter protein for the Inuit, one of many traditional bonds with tide cycles the world over.

Equally strong is the very contemporary connection between a handful of extreme surfers and occasional monster waves at certain spots (new ones keep being discovered), such as the Mavericks off Half Moon Bay in California. They are the combination of far-away events and conditions that are anything but predictable. As one legendary surfer races down Highway One, he pulls out his laptop every 15 minutes to find where the “break” will be best, the latest off-shore buoy readings changing his ultimate destination all the way.

White’s research makes “Tides” a fascinating read. I wish he didn’t over-use the first person present tense in his writing, which makes his personal encounters seem breathless, self-conscious and far from spontaneous. There are also a couple of small but astonishing howlers, such as Edmond Halley (of comet fame) providing a precis of Newton’s work to “King Henry;” Charles II seems the more likely recipient. It’s a small point, but once spotted that kind of inaccuracy has a disproportionate impact on the reader’s confidence. Fortunately, it doesn’t change the fact that, thanks to White, I now know an awful lot more about tides.

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

]]> 0, 24 Feb 2017 17:13:12 +0000
‘Piece of the World’ explores the relationship between Andrew Wyeth and his most famous subject Sun, 19 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 On the heels of her acclaimed novel, “Orphan Train,” Christina Baker Kline turns her attention to rural life in the first half of the 20th century. Sparked by Andrew Wyeth’s renowned 1948 painting, “Christina’s World,” which depicts a woman lying in a field, her face hidden from view, looking toward a house on a hill, Kline wanted to know more about this woman. Who was she, and what kind of life did she lead?

In her absorbing new novel, “A Piece of the World,” Kline uses the historical record to lay the groundwork, then reimagines life as Christina Olson might have lived it. The result is a portrait of Maine farm life, of an iron-willed spinster with polio and the accidental friendship that changes everything.

As the book opens, Betsy James, a teenager who summers in Cushing, stops to visits her older neighbor, Christina Olson, on a nearby farm. Betsy asks whether her new friend, Andy, can paint a picture of Christina’s house. The friend turns out to be a young Andrew Wyeth, and Betsy, his soon-to-be wife. From the first meeting with Christina, Andy conveys a disarming candor and charm that will become his hallmark. Throughout the story, he ambles in and out of the house, coming and going at will, leaving a trail of broken eggshells from the mixing of tempera paint. He proves to be a welcome reprieve from the rigors of farm life and the insular world Christina inhabits.

Christina Baker Kline Photo by Karin Diana

Christina narrates the book, alternating between her early and later years. Throughout, she battles with a life of near-confinement. At her father’s insistence, Christina left school at age 12 to work on the farm, thus ending her dream of becoming a teacher. She had few friends and little opportunity. A summer romance with a Harvard man ended badly, further dimming her hopes for a different life.

Still there was a larger obstacle that would wreak havoc on Kline’s stubborn and prickly protagonist: Born with a degenerative disease that would become disabling, Christina routinely resisted help. As her mobility fails, she refuses even to use a wheelchair and would rather crawl on her elbows to a neighbor’s house than accept a ride. All the while, she haltingly goes about her litany of chores – cooking and sewing, attending to her ailing parents and ongoing tasks around the farm.

“Everything comes back to this body, this faulty carapace,” she says. Then later: “The pain has become part of me, just something I live with, like my pale eyelashes.”

The centerpiece of the story is the bond that forms between Christina and Andy. Their age disparity notwithstanding – Christina was 46, Andy 22 when they met – they serve as mirrors for each other. Andy, himself hobbled by a twisted right leg, bad hip and a residual limp, is unfazed by Christina’s infirmity, a stark contrast to others whose pity she detests.

“You’re like me,” he says. “You get on with it. I admire that.”

Their scenes together, just talking, and the scenes of Andy working, figuring the angles and details of his portraits and landscapes, are among the most appealing in the book. Through his eyes, Christina sees ordinary tools and objects in a new way. The rote familiarity of the farm becomes transformed. Yet it’s Andy’s acceptance of things as they are that Christina finds so heartening.

“Andy doesn’t usually bring anything, or offer to help. He doesn’t register alarm at the way we live. He doesn’t see us as a project that needs fixing,” Kline writes. “All the things that most people fret about, Andy likes. There’s more grandeur in the bleached bones of a storm-rubbed house, he declares, than in drab tidiness.”

Although Andy has been painting Christina’s brother, Al, he has yet to ask Christina to pose for him. At first she demurs, until Andy points out that she’s always posing. By that he means that she’s accustomed to people’s concern, “used to being observed, but not really…. seen.” His comment is so astute that she can’t refuse. And so the famed, eponymous painting gets underway.

This book about hardship and pride, friendship and empathy, starts slowly before finding its pace. Once there, the story moves briskly. In the hands of a lesser writer, Christina’s plight might seem unwieldy or mawkish. Yet Kline, who splits her time between New Jersey and Maine, has a graceful, arresting style that lifts the narrative, and her portrayal of Andy leavens the entire story. For as much as we learn about the life and times of Christina Olson, it’s Kline’s rendering of Andrew Wyeth – decent, charming, wise – that leaves us wanting more.

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

]]> 0, 20 Feb 2017 09:37:30 +0000
‘Setting Free the Kites’ details a Maine story of friendship forged in hardship Sun, 19 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 When I was in junior high, upset that no one seemed to understand my perspective or feelings, my mother tried to comfort me by offering, “Well, everyone’s an island.” It didn’t help. (What happened to, “This, too, shall pass”?)

Years later, I remember my desperate refusal of her words, though that feisty naiveté is gone. The rueful kind of laughter we all often have when remembering episodes of our past is among many of the emotions, and perhaps the strongest, that Alex George conveys in his heart-rending second novel, “Setting Free the Kites.” A beautifully told, nostalgic tale about friendship, George brings to life true, strongly independent characters that transform the reader into a big kid, running right alongside them throughout the novel.

The story opens briefly in the present day, at the construction site of a long-abandoned paper mill in Haverford, a fictional small town in midcoast Maine, where the narrator, Robert Carter, has come to take a last look as demolition of the building begins. The mill, where he and his best friend escaped to on so many summer days, represents the most defining time of his life. “Inside those old brick walls, the light of uncomplicated happiness shone down on us, as warm and as comforting as the sun,” Robert recounts. “But such a bright light casts long, dark shadows.” The novel then flashes back 40 years, as Robert tells the story of his friendship with Nathan Tilly. Together during an incredibly turbulent time, several tragedies occur that change their families and their lives forever.

Although author Alex George is British and lives in Missouri, it’s obvious that he has both done his research and spent his time well while visiting Maine. Through Robert, he describes the beach in winter, highlighting the drastic contrast of black ocean water against the undisturbed white of snow-covered sand, “as if the cold had bled all color out of the world. I had never seen the shoreline more stark, or more beautiful.”

Apart from a few small quibbles – Maine’s paper mills mostly are located well inland – George’s depiction of Haverford is so authentic, the town could easily exist alongside Brunswick, Rockland, Harpswell, or any other small town along the Gulf of Maine that “stuck out a leg and pulled up its skirt,” to lure in tourist dollars to keep the local economy alive as other industries declined.

In Haverford’s case, the attraction is Fun-A-Lot, a 13-acre amusement park run by Robert’s father and the town’s largest summer employer. From behind-the-scenes George uses the park to show the backside of the version of Maine marketed to tourists, as well as to introduce us to many of the complex personalities that drive the plot and highlight the local vibe with both kind and humorous descriptions.

George’s lovable characters earn the reader’s concern as quickly as the first impression of a real-life friend. Robert is sweet and hesitant, pensive and introverted, while Nathan is the fearless, fun-loving free spirit who pushes limits – the coaxing “why not?” to Robert’s worrisome “why?” As similar in some ways as they are opposites, both are endearingly unjaded. Then there’s Robert’s punk-rock loving older brother Liam, who has muscular dystrophy, and Lewis Jenks, the craggy war veteran-turned-repairman at Fun-A-Lot.

Themes of disappointment, loss and living life to the fullest emerge as Robert and Nathan’s relationship grows. Despite the highs and lows of their friendship, together they experience many firsts, from first jobs and first obsessive crushes, to many more first nibbles of knowledge, they provide a consistency for each other that their own families can’t provide, deepening the bond they share.

The tension between the carefree lifestyle of youth pulling against the perplexing realities we discover as we mature out of childhood makes “Setting Free the Kites” an effecting, emotional read. So many excellently crafted details are packed into its pages, poignantly capturing the rapid change of emotions during adolescence. As the boys become aware of life’s many complexities, their story is a reminder that good and true friends are like the bridges that connect the islands to the mainland.

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

]]> 0 Fri, 17 Feb 2017 17:23:14 +0000
American bombers over Laos: An evolutionary leap for the CIA Sun, 12 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 The struggle for Indochina lasted three decades and caused massive bloodshed and physical destruction in three countries: Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Vietnam was always the heart of the conflict, the site of the heaviest fighting and dying, the place where first French and then American planners invested the bulk of their resources. So it stands to reason that it’s the fighting in Vietnam that has received the lion’s share of attention from scholars and other authors over the years. That literature is enormous and growing. Still, the disparity is jarring: Next to the mountain of books on Vietnam, there’s barely a molehill on the war as waged in Laos and Cambodia.

All the more welcome, then, to see the appearance of Joshua Kurlantzick’s “A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.” Here we get an informative and well-researched overview of the covert war the United States waged in Laos between 1960 and 1975, one that involved both the recruitment and training of a local anti-communist fighting force led by Hmong tribesmen and the launching of a bombing campaign of awesome size. The U.S. purpose: to tie down the forces of North Vietnam and their Laotian allies the Pathet Lao, and to destroy communist supply lines that moved men and material along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos en route to South Vietnam.

The numbers give a sense of the scope. From 1964 to 1973, the United States dropped some 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos, the equivalent of one planeload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. It made Laos, per capita, the most bombed country in human history. In 1969 alone, the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than it did on Japan during all of World War II. All told, some 200,000 Laotians were killed in the war-about a tenth of the country’s population. Most were civilians. Nor did the end of the fighting in 1975 stop the killing; over the next four decades, unexploded cluster bombs would kill 20,000 Laotians and maim additional thousands.

It was a secret war, run substantially by the CIA, under the code name Operation Momentum. A principal early player was Bill Lair, a clandestine operative who drew up a plan to train and arm the Hmong, one of the largest ethnic minority groups in Laos, to fight the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese. Kurlantzick gives us a compelling portrait of this soft-spoken man “with the bristly buzz cut and the thick Clark Kent glasses who spoke fluent Lao with a Texas accent” – the quintessential quiet American.

Lair believed fervently that anti-communist Laotians could win the struggle for their country as long as they and not Americans led the fighting, and that the United States could avoid the colonialism tag as long as it did not attempt to take over the territory. He pinned his hopes on Vang Pao, an ambitious and ruthless Hmong officer and another central figure in the book. Over time, as senior leaders – including William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador in Vientiane, and Ted Shackley, the CIA station chief – relied more and more on massive use of American airpower, in particular to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Lair grew disillusioned, certain that the bombing was killing civilians and that the Hmong could never achieve lasting military success against the superior training, arms and motivation of the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao.

According to Kurlantzick, Lair’s misgivings fell on deaf ears among his superiors. The aerial bombardment continued to intensify, and Hmong fighters under Vang Pao were sent into increasingly ferocious battles. Upon entering office, President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, while caring little about Laos and its people, believed that stepped-up bombing would be “an effective way to bludgeon North Vietnam and its allies in Laos into agreeing to a peace deal for all of Indochina.” By the end of 1969, American aircraft were conducting approximately 300 sorties per day over Laos. Never mind that there were fewer targets to hit than previously, a great many having already been obliterated. Most of the time, leaders in the Royal Lao government were not consulted in advance of the attacks.

Kurlantzick quotes U.S. diplomat John Gunther Dean regarding the Nixonian approach: “Bombing in Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam, was strong, and he always preferred a strong move. … He always wanted to play the card that he wasn’t like Johnson or Kennedy, and bombing would convince the communists of this.”

The bombing was on occasion willfully random. In early 1970, the book tells us, American pilots routinely released bombs over Laos without locating a particular target, simply because they could not find a suitable target in North Vietnam and did not want to return to their base in Thailand with bombs still on board.

In the end, the shadow war in Laos ended in defeat. The United States ceased the bombing and ultimately cut off financial assistance to its Hmong allies. In 1975, South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos fell to communist forces.

The title of the book, “A Great Place to Have a War,” which seems at first glance misplaced and grotesque, turns out to be wholly apt (and grotesque). For in the minds of many within the CIA, the war in Laos, far from being a failure, was a rousing success, a low-cost way of putting intense pressure on the North Vietnamese. In this way, Kurlantzick argues, Operation Momentum was an archetype for the CIA paramilitary operations of more recent times – “and a new way for the president to unilaterally declare war and then secretly order massive attacks.” Richard Helms, CIA director during the height of the operation, later lauded the agency’s “superb job” in Laos, a sentiment echoed in a classified CIA retrospective. The analysis paid scant attention, Kurlantzick acidly notes, to the war’s effects on Laotians. He quotes William Sullivan, who told an interviewer many years later that the air war over Laos caused him “no personal anguish.”

Contrast this assessment with that by Barack Obama, who in September 2016 became the first sitting president to visit Laos. “Villages and entire valleys were obliterated,” Obama remarked in Vientiane, after announcing a major increase in American funds to clean up unexploded ordnance left behind from the war. “Countless civilians were killed. And that conflict was another reminder that, whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a terrible toll, especially on innocent men, women and children.” The time had come, Obama said, to pull the secret war out of the shadows. Indeed, and Kurlantzick’s book represents an important step in that direction.

Logevall is a professor of international affairs and history at Harvard University.

]]> 0 bookFri, 10 Feb 2017 16:29:03 +0000
Lisa Carey is back with an Irish tale of magic and motherhood Sun, 12 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Portland author Lisa Carey’s new novel, “The Stolen Child,” is about the people and spirits who live on a remote Irish island and the magical and mysterious things that happen to them. It’s also a book about motherhood, in all its forms.

“When I was finishing it and reading it over with an editor, I realized it has so many themes of motherhood that I have been experiencing in the 10 years since I have been a mother, the joy and wonder as well as the isolation and the feeling that things are going on that you cannot catch up with,” Carey said.

“The Stolen Child,” by Portland writer Lisa Carey, will be released by Simon & Schuster on Feb. 7 in paperback. $15.99 Photo by Patricia Walsh

Like the fictional St. Brigid’s Island where the story is set, motherhood can feel like a paradise one moment, a prison the next.

“The Stolen Child” is Carey’s fifth book, and like the others it involves magical realism and myths. In this book, Irish fairies, who are dark, powerful and vengeful, are said to have possessed a woman named Emer, taken her to the underworld and scarred her for life. Her son, Niall, also exhibits the traits of a human possessed.

Carey got the idea after watching a documentary movie about the Inishark, an island off the coast of Ireland that was home to an isolated community of fishermen and their families. The island is uninhabited now, because the population couldn’t sustain itself. It’s remote and lacks a safe harbor, making winter nearly impossible for transporting supplies and providing emergency services. The Irish government resettled its residents to the mainland in 1960. The real-life story was perfect fodder for one of Carey’s novels.

“It was calling to me. I felt like I had to do it,” she said. “I knew I could write something really intense and frightening about that kind of community and what might happen if you are cut off completely from the world.”

Carey, 46, and her husband moved to Portland from Massachusetts in 2004. They came here “to afford a life where I could stay home with my son,” she said. “When I became mother, I intended to take time off work. One year turned into four, and when I got back to writing I felt like a bit of a different person in some way. I had always written about motherhood, but never done it as a mother.”

As she wrote, the up-and-down emotions associated with motherhood crept into her work and surfaced in the characters she created.

Carey has long been fascinated with Ireland. She grew up in an Irish family in Brookline, Massachusetts, and lived there for five years. She returns to Ireland regularly and has used Ireland as a setting for previous books, as well.

She published her first novel, “The Mermaids Singing,” in 1998. Her other titles are “In the Country of the Young,” “Love in the Asylum” and “Every Visible Thing.” The latter won a Lambda Literary Award for Fiction, and “Love in the Asylum” won a Massachusetts Book Award.

Carey has always felt comfortable with magical realism, which involves merging fantasy or magical elements with realism. Growing up, Carey read a lot of books by Madeleine L’Engle, a Newbery Medal and National Book Award-winning novelist, and Roald Dahl, author of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and Giant Peach,” among others.

“I was always drawn to magical realism as a child, fantasy moreso than science fiction. I’m really fascinated by drawing myths and stories into my books,” she said.

HarperCollins published “The Stolen Child” last week. Carey began her promotional tour at Longfellow Books in Portland and has several readings scheduled across New England in February, including Feb. 18 at her hometown Brookline Booksmith, where she worked when she was younger.

She’s working on a young adult novel, a first for her, and she’s collaborating with her son on a chapter book for kids.

“I’m excited to be writing again,” she said.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

Twitter: pphbkeyes

]]> 0 writer Lisa CareyFri, 10 Feb 2017 16:28:40 +0000
Ron Currie’s new novel may deliver him from ‘up-and-coming’ to ‘arrived’ Sun, 05 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Ron Currie was waving his arms about fake news long before “fake news” became part of our lexicon. He’s been calling out hypocrites and liars for years, but never as directly as in his new novel, “The One-Eyed Man,” set to be released March 7 by Viking.

In this new book, his fourth, the Portland novelist creates a character for our times. K, as he is called, operates without social consciousness or filters, and he exasperates and infuriates friends and strangers with his rigid literalness. When the crossing signal is stuck on “Don’t Walk,” he won’t walk. He’s a hero to some and a villain to others. He can’t abide by anything other than the literal truth, which bumps up against the world’s falsehoods at every turn. “He needs clarity and factuality in the same way the rest of us need water. Which in this world, of course, makes him a very thirsty man indeed,” Currie said.

K is an idiosyncratic everyman and practically anonymous. He is an orphan. He does not have a name. He is of average intelligence, average height and average build. He’s not much to look at, but he’s not ugly either.

There is nothing remarkable about him except his apprehension of the world.

Ron Currie’s latest book is set to be released March 7 by Viking.

“K is what I would be if I ignored all social conventions,” Currie said in a coffeehouse interview. “Fiction isn’t wish fulfillment, but it can brush up against wish fulfillment in that, as an author, you can allow yourself to explore through a character what your world would be like if you behaved in a different way, if you paid heed to the impulses that you squash.”

“The One-Eyed Man” is Currie’s third full-length novel, and it lands with perfect timing at the intersection of politics, media and entertainment. He didn’t plan it this way, and he certainly didn’t expect the book’s release to coincide with a national discussion about the truth and how to discern what’s real and what’s not. But he’s also not surprised. He saw this one building for years.

As a writer, he follows his nose. In this instance, his nose lead to a simultaneous fascination with and revulsion of what we now call fake news and the confluence of nonsense and technology. Each time he logged on to Facebook he was confronted with someone pushing an agenda with “facts” that probably weren’t true. Advertisers promised miracles they couldn’t deliver.

More interesting was people’s willingness to believe these things to the exclusion of any other possibility. The condition manifested itself most dramatically and with the most serious consequences in the November election, when supporters of both presidential candidates held fast to their beliefs and treated them as the absolute truth even when facts didn’t support those beliefs.

Currie believes the condition is hard-wired. “It’s a real psychological phenomenon,” he said. “So I vacillate between not blaming people, because that’s how we’re hard-wired, and wanting to shake them by lapels and say, ‘Engage in some critical thinking and try to use your brain instead of your gut all the time.’ This book flowed from that.”

In “The One-Eyed Man,” K is 43, living in New England and grieving the death of his wife, Sarah. His grief manifests itself by his inability to understand metaphors. His quest for absolute clarity ruins relationships and reorders his life, and it leads him to become an inadvertent hero, reality show star and, much to his bemusement, a member of the witness protection program in Toledo, Ohio.

With a wink. Currie neither confirmed nor denied that he based his K on a Kafka’s character of the same name in “The Castle.”

At his heart, Currie is an acerbic satirist and observer of pop culture and human behavior. In addition to his novels, he likes to write opinion pieces and essays for newspapers and print and online magazines so he can respond in the moment.

Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist from Portland, appreciates Currie’s ability to mix cynicism with sentiment and thinks “The One-Eyed Man” will advance Currie’s career by moving him off the lists of up-and-coming writers to the lists of those who’ve arrived.

“This new book is incredibly timely, and I think it’s going to do very well,” Russo said. “Of all the writers I know, Ron has always had a eye on the culture overall in a way that not many writers do. He has a great BS detector, and that detector goes off in Ron whether it’s the political right or the political left. He recognizes hypocrisy wherever he finds it, and that makes for a great satirist.”

Writing in the New York Times, reviewer Janet Maslin laid the groundwork for Currie’s career ascent when she called him “a startling talented writer” in 2009 when his first novel, “Everything Matters!” came out. She also was among the first to compare him to Kurt Vonnegut, a comparison that has stuck.

Russo will interview Currie at Print: A Bookstore on March 9. Currie also will talk about his book March 29 at a Literary Lunch at the Portland Public Library.

Currie’s new book brings up themes of fake news and alternate facts. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Currie, 41, grew up in Waterville. Despite his Scottish surname, he comes from a French family and identifies with working-class people. That’s his stock. He’s more comfortable hanging out with guys who work power lines or lay bricks than his professional colleagues, thought he thrives on the collegiality of the Portland literary scene.

“Waterville was a funny place,” he said. “At the time, to a kid who was 10 years old, it still seemed pretty prosperous, even though it wasn’t anymore. The writing was on the wall with Scott Paper, Hathaway Shirt Co. and Keyes Fibre. All those places were on what, to adults, must have been an obvious decline. But to me it seemed like, even though we didn’t have a lot of money, that the community itself wasn’t in a free fall. But it was.”

His upbringing informs his view of the world. His early writing echoed the rage of “a misguided class warrior” – all guts and no brains, he admits. He’s matured, but still identifies with towns that revolve around a single employer or a couple of mills, and he understands in a sympathetic way the anger of people who wish things would go back to when times were good in places like Waterville.

“What you see in those communities now, the sort of stout insistence of returning to a time that may or may not actually have existed, is what we are seeing writ large in this great new world we call the Trump presidency,” Currie said.

“I know those things are related, and I know that dynamic and that energy exist outside of discussions about identity politics and it exists outside of discussions of policy. It’s real and valid anger and frustration those people are feeling, which is not to excuse the fact they are willing to do what they did, which to me was burning down the house because you don’t like the drapes.”

Currie’s interest in literature came early and was kicked into overdrive when he read Stephen King and “the godheads” of science fiction, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. He never doubted he would be a writer, because writing is what he calls “an in-born compulsion.” He couldn’t not write.

His writer’s voice is shaped by cultural influences, so there’s as much TV and pop culture in there as Vonnegut. “People talk about voice, but what you’re really referring to is every single thing that went into a novelist’s mind over the course of probably the first 25 years of his or her life. His or her voice is an amalgam of all of those influences, combined with what is hopefully that author’s singular or idiosyncratic world view,” he said.

Currie has lived in other places – Florida for a while, Cyprus in the Mediterranean briefly after 9/11, and he can imagine himself living on an island in Puerto Rico where he has gone in recent years to get away. No matter where he goes, he always comes back to Maine.

So far, anyway.

“My feelings toward Maine are, as with everything else, honestly, ambivalent. There’s obviously a reason I keep coming back, and it’s not the winters. If you asked me to articulate the reasons, it would be impossible. I wouldn’t be able to do it. There is something ineffable, and it has to do with the people,” he said.

Currie is not planning a big tour for this book, which might seem counterintuitive. He is meeting with booksellers nationwide to promote the book, but he has little interest in standing and reading in front of 30 or 40 people in Chicago or Dallas or San Francisco. Readings help sell books, but they don’t necessarily sustain careers, he said. “It’s not something I come by honestly, so I don’t make the effort. I am better off writing.”

And observing.

Currie understands the mood of America right now, the yearning and the anger. He predicted it, because it was part of the zeitgeist. But he never imagined it resulting in a Trump presidency.

“I had no idea. I don’t think anybody did,” he said. “If you are going to be a prescient novelist, you are Orwell. You are doing it 40 years, 50 years in advance, not three.”

Contact Bob Keyes at 791-6457 or:

Twitter: pphbkeyes

]]> 0, 04 Feb 2017 19:50:06 +0000
Sales soar for Milo Yiannopoulos book ‘Dangerous’ Sat, 04 Feb 2017 20:53:17 +0000 NEW YORK — Sales are soaring for the upcoming book by incendiary right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos but details of his promotional tour – assuming there is one – are a mystery for now.

A spokeswoman for Threshold Editions, the conservative imprint at Simon & Schuster, declined comment Thursday when asked where Yiannopoulos was expected to appear.

Publishers would usually be anxious to share details about a book just a few weeks from publication, March 14, and in high demand from the public. “Dangerous” was No. 1 on as of Thursday.

But the controversy that has driven pre-orders for “Dangerous” has also made promotion unusually complicated. The 32-year-old Breitbart editor, born in Greece and raised in England, is a walking challenge to free speech principles.

A vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, Yiannopoulos has made vicious comments about Muslims, women and others, and on his website offers such products as “Feminism is Cancer” T-shirts and “Fat Shaming Works” hoodies. His harassment campaign last summer against “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones led to his banishment from Twitter.

On Wednesday, California, Berkeley canceled a scheduled talk after violent protests broke out.

– From news service reports

]]> 0 Yiannopoulos speaks in Boulder, Colo. He is an editor at the alt-right website Breitbart News.Sat, 04 Feb 2017 17:57:41 +0000
Book review: Maine’s Elizabeth Hand shares her fascination with apocalypse Sun, 29 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Oakland, California’s PM Press is noted for its line of slim-but-substantial “Outspoken Authors” paperbacks. Coastal Maine writer Elizabeth Hand certainly fits the bill, as proved by “Fire.,” a collection of stories, essays and an interview.

Hand, the author of the Cass Neary series of punk-influenced crime novels and a winner of the World Fantasy Award and science fiction’s Nebula, doesn’t shy away from addressing life’s dangers, tragedies and absurdities in her fiction. Her reviews and literary criticism for The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy and other publications are similarly sharp-eyed.

Apocalypse, dystopia and natural disaster have always loomed large in Hand’s imagination, fueling, for example, her novels “Glimmering” and “Waking the Moon.” The selections in this latest collection reflect that tendency.

In “The Saffron Gatherers,” a woman travels to San Francisco to meet with her lover, only to be captivated by an ancient fresco prophetic in ways she cannot guess. Time, cause, effect and missed connections collide in the moving and mind-bending “Kronia.”

Written especially for this collection and based on her work as a participant in a climate change think tank, “Fire.” envisions one stand-up comic’s reaction to a conflagration of global proportions.

In her essay “Beyond Belief: On Becoming a Writer,” Hand traces her commitment to storytelling, starting with seeing the George Pal film production of “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm” when she was 5 years old. From there, it was on to “The Hobbit,” the rest of Tolkien and other, more obscure fantasists. She began writing her own stories and pursuing an interest in theater at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

Things turned dark for a while; “Bad Stuff,” as she puts it, happened, including underemployment, serious illness and a kidnapping and rape. But Hand was able to persevere in her journey to becoming a writer with a singular vision.

She writes, “Despite living in a real world that increasingly resembles that of one of my early dystopian novels, I consider myself a very lucky person.”

“Flying Squirrels in the Attic,” the Q&A between Hand and series editor Terry Bisson, is wide-ranging, touching upon her experiences as a teacher of writing, living in Maine, writing “Star Wars” juvenile novelizations about bounty hunter Boba Fett, and reading the fiction of Sarah Orne Jewett.

It’s a fun and freewheeling conversation, and Hand reveals herself as both self-effacing and confident in her talents.

Two insightful profiles of supremely talented but darkly fated authors round out the book.

“The Woman Men Didn’t See” focuses on Alice Sheldon, the CIA analyst who wrote groundbreaking, feminist science fiction under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr.

“Tom Disch” remembers the author of “Camp Concentration” and “The Genocides” in the aftermath of his suicide. Hand illuminates their life stories with compassion and grace.

Other writers in PM’s “Outspoken Authors” series include Hugo and Nebula award winner Kim Stanley Robinson, Man Booker Prize finalist Karen Joy Fowler and Ursula K. Le Guin, recipient of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Elizabeth Hand is a welcome addition to the roster, and this slender volume is an easy introduction to, or quick reminder of, her special brand of narrative magic.

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

]]> 0 HandSat, 28 Jan 2017 19:30:18 +0000
Signings, etc.: Richard Russo Sun, 29 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo will sign copies of his latest novel, “Everybody’s Fool.” The story returns to North Bath, the Rust Belt town first brought to unforgettable life in “Nobody’s Fool.” Now, 10 years later, the protagonist Doug Raymer has become the chief of police and is tormented by the improbable death of his wife – not to mention his suspicion that he was a failure as a husband.

WHEN: 3 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Print: A Bookstore, 273 Congress St., Portland


INFO: 536-4778;

]]> 0, 28 Jan 2017 18:34:41 +0000