Books – The Portland Press Herald Tue, 21 Feb 2017 04:38:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ‘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
Book review: How a doctor’s gifts shaped Holmes and his creator Sun, 29 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 No matter which Sherlock Holmes you visualize as you read the canon – the suave, top-hatted Jeremy Brett? Perhaps the ever-so-tightly-suited Benedict Cumberbatch? – you’re wrong.

The “real” Holmes was a patrician gent named Dr. Joseph Bell, who lectured at the University of Edinburgh’s medical school in the 19th century and had a knack for revealing things about a person that a casual acquaintance could never have known. (Just like somebody else we know: “You know my method. It is founded on the observation of trifles,” said he, in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”)

Among the students captivated by Bell’s teaching method was Arthur Conan Doyle, who drew upon Bell’s uncanny ability in creating Holmes, his fictional hero.

How Bell became Holmes, and how Bell and other forces helped Conan Doyle became a blockbuster author are described in great detail in Michael Sims’ “Arthur and Sherlock,” a worthy addition to any scholarly Conan Doyle/Holmes bookshelf. Many Holmes fans know the bones of the origin story, but Sims dives deep into Conan Doyle’s biography to put flesh on it. The physician-turned-writer becomes much more human to the reader in the process.

As a new doctor, for example, Conan Doyle agreed with the then-common notion that it was unseemly for a physician to answer his office door, so in 1882 he pressured his mother to send his 9-year-old brother Innes to act as gofer. In fact, the doctor was so self-conscious, he grew his impressive crop of facial hair to look older and more distinguished.

Before those days, though, Conan Doyle was a student and clerk to Bell, marveling at his mentor’s mental powers. Dr. Bell once pegged a patient for a cobbler, Sims writes, deducing from “a worn place on the inside of the knee of a patient’s trousers. It was where a cobbler rested his lapstone,” a tool for stretching leather. He spotted a linoleum factory worker by the industry-specific rash on her hands, and surmised the child she brought in was not her only one, as the lad’s coat was much too big and obviously a hand-me-down.

Why, then, was Holmes not called Bell? Conan Doyle wanted a name that “implied character,” Sims tells us, and he toyed with the dreadful-sounding Sherrington Hope. He likely ended up with Holmes because of his admiration for Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sims writes, and in the early 1880s a Chief Inspector Sherlock was sometimes in the newspapers – which the young doctor read religiously – due to his sleuthing skills. Holmes does have Bell’s gray eyes and several of his mannerisms. Appropriately, of Sherlock’s rotund and secretive brother, Mycroft, we learn nothing.

A nit here: At times, the book reads a little like an overstuffed suitcase, with facts spilling out the sides; it makes for heavy going. We could travel lighter not knowing that Bell’s own mentor, who died in 1870, drove a yellow carriage with “C-spring suspension.” Or that Conan Doyle’s godfather “spent the sweltering summer days in his shirtsleeves” when young Arthur visited him in Paris. Or even that, “Ambition and artistry were in the very air of Edinburgh,” frosted a few pages later with “Scholarship was revered in Edinburgh.” Fans of Holmes and his creator, however, will find the journey is worth the tiny bumps.

]]> 0"Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes." By Michael Sims. Bloomsbury. 245 pages. $27.Sat, 28 Jan 2017 18:29:59 +0000
Book review: ‘Idaho’ ponders unfathomable tragedy, aftermath Sun, 29 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 The heinous life events that gut humanity and leave people asking why are all too familiar. A brutal assault, an abduction, the murder of a child – the list is too numerous and depressing to compile.

These events can leave people stunned, grasping for answers that might never come. That void of understanding is at the heart of Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel, “Idaho.” Ruskovich, a 2015 O. Henry Award winner for “Owl,” builds her story around the implosion of the Mitchell family after Jenny murders her younger child, May, and the older daughter, June, is lost in the woods. Wade Mitchell is the lone survivor of the carnage, but his memories are being claimed by dementia.

And even the memory doesn’t provide a definitive answer to the question of why a mother would kill a child on an ordinary afternoon out with the family. It’s that sense of the ordinary, somehow always just a beat or two off, that makes “Idaho” a compelling tale.

Ruskovich’s writing is vivid and dense. She’s telling stories – there are strong subplots woven through the tale – that need to be told, but not necessarily resolved. After all, can society ever really resolve the death of a child at her mother’s hand?

Instead, Ruskovich follows the blurred lines that make up life, rather than the resolutions that make up fiction.

Ruskovich, who grew up in northern Idaho, has chosen this region as her setting. Her narrative is gritty and dark. Years later, May’s murder and June’s terror-filled disappearance are still too raw to be discussed. This isn’t a story about the mental state and psychological baggage that drive a mother to kill her child. It’s about the aftermath and the search for a new normal.

Less than a year after May’s death, Wade marries Ann, a music teacher who had been teaching him piano. It’s not a marriage of convenience, but there are some elements of obligation and responsibility. Wade, whose father was in his 50s when he died as a result of dementia, is beginning to exhibit symptoms and Ann promises to take care of him.

Their relationship and May’s death drive the story. It’s a rich story as Wade and Ann grapple with the omnipresent grief from May’s murder and June’s disappearance, as well as his descent into dementia.

His reactions to Ann and treatment of her can be as gut-wrenching as they are tender.

The story is told from several points of view – Ann, Wade, Jenny and the girls are joined by compelling secondary characters like Jenny’s prison cellmate. For her part, Jenny accepts responsibility for her act, but her subsequent behavior is as murky as her actions on that fateful day.

Rather than trying to excuse an inexcusable act, Ruskovich focuses on how people cope in the aftermath. Her narrative is wonderful as she looks at the ripple effect May’s murder had on those closest to the events of the day. She goes beyond the boundaries of the family, reflecting on how tragedy can prompt even those on the periphery to re-examine their lives.

Much of the story is told from Ann’s perspective. She gets glimpses of family from Wade’s memories. As his mind fades, his memories become hers. Her anguish over the loss of Wade’s mind before his death is heartbreaking. So too is the phase when Wade understands that he is slipping away.

Jenny’s life in prison is also a striking narrative as Ruskovich is careful not to make Jenny, or any of the women in prison, a cliched inmate – hard-boiled characters always searching for a fight or saints whose eyes have shed their scales.

Idaho is a wonderful debut. Ruskovich knows how to build a page-turner from the opening paragraph.

]]> 0"Idaho" by Emily Ruskovich; Random House (320 pages, $27) (Random House)Sat, 28 Jan 2017 18:33:53 +0000
A new fairy tale is being published. The author? Mark Twain Wed, 25 Jan 2017 23:18:11 +0000 HARTFORD, Conn. – Notes that Mark Twain jotted down from a fairy tale he told his daughters more than a century ago have inspired a new children’s book, “The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine.”

At the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, there is excitement that the story could help introduce the writer to wider audiences – and provide a financial lift for the nonprofit organization that curates the three-story Gothic Revival mansion where Twain raised his family.

The cover of "The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine," by Mark Twain and Philip Stead.

The cover of “The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine,” by Mark Twain and Philip Stead. Doubleday Books for Young Readers via Associated Press

A researcher found the story in the archive of the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California at Berkeley. When the University of California Press passed on taking it to publication, the archive’s director, Bob Hirst, endorsed enlisting the Twain House as an agent in part because of financial struggles the museum has had to overcome.

“I don’t think it’s a secret they need funding,” Hirst said. “If it was going to make some money, which Mark Twain would certainly approve of, that house was a good place for it to go.”

The Twain House connected the UC Press with DoubleDay Books for Young Readers, which hired an author and illustrator to turn Twain’s unfinished notes into the book to be published in September. The publisher and others involved declined to discuss the financial terms.

Amy Gallent, the Twain House’s interim executive director, said the museum has a balanced budget and its finances are sound. Since cost overruns brought the museum to the brink of closing a decade ago, it has reported strong admissions numbers and state aid has helped with needed improvements. But Gallent said she understands the Twain House will receive royalties on book sales and she hopes it is “incredibly successful.”

The book tells the story of a boy who gains the ability to talk to animals by eating a flower from a magical seed and then joins them to rescue a kidnapped prince.

Winthrop University English professor John Bird was mining the Berkeley archive for a possible Twain cookbook in 2011 when he flagged “Oleomargarine,” thinking it might be related to food. After reading over the 16 pages of Twain’s handwritten notes, he realized the manuscript was a story Twain apparently told his daughters in 1879 while the family visited Paris.

The 152-page illustrated book, completed by Philip and Erin Stead, frames the narrative as a story “told to me by my friend, Mr. Mark Twain.”

The author, born Samuel Clemens in Missouri in 1835, lived with his family from 1874 to 1891 at the house in Hartford. Tours feature the home’s library and a discussion of the bedtime stories he would conjure there nightly for his three daughters.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Cindy Lovell, who recently stepped down as the Twain House director and helped shepherd the book project, said the story is exceptional because Twain was not known to write down any of the thousands of stories he told his children.

“To him, this was nothing. He never wrote it because it came so easily,” she said. “I don’t think it ever occurred to him that could have been a gold mine.”

Lovell said the Twain House will benefit financially from the book, as will the UC Press and the Mark Twain Project, led by Hirst at Berkeley.

In 2010, a Twain autobiography became an unexpected best-seller when it was published a century after his death, at the author’s request. Hirst said there are still other Twain works in the archive that could be published.

“The pile is getting smaller and smaller,” Hirst said. “He left quite a lot.”

]]> 0, 25 Jan 2017 19:39:57 +0000
Why Orwell’s ‘1984’ has just spiked to No. 1 on Amazon Wed, 25 Jan 2017 15:43:22 +0000 On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, called easily disproved claims made by White House press secretary Sean Spicer “alternative facts.”

A bewildered Chuck Todd responded, “Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.”

While the phrase “alternative facts” reminded many of the terms “falsehoods,” “lies” and “untruths,” it reminded many others of George Orwell’s dystopian, politically charged novel “1984.”

Not only were people inspired to tweet about that, they wanted to purchase a copy. By early Wednesday morning, the novel was the best-selling book on

“We put through a 75,000 copy reprint this week. That is a substantial reprint and larger than our typical reprint for ‘1984,’ ” a Penguin spokesperson told CNN.

Sales of the novel also enjoyed a marked spike in 2013 – one edition experiencing a 10,000 percent jump in sales – following the leak of NSA documents.

Many quotes from the book especially resonated with readers following Conway’s remarks.

Cover detail of the current edition of George Orwell's "1984."

Cover detail of the Signet Classic edition of “1984,” George Orwell’s chilling prophecy about a dystopian future.

“The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command,” for example, brought to some minds Spicer’s argument that Trump’s inauguration had record-breaking crowds, despite obvious evidence to the contrary.

That this particular novel – a mainstay in high school classrooms – would be so thoroughly referenced in the past week makes sense as the book is a powerful political statement against an all-seeing, untrustworthy government.

Its plot follows Winston Smith, an everyman living in a society controlled by an omnipresent, totalitarian power, which distorts the truth, erases and alters evidence of the past and essentially controls its subjects. Throughout the novel, readers are introduced to a litany of inventive phrases describing this government’s actions, such as “doublethink” (believing contradictory things), “newspeak” (ambiguous, political propaganda), and “Big Brother” (the controlling government).

Much like “gas-lighting” (from the 1944 film Gas Light), “Catch-22? and “Manchurian Candidate,” these terms derived from fiction have endured as cultural shorthand to describe government actions such as false propaganda and belief systems – understood even by those who never read a page of Orwell’s prose or seen the movies.

While 1984’s spike is particularly notable, the book’s popularity has been rising for many years. The Orwell’s estate’s literary agent Bill Hamilton said in 2015, “Interest in Orwell is accelerating and expanding practically daily . . . We’re selling in new languages – Breton, Friuli, Occitan – Total income has grown 10 percent a year for the last three years.”

Orwell wrote the book at the end of his life, as he was stricken with tuberculosis living reclusively on the Scottish isle of Jura. He died at 46 just six months after the book’s publication in June 1949, thinking of the book as a critical and commercial success.

It was, but three years later the novel had fallen out of fashion. Only about 150 copies were purchased each month, barely enough to keep the book in print.

It remained that way until 1954, when the BBC produced and distributed a filmed “horror” adaptation of the novel. The network was quick to add a disclaimer: “This is one man’s alarmed view of the future.”

It was an instant hit. As the Daily Beast reported:

“Television lives by viewing figures. Those for ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ were, for a live drama, unprecedented. The tally (seven million) was exceeded only by that for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the previous year. ‘Big Brother is watching you.’ ‘doublethink,’ ‘thought- crime’ and the ‘two-minute hate’ became catchphrases.”

Then the book’s popularity exploded. And like Big Brother’s gaze, it became ubiquitous – and stayed that way. Sales soared toward the astounding numbers they reach today.

The CIA grew interested, financing an American 1956 film adaptation with one request – instead of ending the film with the iconic four words (or at least the sentiment they contain), “He Loved Big Brother,” the agency doctored the story to have Winston Smith being shot after yelling “Down with Big Brother!”

Two versions were made of the film. The one with the altered ending played in Britain, according to “The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters” by Frances Stonor Saunders, while the one with the original ending played in American cinemas.

More film adaptations (these seemingly free of CIA interference) were eventually made, as the book was printed and reprinted to aid high school English teachers in informing America’s youth.

Outside of the classroom, the novel eventually became such a pop culture phenomenon that Apple announced the first MacIntosh through a Ridley Scott-directed television commercial directly referencing it, which fittingly aired during the 1984 Super Bowl.

Perhaps the phrase “alternative facts” will soon have as much cultural currency as the terms Orwell penned more than a half-century ago, even though the former were said in earnest while Orwell’s were bitingly critical.

]]> 0, 25 Jan 2017 10:58:26 +0000
Maine author Ashley Bryan’s book about slaves wins Newbery Honor Award Mon, 23 Jan 2017 21:29:37 +0000 Maine author and illustrator Ashley Bryan’s children’s book “Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life” won a Newbery Honor Award on Monday, a runner-up to the Newbery Medal. The American Library Association announced the awards at its winter meeting in Atlanta. The prizes recognize excellence in children’s literature.

The Newbery Medal was awarded to the book “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” by Kelly Barnhill. Other books receiving runner-up honor awards were “The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog,” written by Adam Gidwitz and illustrated by Hatem Aly; and “Wolf Hollow,” written by Lauren Wolk.

“Freedom Over Me” also won two honors medals for the Coretta Scott King Book Award on Monday.

Bryan finished the book last year, after working on it for several years. The project began when he purchased slave records at auction in Maine. Those papers included the names, ages and sale prices of several slaves, and Bryan told their stories by imagining their lives as free people.

The book also was a finalist for a Kirkus Prize in children’s literature.

Bryan, 93, has written more than 50 children’s books, many dealing with African-American spirituals and traditions. He has won many honors, including multiple Coretta Scott King awards and a Lupine Award from the Maine Library Association. A New Yorker, he came to Maine to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in the late 1940s. He has lived year-round in Islesford on Little Cranberry Island since retiring from Dartmouth College in the 1980s.

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

Twitter: pphbkeyes

]]> 0, ME - JULY 22: Artist Ashley Bryan, 91, poses for a portrait in the workshop at his home in Little Cranberry Island Tuesday, July 22, 2014. Bryan has been making art on the island since 1946 and retired there full time in the 1980s. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Mon, 23 Jan 2017 23:14:24 +0000
Big risk, big reward in the search for ‘The Lost City of the Monkey God’ Sun, 22 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Douglas Preston has proved himself so adept at devising fictional thrillers with his collaborator Lincoln Child that it’s easy to forget that he’s also a highly skilled journalist in his own right. A former writer and editor for the American Museum of Natural History, the part-time Maine resident has contributed articles to the New Yorker, National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other top-quality publications.

His book-length nonfiction includes “Dinosaurs in the Attic” and the best-selling and controversial serial killer investigation “The Monster of Florence” (with Mario Spezi).

Now the co-author of “The Obsidian Chamber,” “Crimson Shore,” “Relic” and other titles in the FBI Agent Pendergast weird-crime series delivers an account of a true-life adventure as dangerous and uncanny as anything served up in his fiction. “The Lost City of the Monkey God” recounts Preston’s participation in an expedition into the heart of the Honduran jungle, in search of Ciudad Blanca, the fabled and sacred White City.

Legend had it that the indigenous peoples fled to Ciudad Blanca with their gold after the arrival of conquistador Hernan Cortes. Preston’s account of the search for the elusive ruins is full of larger-than-life personalities, intense scientific debates, awesome discoveries and tragic setbacks.

Douglas Preston

Douglas Preston Photo by Mark Adams

Although treasure seekers had been on the lookout for traces of Ciudad Blanca for centuries, the idea of a lost Honduran city had received a boost in the popular imagination from reports by journalist Theodore Morde in 1940. Along with his partner, Laurence C. Brown, Morde claimed to have found the City of the Monkey God and brought back from it supposedly ancient artifacts. Morde’s accounts fueled a media sensation, even if most of the details would ultimately prove to be fabricated. In 1954, Morde committed suicide, taking his secrets with him.

But the legend and intrigue persisted. In 2012, Preston signs up as a reporter for the National Geographic Magazine to accompany a team of archaeologists, filmmakers, photographers and scientists into a highly remote, preserved section of Honduras known as La Mosquitia. Preston writes, “None of us had any idea what we would actually see on the ground, shrouded in dense jungle, in a pristine wilderness that had not seen human beings in living memory.”

What makes the expedition possible is the advent of lidar (Light Detecting and Ranging) laser technology on loan from NASA. With the million-dollar machine crammed into a single-engine plane, the team is able to detect what lies beneath the jungle canopy. What the lidar reveals is not simply an unknown city but an unimaginable metropolis, previously inhabited by an unknown people distinct from the Maya. Whoever they might have been, the residents disappeared centuries ago.

In addition to its tantalizing mysteries, the jungle proves to have more than its share of dangers, chief among them venomous snakes, such as the fer-de-lance, which can spit venom six feet and whose bite is so deadly that anyone struck would not be likely to survive evacuation. Also of concern are jaguars, scorpions and members of drug cartels.

Contracting a tropical illness is always a possibility. Perhaps the ghastliest disease endemic to Mosquitia is mucocutaneous leishmaniasis, sometimes called white leprosy, caused by the bite of an infected sand fly. Preston writes, “The Leishmania parasite migrates to mucous membranes of the victim’s nose and lips and eats them away, eventually creating a giant weeping sore where the face used to be.”

1141007_145441 PrestonTHELOSTCITYOF.jpgDespite the obvious hazards, Preston and his colleagues soldier on, and they are ultimately rewarded with a truly amazing find. The author recounts their tribulations and successes without a lot of hype, resisting any urge to play up the Indiana Jones aspects of the enterprise.

While most of “The Lost City of the Monkey God” takes a positive view of the expedition, the final third emphasizes the costs of venturing into unknown territory and the physical vulnerability of even the best-prepared explorers. Soon after their return home, Preston and his fellow travelers begin experiencing alarming medical symptoms.

Despite precautions, they clearly brought something virulent back with them from the jungle, and the unpleasantness of the treatment is matched only by the urgency of finding a solution to this medical mystery.

Part of what makes “The Lost City of the Monkey God” so readable is its solid narrative arc. It begins with a tantalizing mystery, develops into an intricate archaeological mission and ends with a twist that puts all that has gone before into a new perspective. Preston’s talent as a writer of crime fiction serves him well here. He’s careful not to let his prose get overheated, but he knows which details of his story to emphasize in the service of suspense, irony or amazement.

“The Lost City of the Monkey God” is a superior example of narrative nonfiction, an exciting, immersive tale of modern science and ancient mythology. Preston captures the complexity of his subject without bogging down in the details, presenting scenes with clarity, purposefulness and wit. It’s a great story for a snowy day, an action-packed journey into a hot zone of scientific intrigue.

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 by Mark Adams Douglas PrestonFri, 20 Jan 2017 17:32:02 +0000
Thought-filled little ‘memoir’ definitely not for the birds Sun, 22 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Kyo Maclear took up birding after her father suffered his second stroke.

It had been a tough winter, cold settling in early, snowing often, and between the harsh weather and worries about her father, Maclear was feeling unmoored. “I had lost the beat,” she writes in her strange, lovely, profound little book, “Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation.”

A friend she calls only “the musician” had found peace in his life by photographing urban birds. The birds he watched “lived in gardens of steel, glass, concrete, and electricity.

There was a bird with a plastic ‘frozen mango’ bag on its face and another bird nesting in a shattered light fixture. … The birds were doing ordinary bird things – perching, flying, preening, hunting, nest-building – but there was no doubt that they were of rather than above the mess and grit and trash of the world.”

And so she asks if she can accompany the musician on a bird walk. “I wanted to be enraptured and feel I was still inspirable,” she writes.

1141018_302233 birdsartlife.jpgOne bird walk turns into a year of birding, during which Mac-lear meditates on her past, her parents, her marriage, books she loves, the nature of art, death, happiness, climate change and whatever else comes to her fertile, deeply curious mind. Though structured as a chronological memoir, hers is not a typical “year in the life” narrative. Each chapter is built around bird observations, but her excursions to the urban-bird habitats serve mainly as jumping-off points for her intelligent and thoughtful ramblings.

Her metaphors and verbs are often bird-inspired, but these allusions feel natural, never forced, and her descriptions are vivid and original: “A horned grebe sporting a punky Klaus Nomi hairdo put on a little show, diving and disappearing.” Hooded mergansers have “crests resembling Elizabethan bridal hats. They dove for barnacles while giant ice cubes clinked around them.” A solitary male gadwall “stayed still long enough for me to fixate on its delicate herringbone feather pattern.”

Occasionally she takes her sons birding with her, and when the younger one grows tired, she gathers him up “until he was folded in my arms like a futon.”

On one walk, fairly early on, she recalls the birds that smashed into the windows of her elementary school when she was a child. “I remember their little matchstick legs poking up at the sky,” she writes. “I remember thinking it seemed cruel that a bird should be punished for believing it could fly.”

Maclear, who lives in Toronto, writes books for children, and her prose here is direct and clear, each sentence carrying as much weight as a line in a picture book, or in a poem. “If you listen to birds,” she writes, “every day will have a song in it.”

This book is a lovely song – a symphony – for all of us.

The musician’s bird photographs are at

]]> 0, 20 Jan 2017 17:36:17 +0000
Bookseller, poet and progressive, Gary Lawless helps others find their voices Sun, 22 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 BRUNSWICK — Gary Lawless went to California when he was 21 to meet people who didn’t look like him and who spoke with voices he didn’t recognize. He grew up in Belfast in the 1960s and lived an isolated life on the Maine coast. He hadn’t heard the music his contemporaries were listening to elsewhere in America because radio stations in Belfast didn’t play the songs. He had never read the books they were reading or seen the movies they were watching.

Like many in his generation, he went to California to find out, hitching four days of rides across the country. He crashed at a friend’s place in the mountains and met people of color and different ethnicities and religions. He befriended musicians and poets. He expanded his view of the world, often espousing his new world view in poetry. “It really gave me a sense of the possibility of what poetry and writing are capable of,” he said. “Everyone I was around out there was socially and politically engaged. That was so important.”

After staying less than a year, he returned home determined to recreate in Maine some of what he found in California. He began writing poetry in earnest and took a job in a bookstore to support himself. In 1979, he created a utopia of progressive ideas when he and his wife, Beth Leonard, opened Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick. For nearly 40 years, the store has served as a base for Lawless and his effort to empower people with poetry, song and an exchange of ideas.

In March, the Maine Humanities Council awards Lawless its Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Prize, which recognizes people and organizations who make a difference in the lives of others through the humanities. In announcing the prize, the council’s executive director, Hayden Anderson, cited Lawless for his work with communities of people whose voices aren’t often heard. “He is bringing poetry to Mainers who just would not otherwise have poetry in their day-to-day lives,” Anderson said. “If there’s anyone out there day in and day out, year in and year out, working to bring poetry to every single Mainer, Gary is the guy.”

Lawless, 65, is one of Maine’s outsize personalities. He’s an activist, advocate and artist with a long white beard that reaches the third button of his shirt. He speaks his mind on political and social issues and stocks his store with books that reflect his beliefs and opinions, as well as those of others. One friend calls him a tender-hearted curmudgeon. Another says his rough edges have been worn soft with age.

Longtime Maine bookseller and poet Gary Lawless works behind the counter at Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick.

Longtime Maine bookseller and poet Gary Lawless works behind the counter at Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

That opinion probably depends on whom you ask. A few weeks ago, Lawless sent a poem to Sen. Susan Collins protesting her introduction of attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions before the Senate Judiciary Committee. It included the line, “Maine leads the way with the KKK,” and he addressed it to “Susan KKKollins.”

He’s read his poems in Cuba, Slovenia, Latvia and Lithuania, and he travels regularly to Italy. This fall, he and Leonard will spend a month in Venice for a writing residency. “An arts foundation is giving us an apartment for a month, mid-October to mid-November,” he said. “I am supposed to go and write.”

Lawless is ingrained in Maine’s contemporary culture, working with groups and organizations with deep roots in their communities. He and Leonard organize and host the Social and Political Action Area at the Common Ground Fair in Unity, where Lawless leads readings at Russell’s Poetry Grove, named in honor of his late friend Russell Libby, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s longtime director who died in 2012. They often read together at the fair, each trying to top the other with a poem better than the one before.

He was involved in the early stages of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance in the 1970s, and he is working to preserve the birthplace in Rockland of Maine poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. He has volunteered at Spindleworks, an arts center just down the street from his store with a mission of helping people with disabilities achieve full lives, nearly as long as he owned the store.

He’s written poems with veterans in Lewiston and with homeless people in Portland, and he teaches poetry to school children and retirees.

“He’s a wonderful poet and a creative soul, but he has this whole other side to him that is so committed to social justice,” said Maine crime writer Paul Doiron, a Maine Humanities Council board member and a 30-year friend. “He really walks the talk. In my estimate, that’s pretty unusual. It’s easy for people be political without following through, without being on the ground. Everywhere you look, you probably will find some organization where he has volunteered his time, and people will speak so highly of what he’s doing.”

As much as it is a bookstore, Gulf of Maine Books is a hub where people can get information to become better informed citizens. The store, at 134 Maine St., has evolved into what Pulitzer Prize-winning author and midcoast resident Elizabeth Strout calls “a true community center” where people stop in for conversation and intellectual stimulation driven by the books that Lawless and Leonard stock on their shelves.

In addition to titles by local and regional authors, they sell books about nature and the environment, women’s issues, Indian culture and spirituality, and world literature. They have books for young readers and one of the largest collections of poetry titles in northern New England.

The windows of the store are covered with fliers promoting local concerts and lectures. The aisles are narrow, and cartons of unopened books are often stacked near the register. It has a worn, lived-in feel. Since it opened in 1979, Gulf of Maine has outlasted two national bookstore chains in Brunswick, as well as several small booksellers who have come and gone.

When it was time to move the store’s stock from a previous location down the street, Lawless sent a postcard to customers asking for help lugging boxes of books. Sixty-five people showed up. “We moved the store in one day, and we reopened the next day,” he said.

Lawless and his wife Beth Leonard work behind the counter together at their book store.

Lawless and his wife, Beth Leonard, work behind the counter together at their book store. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Among those who helped were Peter Simmons and Charlotte Agell, a Brunswick couple who met at the store as students at Bowdoin College. Now married, they followed their love of literature to Gulf of Maine when it was in its original location, in a building near Bowdoin that no longer exists.

Agell was drawn to the store by the big dogs who slept by the register and the professorial poets who read there. Simmons was drawn by the art in the windows. The two have been regular customers since. “It may not have all the latest best sellers, but it has what we’re interested in,” Simmons said.

Strout appreciates the independent nature of the bookstore because it reflects diverse local interests. She stops in to browse and “to order whatever books happen to be of interest at the moment. I will order it and get it in a few days,” she said. “I appreciate Gary so much. He is very discreet. He is a lovely presence.”

Strout’s husband, Jim Tierney, is a near-daily regular. It’s like a coffee shop, but instead of coffee people come in for conversation and stimulation, he said. “You can go in and really have a discussion on any given day whether you are buying something or not. You feel comfortable walking in. It’s a funky place, the physicality of it. No one is in a hurry. Gary is astoundingly patient,” said Tierney, the state’s former attorney general. “We talk ideas. We argue. He is opinionated. I am opinionated. We don’t always agree, but that’s OK.”

In many ways, the bookstore is a means to an end for Lawless. He started working at Bookland in Brunswick when he returned from California in 1973. “I was a poet who needed a job,” he said. The core of his work and the center of his being involves writing poetry and encouraging others to write. He works with veterans groups, immigrant communities and anyone else who wants to express themselves. He leads workshops on syntax and grammar, but he’s mostly interested in encouraging people to write about their lives.

“I had this idea that a community was really a conversation, and it wasn’t a true community unless all voices were represented in the conversation,” he said.

The award, he said, is humbling and timely. Like a lot of progressives, he worries what a Trump presidency means for people whose voices aren’t heard. He believes his work is as important now as ever. “It’s not going to get better for poor folks and people with disabilities,” he said. “Part of what I do with all those groups is encourage them to speak for themselves, and help them realize that their opinions and feelings are important and valuable to the community. It’s harder to think about issues that concern them if you don’t know how they feel and you just write them off as a group.”

Lawless and Leonard live in Nobleboro in an early 1800s farmhouse known as Chimney Farm, once owned by the writers Henry Beston and Elizabeth Coatsworth. Beston, a naturalist, was a pioneer of American’s environmental movement. Coatsworth wrote poetry and fiction for children and adults. She won the Newbery Medal for a children’s book in 1931.

When Coatsworth died in 1986, their daughter, the poet Kate Barnes, Maine’s original poet laureate, asked Lawless and Leonard to move into the house. They’ve been there since. When Barnes died in 2013, she left them the house and a small section of land.

Living in a house previously occupied by writers interested in nature is haunting, Lawless said. He knows the history of the place since Beston and Coatsworth moved there in 1929, because they wrote about it. “They were all very interested in the natural world, so we know pretty much what happened there every season,” Lawless said. “They were writing about it – where the apples trees came from, where the lilies came from, and the roses.”

If it feels like they’re still there, it’s because they are. Beston, Coatsworth and Barnes are all buried on the property.

Mary Anne Libby, Russell Libby’s widow, has always appreciated how Lawless uses his craft to write respectfully of the earth.

His poetry, she says, has this “deep instinctual understanding of life around us, and whether it is various animals, whether it’s plants or the soil or the air or the stars, he has reverence for it, though he might laugh at me for using that word. It goes so deep and so wide. He can do it with humor or do it with anger, but mostly he can take my breath away with just a very few words.”

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

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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Signings: Maria Padian to discuss ‘Wrecked’ at Portland Library Sun, 22 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 1140973_475229 wrecked.jpgAuthor Maria Padian will talk about her novel “Wrecked,” about a sexual assault on a college campus and how conflicting interests fuel differing versions of the story, making it nearly impossible to bring the truth to light. Guests are encouraged to bring their lunch; coffee provided by Coffee By Design.

WHEN: Noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square, Portland


INFO: 871-1700;

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Book review: Colorful tales of 1901 World’s Fair a delightful read Sun, 15 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Bates College professor Margaret Creighton continues to prove herself among Maine’s most stalwart historians, with the appearance of “The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City: Spectacle and Assassination at the 1901 World’s Fair.”

Creighton’s previous volumes, including “Rites & Passages: The Experience of American Whaling” (1995) and “Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History” (2005), were fun to read, fact-packed and full of fresh ways of interpreting events. The author’s fans will not be surprised, then, by a delightful read and an amazing juxtaposition of revelations throughout “The Electrifying Fall.”

In common with the earlier volumes, this one does not focus on Maine, but neatly references our state in context. We learn, for instance, “In Old Town, Maine, nearly half the population was packing its bags” for Buffalo, New York, in 1901, along with impressive contingents throughout the Western Hemisphere.

That’s because the city, then the eighth largest in the United States, was hosting the World’s Fair. This was the age before radio, television and homogeneous entertainment in America’s small towns. World fairs were the in thing and Buffalo was a commercial nexus, with its canals, connection to Canada, and growing steel production powered by the mighty Niagara Falls.

Buffalo’s community leaders, almost exclusively prosperous white males, were proud and anxious to push their city higher in the economic pecking order. America had just won the Spanish-American War, and the astonishing 20th century was on the quick march. Raising funds for such an extravaganza required energy, planning, the appearance of President William McKinley and anything else that could be pulled out of imagination’s star-spangled hat.

What might have proved a garbled stack of events in the hands of a lesser writer springs to bright and understandable life in the words and design of Creighton. Her tour of the World’s Fair is formed by official records, newspaper accounts, a deep knowledge of life and culture, and, most delightfully, by the scrapbook accounts of a young city school teacher, Mabel E. Barnes (1877-1946), who visited the fair 33 times and took exacting notes. Barnes had a grand time during her summer vacation and left an unrivaled description and framework, now in the Buffalo History Museum archives.

Still, even Barnes’ inquiring eyes and mind did not see everything. The American Negro exhibit was billeted on the edges of the midway and, in spite of leading African-American activist Mary Talbert’s effort to promote the notion of progress, the fair promoter chose to spotlight “Darkest Africa and Old Plantations Shows” with “specimens of pygmies and cannibals.” This is what the general public was given and perhaps wanted.

At Talbert’s pavilion, which featured the achievements of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois and others, the New York Times wrote blandly, “We may as well be entirely frank in the appraisal. Much of it is rubbish. None of it is very great.” In retrospect, one might say visitors, promoters and the press missed the forest for the trees.

They could not miss one tragic event, however, that occurred on Sept. 6, when an obscure assassin shot President McKinley at the Temple of Music. Saved from an additional bullet by quick-thinking James Parker, an African-American standing in line who wrestled the gunman down. McKinley remained upright saying, “Go easy on him.”

It seemed that McKinley would survive, for a short while, in the care of Buffalo’s top physicians, but he died eight days later, ushering in the whirlwind era and the iconic new leader, Theodore Roosevelt. In quick order, the murderer, Leon Czolgosz, whose name the public never learned to pronounce correctly, was tried, convicted and electrocuted.

During this time, the redoubtable middle-aged Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. And there were the ongoing antics of Frank “The Animal King” Bostock, who sought to keep his star performer, “Chiquita, the World’s Smallest Woman,” from running off with her true love, then planned to electrocute the rogue elephant “Jumbo II.” And so went the magical mystery tour.

Anyone who thinks history is dull or useless owes it to themselves, and the rest of us, to read “The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City.”

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.

]]> 0, 14 Jan 2017 18:17:41 +0000
Colorful characters make ‘Hauling Through’ a lively read Sun, 15 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 In the novel “Hauling Through,” Jamie Kurz is a confused graduate of Bridgewater College located in Brementon in Maine’s midcoast. Think Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate.” But instead of finding himself unleashed on suburbia like Ben, Jamie flounders about in a very close and very salty fishing village at the edge of Casco Bay. Kestrel Cove, where he has taken a job as the third man on a lobster boat, is unlike anything Jamie has ever encountered.

If Bridgewater and Brementon sound familiar, it is because Peter Bridgford, the author, is a Bowdoin graduate. And if Kestrel Cove feels very realistic, it is because Bridgford has worked on a lobster boat (and other commercial fishing boats on both coasts). He has also thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in winter and been a teacher (at Portland’s Breakwater School, among others).

Since 2014, Bridgford, who lives on Peaks Island, has turned his energies to writing. Based on his first novel, I would say he made an excellent choice. Its quirky cast of characters, not to mention situations, makes “Hauling Through” an engrossing and entertaining read.

Take the village of Kestrel Cove, for instance. Its residents are convinced that they are being watched by a Soviet satellite that flies over every day at 8 p.m. For most, this means heading for cover at that time, although at least one resident enjoys the opportunity for extreme sub-orbital exhibitionism.

Bridgford delights the reader with colorful individuals whose behavior and personalities only occasionally bump against credulity, and always with refreshing gusto.

There’s Jamie’s boss, the hardest-driving captain in the whole lobster fleet; his sternman, whose compulsive TV-watching has made him an improbable fount of esoteric trivia; a mystery man “with more money than God.” These, plus many more, make Kestrel Cove vibrate in the reader’s imagination. In fact, there are so many of them, in and beyond the village, that at times “Hauling Through” takes on the energy and bawdy charm of an 18th-century picaresque novel.

Throughout it all, we experience the pain as the “college boy” – initially a derisive moniker that gradually gains an affectionate overtone – makes a corresponding shift from terror to the need to fit in. Needless to say, love has a lot, but not everything, to do with gormless Jamie’s evolution.

Bridgford’s ear for dialogue is pitch-perfect, which among the lobstermen, especially when they are razzing the “college boy,” precludes quotation in a family newspaper. He also has an eye for the little detail that makes a scene come alive. When the sternman pauses mid-sentence, “taking a deep drag on this cigarette and holding the smoke for a moment before releasing it forcefully at the ceiling of the cab,” his frustration is palpable.

The author has an equally distinctive knack for description. Under stress, Jamie finds the lobster boat’s close-quarters “like a big Bavarian clock with pop-out figures that twirl and spin in their own little circles, as if dancing with their own personal demons.” And as the fall comes on: “Morning frosts were now common, and the woods were now fully committed to their transformation into a patchwork of oranges, browns and reds.”

Not the least of the book’s interest is in the seasonal progression and how it affects the lives of the lobstermen and their families.

“Hauling Through” is a wonderful first novel, but it has flaws. At 475 pages, it is too long. And when the reader gets there, the end is contrived and disappointing. There’s a sub-plot that has more liabilities to it than assets: Jamie is a scholar of the Civil War, which gives him the annoying habit of seeing any given situation in his personal life in terms of that conflict. “Instead of slinking away with his tail between his legs, he knew that he had to counterattack like Lee against McClellan at Second Bull Run.” Fortunately this tick subsides as the novel unfolds.

I wish Bridgford had developed the Soviet rocket theme further. As it is, the sputnik acts as bookends to the story, with the mysterious multi-billionaire serving as a deus ex machina in a comic-book shootout. But it does produce a memorable car chase, with a very funny running dialogue between the governor of Maine and the driver who has kidnapped him.

For all these criticisms, there is much more to enjoy and admire in “Hauling Through.” Bridgford is a superb storyteller. I hope we will hear more news from Kestrel Cove and its denizens in the future.

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

]]> 0, 14 Jan 2017 18:37:09 +0000
Signings: ‘Amazing Adventures with Dev’ author to discuss book about love and loss Sun, 15 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Psychotherapist Melody Boulton will talk about her new book, “Amazing Adventures with Dev,” the story of her strong connection with her son, Devon, who passed away three years ago, in this heartwarming and spiritually-charged guide to life after loss and testament to the transformative power of love.

WHEN: 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: The Great Lost Bear, 540 Forest Ave., Portland


INFO: (317) 435-2116;

]]> 0, 14 Jan 2017 18:38:48 +0000
A new genre master creates another smart hero Sun, 15 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 The easiest label to hang on Nick Petrie’s “Burning Bright” is to say that it’s a Child-ish thriller.

That’s a total compliment, mind you.

We’re comparing Petrie and his still-new series character, Peter Ash, an Afghanistan and Iraq combat veteran with a knack for finding trouble, to the great Lee Child and his two-fisted Jack Reacher.

And we’re not the only ones who have made this connection.Emblazoned across the cover of “Burning Bright,” above the title, is a ringing endorsement from Child himself: “Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Peter Ash is the real deal.”

He is indeed. Reacher fans, especially those who have consumed all of Child’s novels and are thirsting for more, will find Peter Ash to be a more-than-capable substitute.

The heroes are cut from the same cloth, and their adventures are action-packed from start to finish, but the writing and the characters are different enough that the newcomer doesn’t feel like a copycat.

“Burning Bright” is the second novel featuring Peter Ash. He made his debut last year in “The Drifter.”

Now, stateside after eight years of dangerous deployments, the 30-something decorated Recon Marine is a smart and skilled adrenaline junkie.

He’s a man with a code and strong feelings about right and wrong. He’s ever-ready to step in for those in need of a white knight, even if he’s greatly outnumbered.

Alas, this Superman has his own form of Kryptonite: post-traumatic stress that manifests itself as a crippling kind of claustrophobia – or what he calls “white static.” In short, he loses his edge indoors.

Peter’s extreme aversion to enclosed spaces is why he has spent the past two years drifting across America, albeit in not quite as minimalist a way as Reacher does it.

“Burning Bright” opens with Ash backpacking alone among the giant redwoods in Northern California. A chance encounter with an aggressive grizzly bear sends Peter scrambling 40 feet up a tree. While up there, he spots a climbing rope dangling from a taller, neighboring tree.

Peter, always up for a new adventure, decides to find out what’s on the other end of that rope. That leads him to a hidden platform hundreds of feet up at the top of the forest canopy and straight into the life of June Cassidy, a young woman on the run from a team of muscle-bound mercenaries.

The bad guys claim to be Department of Defense agents, but they’re clearly not. They’ve already killed her mother, a brilliant software designer who developed a self-learning skeleton-key algorithm that could become a game-changing hacking/information-gathering/espionage tool.

Now they’re after June, a journalist, because they think she can give them what they want.

Peter has nothing better to do – and besides, June is awfully cute – so he becomes her protector and takes on an army of bad guys, which includes one particularly ruthless lone-wolf killer.

The first quarter of the book is a roller-coaster adventure in an almost literal sense, a fast and dangerous chase that begins with a zip-line ride from tree to tree and ends with a wild auto pileup and shootout along a desolate forest road. It’s what Peter thinks of as “a pretty interesting day.”

Once we finally get a moment to catch our breath, the story morphs into a complicated high-tech conspiracy thriller that fans will find both surprising and comfortably familiar.

The biggest complaint that faithful Lee Child fans have about his Reacher novels is that we read them much faster than he can write them. So it’s nice to have somebody new like Petrie, somebody who’s a very talented writer to boot, to help us endure the wait till our main man drifts back into our lives.

]]> 0, 13 Jan 2017 16:11:04 +0000
Book review: ‘The River at Night’ goes deeper than women’s version of ‘Deliverance’ Sun, 08 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 There are no dueling banjos in Erica Ferencik’s new novel, “The River at Night,” but the author of this riveting Maine wilderness thriller is canny enough to tip her hat early to the book’s likeliest source of inspiration. Four middle-aged women embark on a whitewater rafting journey from a town called Dickey, and it’s immediately clear that they are heading into territory explored in “Deliverance” more than 40 years ago.

As the book opens, Boston graphic designer Winifred Allen is fed up with her professional and personal life, but unable to choose what to do next. Grieving the death of her autistic younger brother, blindsided by the dissolution of her 15-year marriage and resentful of being little more than a glorified Photoshop jockey, she relishes the idea of an all-girls vacation with three of her best friends: ultra-competent alpha female Pia, nurse and recovering addict Rachel, and mom and cancer survivor Sandra. But does the excursion have to be a white-knuckle trip through uncharted parts of the Allagash Wilderness, rather than a simple week of white beaches and tropical drinks?

Wini eventually allows herself to be badgered into spending a small fortune on camping equipment at REI and signing up for the trip north. She muses, “I couldn’t tell which was worse, the fear of being left behind by my friends as they dashed away on some uberbonding, unforgettable adventure, or the inevitable self-loathing if I stayed behind like some gutless wimp – safe, always safe – half-fucking dead with safety. Why couldn’t I just say yes to a camping trip with three of my best friends? What was I so afraid of?”

The early chapters of “The River at Night” hint at some of the things Wini should be nervous about. A bathroom break at a run-down general store in what seems to be the middle of nowhere leads to a nasty encounter with some hunters. (The scene relies a bit on rural Maine stereotypes, but it’s still effective and chilling.)

Rory Ekhart, the 20-year-old, gun-toting guide for their expedition, seems a little too cavalier about the intensity and danger of their trip down the river. He and Pia are also better acquainted than Wini, Sandra and Rachel first assume, and their sexual tension only adds to the stress of the situation.

As it must, a moment of crisis arrives on the river, and Wini and her compatriots find themselves fighting for their lives. It wouldn’t be sporting to reveal how it happens, but the women end up on their own, traumatized, lost and bereft of their raft and all of its survival gear. Just when they think they might have found help, something worse happens.

Even if one has not read James Dickey’s “Deliverance” or seen its film adaptation, the narrative shape of “The River at Night” is a familiar one, a sturdy platform for many a survival thriller.

But the difference is in the details, and while it is sometimes possible to predict what might happen next along the river ride through hell, Ferencik’s storytelling strategy also allows for some clever red herrings and unsuspected plot revelations. She also succeeds in keeping the plot taut and the prose tight, avoiding the bloat that afflicts so many thrillers these days.

Ferencik does a splendid job of depicting the beauty and the brutality of the Maine wilderness. She captures its capriciousness, how a pleasant afternoon in the water can pivot suddenly into a dark, life-threatening ordeal.

She also knows how to craft an electrifying antagonist, one who will push Wini and crew to their mortal limits.

The novel benefits from the rapport Ferencik devises among the four friends. Each woman is caught up in her own individual circumstance, but Wini’s narration makes clear the ties that bind them through good times and horrific ones.

If Rachel and Sandra both seem a little out of focus, defined without an abundance of nuance, it may be because Wini and Pia are so vivid in the contrast of their personalities, the former’s fearful caution against the latter’s supreme self-confidence.

The quartet still has a dynamism that compels the reader to care about them all and agonize about their ultimate safety.

By the time “The River at Night” reaches its destination, the novel becomes far more than just a distaff version of “Deliverance.”

Surprising, exhilarating and suspenseful, it’s a treacherous, rapid thrill-ride.

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, 08 Jan 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Book review: ‘The Sleepwalker’ illuminates dark side of nocturnal malady Sun, 08 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Chris Bohjalian savors the experience of getting behind his characters’ masks, deep into their psyches, such that readers know far more about why the people in his novels do what they do than the characters themselves know.

Typically they live ordinary lives but come to be faced with extraordinary circumstances and pressing moral dilemmas. You feel for them as though they are your friends, watching through the sealed window of the page, wanting to call out to them, to warn them away from taking questionable actions and making risky decisions.

Bohjalian’s newest novel, “The Sleepwalker,” is one of his most skillfully plotted. In truth, it is a mystery. He gives you the heart of the mystery in the first sentence of chapter one: “Everyone in the county presumed that my mother’s body was decaying – becoming porridge – at the bottom of the Gale River.”

The narrator is 21-year-old Lianna Ahlberg, home for the summer in Bartlett, Vermont, between her junior and senior years in college. Her mother, Annalee Ahlberg, a successful architect and a woman of arresting, Nordic good looks, has disappeared. She apparently got up while her Middlebury College professor-husband was away in Iowa at a conference, leaving Lianna and her 12-year-old sister, Paige, asleep in their Victorian home on the edge of the village.

It is no secret in town that Annalee is a sleepwalker. Everyone knows the earlier story of Lianna finding her mother naked, standing on a pillar of the bridge over the Gale River one night, and how she saved her from whatever somnambulistic disaster that awaited.

Each chapter is preceded by what appears to be pages from a diary or journal that reveals the strange world of the sleepwalking mind. The opening entry is certainly gripping. It closes with these lines:

“Or you are teased by a stirring between your legs, then a craving, and you reach for the body beside you. And if no one’s there? You push off the sheets and climb from your bed. You will search out a stranger who will satisfy it. With any luck, you will wake before you find one. But not always.

“It is – you are – vampiric. And while it would be easy to use words like insatiable or unquenchable, they would be imprecise. Because the libertine needs of your sleeping soul will be sated. They will.

“And that’s the problem.”

Lianna was not sheltered as a child, but she isn’t exactly worldly either. Her passion since childhood has been magic, and she has developed something of a talent, doing birthday parties and occasional club performances. It makes for an intriguing subplot in a story that is, at heart, about a disappearance. The reader gets a few glimpses behind the veil of a magician’s sleight-of-hand and a sense of the pivotal act of misdirecting the audience’s attention.

Though the initial search for Annalee is pursued aggressively, nothing turns up but a small square of her nightgown caught on a branch along the river. The uniqueness of the case catches the attention of Gavin Rikert, a youthful detective with the state police who asked to be assigned to the investigation.

Almost from the first encounter, an attraction and fascination is sparked between Gavin and Lianna, despite their 12-year age difference. To complicate matters further, Gavin also suffers from somnambulism and knew the victim as a result of their both seeking help from the same sleep center several years before.

Lianna, Paige and their aloof father, Warren, deal with the inexplicable loss of Annalee through different coping methods. Warren submerses himself in his teaching, then drinks himself into a stupor every night in his reading chair at home.

Lianna smokes a lot of pot and acts upon her attraction to Gavin, telling herself at first that it is, in part, to stay close to the investigation. And middle-schooler Paige spends all her free time swimming to prepare for the start of the competitive skiing season, yet months off.

Both Lianna and Paige have inherited their mother’s nocturnal malady, though apparently have not experienced any episodes recently.

Gavin tells Lianna the first afternoon her mother has gone missing that he knew her mother, quite well, actually. That after their time at the center, they had occasionally gotten together for coffee or lunch, that they were like each other’s private support group. Lianna is surprised by how much he knows about her mom, including intimate things from her childhood.

The little-known, dark world of somnambulism, and its unpredictable impulses, assumes a greater active role as the story progresses, beyond being simply a likely factor in Annalee’s disappearance. This is masterfully advanced throughout by the separate journal-like entries, each entry taking the reader deeper into the nether realm of uncontrollable sleepwalking.

Bohjalian tells an increasingly gripping tale layered with grave moral dilemmas for those who suffer somnambulistic episodes, ratcheting the tension as their behavior takes bizarre turns.

This tension is further intensified by the complex dilemmas that those who love them and wish to protect them face, as they, too, fight feelings of helplessness.

The popular notion that sleepwalking is humorous and harmless is belied by the dire, deadly consequences that entangle the Ahlberg family of sleepy Bartlett, Vermont.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was 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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Signings, etc.: Christopher Morin to talk about ‘The Rebel’s Wrath’ at Windham library Sun, 08 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Portland native and author Christopher W. Morin, a history enthusiast and creative writer, will talk about his latest book, “The Rebel’s Wrath.” The post-Civil War novel follows a soldier who returns home to Maine to find more challenges. The book will be available for purchase and signing. Space is limited, so registration is required.

WHEN: 6 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: Windham Public Library, 217 Windham Center Road


INFO:; call Barbara at 892-1908.

]]> 0, 08 Jan 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Signings: ‘Stories on the Staircase’ at Victoria Mansion Sun, 01 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 The final “Stories on the Staircase” holiday reading from the children’s books “The Tomten & the Fox” and “Grandmother Winter.” Children, ages three to five, are invited to the free story hour and a mini-tour of the mansion, tailored just for them. Each child will get a take-home activity relating to the day’s books. Space limited to one adult with child. Pre-registration recommended.

WHEN: 10 a.m. Saturday

WHERE: Victoria Mansion, 109 Danforth St., Portland


INFO: 772-4841 ext. 104;

]]> 0, 30 Dec 2016 21:09:22 +0000
Actor Robert Wagner delivers in book about actresses Sun, 01 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 A love letter to actresses he admired on and off the screen, Robert J. Wagner’s engaging memoir offers a warm embrace for the many women who helped him establish a successful career as a leading man or inspired him professionally and personally in their unforgiving business.

Take Claudette Colbert, an Oscar winner for “It Happened One Night.” Wagner was a 20-year-old newbie when they made 1951’s “Let’s Make It Legal.” He flubbed his way through 49 takes of one scene.

“She could easily have had me replaced by uttering a single sentence,” Wagner recalls. “Not only did she not have me replaced, not once did she roll her eyes, not once did she sigh, not once did she betray any impatience or anger at my incompetence. It was an object lesson in the discipline necessary to be an actor, not to mention a star.”

“I Loved Her in the Movies” is a delight in large part because Wagner can also see Colbert and other great female stars from a fan’s perspective. They were his colleagues and friends – some were his lovers – but he never lost his admiration for the women who could move an audience to cheers and tears, among them:

n Marilyn Monroe: “I thought she was a terrific woman and I liked her very much. When I knew her, she was a warm, fun girl. … I never saw the Marilyn of the nightmare anecdotes – the terribly insecure woman who needed pills and champagne to anesthetize her from life, and who reached a place where she couldn’t get out more than a couple of consecutive sentences in front of a camera.”

n Joan Crawford: “Joan had drive. She also had a quality of directness I’ve always liked. She was never a particularly nuanced actress, but she was open to the camera in a very touching way. Men came and went with Joan, but her devotion to the camera never waned, because the camera was her true love.”

n Barbara Stanwyck: “She loved to work and emotionally she needed to work. She had been very poor as a child and young woman, so money translated into security for her. Work always improved her mood. … Whether it was a movie or TV show didn’t seem to make much difference to her; she just wanted to keep acting.”

What might be most surprising in the pages of “I Loved Her in the Movies,” Wagner’s third book with Scott Eyman, is the streak of feminism that runs through his reflections on stardom, the nature of talent and the demands of a Hollywood career. Actors had it tough in the studio system, but actresses endured even more in a business that, Wagner notes, was run by and for men who expected women to be submissive. Those who were not, like Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, paid an even higher price for daring to rock the boat.

Looking back after 60-plus years, Wagner finds a characteristic common to the female stars that still shine.

“The truth is that the vast majority of those who came up during the studio system were well defined in their own minds,” he writes. “They knew what they wanted, and if they didn’t, they didn’t last long. Almost all of them had endured hardships as kids, and as show business invariably presented its own kinds of hardships, they were by nature and necessity survivors.”

Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press).

]]> 0 image provided by Penguin Random House shows the cover of "I Loved Her in the Movies," by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman. A love letter to actresses he admired on and off the screen, Wagner's engaging memoir offers a warm embrace for the many women who helped him establish a successful career as a leading man or inspired him professionally and personally in their unforgiving business. (Viking/Courtesy of Penguin Random House via AP)Fri, 30 Dec 2016 21:11:50 +0000
Twelve great reads that deserved more buzz in 2016 Sun, 01 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 The publishing industry cranks out thousands of titles each year, all vying for attention in an oversaturated marketplace. A small number of titles manage to hog most of the buzz, and many terrific books slip past unnoticed. As 2016 draws to a close, Newsday’s book reviewers look back at 12 unsung fiction and nonfiction titles that deserved more praise this year.

1130529_533051 bookadventurist.jpg“The Adventurist,” by J. Bradford Hipps

Could there be a better novel about the modern world of work than “The Adventurist?” Witty, elegiac and bursting with unerring observations, it’s a shameless – and worthy – homage to “The Moviegoer,” Walker Percy’s classic of comic alienation. Yet it dramatizes the tawdry manipulations of the cubicle crowd like a comic rewrite of “Othello.” Our guide through this air-conditioned underworld is Henry Hurt, a software engineer with a philosophical bent and a longing for love, who is under pressure from his enigmatic boss to rescue the office from lagging revenue. Whoever imagined that software sales could be the basis for a work of such aching tenderness? (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99)


1130529_533051 bookjihadijane.jpg“Just Another Jihadi Jane,” by Tabish Khair

This confession by a British Muslim girl who runs away with her best friend to join Daesh (the Arabic name for Islamic State group, or ISIS) is a novel, but it feels electrifyingly real. Jamilla and Ameena have grown up together in industrial northern England, navigating between the precepts of Islam and the temptations of soccer players and cigarettes. Through Facebook and Twitter, they follow various preachers and Islamists; they meet young women around the world who share their religious interests. One of their contacts gradually persuades them to run away from home, join her in Syria and become jihadi brides. Every bit of illusion they have about the movement will be burned away as the disaster of this choice becomes clear. (Interlink Books, $15)


1130529_533051 booknowandagain.jpg“Now and Again,”‘ by Charlotte Rogan

Rogan’s second novel (after “The Lifeboat”) is set in 2007 in an Oklahoma town, home to a munitions plant and a for-profit prison. Two women, unknown to one another, begin campaigns to end the appalling abuses being covered up in the two businesses. Their crusades overlap with that of some soldiers back from a deadly, bungled mission in Iraq. The story grows to include over a dozen voices and points-of-view, chiefly those of ordinary working people sacrificed to expediency and profit. Tragic, poignant and often funny, this is a beautifully executed novel, and a timely one too in its depiction of a callous managerial class, the uses of spin and marginalization of whistleblowers. (Little, Brown and Co.; $27)


1130529_533051 bookconsequence.jpg“Consequence,” by Eric Fair

After a heart condition took him off the police force in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the author was hired by a contractor to be an interrogator in Iraq. Fair, who had initially aspired to the clergy, learned on the job how to bully, intimidate and hurt people in service of information they might or might not have, at prisons that included Abu Ghraib. Back home, his sense of guilt and horror nearly destroyed his health and his marriage, and if writing this book offered him some relief, it in no way seeks absolution. In the most unadorned prose imaginable, he asks us to see what happened, and we must. (Henry Holt, $26)


1130529_533051 bookgloaming.jpg“The Gloaming,” by Melanie Finn

A tiny press has published a psychologically astute thriller that belongs on the shelf with the work of Patricia Highsmith. In the opening paragraphs, the narrator in Switzerland has discovered her husband’s infidelity, and the shock of the deception leads to a lethal car accident. For reasons that only gradually become clear, she decamps to Tanzania. Alternating chapters between two continents, the book is brilliant on the pervasiveness of corruption and the murkiness of human motivation. When the narrator disappears, five of the characters she has encountered take over the story, which ends with an existentially perfect flourish. Here is a page-turner that leaves its reader wiser. (Two Dollar Radio, $16.99 paper)


1130529_533051 bookgoldenage.jpg“The Golden Age,” by Joan London

From Australia came this glowing, melancholy, understated but powerful novel of life at a convalescent home for children with polio in the Perth suburbs during the early 1950s. It is the story of a tender romance between two teenage patients at the facility, Frank and Elsa, whose loneliness is offset by the powerful affection they feel for one another. With quiet authority, London channels Frank and Elsa’s inner lives, as well as those of the characters around them: Frank’s parents, Hungarian Holocaust survivors; Sister Olive Penny, a nurse at the home; and others. With its deep reserves of sympathy – and its clear-eyed observation of human foibles – “The Golden Age” recalls works such as Colm Tóibín’s “Brooklyn” and the stories of Alice Munro. (Europa, $17 paper)


1130529_533051 bookmultiplechoice.jpg“Multiple Choice,” by Alejandro Zambra

Is it A) a novel; B) a prose poem; or C) both? Perhaps the answer is all and none of these, but certainly it is something to treasure. Written as an SAT-like test – and based on a Chilean university entrance exam – Zambra’s latest work defies categorization. This isn’t the first time the author has dabbled in formal inventiveness, but somehow Zambra keeps taking originality to new heights. With sections containing multiple-choice exercises, absurd fill-in-the-blanks, reading comprehension and more, the book playfully explores political, pedagogical and familial issues. Throughout, Zambra strikes provocative notes and mocks the rigidity and biases of the typical standardized test. (“Each question has five possible answers.”) This strange, charming book, which is translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, proves poignant, too. (Penguin, $15 paper)


1130529_533051 bookteethmarks.jpg“Teethmarks on My Tongue,” by Eileen Battersby

Set in the mid-1980s, Battersby’s debut follows a couple of years in the much disrupted life of Helen Stockton Defoe of Richmond, Virginia, a teenager who witnesses her mother’s shooting death on television. Unable to bear life with her heartless, dismissive father, she heads off to France, where she adopts an ancient, incontinent dog. Wondering, as she tells us, “where to head for in mainland Europe with my elderly bed wetter,” she finds a job at a horse-training establishment in the Loire Valley and embarks on a completely new life. Psychologically penetrating, deft in emblematical resonance and leavened by dog love and dark wit, the novel is a very fine coming-of-age story. (Dalkey Archive, $19 paper)


1130529_533051 bookearthweeping.jpg“The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West,” by Peter Cozzens

It was one of America’s longest conflicts, lasting three decades after the Civil War and pitting the U.S. Army against the native peoples of the continent. In his impressive new book, veteran historian Cozzens brings verve and a mastery of the era as the chronicles the personalities, politics and bloody clashes. Celebrated Union Gen. William T. Sherman brought hard war tactics to the Great Plains: “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, children.” But other officers questioned such tactics. Cozzens does full justice to the complexities of this history, weaving together the stories of soldiers and such legendary figures as Red Cloud, Geronimo, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. ( Alfred A. Knopf, $35)


1130529_533051 booklabgirl.jpg“Lab Girl,” by Hope Jahren

Almost every child has a favorite tree, and this beguiling memoir will make you recall your own. It coaxes delight in botany writ large, as well as the author’s discovery that the pit of the hackberry seed is made of stone, specifically opal. Jahren writes with vivid poetic flair about geochemistry and her improvisational life – the science and scientist intertwine. She grew up restless and adept with her hands in rural Minnesota and eventually starts and builds three laboratories of her own. Along the way, she wins a slew of professional awards, navigates her own perilous chemistry – she is bipolar – and confronts plenty of sexism. Like Robert M. Sapolsky’s “A Primate’s Memoir,” here is a new classic by a researcher in nature. (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95)


1130529_533051 booklimousine.jpg“The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America,” by Steve Fraser

This brilliant and mordant book is a useful guide to a much reviled native species, and given the state of today’s Democratic Party, its appearance could not be more timely. The author recognizes that there really are limousine liberals – though lately we seem to be paying a lot more attention to a limousine populist – but his larger interest is in demonstrating how rabble rousers for much of our history have used the concept to incite the working classes against progressive change. They did this even before Mario Procaccino coined the term in his unsuccessful 1969 campaign to become mayor of New York City. Fraser is a nimble writer and thinker in whose company there’s never a dull or uninformative moment. (Basic, $27.50)


1130529_533051 bookoneofthesethings.jpg“One of These Things First,” by Steven Gaines

Who knew that Gaines –known for his books on the shenanigans of the superwealthy in Manhattan and the Hamptons – had this good-hearted memoir in him? “One of These Things First” paints an indelible portrait of his youth as a gay, Jewish kid in 1950s and ’60s Brooklyn, where one block in Borough Park, home to his grandmother’s ladies garment store, was his entire world. After a suicide attempt at 15, he convinces his middle-class Long Island grandfather to pay for six months at Payne Whitney, the tony Manhattan psychiatric hospital that had once treated Marilyn Monroe. Gaines’ tenure there, and the odd friendships he forms, make this coming-of-age story a real gem. (Delphinum, $24.95)


]]> 0, 30 Dec 2016 21:19:43 +0000
‘Invisible Planets’ may leave readers hungry for more science fiction by Chinese writers Sun, 01 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Until recently, American readers had little access to – or much interest in – science fiction published in China. Thanks in part to the efforts of Boston-area author, attorney and translator Ken Liu, however, that state of affairs has begun to change.

“Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary SF in Translation” collects 13 stories by Chinese authors, work that has been critically acclaimed, won awards here and in China, or just particularly appeals to Liu’s artistic sensibilities. The volume also includes three critical essays by other writers that assess the history of and current trends in Chinese science fiction.

This year has been especially notable for Liu. Last March, Saga Press published “The Paper Menagerie,” a collection culled from his more than 100 published stories. In October, Saga released “The Wall of Storms,” the second volume in an epic “silkpunk” fantasy series, and in November Tor published his translation of “Death’s End,” the conclusion of the Three-Body trilogy by Liu Cixin (no relation).

In his introduction, Liu states that he doesn’t consider himself an expert on Chinese science fiction. He warns his readers, “If one’s knowledge of China is limited to Western media reports or the experience of being a tourist or expat, claiming to ‘understand’ China is akin to a man who has caught a glimpse of a fuzzy spot through a drinking straw claiming to know what a leopard is.”

“Invisible Planets” opens strongly, with three stories by screenwriter, fiction writer and columnist Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan), renowned for his first novel, “The Waste Tide.”

Ken Liu

Ken Liu

In “The Year of the Rat,” unemployed and demoralized college grads find themselves in a deadly war against genetically engineered, bipedal rodents.

“The Fish of Lijiang” chronicles an office drone’s trip to the title city, where he undergoes rehabilitation for “Psychogenic Neural-Functional Disorder II” and meets a mysterious nurse familiar with “time sense dilation therapy.”

“The Flower of Shazui” spotlights an industrial spy living in exile, who seeks redemption for a co-conspirator’s death by trying to save a local prostitute from her cruel husband and pimp. Each story is set in a unique fictional universe, but all speak eloquently to the “absurd reality of contemporary China,” as Chen puts it in his accompanying essay.

Xia Jia, the first Ph.D.-holder in China with a specialization in science fiction, also contributes an eclectic trio of tales.

“A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” references, among other sources, the fiction of Neil Gaiman and the films of Hayao Miyazaki as it depicts a fantastic gathering of spirits, ghosts and monsters being violently pushed out of their homes.

Xia refers to her style as “porridge SF,” and these stories demonstrate how diverse ingredients of science fiction and fantasy can be blended successfully. When a robot assistant is brought into her home to help care for her elderly grandfather, the young protagonist of “Tongtong’s Summer” finds an unexpected wellspring of empathy and connection.

Original to this volume, “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse” depicts the awakening of a majestic artificial intelligence and its quest for self-knowledge in a possibly post-apocalyptic world.

One of the highlights of “Invisible Planets” is Hao Jingfang’s dystopian “Folding Beijing,” which won a Hugo Award last year for best novelette (beating out nominated work by Stephen King). It takes place in a city where the earth flips to allow different classes of residents to use the urban environment and enjoy sunlight at prescribed intervals. Traveling between levels is forbidden, but a father makes the perilous journey to earn enough to send his daughter to a good school.

Hao also provides the title story for this volume, an Italo Calvino-influenced tour of 11 planets, scattered across the universe but speaking to humanity’s need for connection amid vast separation.

1130517_712611 Invisible_Planets_co.jpgMa Boyong pays overt homage to George Orwell and “1984” in “The City of Silence.” Depressed computer programmer Arvardan catches a glimpse of life beyond the awful daily grind, even as he wrestles with communicating via a List of Healthy Words. This chilling tale could be taken solely as a satire on the Chinese state, but its themes of linguistic oppression extend far beyond the borders of that nation.

Perhaps the most famous of all current Chinese science fiction writers, Liu Cixin provides the final two stories in the book. “The Circle,” adapted from a chapter in the Three-Body trilogy, offers a clever look at how to use a vast army of soldiers to calculate the value of pi.

“Taking Care of God” recounts the upheaval that ensues after 2 billion elderly manifestations of the deity descend to Earth and request continuing care in return for having seeded the planet with life eons ago.

The stories address the mysteries of math and science, without losing sight of the mundane needs of humanity.

In the collection’s final essay, Xia Jia directly poses the question “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?”

There is no simple answer, of course, just as there is no easy way to pinpoint which books best represent the whole body of science fiction published in the United States.

Xia writes, “The simultaneous presence of crisis and prosperity (in China) guarantees a range of attitudes toward humanity’s future among the writers: some are pessimistic, believing that we’re powerless against irresistible trends; some are hopeful that human ingenuity will ultimately triumph; still others resort to ironic observation on the absurdity of life.”

“Invisible Planets” doesn’t attempt to define Chinese science fiction, to pin it down with facile generalities. Rather, Liu and his collaborators provide just enough context to make the experience enjoyable for a general audience. Most readers will greet this expanded universe of high-quality fiction with gratitude, wonder and an urge to track down further examples.

“Invisible Planets” is an essential volume for any serious library of the genre, as well as a welcome choice for casual reading.

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

Twitter: mlberry

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Book review: Memorable character propels ‘The Private Life of Mrs Sharma’ Sun, 25 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 “The Private Life of Mrs Sharma” is a short, simple novel, the first-person narrative of several months in the life of a woman in Delhi. There are just a few characters and settings, a straightforward plot and a wonderfully funny narrative voice. It is an easy pleasure to read.

Yet I am certain I will remember this book for years to come. The points it makes about motherhood, responsibility and self-deception are all so close to home. At the same time, it takes place on the other side of the world. The feel of contemporary Indian life, caught between tradition and modernity, is brilliantly captured in the details of Renuka Sharma’s predicament.

Her husband is working in Dubai. He has been gone for over a year, and though coming home for a visit soon, he will remain there for years to come. As she explains, “People are always saying to me, Oh ho, you poor woman, your husband is so far away! … It is true that he is far away. … And it is true that I miss him. But what can I say? We have duties. As parents, as children, we have duties. I could keep my husband sitting in my lap all day, but when my in-laws grow older and get sick, who will pay for the hospital bills?”

It is exactly this sense of duty that will lead to Sharma’s Waterloo.

As the novel opens, she meets a younger man, a hotel manager named Vineet, who intervenes on her behalf when there is an argument about her place in line in the metro. Because she can tell that he, like her, is a nice person from a good family, she accepts his invitation for coffee.

This friendship, which Sharma repeatedly points out is totally on the up-and-up, becomes the bright spot in her overburdened life. She lives with her adored 16-year-old son, Bobby, and her in-laws, Papaji and Mummyji, in a tiny apartment. She has a dull job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. Bobby, for whom she foresees an MBA and a fancy career, has begun to rebel. He comes home one day so sick from bootleg liquor that he has to be hospitalized for a week. “Nobody in our family,” she says, “not even my uncle who gambled, nobody has ever, ever touched alcohol.” Unwilling to talk to her husband, in-laws or even Vineet, she bears the burden of worry and discipline on her own.

Well, of course she can’t tell Vineet, because she hasn’t even told him that she is married. She plans to, just as soon as he asks – but he never asks her any questions. This deception is more a way of keeping him out of her real life than anything else, but that boundary will not hold.

In describing her unremitting sense of responsibility, Sharma at one point repeats a story about two lizards on a ceiling. One asks the other if they might go on a little outing. Absolutely not! is the reply. Who will hold up the ceiling?

Sharma insists this story has nothing to do with her life – because in her case, the duty is real. Yet the widening gap between what she feels she must do and what she is actually doing brings this story to an absolutely unpredictable end.

Kapur’s first novel, “Overwinter,” was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize; “The Private Life of Mrs Sharma” seems destined for such honors as well. I will be devouring all past and future work from this clever, wise writer.

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Book review: The memoir ‘The Last of Her’ finds new truths in a difficult history Sun, 25 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 In the opening pages of her stunning and brutal new book, “The Last of Her: A Forensic Memoir,” Kim Dana Kupperman recounts the 19-page suicide note her mother, Dolores Buxton, left in 1989. It cataloged, among other things, instructions for the renovation of her Manhattan apartment, the marketing of her makeup line, and which lie to tell which attorney. This last bit of subterfuge was the toxic thread that her mother wove through a lifetime of scams and schemes, drug addiction and abuse.

Buried among the mountain of particulars were a mere five lines directed to the book’s author, who was Buxton’s sole daughter and next of kin, apologizing for the situation.

So begins Kupperman’s inquiry into her mother’s life and unraveling, and their complicated mother-daughter relationship. Kupperman has written a book that is variously a detective story, noir tale and courtroom drama. That the principal player was a head-turning beauty and diva adds color to a story that’s already replete with cinematic detail.

Buxton was almost 60 when she took her life. Chronic pain from spina bifida, subsequent surgeries and eventual drug addiction were among the reasons for her steady decline.

The author, then 31, had severed ties with her mother two months before the suicide, on the advice of an attorney. Over the years, Dolores committed crimes both large and small. In 1958, she was indicted for assaulting a pregnant woman with a hammer. The woman in question was the wife of a former lover. More recently, she had engaged in insurance fraud, imploring her daughter to lie under oath on her behalf. (Kupperman refused.)

Dolores was also an identity thief, renting out the back room of her apartment to tenants whose Social Security numbers she would then steal. At the time of her death, she had amassed eight Social Security cards with different names, plus three passports. Significantly, the passports all featured Dolores in various disguises, differently coiffed and made-up. One of the phony passports was put in Kupperman’s name.

“I recalled the feeling that I might wake up one morning with my identity erased, trapped as a pretend character my mother wanted me to play in her real-life dramas,” Kupperman says. Then later: “It didn’t occur to me that Dolores’ need to shape identity – by theft, with lies, through a variety of invented narratives – was her vocation.”

Among her many fictions was the notion that Dolores was fit for parenting. In an epic court battle, however, she lost custody of her daughter to her ex-husband, who was a compulsive gambler and womanizer. Soon after, the young Kupperman, a scrawny, troubled child who had stopped up the toilets in school and set a fire under her bed, became a visitor in her mother’s home and a tool of her ongoing exploits.

Kupperman’s challenge in this memoir was to exhume her mother’s history and to make sense of the person Dolores became. To that end, she unearthed all manner of legal documents, records and files. Not surprisingly, she found that history repeats itself, sometimes with only slight variation.

Dolores’ father, “Buxie,” was a swindler and con man who used his daughter as a shill in his own schemes. Further, a long line of abandonment preceded Dolores, going back several generations. Which raises the specter of inevitability, a question that looms throughout the book.

How did the author survive the seemingly endless, often jaw-dropping, perils of her upbringing and not devolve into a lowlife herself?

“All I can offer is this tidbit of wisdom from people who work with child victims of violence,” she says. “Resilience depends on books in the home and the presence of at least one caring adult.”

Indeed books and writing were the author’s balm from an early age. By 10, she had discovered that writing could be a form of liberation and a conduit to oneself. “Narratives are always saving us,” she notes, keenly aware that she also inherited the storytelling gene that wreaked havoc before her.

Fortunately for the author and her subsequent readers, Kupperman would go on to become an award-winning writer and teacher, who founded Welcome Table Press, a nonprofit dedicated to the essay, from her Down East Maine home.

Long before the word “post-truth” entered the parlance, Kupperman was waging war against lies and disinformation on her home turf. Not only does her story evoke the collateral damage of suicide, nearly 30 years after the fact. At bottom, this lyrical, probing memoir suggests that knowledge is rarely sufficient and reconciliation is an inside job.

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

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Signings, etc.: Death & Dessert brings crime writers to Carrabassett library Sun, 25 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Four Maine crime writers – Bruce Robert Coffin, Maureen Milliken, Vaughn C. Hardacker and Jen Blood – will participate in Death & Dessert, a book talk and signing event followed by a chat with the authors and some sweet treats.

WHEN: 4:30 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: Carrabassett Valley Public Library, 3209 Carrabassett Drive


INFO: 237-3535,

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Book review: ‘Conclave’ imagines turmoil in the Vatican after a pope’s passing Sun, 18 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Robert Harris writes intelligent thrillers based on historical events, from the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to the tumultuous 21st century. Some of his notable books include “Enigma,” about the breaking of Germany’s secret code in World War II, and “Fatherland,” a scary and suspenseful alternate history based on what could have happened if the Nazis had won World War II.

“Conclave” opens when a pope who bears a marked resemblance to the current leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Francis, has died. The College of Cardinals is called to select a successor, but from the very first it’s clear that the Vatican is rife with secrets, any one of which could derail the election.

One leading contender may have been stripped of his offices by the pope right before the pontiff died. There’s a distraught nun with a secret, and a mysterious cardinal no one has heard of who suddenly shows up.

This might be the ultimate locked-room mystery; the cardinals are sequestered and can’t emerge until they elect a successor. What happens? Harris intends to keep the reader guessing, and he does a fine job of it. Read it and find out.

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Book review: David Bowie interview collection shows the man behind the legend Sun, 18 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 The introduction of “David Bowie: The Last Interview and Other Conversations” begins: “David Bowie gave a lot of interviews … until he didn’t.”

Quirky, well-spoken and charming, the iconic music legend who died of cancer in January at age 69 left behind a trove of inspiration. But fans looking for in-depth discussions about Bowie’s musical process will be disappointed by this collection of 10 interviews spanning 1964 to 2006.

Instead, the wide-ranging interests of Bowie the person are highlighted: film, style, fashion and art. The book is the latest installment in Melville House’s Last Interview series, chronicling the final words of such illuminating lives as James Baldwin, Jane Jacobs and Kurt Vonnegut.

It starts with an interview in 1964, with a 16-year-old David Jones (he would become David Bowie about two years later) representing a group called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. The giggle-filled chat on the BBC’s “Tonight” was focused, most fittingly, on the length of his hair. It had been three years since Bowie had had it cut.

In a story titled “David Bowie Tells All and More,” Bowie paints a portrait of an artist unashamed of himself and his family. “The majority of the people in my family have been in some kind of mental institution,” he tells Patrick Salvo of Interview in 1973.

The most confounding interview is the conversation Bowie had with writer William Burroughs. These two kindred spirits had only recently become acquainted with the other’s work.

They had a deep conversation about honesty (”I usually don’t agree with what I say very much,” Bowie says), the state of writing songs (”Songwriting as an art is a bit archaic now. Just writing a song is not good enough”), Bowie’s audience (”I’m quite certain that the audience that I’ve got for my stuff don’t listen to the lyrics”), film (”I don’t believe in proper cinema; it doesn’t have the strength of television”), sound (”I wonder if there is a sound that can put things back together”), before Bowie proclaims “maybe we are the Rogers and Hammerstein of the Seventies, Bill!”

Then there is a 13-year gap from 1974 to 1987, which yields two solid conversations, one being the pinnacle of the book: the 1987 Kurt Loder interview for Rolling Stone.

It includes the tidbit that Bowie “works out and roller-skates in his spare time.” One can imagine a 40-year-old Thin White Duke roller-skating down the street.

And Loder asks, “Is it true that when Ziggy and the Spiders played Santa Monica on the first tour, the band went off to a Scientology meeting and got converted?” Of course it is.

The conversation touches on film, which Bowie had grown more interested in, before delving into Bowie’s listening habits in the mid-1980s, which is a nice trip down memory lane.

The final time Bowie does a formal interview in this collection, in 1992, features the infamous question about what he kept in his fridge in 1975.

Bowie stopped touring and giving interviews after a heart attack onstage in 2004, although he did do a gag interview in 2006 for Ricky Gervais’ show “Extras,” the last entry in this book. But he didn’t stop recording and releasing albums. The last, “Blackstar,” came out two days before he died and was a sort of self-interview. The album recently earned four Grammy nominations, for best rock performance, rock song, alternative music album and engineered album, non-classical.

Bowie believed that he could say the things he wanted to say with his music, which remained true until his death.

As the number of interviews decreased, the importance of each word increased. Those words still remain the most important part of who David Bowie was. So long David Jones, we miss you dearly.

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Signings, etc.: Author Delia Drake to discuss her murder mysteries Sun, 18 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Maine author Delia Drake will talk about her two back-to-back murder mysteries, “Distant Cousin” and “First Cousin Once Removed.” The books will be available for purchase and signing.

WHEN: 2 p.m. Monday

WHERE: Vassalboro Public Library, 930 Bog Road, East Vassalboro


INFO:; 923-3233

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For this Westbrook family, writing is a way of life across generations Sun, 18 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 When Brendan Rielly published his first crime novel, he joined two other generations of published Riellys: His father and son.

“Now I know what my father went through,” he said. “And my son. Writing is hard. They were making fun of me for being the hole in the doughnut.”

Rielly’s debut novel, “An Unbeaten Man,” won a Maine Literary Award for best crime fiction in 2016, and he’s deep into his second crime thriller.

His son, Morgan, 21, also is working on his second book, this one about Maine’s teenage immigrant community. It’s a follow-up to his 2014 book of interviews with Maine World War II veterans, “Neighborhood Heroes: Life Lessons from Maine’s Greatest Generation.” He started interviewing Maine veterans when he was 14, and the book was published when he was 17 and a high school senior.

Morgan Rielly is on track to graduate in 2018 from Bowdoin College, where he is working on a double major in government and religion and minoring in Arabic studies.

Brendan Rielly’s father, Edward, is a longtime English professor at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish, where he directs the writing program. He has lost track of his titles, and counts them by the dozen. He’s written biographies of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sitting Bull, cultural explorations of baseball and football, and a memoir of life on a farm, “Bread Pudding.” He’s also written several volumes of poetry and haiku.

The elder Rielly instilled writing in his son and grandson. Seeing each get published is one of the best things that has happened to him as a father and grandfather, he said. “It’s wonderful to see Brendan and Morgan both doing really good work,” he said.

Brendan Rielly calls himself the slacker of the bunch because he was the last of the three to be published. He has a busy life outside of writing. He is a partner at the Portland law firm Jensen Baird, where he chairs the litigation department. He lives in Westbrook, where he serves as city council president. He’s coached soccer, taught religious education and been active in civic and community organizations for years.

An international spy thriller with settings in Maine, “An Unbeaten Man” was Rielly’s first published book, but he’s been writing for years. He has one manuscript from college still sitting in a drawer. He’s finished his second book and is shopping it to agents.

The success of “An Unbeaten Man” and the early positive response to his second make him feel like he has arrived as a writer. Winning a literary award helps, too. “It’s a major stamp of legitimization,” he said. “When you write something, you don’t know if it’s any good. It’s nice when other people think so.”

Published by Down East Books, “An Unbeaten Man” chronicles the exploits of Michael McKeon, a Bowdoin College professor who creates a microbe that cleans up oil spills by devouring the oil. The Global Group kidnaps his wife and daughter, and Bowdoin becomes a player in an international drama involving the governments of the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

His second book involves McKeon’s entanglements with an Iranian physicist, a former Bowdoin student and the world’s first private entity controlling nuclear weapons.

Rielly’s material comes from his imagination and his background. He studied government and Russian at Bowdoin, graduating in 1992. He flirted with taking a job in Siberia monitoring the disarming of Russian nuclear weapons and chose law school instead.

Like his dad, Morgan Rielly started writing early in life. He got the idea for the World War II book after talking to a friend of his grandfather, who served in World War II. Morgan enjoyed listening to the man’s story, and felt honored he was trusted with it. He interviewed two dozen other WWII veterans from Maine and told their stories in “Neighborhood Heroes.”

For his next project, he’s collecting stories for a book about Maine’s teenage immigrant community. He interviewed about 25 people and is transcribing those interviews and writing their stories. “Every immigrant or refugee here in Portland has a story,” he said. “And I really like listening to people’s stories.”

Edward Rielly also learned the joys of writing early in life and benefited from not feeling restricted by any particular genre. He’s written mostly nonfiction, but has had fun with poetry and children’s books. His latest, the memoir “Bread Pudding,” is about growing up in southern Wisconsin, the youngest of five kids. He worked his way through high school and college and earned advance degrees. By example, he has shown his kids and grandkids – and many students over his career – the noble calling of the written word.

“Teaching and writing, that’s what I’ve done,” he said. “I’m proud to have made it my career.”

]]> 0, left, Morgan and Edward Rielly with their books in Portland.Tue, 20 Dec 2016 18:27:16 +0000
Book review: ‘Maine on Glass’ uses historic photos to explore a foggy part of state history Sun, 11 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 The argument put forth by a trio of Maine historians in their beautiful new volume, “Maine on Glass,” is honest and to the point: “Nineteenth-century Maine, famed for its lumbering, shipbuilding, and seafaring, has attracted copious attention from historians, but early twentieth-century Maine has not. ‘Maine on Glass’ corrects that oversight, taking us from top to bottom of a big state in bustling times. Hitting the back roads in antique automobiles, slipping in and out of the decades between 1909 and the early 1950s, we visit boomtowns and migrant labor camps, people at work and play, farms and factories.”

Indeed, it is hard to think of much of anything left out.

To judge the visual quality of “Maine on Glass,” all the reader-observer need do is skim through the pages of this nicely designed book. Here one finds 200 select images not only of the usual camps, meeting houses, town libraries and mills, but of “sardine cottages” for seasonal workers in North Lubec, five “gents” lined up outside the Wytopitlock pool-room and barbershop, and the Caribou potato harvest with crews picking into ash baskets made by local Wabanaki craftspersons and cedar barrels made in local cooperages. One can also see the busy cornhuskers (men, women and children) in a Farmington canning factory. And there are roaring speedboats for “bored looking” swells, and Company B of the 5th Infantry crossing the Androscoggin River on a rope ferry at Rumford Point, probably just after World War I.

All of the images are from the glass plate photo archives of the Eastern Illustrating and Publishing Company of Belfast, now under the auspices of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport.

Museum photo archivist Kevin Johnson provides the reader with a short, rock-solid history of the Eastern Illustrating postcard operation from 1909 to 1989. Johnson began working with the collection in 2007 at the Photographic Workshops in Rockland and now manages Penobscot Marine’s 200,000-glass-plate archive. Large, publicly consumed penny-post view collections, such as Eastern’s, once presented the face of Maine to the world. Preserving and examining those pictures is crucial and enlightening.

State Historian Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr. offers an equally cogent preface and an essay entitled “Belfast, Maine: A Center for Photography,” which shows how favorable postal regulations and a shift from German lithographic cards during and after World War I led to American “real photo post cards” conquering the market. Three nationally important card companies thrived in Belfast.

The third historian involved in “Maine on Glass” is the redoubtable W.H. Bunting, who describes Maine this way: “The state once known by its proud motto ‘Dirigo’ – I lead! – became ‘Vacationland’ a rustic, even quaint summer resort for vacationers from more advanced and prosperous states.”

Bunting writes that in the 20th century, apart from the intense period of Maine shipbuilding during World War II, “it was almost as though Maine had slipped into a fog bank.” The images included in this book help bring hte rest of the century to light.

Though all involved in the creation of this project are among the best in Maine, Bunting deserves special mention for his unique ability to pry documentary information out of photographs. Consider the photograph “East Pittston Haying,” which in most picture books might have elicited nothing but a short caption. The reader is told an enormous amount of fascinating information in three sweet paragraphs including, “Pitching on the last of the raked-up scatterings. The boy on top is packing down the load, which is built up from the borders. Hay was Maine’s biggest crop and also its most neglected, with the practice of selling hay rather than feeding stock blamed for a shortage of fertilizing manure.”

This is an enjoyable and readable book that can be relied upon by all.

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, 11 Dec 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Book review: ‘How to Survive a Plague’ by David France Sun, 11 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 There are two things you need to know about David France’s book “How to Survive a Plague.”

First: It’s flawless. Masterfully written, impeccably researched, and full of feeling for the living and dead heroes of the AIDS movement. Activists Peter Staley, Mark Harrington and Michael Callen are developed like characters in a novel, and a huge cast of players behind them is memorably brought to life. There can be no clearer picture of the uphill battle against ignorance and bigotry that was the raison d’être of organizations like Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP in the 1980s and ’90s.

Second: It’s too much. Exhaustive, and also exhausting. You feel you are reading about every meeting, every protest, every drug trial, every news story, every falling-out in every splinter group, every pamphlet and position paper, and every outburst from Larry Kramer, the famously cranky playwright who inspired AIDS activism. When you get to page 440 and it says “the calendar turned to 1991,” all you can think is, Dear God, only 1991?

Fortunately, France has also produced a highly watchable, Oscar-nominated documentary with the same title, available on the web. The film, assembled from archival footage and interviews, hits most of the high points of the story. Should you want more after seeing the movie, the book is perfect.

I imagine many readers have some personal connection to the saga of AIDS in the years from its first appearance in 1981, to 1998, the year The Bay Area Reporter ran a “screaming headline” on the front page: “NO OBITS.” Mine is a close one. I was married to a gay man who was diagnosed in 1985 and died in 1994, very shortly before protease inhibitors started saving lives. The acronyms that pepper every page of this book – HIV, AIDS, PWA, AZT, CD4, HTLV-3, GRID, PCP, KS and GMHC, to name a few – were a big part of my vocabulary for years, and the vision of young men dying horribly is burned onto my retinas.

It’s a rough trip down memory lane, and the aspects of the nightmare that were under human control are particularly painful to revisit. It’s easy to forget how long the government, under presidents Reagan and Bush, refused to pay attention or spend money on the epidemic. Cataloged alongside that are all the useless drugs, from Compound Q to the ballyhooed AZT, which was hard to get, ludicrously expensive and ultimately worthless, yet absorbed the attention of activists and scientists for years.

France was there through almost the whole thing, working as a journalist. He was at the New York Native, a biweekly gay newspaper, in the early days, as the gay community agonized over what caused the disease, and safe sex was first promoted as a way to prevent its spread. He was at the early meetings of the groups that formed to respond to the crisis, including the brave and wild ACT UP.

For a while he worked “undercover” at the New York Post, hoping he might influence their coverage. He cut his hair, retired his earrings and swapped his Chuck Taylors for Thom McAns, but was fired before his trial period was over. “Found out you’re gay,” said his editor. “We don’t need infiltrators here, bloke, not homosexuals in the investigations department.”

But that’s exactly what they did need. Gay men were at the center of every bit of progress made. Because the federal response was so profoundly inadequate and disorganized, citizens’ organizations played a crucial role even in organizing drug trials. By 1994, activists were meeting directly with pharmaceutical executives – quite a change from the days of storming and occupying their offices.

France was there at the beginning, and he was there at the end, at the meeting at NYU Medical Center where protease inhibitors – the drugs that stopped HIV from being a certain death sentence – were announced: “When the room emptied out, I found myself standing in the sun-creased lobby watching the men in the audience exchanging hugs and tears. I noticed how incongruously young everyone looked in the snow-whitened light. Most were like, me, not yet middle aged … . I’d lived my entire adult life in the eye of unrelenting death. We all had …

“It would never be over. But it was over.”

No better way to say it. No better person to write this book, which had to be written, creating a complete and correct record of this terrible story and its heroes.

]]> 0"How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS" by David France; Alfred A. Knopf (624 pages, $30) (Knopf)Sun, 11 Dec 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Michael Chabon probes truth via fiction about family lore Sun, 04 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 It is the morning after the election. I am on a plane to Washington, D.C., confused and distraught about what happened. Someday, we will tell ourselves stories about this day, and what happened next, and perhaps our stories will carry the theme that our worst fears often do not materialize. Or we will tell our loved ones stories about how sometimes, our worst fears come to pass.

This day and the period that comes next seem destined to become family lore for many American families. How we voted, what we did, what happened to us – all of these will be spun into stories that we will tell ourselves about ourselves, and that we will tell our children and their children about who we were and how that shaped who we are today.

These family stories are the subject of Michael Chabon’s new book, “Moonglow,” a collection of deathbed stories told to a character named Michael Chabon by his grandfather. I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out whether the author’s real grandfather told him these stories and he just embellished them for the book, or if they are all made up. I’ll save you time – the stories are made up.

Chabon, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001 for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” likely would argue these stories always are made up, but they contain kernels of truth anyway. Our memories are imperfect, after all, and we color the stories we tell others. Stories are passed around families, changing shape each time. This is the essence of our oral histories and in them, Chabon argues, we can find the truth of who we think we are and who we want people to think we are.

Chabon never names his fictional grandfather, or his fictional grandmother, but they are brought to vivid life through his grandfather’s colorful stories, and, occasionally, stories told by others.

The grandfather was a hell-raiser, a liar, a warm lover, an obsessive about model rockets and space. The grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, struggles with mental illness, has a caustic sense of humor and possesses a theatrical heart. The couple’s relationship, relayed through the stories, is a moving one.

At one point, the fictional Chabon learns that many of the stories he heard obscured an important, and distressing, fact about one of his relatives.

He describes the strange feeling of having to reconsider what he thought he knew: “One by one I began to subject my memories of my grandmother, of the things she had told me and the way she had behaved, to a formal review, a kind of failure analysis, searching and testing them for their content of deceit, for the hidden presence in them of the truth.”

The book has flaws. For one, another family’s stories are never as interesting to outsiders as they are to loved ones. “Moonglow” lacks a sense of propulsive momentum for most of its first half. I wondered, not a few times, why are we here? Why should I care?

This issue made me consider what makes stories about others – which almost every work of fiction is – riveting. What is “Moonglow” missing? Why am I getting the same feeling – boredom, impatience – that I get when a mom on the playground goes into great detail about her son’s soccer game?

Chabon – the character – discusses why he decided to write the book like a memoir, and not like a novel. “Sometimes even lovers of fiction can be satisfied only by the truth,” he writes. “I felt like I needed to ‘get my story straight,’ so to speak, in my mind and in my heart. I needed to work out, if I could, the relationship between the things I had heard and learned about my family and my history while growing up and the things I now knew to be true.”

But how interesting is a memoir about a person we don’t know, or who isn’t famous enough to pique our interest? “Moonglow” is, for long spans, a collection of stories that, while colorful, serve mostly to tell us a lot about a (fictional) person we don’t know and a family we will never know. They lack a hook for the reader; that hook, it turns out, is pretty important.

What are we moving toward? How much do we care about the character’s search for the truth about his grandparents? Perhaps some readers will feel more invested.

That said, Chabon’s writing is lovely, and some readers will enjoy it so much they will forgive the lack of propulsion in the story. After all, occasionally, we all run into people who tell such good yarns it doesn’t matter that it’s about their kids’ soccer goals.

Beyond the writing, Chabon’s decision to explore family lore feels especially fresh and relevant. What will we tell our grandkids about these days, and our roles in them? Did we stand on the right side of history? Millions of us are writing family lore right now, stories that we will pass down to our loved ones, shaped, many of us hope, by profound relief that events turned out not as badly as we had feared.

]]> 0, 04 Dec 2016 04:00:00 +0000
‘Through a Naturalist’s Eyes’ captivates as it educates Sun, 04 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 “Pieces of a folksy quilt, with widely varied swatches woven together to create a pleasing whole.” So, in the introduction to “Through a Naturalist’s Eyes,” Michael J. Caduto hazards the way an artist might think about New England. “But this is a living tapestry of complex bioregions and natural communities whose compositions of plants and animal …” Oh, no, I thought. The comparison seemed to point resolutely, if inadvertently, to the contrast between literary style and what I might call eco-speak, with the author heading toward the latter.

I could not have been further off the mark.

The book is a series of some 50 short essays that use Caduto’s personal experiences in the natural world to jump-start a little scientific education. Nature, as the reader is implicitly reminded, can be found everywhere, so long as one is open to it, and it doesn’t have to loom large with weighty epiphanies.

Caduto has been using his deep knowledge of ecology, together with his talents as a storyteller and musician, to promote environmental awareness for over 30 years. From giving CPR to a chipmunk in front of a troop of young campers to encountering two centuries of animal effluvia in the old house he lives in, his encounters with New England’s flora and fauna from the most obvious to the most obscure are a delight to read.

Starting off, the stories are packaged under a helpfully basic series of sections: Animals, Plants, Habitats. In one, he parses the various small rodents that the uninitiated might call “mice” when they find them. In another he informs us that, far from being passive, “Plants Fight Back,” and goes into the variety of ways they do it.

Winter has a section all to itself: Plants and animals use fascinating strategies to survive in frigid New England, including making their own antifreeze. Beavers and muskrats change their metabolism to allow for longer dives under the ice. How some mechanisms work is still mysterious. “Scientists have yet to discover exactly how the normally air-breathing turtle survives submerged all winter in oxygen-challenged conditions,” he tells us.

Natural history gets even more complicated in the section called Interrelationships. Come winter, snakes snuggle down with frogs and salamanders, “animals which, in autumn, might have been the snake’s prey.” In summer, hummingbirds follow sapsuckers around, sipping the sap from the neat rows of holes they leave. Caduto calls these “nature’s soda fountain,” and they are used by numerous birds besides hummers.

Patterns and Perceptions addresses nature’s knack for creating designs like hexagons and spirals. It is fortunate we find them so aesthetically pleasing, he says, because all it is forming are “patterns that create the most efficient spatial relationships.”

There is a whole section for bio-foodies, Harvests and Hunts: If you are only into ramps and fiddleheads, you haven’t lived. That many of the items on his forager’s list come from Abenaki lore is not surprising. Caduto has written a number of books on Native American stories and customs.

Looking through a naturalist’s eyes is all the richer when those eyes are Caduto’s. Watching a spotted turtle drift by in a pond under black ice, he sees a “window into another world, that clear crystalline floor beneath my feet, was the turtle’s winter sky.” And speaking of ponds, I personally prefer his likening them to “liquid eyes gazing up to the sky and catching the sun’s life-giving energy,” over Thoreau’s dubious reference to “Earth’s eye” and measuring the depth of one’s own nature.

In the final section, Stewardship, one essay goes through the impacts of dams on the life of rivers and what happens when they are removed. As compelling as are the details, I find his vision quite enough: a river “swelling with the abundance of a cloudburst or trickling through sun-blanched cobbles during the height of summer drought.”

Not that there is only the poetry of nature in these pages. Caduto is quick to reinforce his own impressions with the knowledge of an expert, often from a fish and game department or a watershed council.

Perhaps my favorite is the physician’s assistant who gave the town of Plainfield, New Hampshire, its official “town mollusk” and created “Mussel Beach” on a stretch of the Connecticut River. The dwarf wedge mussel, Caduto admits, is hardly as spectacular as some endangered species, but it has an interesting life cycle and, to aquatic biologists, is an “underwater version of the canary in the coal mine.” And Plainfield “just happens to think its tiny Town Mollusk is kind of cute.”

Natural history will always be a rich opportunity for discovery. “Through a Naturalist’s Eyes” celebrates why it is also such fun.

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

]]> 0 J. CadutoSun, 04 Dec 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Book review: In “The Kinfolk,” characters of The Five Stones Trilogy meet their fates Sun, 27 Nov 2016 09:00:00 +0000 From sunken Atlantis in the Mediterranean to Hy Brasil off the coast of Ireland, from King Kong’s Skull Island to Jules Verne’s mysterious Lincoln Island, the notion of an undiscovered land mass lurking just beyond the perception of ordinary humanity has fired the imaginations of storytellers and readers across the centuries.

With The Five Stones Trilogy, Portland writer Genevieve Morgan, author of “Undecided: Navigating Life and Learning After High School” and writing under the pen name G.A. Morgan, brings a modern sensibility to her tale of a hidden, magical island.

With “The Kinfolk,” she concludes the fantasy saga begun two years ago in “The Fog of Forgetting” and continued in “Chantarelle.” Readers age 10 and up who have been eagerly awaiting the final volume won’t be disappointed by its eventful ending.

Set initially in the fictional coastal Maine town of Fells Landing, the trilogy follows the three rambunctious Thompson brothers – 14-year-old Chase, 12-year-old Knox and 6-year-old Teddy – as they embark on an action-packed journey into the unknown. Accompanied by Evelyn and Frankie Boudreaux, two young Haitian refugees, the Thompsons break a cardinal family rule and take their sailboat for an unsupervised outing.

Although the day is bright and clear, the children soon find themselves engulfed by a fog bank and end up stranded on Ayda, an island that by all rights shouldn’t exist but from which they can’t escape.

As if their plight weren’t difficult enough, the children find themselves embroiled in a war among the four regions of Ayda: Melor, Metria, Exor and Varuna. Dankar, the vengeful and cruel leader of the Exorians, intends to conquer the other realms, even if he has burn them down to do so. If he gains possession of five mystical stones, one of which is still missing, Dankar will be able not only to rule over Ayda but also to threaten the world that lies beyond the fog.

By allying themselves with warriors, demigods and “outliers” brought to the island during other time periods, the kids from Fells Harbor are ready to sacrifice themselves for the good of Ayda. By the time “The Kinfolk” begins, all have been tested and strengthened by their experiences, guided by the power of his or her “daylights,” the energy that “flows between and around all living things and binds them together.”

One’s daylights define where one is most at home, and the Thompsons in particular need to learn to heed their message if they are to survive as a family.

In her acknowledgments, Morgan tips her hat to J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Frank Baum, Ursula K. Le Guin, Enid Blyton and Frank Herbert. Her authorial voice is distinctively her own, but Morgan shares with her literary influences a gift for world-building, a knack for choreographing battle and fight scenes, and an understanding of why epic fantasy, done right, is so compelling for middle-schoolers.

The history, religion and geography of Ayda have been meticulously worked out, and if the dialogue sometimes grows thick with exposition, many among the novel’s target audience are likely to be captivated by the sense of immersion the well-detailed setting provides.

The best scenes in “The Kinfolk” focus on the Thompsons and the Boudreauxs as they use their physical, mental and spiritual gifts to defend Ayda against Dankar and his minions. The chapters told from the perspectives of Chase, Knox and Evelyn are especially compelling, as the separated kids fight for their families, each other, and the future of their native and adopted homes.

When the spotlight shifts solely to the adult characters, however, the narrative tends to bog down. The chapters are short, though, so the pace of the plot is never impeded for very long.

“The Kinfolk” wraps up the complicated narrative with grace and skill. Favorite characters achieve their quests or meet their fates, and there are surprises until the very end.

The Five Stones Trilogy is a heartfelt tribute to classic fantasy, given a modern-day, multicultural spin. Adventurous young readers will be glad to find themselves transported to a hidden world where bravery, loyalty and empathy are the strongest weapons against evil.

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 MorganSun, 27 Nov 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Elizabeth Searle: ‘Some stories hook into the imagination’ Sun, 27 Nov 2016 09:00:00 +0000 ‘Some stories hook into the imagination’

Elizabeth Searle has long worked at the intersection of spectacle and news.

She wrote the libretto for “Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera,” a story of Olympic skating and scandal that has played in several cities to critical acclaim. In her 2011 novel, “Girl Held in Home,” she harnessed the fear and paranoia left in the wake of 9/11, to devise a tart domestic thriller.

For her new novel, “We Got Him,” Searle homes in on the manhunt that followed the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, around which she weaves the tale of a troubled family. A versatile, darkly comic writer, Searle brings a pulsing, kinetic quality to her work.

“I come from a very political family,” she says. “My dad was a news junkie and a political junkie. He always used to say, ‘The news is the greatest show on earth.’ He couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t constantly be watching the news.”

Searle, who teaches fiction and scriptwriting at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program, spoke recently from her Boston-area home about fiction and folklore, dialogue and divining rods. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You’ve made use of several major news events in your work. Talk about the role of public imagination and the preconceptions that readers bring to works based on familiar events.

A: We’re such a fragmented society. I grew up moving all the time, and these news events were the things we experienced together. You know, they’re our shared narrative. Some stories hook into the imagination and become like folklore. It feels like charged material. I always tell my students that it’s like holding a divining rod; you want to go where it’s charged.

Q: What specifically drew you to the story of the marathon bombing?

A: People hook into different things. When the first pictures emerged of the younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, with the white cap on, carrying a backpack, they were so blurry. They could almost have been anyone.

Q: Exactly. He looked like any kid in the neighborhood.

A: Then, as the night went on, they finally got to the defining picture, which was, of course, his student ID. And I thought, “Oh my God, I have a teenage son!” To me, that was the most horrifying aspect of it: This young person – how does this happen? But definitely the image of that face, and how it got clearer as the night went on, really struck me. I used that in my plot.

I already had this couple that I’d been writing about for years in short stories. I had them going through a sort of marathon, in a sense, trying to have a baby. And when I saw Tsarnaev’s face, and I was so obsessed with it, it suddenly hit me: What if their stepson was somehow connected to this terrible happening?

Q: It sounds like you had the makings of the story – the characters, then the news event, and the growing obsession.

A: Yes, it meshed in a lot of ways. I fixed on the moments of that manhunt night that just spoke to me: The image of tanks rolling through Watertown was like the movie “Blade Runner.” Also my son and my husband were here in the house, under lockdown. I was on a bus, coming home from New York City, as this stuff was unfolding. It was horrible not being there.

I wanted to write a novel that took place on a birth night, structured around the stages of labor. But until 2013, there wasn’t an engine to drive it. The novel takes place on the manhunt night, which is also the birth night in my story, and this little family is caught up in it, hour by hour.

Q: Tell me more about the couple in your novel.

A: I had been developing them, in a sense, for a long time. They were just this couple who I wrote about three or four times – about them wanting to have a baby. Of course, you have to write what you know. I’ve been married for 30-some years, so that’s what I know – a long-time marriage. I thought it would be interesting to throw in the element of the husband having a nearly grown son, so it’s a blended family. I think all of that is interesting and hard.

I like to throw a loose cannon into anything I write – some character who’s the wild card. Definitely the stepson in this book is the wild card. He really wants attention, he resents the new baby that’s coming, the second family that his father is raising.

Q: Obviously you’re drawn to real-life events as backdrops for your stories. Do you have any interest in writing nonfiction?

A: You know, I’m always open to anything. I’ve done a novel, a novella, short stories, different kinds of scripts. To me, it’s all writing. I write wholeheartedly in whatever format. Nonfiction is almost the only thing that I haven’t done.

Q: You’ve written in so many genres. Does that reflect a restlessness, an adventurousness, or something else?

A: Both of those. I love different kinds of writing. The first writing I did as a kid was scripts. My sister and I acted out a soap opera. We put it on a cassette tape, and we thought we were broadcasting it on walkie talkies.

Q: I’m wondering how these different genres influence each other. For example, has scriptwriting made you better at writing dialogue in novels?

A: Yes, I think so. My earlier fiction is fairly descriptive and dense. But when I first started writing scripts, I felt like I had weights cut off my hands. You can just go so fast, writing dialogue and action. You learn to think in a more dramatic, visual way.

It’s a whole different mode. With scriptwriting, you have to rewrite on stage. You have to just see it, to see different versions of it. Rehearsals are a thrill. I love it, but it’s grueling. It’s not like with a novel, where you can sit with it for years and have different people read it. You have a lot more control with fiction.

Also with these news stories, you try to look for the right form for the particular story.

Q: At this stage, do you consider yourself primarily a novelist, a librettist, a scriptwriter?

A: Well, I think I’m primarily a fiction writer, but I’m sort of split. In recent years, the scriptwriting has been very consuming because of “Tonya & Nancy,” but I still have the longest loyalty to fiction. I’d love to just keep doing both and to switch off. I like to have lots of irons in the fire.

One of the things that makes writing so fascinating is that you can never get all the way there. In some professions, you can learn all there is to know, and you’re doing it as well as you can. But with writing, there are always better things to aspire to.

Q: And there’s always something that you’re reading that makes you think, “If I could only do that …”

A: Yes, and you get inspired by that. I like things that are kind of edgy. And I feel that it’s part of a writer’s job, in the higher sense of the word, to make trouble – to point to things that people are afraid to talk about.

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"We Got Him"Sun, 27 Nov 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Lewis Cole strikes again – for the 10th time Sun, 20 Nov 2016 09:00:00 +0000 the 10th time – in DuBois’ latest

Plenty of mystery writers look to Massachusetts or Maine for inspiration, but fewer choose New Hampshire as a setting for their tales of murder and mayhem. Perhaps their reluctance to explore the Granite State stems from the way Brendan DuBois, author of “Blood Foam,” “Fatal Harbor” and other New Hampshire thrillers has so emphatically staked out the seacoast territory in his novels featuring journalist and former Department of Defense research analyst Lewis Cole.

The 10th Cole adventure finds the erstwhile magazine columnist at a particularly low ebb. Out of work, romantically unattached, his seaside home nearly destroyed by arson (and with no insurance settlement check in sight), Cole has more than his fair share of personal trouble to attend to. But he’s also deeply concerned about the fate of one of his closest friends, Felix Tinios, one-time Boston mob enforcer turned independent “security consultant.”

Felix is on trial for his life, accused of the execution-style shooting of Fletcher Moore, a well-respected local businessman from the seaside town of Tyler. Felix was recorded entering and leaving the crime scene, his fingerprints were found scattered throughout the premises, and his gun, the presumed murder weapon, was discovered nearby. It looks like a slam-dunk conviction, especially considering the lackluster performance of Felix’s second-choice defense attorney.

Nothing about the situation makes sense to Cole. Although he and Felix have previously shared experiences “edging right up to that mysterious and shifting line separating law from lawlessness,” Cole can’t believe his friend would be so cold-blooded and sloppy. Most of all, Cole can’t understand why his friend would cut off all communication with him, even refusing to allow him to visit him in jail.

Luckily, Cole is given an excuse to investigate the Fletcher Moore killing on his own, thanks to the intervention of a mysterious Federal agent, who urges Cole to prove Felix innocent before Tinios is killed while waiting to testify. Cole takes the threat seriously, and soon he’s butting heads with various witnesses and officers of the court, not to mention violent gangsters.

Lewis Cole is at his best when he’s styling himself as the not-much-to-lose wiseguy, down on his luck but not out for the count. His friendship with Felix will remind mystery fans of other “good” guy/ “bad” guy duos, from Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Hawk to Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. It’s not a wildly original relationship, but it has enough substance and quirkiness to be convincing and interesting.

DuBois’s latest works well enough as a stand-alone adventure, but there has been enough narrative continuity throughout the past several volumes in the series that readers familiar with the earlier books are likely to appreciate “Storm Cell” more than newcomers might. DuBois orchestrates the introductions of the various returning cast members with finesse, but there’s a lot of shared history here to keep track off.

Chief among the holdovers is newspaper editor Paula Quinn. A former flame of Cole’s, she’s now engaged, but the sudden absence of a ring on her finger suggests that her status might have changed recently. DuBois handles their rekindled relationship with the right amount of romance, wit and sensuality.

The New Hampshire seacoast DuBois conjures up doesn’t completely mesh with reality. Scenes are set in such real-life locations as Boxford, Mass., but even the best GPS device won’t be able to direct a driver to the towns of Tyler, Porter or Exonia (home of renowned Phillips Exonia Academy). DuBois gives his fictional settings enough convincing detail to intrigue non-residents and satisfy a local’s need for verisimilitude. He understands how things work in a rapidly changing beach community and how the promise of a long-delayed windfall might prove morally corrosive to some inhabitants.

In “Storm Cell,” DuBois displays his expertise at balancing action and introspection, providing plenty of tense confrontations, clever reversals and surprising reveals, as well as many more character-based but still compelling scenes. A lot happens at the narrative’s climax, but readers are likely to be struck hardest by the novel’s denouement. The anticipation of what might happen next to Lewis Cole will spur many to contemplate exactly why this hard-luck investigator is so likeable and how DuBois’s signature crime series works so well.

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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Heft for the holidays Sun, 20 Nov 2016 09:00:00 +0000 NEW YORK — Come holiday time, there’s never a shortage of splashy coffee table books to please just about any aficionado.

Some suggestions:


“Fashion Made Fair,” by Magdalena Schaffrin and Ellen Kohrer, Prestel, $49.95. Know someone deeply committed to sustainability in fashion? Taking a truly world view, this book dives deeply into companies that do it well. In Zurich, for instance, look to the brothers Freitag, Daniel and Markus. They’re bag makers who launched F-abric, a line of compostable workwear.

“Reigning Men, Fashion in Menswear, 1715-2015,” by Sharon Sadako Takeda, Kaye Durland Spilker and Clarissa M. Esguerra, DelMonico Books, $55. Going back to the 18th century, this tome celebrates all aspects of men’s dressing, from the French court to Speedo. Among contemporary high points: An intricately bleached denim suit by Vivienne Westwood and a futuristic ruffle suit by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garcons.

“Francois Nars,” by Francois Nars, Rizzoli International, $85. With some of the most famous faces in fashion represented, the visionary behind NARS Cosmetics tells his story in beautiful close-up color, with snippets of remembrances and inspirations. He includes the communion looks of both his parents and makes it clear beauty begins with beautiful skin.


“The Lyrics: 1961-2012,” by Bob Dylan, Simon & Schuster, $60. The Nobel Prize-winning man of the hour, and of oh-so-many hours, has released 36 studio albums that have sold more than 120 million copies. This book includes lyrics from his first album to “Tempest,” released in 2012. Dylan has edited dozens of songs for the book, to reflect the words he uses as he performs them now.

“The Rolling Stones: All the Songs, the Story Behind Every Track,” by Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon, Black Dog & Leventhal, $50. The book covers 50 years and 340 songs, beginning with the band’s 1963 debut album. More than 500 photos are included, along with details like what instruments were used in the studio.

“David Bowie Play Book,” by Matteo Guarnaccia and Giulia Pivetta, ACC Art Books, $29.95. What better way to honor the icon who died in January than with a color, cut and play set. Includes paper dolls and his favorite footwear spanning his ever-changing look and a coloring page of the people who inspired him, from Dylan to Marlene Dietrich.


“Hollywood Icons,” by Robert Dance, ACC Editions, $65. Stunning studio portraits of film icons from the 1930s through the ’60s from the collection of the John Kobal Foundation. Kobal was a film journalist and historian who amassed a huge collection of Hollywood portraits and set images. Look for Bette Davis, shot by George Hurrell for Warner Bros. in 1939.

“My Elizabeth,” by Firooz Zahedi, Glitterati, $75. Friend and acclaimed photographer Zahedi offers a private peek into Taylor’s life from 44 into her 70s. Includes the Washington, D.C., years, jaunts in Montauk, New York with Halston and Andy Warhol and intimate photos of her children and stepchildren. There’s Taylor making fried chicken, on a boat in Venice, on a trip to Iran.

“The Malkovich Sessions,” by Sandro Miller, Glitterati, $95. “Being John Malkovich” is so 1999. In this book, rather than on film, John Malkovich gets to be himself, in all his goofy, creepy glory. And he gets to recreate some of the world’s most iconic portraits, with the help of photographer Miller, in a book that offers both pathos and whimsy.


“Young Frankenstein, The Story of the Making of the Film,” by Mel Brooks, Black Dog & Leventhal, $29.99. Whether you’re a first-generation “Young Frankenstein” fan or trying to nudge along the next, nobody does this 1974 classic better than Brooks himself. With a foreword by Judd Apatow it’s great to hear the now 90-year-old Brooks in his own voice.

“Shop Cats of New York,” by Tamar Arslanian, photos by Andrew Marttila, Harper Design, $21.99. To heck with that Yelp reviewer who dissed the bodega cat. This book shows that shop life can work for felines, with a warning that not all may be treated like kings and queens. Dwelling in wine shops, bookstores, dry cleaners and yes, The Algonquin Hotel, think “Humans of New York,” only cats.

“Dream a World Anew: The African American Experience and the Shaping of America,” by National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Books, $40. As much a primer on the slave trade and racial discrimination as a celebration of early black entrepreneurs, musicians, writers, activists and athletes in a nuanced, global context. Marks the opening of the new museum in Washington, D.C., great for tweens and teens.

]]> 0 cover of "My Elizabeth" by the photographer Firooz ZahediSun, 20 Nov 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Maine children’s author Ashley Bryan engages Portland audience Sat, 05 Nov 2016 22:03:27 +0000 Author-illustrator Ashley Bryan warmed up his audience by having them chant poems by the American poet Langston Hughes.

Then he talked about what he hoped they would take away from his new children’s book, “Freedom Over Me,” in which he imagines the lives of 11 slaves in the early 19th century.

“My hope was the spirit of these 11 would give the reader a stronger sense” of slavery, Bryan said.

By the end of his hourlong talk Saturday at the Portland Public Library, the audience of about 200 rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation.

Bryan’s rare appearance in Portland kicked off a series of talks organized by the Illustration Institute, a Portland arts group focused on the art of illustration, in conjunction with the exhibit “Picture This: The Art and Workings of the Illustration Institute,” a show of 18 illustrators on view at the library through Dec. 17.

Bryan, 93, based his newest book on an 1828 bill of sale he bought at a Maine auction more than a decade ago. The document listed 11 slaves only by first name and price along with other items being sold off from a Southern plantation.

Bryan imagined them as characters and wrote a book profiling their lives and dreams. He based their portraits on the faces of his family and friends. He imagines one as a carpenter, another as a cook, for example, and has them tell the story of how they came to the plantation and what they dreamed of doing if they were free.

It was one of six books nominated for the Kirkus Young Readers’ Literature award from a field of 500 candidates.

A native New Yorker, Bryan attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in the late 1940s and has lived year-round on Little Cranberry Island since retiring from Dartmouth College in the 1980s. He has written more than 50 children’s books.

The audience Saturday was filled with fans. About 15 percent had made the trek down from the Cranberry Islands, said Chris Wriggins of Yarmouth, who designed the Ashley Bryan Story Telling Pavilion on Little Cranberry Island. It houses Bryan’s puppets made from found objects and stained glass fashioned from sea glass.

“He has touched a lot of people’s lives in many amazing ways,” Wriggins said.

Abby Morrow, a children’s librarian in Ellsworth, said she had to make the drive down.

“He is the best example of a Maine author-illustrator. He celebrates creation,” Morrow said.

Writer Paulette Oboyski of Brunswick was there to hand-deliver Bryan some copies of Maine Seniors magazine, which contained her profile of him. She wanted to tell Bryan, a World War II veteran, about Honor Flight Maine, an organization that flies veterans to Washington, D.C., for a tour of the capital.

Oboyski said she will never forget her visit to Bryan’s home.

“He percolated coffee for us and made us raisin toast,” she said.

Bryan’s talk was also sponsored by the Ashley Bryan Center in Islesford, Maine College of Art, the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, First Book and Sherman’s bookstore.


]]> 1 Ashley Bryan speaks Saturday at the Portland Public Library. In his new children's book "Freedom Over Me," Bryan tackles the topic of slavery.Sat, 05 Nov 2016 21:10:54 +0000
Bowdoin College researcher wins Kirkus Prize for literature Thu, 03 Nov 2016 23:45:00 +0000 Susan Faludi, a research associate in gender sexuality and women’s studies at Bowdoin College, has won the 2016 Kirkus Prize for literature.

Faludi won in the non-fiction category for her memoir “In the Darkroom,” which is about the relationship between Faludi and her transgendered father, a Hungarian refugee who escaped the Holocaust.

Faludi earned $50,000 for winning the Kirkus Prize.

]]> 0 Fri, 04 Nov 2016 08:00:46 +0000
Book Review: In ‘Book That Matters Most,’ literature binds past and present Sun, 30 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Ann Hood’s latest novel, “The Book That Matters Most,” is a compassionate read about ordinary loss, shame and the human desire to escape. With an overarching nod of appreciation for books and how, often unexpectedly, they help people navigate their own lives, the author meshes together the fictitious personal pain of her characters with the real, healing power of literature.

Grappling with the heartbreak of her recent divorce and looking for something new, the story’s main character, Ava, joins a book club. There, she and the other members are tasked with selecting one book that has mattered most to each of them to compile the club’s reading list. From “Anna Karenina” to “Slaughterhouse Five,” Hood’s built-in recommended reading list serves as a clever guide as Ava’s story of loss and recovery unfolds.

Ava goes on the hunt to find a novel she read as a young girl after the tragic death of her sister and her mother’s subsequent suicide. Her past, present and future quickly and unexpectedly become tied together by the search for “From Clare to Here,” the book that matters most to Ava. The storyline is broken up by the perspectives of other characters, including flashbacks of Ava’s mother and Hank, a retired detective who investigated the young sister’s death and who Ava recruits to help track down the missing book. The most important of these additional threads is Maggie, Ava’s daughter. Studying abroad in Europe and lost in her drug addiction, the same allegorical tale Ava is searching for coincidentally comes into Maggie’s life. This book serves as the unifying element for these three generations of women, who have each sought an escape, be it by suicide, adultery, drugs or delving into the fantasy of fiction. “From Clare to Here” is the saving grace, bringing them first back to themselves, then reuniting these mothers and daughters. The meshing together of all the novel’s elements is almost too convenient or precious, but Hood’s direct, honest writing triumphs.

The main characters in “The Book That Matters Most,” are humanized by shortcomings that Hood acknowledges non-judgmentally, as each becomes something they never anticipated: divorced, a drug addict, healed. With subtle intimations that all people are fallible, Hood maintains a respect for her characters, despite their tragic mistakes. She writes openly and with fairness, careful that none are vilified for their faults. The women have their own truth, and though they are not absolved of their wrongs, they are mourned for them.

If the ugly truth was a chair, Hood has a way of making it a comfortable place to sit. Her writing does not skirt around unpleasant issues, rather it cozies up to them, fearlessly and still accepting her characters as whole human beings. Despite several heavy topics in this novel, Hood’s writing maintains a sense of humor that lightens the read, such as when Ava jots down quotes in her Moleskin notebook, “bought to show the others how serious she was about being part of the book group.” Likewise, Hood’s large appreciation for reading threaded throughout “The Book that Matters Most” highlights the wonderful companionship that books offer and, in turn, creates a sense of comfort for the reader. These are not characters through whom readers will want to live vicariously, but they won’t soon forget the empathy of Hood’s fiction.

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 bookSat, 29 Oct 2016 22:22:29 +0000
Coming to terms with trauma, as a couple Sun, 30 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 About 1 in 6 men has experienced sexual abuse before age 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Maine writer Shonna Milliken Humphrey addresses the issue in her new book, “Dirt Roads & Diner Pie: One Couple’s Road Trip to Recovery from Childhood Sexual Abuse.”

It’s an account of her husband’s experience with the American Boychoir School of New Jersey, where Travis Humphrey says he was molested as a student in the late 1980s.

Travis Humphrey is a well-known Maine musician, who mostly kept his story to himself until Hollywood decided to make a movie a few years ago starring Dustin Hoffman called “Boychoir.” It was a feel-good movie about the power of music, based largely on the American Boychoir School.

The movie did not mention the many allegations of abuse that have been leveled at the school. That angered Humphrey and emboldened him and his wife to speak up. Shonna Milliken Humphrey has written about the movie and her husband’s experience at the school in national publications, including The Atlantic and Salon. This book, a memoir published by Central Recovery Press, tells the story of one couple’s fight for justice and how they reconciled the abuse in order to save their marriage. It is based on a road trip they through took after speaking publicly about the allegations for the first time.

Humphrey, who lives in Gorham and works as foundation relations director at Thomas College in Waterville, talks about her experience at 4 p.m. on Nov. 5 at Books in the Brook in Westbrook. Travis Humphrey performs regularly in Portland at Gritty McDuff’s and the Dogfish Bar and Grille, and in Biddeford at Champions.

Q: This is an incredibly honest book about a very difficult subject. Why was it important for your husband to tell his story?

A: “Dirt Roads & Diner Pie” is honest, but I want to emphasize that it is not graphic. Those details – what happened to my husband when he was a little boy studying at the American Boychoir School – are his. Those details are not mine to share, so readers should not fear being confronted with them on the page.

That’s what sets the book apart, I think. It is a difficult subject, but I focus less on the abuse details and more on the long-term effects. Until I met my husband, I had no idea how insidious and long-reaching those effects can be. Child sex abuse among boys is more common than hunger, but there is reluctance to discuss the issue. Any time a strong, brave man acknowledges this experience, it makes it easier for other strong, brave men to acknowledge their experience, too.

Q: What is the central message of this book? What do you want people to walk away with?

A: Marriage is an absurd endeavor, but with a sense of humor and perspective, it can also be pretty awesome. I think the central message of “Dirt Roads & Diner Pie” is that marriage brings people to weird places, literally and figuratively, and you have to laugh. My favorite literary passage is when Henry Miller quotes Rabelais in “On Turning 80”: “For all your ills, I give you laughter.” It’s true.

I also hope readers walk away with an understanding that there are good reasons why it can take a long time for victims to acknowledge traumatic experiences, the current justice system can be really messed up, and institutions with reputations for sex abuse must change their approach and philosophies.

Q: Your story was fairly public before “Dirt Roads & Diner Pie” came out, because of the “Boychoir” movie. You wrote about it for Salon and The Atlantic as long ago as 2013. What was it like to go public, and how did things change for you and Travis after that publicity?

A: When I had the opportunity to write the piece for The Atlantic in 2013, it was a huge leap in Trav’s healing. We invited that publicity, and while it was a little uncomfortable, the end result was very positive. We received hundreds of encouraging notes.

With the movie and the 2014 Salon essay, it got trickier. We were ready to be done, but also, Trav did not want the American Boychoir School experience to be glamorized in a major motion picture. The idea of it being a recruitment and revenue tool for the school made him sick. So I wrote more, and that’s when the publicity got a little ugly. People affiliated with the Boychoir said some very unkind things about us and our motives.

However, Trav’s big fears were fears that many victims describe: not being believed or having the experience minimized. When those things actually happened in a very big and public way, he was able to step back and observe that, while not exactly pleasant, it also was not as bad as he’d imagined.

The backlash was brief and intense, but – I really believe this – good wins. Anyone who knows Travis understands that he is one of the good ones.

Q: You went up against a major Hollywood studio – and won, or so it appears on the surface. Do you feel like you won?

A: I don’t think there are any winners with child sex abuse. Two years after its initial debut, Hallmark acquired the original film, renamed it, and CBS planned to broadcast it this past April during National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. That seemed like a bad idea, so we went back to what had worked before: writing the truth about our experience. I also invited others to do the same.

When CBS abruptly pulled the movie from its schedule, we were happy with that decision, so yes, that part felt like a win. But, that victory also emphasized how those affiliated with the Boychoir and similar institutions deal with victims, and that is where nobody wins.

Q: I imagine this wasn’t a book that you planned to write. I presume it presented itself after all the publicity surrounding “Boychoir.” What’s next? Will you return to novel writing?

A: That’s true. I suppose no writer wakes up and says, “Today I plan to expose my marriage’s weaknesses, my personal anxieties and my husband’s deepest shame in a funny memoir.”

When we took the road trip, our biggest goal was to find some sun and step off the crazy train for a few weeks. The idea of writing a book came after we returned home and assessed our list of options. Trav could sue the school in a years-long process that would be handled largely by the school’s insurance company, or he could continue to stay quiet. Neither of those felt particularly satisfying, so we chose to make a new option and own the narrative. Basically, to just say what happened, let a little light into the experience, and hope it might do some good.

As for what’s next, I am working on a nonfiction book proposal about the early years of one particular AmeriCorps program, as well as finishing up a second novel. Once those are finalized, we will see which project my agent can sell first.

Q: And what is next for Travis?

A: He recorded his latest project, “The Roadhouse Gospel Hour,” locally with Jon Wyman’s Halo Studios almost immediately upon our return from the road trip. It’s a collection of Americana standards and powerful original material. Travis is currently contemplating some new project ideas while he continues to perform locally.

Q: You are reading at Books in the Brook next weekend and you are doing a lot of radio interviews as well. What has the reaction been to the book?

A: My novel, “Show Me Good Land,” was simpler to promote. I showed up, read aloud or talked about craft, and sold books. That resulted in some nice honors, too, like the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell Award for first novels semi-finalist list.

For “Dirt Roads & Diner Pie,” it is a little different. I do think the book is powerful as a piece of literature, but I can create some social change with this project in a way that is limiting with a traditional novel. The publisher, Central Recovery Press, is a resource for all manner of healing, and having me speak directly with radio audiences throughout the country is an effective way to promote that social change aspect.


]]> 2 & Diner Pie coverSun, 30 Oct 2016 17:31:29 +0000
Book review: ‘The Starlit Wood’ creates new magic from old tales Sun, 23 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 We grow up, and we come to believe we don’t need fairy tales anymore.

We’re wrong, of course. The fictions created or collected by the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen and nameless storytellers from around the world never leave us. The tales are supposedly aimed at children, but in their unexpurgated versions, they contain elements of sexuality and violence to make even the toughest aficionado of noir blanch. They’re retold or remixed in high art and popular culture, touchpoints where we can easily find commonality in a constantly churning digital sea of bewildering references. Who doesn’t know Little Red Riding or Sleeping Beauty? Who can’t relate to Cinderella?

Edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, “The Starlit Wood” presents 18 new versions of beloved or obscure fairy tales, including “The Snow Queen,” “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Part of an oral tradition, fairy tales have always been subject to constant revision – conscious or otherwise. In their introduction, Parisien and Wolfe write that they “decided to run fairy tales through a prism, to challenge our readers to look at stories from an unusual angle, to bring them back into different genres and traditions, to – if you will – return them to their cross-genre roots.”

And so readers of “The Starlit Wood” receive a version of “Little Red Riding Hood” set in the desert, a post-Singularity version of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “The Little Match Girl” presented in the form of a weird Western tale. The contributors include Seanan Maguire, Genevieve Valentine and Jeffrey Ford, as well as New England-based writers such as Catherynne M. Valente, Kat Howard, Theodora Goss and Max Gladstone.

Many familiar stories undergo major makeovers. In the sardonic “Even the Crumbs Were Delicious,” Daryll Gregory sets “Hansel and Gretel” in the drugged-out future he created for his novel “Afterparty,” focusing on the children’s terrible parents and giving the benefit of the doubt to the supposedly wicked witch. Naomi Novick, author of “Uprooted,” retells “Rumplestiltskin” from the perspective of a young woman who takes over her father’s money lending enterprise and makes a deal with a mysterious, otherworldly stranger. With “Giants in the Sky,” Gladstone adds a space elevator and a young heroine to “Jack and the Beanstalk” and presents a snapshot of life on an abandoned Earth 300 years after the Great Upload.

Some fairly obscure sources serve as springboards of inspiration. “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage” isn’t a likely bedtime favorite, but Charlie Jane Anders gives it a gonzo futuristic spin in “The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest.” Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Shadow” doesn’t approach the popularity of his “The Little Mermaid,” but Theodora Goss, in wondering why so few doppelganger stories feature female protagonists, puts it to good use in “The Other Thea.” Reminiscent of work by J.K. Rowling and Lev Grossman, the story follows a recent graduate of a magical boarding school as she attempts to retrieve her shadow, without which she will soon fade away.

“The Starlit Wood” includes an Author’s Note after each selection. No doubt there are readers who skip them, but each entry adds welcome personal details that aid in the appreciation of the story. In her note about “Reflected,” Howard mentions a physics article she read about “time crystals,” and how it allowed her to say, “Hey, let’s try ‘The Snow Queen’ with science in it.” It’s interesting to learn that Valente’s deeply unsettling “Badgirl, the Deadman and the Wheel of Fortune” was inspired by both “The Armless Maiden” and a bout of carpal tunnel syndrome that left the writer unable to use her hands for about five months. That Anders found it difficult to adapt her selection makes perfect sense, and it puts her story into perspective when she admits, “It was only when I decided to go fully post-apocalyptic and turn this story into, basically ‘Adventure Time’ fanfic, that it started to click for me.”

The majority of the stories in “The Starlit Wood” are by women writers, which is all to the good. Traditional fairy tales are notoriously harsh on their female characters, inflicting terrible tribulations upon them while often dismissing their ambitions and agency. The tough, complicated, contradictory women in “The Starlit Wood” largely work to save themselves and others, rather than sit passively waiting for any Prince Charming.

Beginning with “Snow White, Blood Red,” Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling edited an acclaimed series of fairy tale anthologies from the mid-’90s into the 2000s. They featured work by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Peter Straub and Joyce Carol Oates. Devised for a new generation of writers and readers, “The Starlit Wood” follows in the same tradition but brings a fresh, contemporary sensibility to the task. Each reader will have his or her favorite story, but the selections in this volume are of a uniformly high level of quality. Clever, touching, frightening, funny and frequently surprising, “The Starlit Wood” shines with magical possibility.

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

Correction: This review was revised at 10:51 a.m., Oct. 24, 2016, to reflect the correct spelling of Terri Windling’s name.

]]> 0, 24 Oct 2016 10:52:35 +0000
Book review: In ‘The Devil’s Cold Dish,’ family feud is stoked by rumor Sun, 23 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 One hundred years after the Salem witch trials, an accusation of being a witch in New England still spurred fear and the risk of censure, if not bodily harm. This is the reality in the 1790s around which Eleanor Kuhns’ new novel, “The Devil’s Cold Dish,” is built. Blood feuds and religious intolerance abound in the small community of Dugard, Maine.

The story, the fifth in a series, turns around weaver Will Rees, who grew up in Dugard, and his new wife, Lydia, a Shaker who is pregnant with their first child. They live on a farm outside of town with David, Will’s teenage son from his first wife, who died, and four children that they’ve taken in to care for. Rees travels a lot, buying and selling cloth, and is looked upon by many in town as someone who puts on airs. In truth, he has grown somewhat aloof, having experienced a larger world outside of the community he grew up in.

The blood feud is between him and his younger sister, Caroline, who has been jealous of him since childhood. Caroline’s husband, Sam, fell during a fight he had instigated with Will. Sam suffered brain damage as a result, and Caroline blames her brother for making her husband weak-minded. She repeatedly demands that Will and Lydia take her family in, because her husband can no longer work and they now live in poverty.

Will and Lydia help as they can, but refuse to allow Caroline’s family to join them on the farm. Early in the book, Caroline starts a rumor that Lydia, having been a member of a suspect Shaker community, is a witch. Thus, things are set in motion.

Will is suspected of ambushing and killing a town bully. When the local milliner is found hanging by his heels in his grist wheel with a ritual-like set of candles encircling him, Lydia is suspected in his death. When a mob comes to arrest her, she hides, and ultimately at Will’s insistence, returns to the community of Shakers she grew up in while he works to solve the murders. Subsequently, he is forced into hiding when Sam, too, is found murdered.

“The Devil’s Cold Dish” is completely plot-driven. Though it is entertaining, substantive character development is spotty. One of the more intriguing story elements involves the relationship between Will and David, his teenage son, who has had to carry the burden of running the farm while his father is away traveling. There is lingering resentment between David and his father for his having been left for a time after his mother died in the care of his Aunt Caroline and Uncle Sam, known for physically abusing family members. Father and son must come to rely on one another for the safety of their family, and David makes a major personal sacrifice to maintain his father’s cover while he is in hiding.

Kuhns skillfully turns the complicated plot to an unexpected conclusion. “The Devil’s Cold Dish” is a tale of deceit and jealousy, and how easily fear can be manipulated to pit neighbor against neighbor, a story with eerie relevance in these modern times.

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

]]> 0, 22 Oct 2016 17:41:05 +0000
Bernie Sanders is coming to South Portland to promote his new book Wed, 19 Oct 2016 15:36:35 +0000 Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is coming to the Books-A-Million near the Maine Mall in South Portland to promote his new memoir.

Sanders is scheduled to meet with fans on Nov. 21 from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. at the bookstore at 430 Gorham Road. Sanders’ book includes personal experiences from his recent campaign against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.

Tickets are required to attend the event and are available for purchase from the Books-A-Million store or online at The $28.49 price includes a copy of the book. Guests will have a chance to have a photograph taken with Sanders, but Sanders will not be signing books.

]]> 8 presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. smiles as he speaks during a rally at a local union hall, Monday, April 4, 2016, in Janesville, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton visits Impact Services, Wednesday, April 6, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) Wis. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)Wed, 19 Oct 2016 14:54:58 +0000