The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram » Books Fri, 28 Oct 2016 05:06:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 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, 19 Oct 2016 14:54:58 +0000
Book Review: The game is life in ‘Gamblers Anatomy’ Sun, 16 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Writer Jonathan Lethem takes his readers places that they wouldn’t have imagined. It is his gift and his challenge. He succeeds masterfully in his new novel, “A Gambler’s Anatomy,” using the board game backgammon as both a central story element and a psychological substrata that shades character interactions.

Alexander Bruno, a middle-aged man of passable good looks, makes his living playing high-stakes backgammon. A streak of expensive losses in Singapore, however, prompts him to travel to Berlin seeking to regroup and pay his debt. He is grievously aware, however, that a “blot” — a blind spot — has begun to obscure his vision in one eye. Worse, he reasons, it’s causing him to lose the telepathic abilities he has long relied on in becoming one of the game’s premiere players. He is obsessed with the blot’s presence and the headaches it seems to be spawning. He fears he might be dying.

Backgammon, one of the oldest board games in the world, is played with 30 pieces called “checkers” or “men,” among other names. Opponents arrange their pieces on their own side of the board and use dice to advance their positions. Players can dominate a position on the board by holding it with two or more pieces. The weakest spot is held only by one piece, known as a “blot,” which can be captured and forced to start over again. The goal is to successfully move all of one’s pieces around the board where they are then retired. Bets are made with every dice roll, and can be doubled, requiring the opponent to either accept the doubling or forfeit the match. It is a game of luck, strategy and psychological finesse.

Bruno arrives in Berlin to play a “potential whale,” someone likely to lose a colossal sum. “Bruno had for his entire life associated backgammon with candor, the dice not determining fate so much as revealing character,” Lethe writes. Yet, Bruno often falls victim to his own character foible, a personal blindspot that allows his concentration to be broken by his sexual desires. Initially, he gathers sizable winnings, until his opponent breaks his focus by having a half-naked, masked woman bearing a tray of food enter the room. Not only does Bruno lose a prodigious amount before the evening is over, but he ends up in the hospital, his slackening vigor presaged by a nosebleed that couldn’t be staunched.

After tests, he is informed that he has a tumorous cancer growing behind his eye and that his best hope is a rare surgery performed by a pioneer in the field, requiring him to return to Berkeley, California. Berkeley happens to be where he grew up, bouncing as a boy with his sad mother from squalid apartments to homeless shelters. It’s is a place he escaped after high school with the intent of never returning.

The setup for his return is a happenstance encounter with a childhood acquaintance, Keith Stolarsky, and Stolarsky’s girlfriend at an elite club while Bruno was in Singapore. When they were kids, Bruno largely felt disdain for Stolarsky, for reasons Stolarsky again makes apparent. Bruno humors Stolarsky in a match, in part because he finds his girlfriend alluring. Stolarsky has become a wealthy entrepreneur, owning “half of Telegraph Avenue” in Berkeley, running a portfolio of seedy apartments, fast food joints and other ventures. The two men play, Bruno leaping ahead with sizable earnings until he grows either bored or distracted, causing him to lose much of his money.

Stolarsky subsequently becomes his benefactor, enabling Bruno to return from overseas to Berkeley for the surgery, which is performed by a narcissist who peels back Bruno’s face from his forehead to his mouth in order to remove the tumor. The surgery and hospital bill is paid by Stolarsky, putting Bruno deeply in his debt. After the bandages are removed, Bruno leaves the hospital wearing a hooded mask. Stolarsky puts him up in a flophouse apartment he owns and gives him a job at one of his burger joints.

Bruno now passes, in the world he grew up in and loathes, as a freak. But the blot in his vision has, indeed, been removed. Slowly he comes to sense the power of his perceived telepathy returning, with his mask giving him a powerful psychological edge, alluring and enticing his opponents, but serving as a barrier they cannot penetrate.

Lethem, who lives part time in Maine, moves his men around the board of his story like a backgammon master. Things get curiouser and curiouser before Lethem’s unexpected end game. “A Gambler’s Anatomy” is a complex unfolding of character that revolves around games of all manner and dimensions. Ultimately, the heart of the story lies not in any moral imperative, but in the question of who plays whom — and who gets played.

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 Sat, 15 Oct 2016 21:47:46 +0000
Author Q&A: Robert Oldshue’s writing life blends opposing forces in medicine, writing Sun, 16 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Like many 20-somethings, Robert Oldshue graduated from college unsure of his future path. So he backpacked for a year, traveling far and wide, all the while keeping a journal of his adventures. At year’s end, he arrived at the obvious conclusion: He was meant to be the next Ernest Hemingway. Or so he briefly thought.

Fast-forward to a different trek, this time to South Africa, where the would-be author, still in his 20s, worked for a doctor. Oldshue was awakened in the middle of one night to help the doctor deliver a baby who would be born into poverty. And something clicked. He knew this was his calling.

“That made sense for what a human being should do,” he says. “To me, that was it – that’s a man.”

Years later, those disparate paths would merge into an accomplished double life. In one, Oldshue is a family-care doctor in Boston, where he also teaches at Harvard Medical School. In the other, he’s an author whose debut story collection, “November Storm,” recently won the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award.

Oldshue spoke recently from his Boston office about empathy, courting his wife and nailing the perfect phrase. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How strange is this whole process of the book’s publication, given that your daily life is so different?

A: I’ve been thinking about that balance – about how my writing relates to my medical practice. I teach interviewing and history-taking over at Harvard Medical School. Today we were talking about empathy and sympathy.

Empathy, at least as we teach it to students, is an act of professionalism, a disciplined concern for others in which you consider their needs and you meet them. Sympathy is “Oh, my Gosh! I can’t believe what you’re going through.”

At the office, I’m required to show empathy. I may personally like or dislike you, but I have to show disciplined brotherly feeling anyway. There’s a distance, a role, a duty. In my short stories, I put down that role. I think I write out of sympathy. This is the place where I can explore freely ideas, or characters, or people who have moved me.

Q: That seems to suggest that writing somehow requires less discipline than medicine. Yet it takes great discipline to get characters on the page in a way that makes sense.

A: My job as a doctor is to take the particulars and generalize about them – to make sure that whatever treatment I give would be the same treatment a patient would get in Omaha or Portland, Oregon. Fiction-writing is about specifics and potent details. Those two processes are opposite to each other, and it’s taken me many years to understand that.

Q: You must find writing incredibly liberating since you can let the characters go, without intervening.

A: Yes, that’s true. It’s also an opportunity to explore their motives, or mine, and to reveal myself in ways that are not appropriate in the office.

A lot of us are worried about our fallibility and the fact that we could badly hurt somebody. The way I look at it, there are doctors who have hurt people and know it, and there are doctors who have hurt people, and don’t know it. And unfortunately, there aren’t any other doctors. There are enormous burdens of guilt, and we all put them somewhere.

Q: After your medical residency, you took two years off to get an master of fine arts in writing. Clearly you had decided that writing was more than a hobby.

A: It was a big risk, and I wasn’t sure what was going to come of it. I came out knowing how to write better, but it turns out there wasn’t a line of agents waiting to turn my stories into huge collections. I got kind of down and depressed about things. But thankfully, I had not burned any bridges, so I could go back to medicine. Then I found a new balance in my work life.

I’m here in the office every day. I take Monday and Friday mornings to write, and weekends. So I’ve tried to integrate those two people.

Q: How does it feel to finally have a collection of your stories published?

A: It may not seem like much of a life to creep away from your office and go up to your attic to type out a few more sentences with action verbs, and get rid of your adverbs and buff up your concrete nouns. But it is a life! The fact that there is some editor or contest judge across the country who will read your essays and stories, and give them a shot – that keeps many of us going.

Q: Tell me what you like most about writing.

A: My favorite thing is the moment when you take a complex idea that isn’t fully formed, and you nail it! You’ve had many themes that you didn’t really understand and they’re coming along, and finally you can bring them all together in a resonant ring at the end. It’s a wonderful feeling.

Q: And what do you like least about writing?

A: The self-promotion. But the part that gives me real pain is when I’m on a roll, and I just have to quit anyway. I have to do rounds at the hospital, or deal with some fevers and I’m just right on the edge of making connections in a story. That hurts.

Q: You’ve just defined frustration.

A: On the other hand, I can’t tell you how many times that’s kept me from writing too fast. I have to sit. Things have to deepen a little bit. I think James Baldwin said that there is no perfect writing life; every life is imperfect in its own ways. So the blemishes in the writing life become part of the beauty.

Q: Have you written in other forms besides the short story?

A: I just finished the first draft of a novel. And my wife loves it. I’ve got to tell you, I showed my little stories-with-a-staple-in-the-corner to her 25 years ago. We had gone out a couple of times, and I said, “There’s something I really have to tell you about myself.” And she sort of blanched, waiting to hear some horrendous secret. I said, “I write.”

Q: Of all the confessions people make, that’s pretty low on the list of crimes.

A: Well, maybe. I think I showed her a talking dog story, or something. But she said, “There’s a voice here.” And she just has never let me stop.

Q: Have you figured out which form of writing you prefer?

A: Even as a doctor, I still can’t decide whether I prefer working with adults or kids. I go back and forth. So I can’t decide. At the moment, I have several ideas for short stories that I want to be working on. I’ll probably pick some compromise as I go on.

Q: Now that you have this book and you’ve won an award, I’m wondering whether your thoughts on retirement include much more writing.

A: I do think about that. I do want to write. On the other hand, I get so much charge out of my patients. I love them – they’re my crew! I live across the street from my clinic. I get to be the mayor! I get to walk down the street and see my patients, say hello, meet their kids. In a world of increasing specialization, it is just such a gift to be part of people’s lives as a family doctor. And I see the writing as an extension of that. My stories reflect that I take their issues seriously. The writing is an opportunity to sit down and say, “Well, who are these families?” In my writing life, I don’t see the big divide between my issues and theirs. It really recharges me to go back into the office and try again.

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, 15 Oct 2016 21:40:43 +0000
Carolyn Chute will join Bonnie Jo Campbell at Longfellow Books Sun, 16 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Novelist Bonnie Jo Campbell will read in Maine for the first time, and Maine writer Carolyn Chute will join the discussion at 7 p.m. Tuesday at One Longfellow Books in Portland. Campbell’s latest book is “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,” a book about women who love, honor and betray one another against the backdrop of all the men in their world. The Michigan native is known for her observations of rural America and working-class protagonists.

Chute will join the discussion, offering her perspective on writing and rural America. Chute’s 1985 novel, “The Beans of Egypt, Maine,” is considered a modern classic. Of her latest novel, “Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves,” The New York Times wrote, “Carolyn Chute is a James Joyce of the backcountry, a Proust of rural society, an original in every meaning of the word.”

Campbell’s collection of stories, “American Salvage,” was a finalist for the National Book Award, and her novel “Once Upon a River” was a national bestseller.

]]> 0 Mon, 17 Oct 2016 07:57:24 +0000
Stephen King to talk about his days as a student in Orono Sun, 16 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Stephen King will read from his latest book and talk about his days as a student in Orono at 7 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Collins Center for the Arts on the University of Maine campus. King’s newest book, “Hearts in Suspension,” includes a reprint of “Hearts in Atlantis,” which tracks the “awakenings and heartbreak” of his fictional counterpart, Peter Riley, during King’s first year at UMaine. The novella is accompanied by King’s new essay, “Five to One, One in Five,” in which he reflects on his undergraduate years.

Tickets for the reading are free, and can be reserved by the public beginning Monday.

The 373-page “Hearts in Suspension,” published by the University of Maine Press, marks the 50th anniversary of King’s enrollment at UMaine in fall 1966. Along with photographs and documents of the era, the book also includes four installments of King’s student newspaper column, “King’s Garbage Truck,” reprinted for the first time, and essays by 12 of King’s classmates and friends, including Jim Bishop, one of King’s college English teachers and the book’s editor.

King’s former classmates and friends will join the discussion Nov. 7, and books will be for sale at the Collins Center.

Members of the public can register for two tickets per person at or at the Collins Center box office beginning Monday. For details, call 581-1755.

King has published more than 50 books. He is the recipient of the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and the 2014 National Medal of Arts. Earlier this year, the Stephen E. King Chair in Literature was established at UMaine by a $1 million gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation.

]]> 0 Sun, 16 Oct 2016 21:54:44 +0000
‘Some Writer!’ celebrates E.B. White as a boy and beloved writer Sun, 09 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 The idea of writing a biography about one of the world’s best-known writers felt daunting to Melissa Sweet. What could she add to the life of E.B. White that hadn’t already been said?

But for all the books that have been written about White and all the writing he did himself, about his childhood in New York and his life on a farm in Maine, there remained a few unanswered questions that nagged at Sweet, an award-winning children’s book illustrator.

Her search for answers unfolds in her newest book, “Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White.” Sweet wrote and illustrated this book after three years of research. Using paintings, mixed-media collages and facsimiles of private heirlooms from the White family collection, Sweet has created a magical farm in the quiet countryside of Maine, where all living things are treated well and where love, happiness and hardship are part of the reward of a life well lived.

On that farm reimagined, she found the answers to questions that had piqued her interest, most pressing of all, why did American’s foremost man of letters, who filled the pages of the New Yorker with essays, commentaries, news and witty asides, also take the time to write children’s books? In his long and widely celebrated career, White wrote three of the most popular books in children’s literature, “Stuart Little,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Trumpet of the Swan.” All are stories about animals who rely on friendship and companionship to find their place in the world.

Sweet also wanted to know where those books came from, and she wanted to know what E.B. White was like as a little boy, growing up in what he described as “a large house in a leafy suburb, where there were backyards and stables and grape arbors.” And she wanted to know how coming to Maine and settling on a sprawling farm in Brooklin, where White and his family lived in a big white house with a big white barn and a little boathouse down along Allen Cove, changed the man and lit his imagination.

Sweet has illustrated dozens of children’s books and has specialized in illustrated biographies of famous writers for kids. “Some Writer!” – the title comes from a quote in “Charlotte’s Web” – is the latest in her series that also includes books about William Carlos Williams and Peter Mark Roget. “Some Writer!” is Sweet’s most ambitious book and, at well over 100 pages, it is arranged as a chapter book. It’s intended for kids, but Sweet wrote it and illustrated it with older readers in mind, with more text than her other books. She hopes it appeals to kids who are reading “Charlotte’s Web” for the first time – fourth-graders and older kids – and she knows, based on responses from her writer friends, that the book will find an audience with adults, as well.

Sweet's illustrations include paintings, mixed-media collages and facsimiles of private heirlooms from the White family collection.

Sweet’s illustrations include paintings, mixed-media collages and facsimiles of private heirlooms from the White family collection.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released the biography last week. Sweet begins her national publicity campaign for the book with a tour to Maine island schools. Island Readers & Writers, a nonprofit organization that promotes reading among Maine children who live in remote places, is providing copies of the book to kids on North Haven, Vinalhaven, Deer Isle-Stonington, Mt. Desert, Swan’s Island and Great Cranberry Island, and Sweet is traveling to the island schools to lead workshops.

Sweet, who recently moved to Portland from Rockland, went right to the source to tell this story. She spent many long days at White’s alma mater, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, which holds most of his papers. She visited the White farm, which is not open to the public, per White’s wishes, and she was given access to the writer’s early journals and other family memorabilia that either hasn’t been shared with other biographers or has been overlooked.

Most important, perhaps, she spent long hours with White’s granddaughter, Martha White, who lives in Rockport and knows Sweet as a former neighbor and fellow dog walker.

Sweet tells a story about a boy who became one of America’s most beloved writers, who learned to read by sounding out words in the New York Times but who never loved books. He liked to ride bikes and climb trees. And he liked dogs. His early affection for his dog Mac cemented his lifelong respect for animals and all critters, a theme that ties his children’s books together.

She tells the story of a man ahead of his time, as well. White was a contributing writer and editor to the New Yorker for more than 50 years, and in 1959 he revised a book written by his college professor William Strunk. “The Elements of Style” became an indispensable style guide for writers, including Sweet, who said it was “Elements of Style” and not one of White’s children’s book that made her a fan. White received a Pulitzer Prize special citation in 1978.

In many ways, White was an original back-to-the-lander, coming to Maine from the city to live a simple lifestyle and raise a family and farm animals. He was also the original telecommuter. He filed his columns for Harper’s and the New Yorker from Brooklin, traveling occasionally to the city for business but choosing to do his work from the comforts of home.

One of the illustrations for "Some Writer!" is a drawing of manual typewriter. E.B. White wrote on the typewriter, and Sweet wanted to explain to readers – young readers especially, who only know how to write on a computer – what a typewriter is and how it works.

One of the illustrations for “Some Writer!” is a drawing of manual typewriter. E.B. White wrote on the typewriter, and Sweet wanted to explain to readers – young readers especially, who only know how to write on a computer – what a typewriter is and how it works.


In searching through family journals, Sweet learned that White’s lifelong unease with public attention stemmed, in part, from a grade-school assembly, where White was called on to read a Longfellow poem with the words, “Footprints on the sands of time.” But he flubbed the line, and the other kids laughed.

Mac met him when he came home from school and helped ease the boy’s anxieties with his loyalty. “A boy doesn’t forget that sort of association,” White later wrote of his beloved first dog.

As Sweet began to see White as a little boy, she was able to treat her subject as a human being and not as a titan of American letters. “Once I learned all those things, I found him so much more accessible and less intimidating,” she said. “It’s daunting to take on the task of writing about a writer who is so universally loved and revered.”


Sweet was well into her research when she approached Martha White about the book. She needed permission to use some of the material and asked White, who is her grandfather’s literary executor.

White was familiar with Sweet and her work. She read Sweet’s books to her own children and grandchildren, and she appreciated Sweet’s previous illustrated biography about Peter Mark Roget, who conceived and wrote the world’s first thesaurus. “The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus” told the story of a little boy who loved lists and who grew into a man who created a writing tool that helped generations of writers to express themselves with clarity. The book, written by Jen Bryant, won a Caldecott Honor, a top award in children’s literature.

“My grandfather was a great thesaurus lover himself,” Martha White said. “I thought, ‘What a perfect lead-in, to do a book about words.”

After the two met, White opened up the family trove to Sweet, who had access to the most personal of E.B. White’s papers the family deemed either too private, too important or simply not appropriate for public consumption. White was impressed with Sweet’s depth of knowledge of her grandfather, and felt comfortable sharing the archival material. “She had read every book, and she was quoting E.B. White to me, which was very interesting. She may be the one person in the world who knows more about my grandfather than I do,” Martha White said. “I was 100 percent on board, right from the get-go. I knew Melissa well enough to know that, when she does a project, she does it with her whole body and soul.”

Martha White shared private family photographs, early journals that were never given to Cornell and will never be published, odds and ends, and childhood scrapbooks.

She tells the story of a man ahead of his time, as well. White was a contributing writer and editor to the New Yorker for more than 50 years, and in 1959 he revised a book written by his college professor William Strunk. “The Elements of Style” became an indispensable style guide for writers, including Sweet, who said it was “Elements of Style” and not one of White’s children’s book that made her a fan. White received a Pulitzer Prize special citation in 1978.

In many ways, White was an original back-to-the-lander, coming to Maine from the city to live a simple lifestyle and raise a family and farm animals. He was also the original telecommuter. He filed his columns for Harper’s and the New Yorker from Brooklin, traveling occasionally to the city for business but choosing to do his work from the comforts of home.


Sweet’s editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Ann Rider, said White’s offer to open the family treasures to Sweet was like “being given the keys to the kingdom by the White estate.”

Instead of a picture book for children, “Some Writer!” became a chapter book for older readers and adults, Rider said. “We really believe this book will reach kids who are already familiar with his work, who have read ‘Charlotte’s Web’ and ‘Stuart Little’ and want to know more about who wrote those books,” Rider said. “But this is one of those books that can speak to you at different ages and at different times in your life.”

Sweet used the White family material to draw a more complete picture of E.B. White as a boy, his maturity into a man and his growth as a writer, husband and father. Some of the things she reproduced, others she used as inspiration for her own paintings and collages.

One of the pieces she includes in the book is a printed, bound brochure that White made at age 15 to entice a friend from New York to spend the summer with him at Belgrade Lake in Maine, where the White family came each summer. As a boy, White loved the lake, and his brochure touted Maine as “one of the most beautiful states in the Union.”

Sweet unearthed a few revelations that will be of interest to White scholars, Martha White said. No one before has reported that White was reading Longfellow when he stumbled on the words, leading to a lifelong aversion to attention. Or that his older brother Stanley was called “Bun” because he could wiggle his nose like a bunny.

She most appreciates Sweet’s illustrations of her grandfather and his “vile” dachshund, Fred. Martha White described the dog pictures as “spot-on,” and said the portraits of her grandfather “are more like my grandfather than many photos of him.”

Sweet lived with the material in her Rockport studio for long stretches, getting to know White not only through his words but through his possessions. In time, she felt his presence in the studio, both haunting and humbling. For a while, she kept White’s personal copy of “American Boy’s Handy Book,” a Bible of boyhood for large numbers of American kids. White used the book to build his son Joel a scow, “using pluck in place of know-how.” Sweet includes a copy of the book’s pages in “Some Writer!”

Living with such a personal possession, Sweet said, felt monumental. “It actually made me speechless, to have that object in my studio. It was like having the Hope Diamond,” she said.


Sweet especially enjoyed her trips to Brooklin. White was very much a New Yorker, but when it came time to commit to a lifestyle, he chose the farm in Maine, where he raised animals and lived among 40 acres of solitude. He and his wife, Katharine Angell, bought the farm in Brooklin in 1933 and by 1937 were living there full-time.

White kept a monthly column in Harper’s and wrote for the New Yorker, filing dispatches from Maine on a Corona manual typewriter.

Maine charmed White, and he fell easily into the rhythm of caring for animals and being at peace with nature. Although he began “Stuart Little” while living in New York, White didn’t finish it until coming to Maine and settling into life on a farm. White wrote of coming to Maine what many people feel still today: “What happens to me when I cross … into Maine …? I cannot describe it …. but I do have the sensation of having received a gift from a true love.”

The farm in Brooklin is still very much as it was when White lived there. He died in 1985 and made it clearly known that he did not want the White farm to become the subject of any sort of memorial or destination for tourists. He valued his privacy in life and insisted on it in death.

Sweet went to the farm to get a sense of its perspective. She befriended the current owners, Robert and Mary Gallant, whom she thanks in the book. She walked the grounds and spent a lot of time in the barn that became famous in “Charlotte’s Web.” She leaves most of the details of the place itself out of the book, out of respect for White.

“He did not think authors should be celebrities,” White’s granddaughter said. “He never wanted his private home to become a museum or a pilgrimage in any way. People tried to do it, and still do today. But he was absolutely clear that it was something he did not want.”

Sweet wasn’t interested in documenting White’s celebrity or his place in the world of literature. Those books, she said, have been written.

She was interested in finding the child within the man. Near the end of her book, she includes a quote from White, written when he was 84, a year before he died. He was blind in one eye and suffering other losses. But he felt well enough to tool around on his three-speed Raleigh. On his ride, a coyote emerged from the woods and followed him down the road, delighting him and stirring his imagination.

“I don’t think he was anything but curious, but it was kind of spooky to have a wild animal trailing me,” White wrote. “I was probably his first octogenarian on wheels, and he just wanted to get a good look at it.”


]]> 0, 09 Oct 2016 14:00:47 +0000
Riding celebrity wave, Ruth Bader Ginsburg releasing anthology Sun, 02 Oct 2016 12:50:34 +0000 WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is riding the wave of her rock-star celebrity, releasing a compilation of her writings that range from a high school editorial to summaries of some of her spiciest dissenting opinions.

There seems to be no end lately to the interest in the court’s oldest member, the senior justice of its liberal wing who this summer made news for her criticism of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

A recent, playful biography called “Notorious RBG” was a best-seller. A children’s book on the justice and a Ginsburg coloring book came out this year. There’s a blog devoted to her, endless T-shirts and even people with Ginsburg tattoos.

The justice said recently of her popularity: “It is amazing that at age 83, everyone wants to take a picture with me.”

“My Own Words,” a collection of the justice’s writings, comes out Tuesday. It’s a sort of greatest hits album. It’s also her first book since joining the court more than two decades ago.

Ginsburg fans won’t necessarily read anything new, but devotees will no doubt be delighted to have some 300 pages of Ginsburg all in one place. There are also a few pictures, including one of Ginsburg on an elliptical machine wearing a “Super Diva” sweatshirt.

The book includes the speech Ginsburg gave in the White House’s Rose Garden in 1993 to accept her nomination to the court by President Bill Clinton and the opening statement she gave at her confirmation hearing. There’s a summary of the decision she wrote in a case that opened the Virginia Military Institute to women and her dissent in a case involving Goodyear employee Lilly Ledbetter, who lost her lawsuit over being paid less than male counterparts.

The book contains talks Ginsburg has given about others, among them former colleagues: retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the late Justice Antonin Scalia and the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Ginsburg has said the anthology had been planned to come out after her official biography. But work on the biography began in 2003 and her biographers don’t appear to be wrapping up any time soon, she has said. Her biographers, Wendy Williams and Mary Hartnett, did help select pieces for the anthology and provide context in introductions.

The anthology, which is dedicated to Ginsburg’s late husband, is not her first time as an author. As a young lawyer in the 1960s, she co-wrote a book on Swedish law.

]]> 2, 02 Oct 2016 18:45:36 +0000
Book Review: As autobiographies go, Springsteen rocks it Sun, 02 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Anyone who has ever experienced the uniquely soul-stirring amalgam of musical celebration, spiritual rejuvenation, intellectual provocation and physical release-to-the-point-of-exhaustion that is a concert by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will feel right at home in the 508 pages of “Born to Run” (Simon & Schuster, $32.50), his 67-years-in-the-making autobiography.

On the most superficial level, this richly rewarding rock tome could be subtitled “The Collected and Expanded Between-Song Sermons.” That’s how integral to his fabled marathon performances over the last 40-plus years are his ripped-from-New-Jersey-life fables of spirit-shaping battles with his father, his comradeship with his bandmates, his fitful attempts to unravel the mysteries of love and, binding them all together, his DNA-deep passion for music, especially that strain called rock ‘n’ roll.

Throughout his career, the once-scrawny kid who was born in Long Branch, N.J., and grew up in nearby Freehold has relied on music as a source of inspiration, a platform for understanding the world around him and a forum for self-examination and expression.

We’re told on the book jacket that his 2009 performance at the Super Bowl was what started him writing, specifically about that show and what it meant to him at the time.

“Since the inception of our band,” he writes late in the book about his group’s performance at the event that typically draws the largest global audience of any other, “it’s been our ambition to play for everyone. We’ve achieved a lot, but we haven’t achieved that.

“Our audience remains tribal … that is, predominantly white. On occasion,” he notes, “I looked out and sang ‘Promised Land’ to the audience I intended it for: young people, old people, black, white, brown, cutting across religious and class lines. That’s who I’m singing to today.”

It’s been his hubris from the outset that Springsteen believed to his soul that he had something to offer to the world and his supreme gift that he fought and scraped his way onto stages across the globe to realize that dream.

Given his Catholic upbringing, it’s fitting that the book is divided into three parts, his own literary Holy Trinity, as he lays out his life story essentially in chronological order.

Book One is titled “Growin’ Up,” recounting his early family life and apprenticeship as a budding musician; Book Two, “Born to Run,” continues with his rise to a level of fame and fortune he probably did conceive, but only in his wildest dreams; and Book Three, “Living Proof,” looks into adult life as one of pop music’s biggest stars and the often diametrically opposed realities of his on- and offstage lives.


Unapologetic rock ‘n’ roller that he is, Springsteen often crafts chapters like good pop songs – most take just three or four minutes to finish, there are catchy hooks and typically snappy endings, usually with a grain of life’s truth dropped in along the way.

His book offers none of the surreal flights of imagination found in Bob Dylan’s unconventional 2004 memoir, “Chronicles, Vol. 1,” or Neil Young’s 2012 self-narrative, “Waging Heavy Peace.”

What emerges unequivocally is his almost single-minded devotion not to scoring hits or finding fame and fortune, but to creating a body of music that matters.

At the core of this story is his combative relationship with his father, Doug Springsteen, whom he describes sitting night after night in the kitchen of their working-class household puffing on a cigarette and sucking down beers until he would unpredictably but frequently explode at the nearest target of his outrage, which often was his only son.

“My dad’s desire to engage with me almost always came after the nightly religious ritual of the ‘sacred six-pack,'” Springsteen writes. “One beer after another in the pitch dark of our kitchen. It was always then that he wanted to see me and it was always the same. A few moments of feigned parental concern for my well-being followed by the real deal: the hostility and raw anger toward his son, the only other man in the house. It was a shame,” Springsteen writes evenhandedly. “He loved me but he couldn’t stand me.”

The power in Springsteen’s book emerges from his steadfast refusal simply to create villains who embody the antagonistic forces he railed against as a youth. He transcends the bitterness that could have consumed him through an honest curiosity about the life forces that shaped his father, and a real wish not to let the sins of the father become those of the son.

With active, objective exploration as his guiding principle, Springsteen comes to the conclusion that “I haven’t been completely fair to my father in my songs, treating him as an archetype of the neglecting, domineering parent. It was an ‘East of Eden’ recasting of our relationship, a way of ‘universalizing’ my childhood experience. Our story is much more complicated. Not in the details of what happened, but in the ‘why’ of it all.”

Perhaps the most poignant moment, among many he shares, is their reconciliation, years after his father and mother, Adele, had quit New Jersey and started a new life across the country, with his younger sister, Pam, in San Mateo, Calif.

He recounts a visit from his father, who was increasingly battling various illnesses, yet still made the drive from the Bay Area to see his now-famous son in Los Angeles.

“Bruce, you’ve been very good to us,” the elder Springsteen tells his son, “and I wasn’t very good to you,” to which Bruce responds: “You did the best you could.”

“That was it,” Springsteen writes. “It was all I needed, all that was necessary.”


Although he reveals that much of this inner and outer-world analysis grew out of psychological counseling he underwent as an adult, the book also gives us a vivid picture of just how crucial music was as a life-renewing force for him.

“I began to feel the empowerment the instrument and my work were bringing me,” he says about wood-shedding his guitar chops. “I had a secret … there was something I could do, something I might be good at. I fell asleep at night with dreams of rock ‘n’ roll glory in my head.”

Perhaps it’s the classic Catholic guilt at work, but Springsteen comes off admirably generous in recounting disagreements and outright betrayals that he’s been involved with along the way with family members, friends, bandmates, girlfriends (who remain largely unnamed), business associates, his first wife – actress Julianne Phillips – and his second – singer and songwriter Patti Scialfa, the mother of their three children.

Springsteen has an honest out for his frequent invocation of the better part of valor, noting toward the book’s end, “I haven’t told you ‘all’ about myself. Discretion and the feelings of others don’t allow it.

But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise: to show the reader his mind. “In these pages I’ve tried to do that.”

He incorporates thoughts about his two sons, Evan and Sam, and daughter, Jessica, while wife Patti fulfills the role of near-saintly best friend, lover, muse and life partner, although it’s not hard to want to hear more about how those roles have fed, or derailed, her own musical ambitions, which are left for someone else’s book.

Structurally, “Born to Run” flows elegantly and effectively. One exception is his chapter about the family’s entrance into the world of high-end equestrian life because of daughter Jessica’s passion for horses. It feels awkward, almost trivial.

A sage no less than Socrates famously observed, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” A more modern corollary also suggests that “The unlived life is not worth examining.”

Bruce Springsteen proves that he has taken on life fully engaged both in living and examining it, and in doing so he’s delivered a story as profoundly inspiring as his best music.

]]> 0, 01 Oct 2016 20:34:02 +0000
Book Review: Tana French thriller keeps readers off-guard – and entertained Sun, 02 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Can there be any surprises left in the police interrogation scene? After hundreds of episodes of television crime dramas – from “Law and Order” to “The Closer,” from “NYPD Blue” to “Homicide: Life on the Street” – does any viewer not know how a face-to-face exchange between cops and a suspect is supposed to play out? There’s usually some good cop/bad cop action, some deliberate falsehoods strewn about by either party, the simmering worry that the person under arrest will do the sensible thing and keep his or her mouth shut until an attorney arrives, thereby robbing the scene of its dramatic urgency.

In her new thriller, “The Trespasser,” Tana French, author of “Faithful Place” and “Broken Harbor,” demonstrates again that she’s unusually skilled at interrogation scenes, keeping readers off-guard and thoroughly entertained.

A Vermont native who grew up in Ireland, Italy, Malawi and the United States, French trained as an actor at Trinity College in Dublin. That early career choice may partly account for her unerring facility with dialogue and deep understanding of dramatic structure. Many of her characters carry firearms, but words – blunt as a shovel, sharp as a stiletto – are often the deadliest weapons in her Ireland-based mystery novels.

French grounds her books in the fictional Dublin Murder Squad but has, so far, changed up her protagonist with each new installment. This time, she focuses on two characters from 2014’s “The Secret Place.” The young, seemingly easygoing Stephen Moran took center stage in that unsettling investigation of deadly schoolgirl mindgames, with hard-charging Antoinette Conway providing backup support. Now it’s Conway’s turn to be front and center, with Moran playing the role of the dutiful, supportive sidekick, as they contemplate what at first appears to be a simple domestic tragedy.

When an anonymous caller reports an injured woman who has fallen and hit her head, Conway and Moran know that there’s more to the story. They arrive at the victim’s tidy bungalow and discover it appointed for a romantic encounter. The only thing out of place is the home’s owner, Aislinn Murray.

Conway observes, “She’s somewhere under thirty. She was pretty, before someone decided to turn the left side of her jaw into a bloody purple lump; no stunner, but pretty enough, and she worked hard at it.”

At first, the Murray case appears straightforward. Rory Fallon, her bookish new boyfriend and presumed dinner guest, seems like he’ll shake himself apart with grief and anxiety, but there’s an underlying hardness that suggests he might be capable of throwing a punch strong enough to bounce Aislinn’s head against a corner of the hearth. Aislinn’s best friend, Lucy, however, implies that the young woman might have been seeing someone older and a bit more dangerous.

By employing the first-person present tense, French is able to build a sense of gripping immediacy and emphasize how everything looks through Conway’s skeptical eyes. Conway is smart, wry and often angry, and her interior monologue provides an antidote to the notion that detective work is at all glamorous: “Me and my partner are finishing up another night shift, the kind I used to think wouldn’t exist on the Murder Squad: a massive scoop of boring and a bigger one of stupid, topped off with an avalanche of paperwork.”

As she and Moran pursue the case, Conway must deal with the suspicion that her squadmates have it in for her. She endures harassment that ranges from her locker being soaked with urine to the likelihood that someone is leaking information about her to the local press. Breslin, an older member of the squad, is assigned to the Murray case, perhaps to speed it to its most obvious conclusion, perhaps to bury it as quickly as possible. And, as if she doesn’t have enough to worry about, there’s a shadowy figure hanging around Conway’s house at night.

The interviews with various witnesses and suspects are highlights of the novel. To keep these scenes interesting, French has to walk a dangerous path, between disclosing too much too soon or letting the reader get too far ahead. She rarely stumbles.

Conway and Moran are a formidable team, ready to pounce on any discrepancy or spin their own improbable theories of how the murder occurred. Nothing they say has only one meaning, and it’s often up to the reader to tease out the hidden motivations of each speaker. Conway is clever and observant, but like all narrators, she’s unreliable, more influenced by the traumas of her childhood and adolescence than she’s willing to admit. In “The Trespasser,” everyone is keeping secrets, often from themselves.

Each Dublin Murder Squad book has stood far above the usual crime fiction fare, full of riveting plot reversals but with sufficient insight into the characters to attract readers with more literary sensibilities. Her debut, “In the Woods” was clearly something special, winning the Edgar, Barry, Macavity and Anthony awards, and she has upped her game ever since. “Broken Harbor,” published in the wake of the great global recession, is another standout, thanks to its pointed social commentary, and “The Secret Place” earned special acclaim from readers and critics.

“The Trespasser” seems talkier than some of the earlier books, taking more time than necessary to nail down every single plot point. But there’s a sense of genuine satisfaction in the way French concludes this book, neatly but with a dangerous edge.

Sharp, earthy and astute in its presentation of criminal psychology, “The Trespasser” is another winner from French, an exciting page-turner with thematic heft, a novel of vengeance and reinvention that succeeds on multiple levels.

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, 01 Oct 2016 20:28:47 +0000
Book Review: Young lives in the wreck in Maria Padian’s new novel Sun, 02 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Jenny is a quiet college freshman at MacCallum College whose classmates call her Jenny-Mouse. A diligent pre-med student, she lugs around an enormous backpack, and her roommate, Haley, thinks to herself, “That girl is way stronger than she looks.” Haley knows firsthand about strength and the fragility of it; a star soccer player, she’s benched in the beginning of the book due to a potentially career-ending concussion – her third one.

In “Wrecked,” a young adult novel by Maria Padian, there is more to a person than meets the eye.

Jenny goes out of her comfort zone and attends a party at Conundrum House, a fraternity referred to as “the campus Animal House,” and afterwards she says she was raped. The story is told in alternating points of view, by Haley, the roommate, and by Richard, a housemate of Jordan’s, the alleged rapist. Interspersed between these perspectives is a more dramatic telling of what happened on the fateful night. At one point, Jenny asks Haley, “Think a rapist is some tats-covered dude with a knife? Try a friendly guy with a great smile.”

Padian excels at showing the messy aftermath of a sexual crime in a college community – and the lengths that the administration goes to protect itself. Jordan is a legacy student, and the college has an interest in handling the situation in such a way that doesn’t mar its reputation. Adding to the dramatic tension, Jenny is anonymously bullied by others on campus who accuse her of being a liar. She’s also made to feel invisible by fellow students who don’t ask her how she’s doing.

“You’re not awful,” Haley tells a character named Madison. “You’re typical. No one asks her. I get that it’s awkward, but it just makes her feel… shamed. As if she’s done something wrong, or she’s stained in some way.” The girls who went to the party with Jenny “wouldn’t admit they left” and claimed that Jenny “disappeared.” Everywhere she turns, it seems as though people question her story – especially as some of the details she remembers are proven to be wrong.

And then there’s the title of the book. The word “wrecked” is used several times throughout the novel. “Something bad happened to (Jenny),” Haley says at one point. “She was okay and now she’s…wrecked.” Elsewhere, a girl who attended the party with Jenny says, “We were all pretty wrecked.” Wrecked as both destruction and drunkenness.

This is a novel about truth and the damage done – to a community, to a person, and to relationships – when hard truths are hidden. Padian doesn’t just focus on Jenny’s story: There’s also a romantic angle as Haley and Richard get to know each other, despite a serious conflict of interest. They are each chosen as confidential advisors by Jenny and Jordan in the investigation led by the college. But that doesn’t keep them from falling for each other.

“Wrecked” should be assigned to all incoming freshman, especially fraternity members. It’s not enough to have students sit through lectures about sexual assault and rape. They need to learn about it through a story where they see humans instead of statistics, and, as in “Wrecked,” the very real ripple effects that such a crime can have on an entire campus.

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

Twitter: @readandbreathe

]]> 0, 01 Oct 2016 20:28:11 +0000
Ashley Bryan’s latest children’s book re-imagines the lives of slaves Sun, 25 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 At first glance, the auction notice was similar to any of the others that arrive monthly at Ashley Bryan’s home on Little Cranberry Island. It advertised an estate auction on the mainland and included many of the usual things associated with old Maine estates: dishware, linens, tools, toys and various domestic objects.

Also available were “Civil War documents and slave-related materials.”

The cover of Ashley Bryan's recent book. In it, he has given life to the names of slaves whose names were listed on an appraisement he purchased at auction. Left, Ashley Bryan photographed in 2014.

The cover of Ashley Bryan’s recent book. In it, he has given life to the names of slaves whose names were listed on an appraisement he purchased at auction.

That got Bryan’s attention. The artist and children’s book author and illustrator, who enjoys scouring auction notices for rare finds, recognized this was a very unusual sale indeed and made arrangements to attend the auction in Northeast Harbor. When he arrived, he was the only black man among a small crowd of bidders. He wasn’t surprised at being the only African-American in the group – he’s accustomed to that in Maine – but he was shocked there weren’t more people there to bid.

“If this sale had taken place in New York, Chicago or Boston, all the museums and universities would have been there, bidding for these documents,” Bryan said. “They’re very rare and highly sought-after.”

But no one bid against Bryan that day, and when the sale closed, he carried home with him to Little Cranberry Island the names and sale prices of 11 slaves, sold at auction in 1828.

There in his island home, safe among the spruce and granite, Bryan brought them to life and made their dreams come true.

He tells their stories in a new children’s book, “Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life.” Released this month by the Simon & Schuster imprint Atheneum, the book was among six named last week as a finalist for a Kirkus Prize in children’s literature. The winner, announced in November, gets $50,000.

Bryan has written more than 50 children’s books, many dealing with African-American spirituals and traditions. He’s won numerous 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 Isleford on Little Cranberry Island since retiring from Dartmouth College in the 1980s.

Pages from Ashley Bryan’s book “Freedom Over Me” depicting one of the slaves, Peggy. The top page is the story Bryan created of Peggy’s life as a slave. The bottom is the life and dreams Peggy imagines for herself.

Pages from Ashley Bryan’s book “Freedom Over Me” depicting one of the slaves, Peggy. The top page is the story Bryan created of Peggy’s life as a slave. The bottom is the life and dreams Peggy imagines for herself. Book images courtesy of Atheneum Books for Young Readers

A storyteller, he is best known for his books and paintings and also makes puppets and stained-glass windows from the driftwood and seaglass that he collects on the island. The Ashley Bryan Center, established in 2013 to promote his work and legacy, is distributing 5,000 copies of his most popular book, “Beautiful Blackbird,” to Maine schoolchildren, through the First Book project. Maine schools can receive up to 25 copies of the book, which is based on African folklore and teaches students self-esteem.

Bryan also is the subject of a new documentary, “I Know a Man … Ashley Bryan,” by Maine filmmaker Richard Kane. The movie aired last week at the Camden International Film Festival and is making the rounds at Maine theaters.

Bryan labored over “Freedom Over Me” for more than a decade. The auction occurred a dozen or so years ago, and he has lived with the presence of these people as he shaped them and gave them histories.

The book is entirely fiction. Bryan imagines everything, other than the names and sale prices of the slaves.

That information he took directly from one of 20 documents he purchased that day in Northeast Harbor, a bill of sale from 1828, “Fairchilds Appraisement of the Estate.”


The hand-written appraisement listing the names of the slaves that were the inspiration for Ashley Bryan to bring to life with faces, skills and dreams that might have been

The hand-written appraisement listing the names of the slaves that were the inspiration for Ashley Bryan to bring to life with faces, skills and dreams that might have been. Book images courtesy of Atheneum Books for Young Readers

On a brown, stained piece of paper, someone with neat handwriting has taken great care to put a price on a human life. Worn at the creases, the brittle paper lists the names, genders and prices of 11 slaves.

“One Negro woman named Peggy – 150.00”

“One boy named Stephan – 300.00”

“One woman Mulvina – 150.00”

“One girl Jane – 300.00”

And so on.

It also lists other commodities purchased that day: cattle, hogs and cotton.

Ashley Bryan Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Ashley Bryan

Bryan knows nothing about the origin of the documents. They were part of a sale that included 20 estates, and they could have ended up in Maine any number of ways. There were slaves in Maine, but more likely these documents came from the homes of Southern “rusticators,” who spent summers on the coast of Maine.

Bryan gave each person a birth name – Mariama, Adero – and asked each to speak to him. “Who are you? Where do you come from? What is your history? What do you like to do? What are you good at? What are your dreams in life if you are not a slave?”

As he imagined their responses, he began painting their portraits. He based his portraits on family and friends, which brought them closer to him and made them more real and lifelike.

“I could hear their voices as they opened up their lives to me,” he said.

In “Freedom Over Me,” Bryan tells their stories in verse, each story a poem, each poem a life. There is Peggy, 48, a cook who, because of her skills, has the privilege of working in the big house. And John, 16, a carpenter, messenger and artist.

Each story gets two pages in the book. On one, Bryan shows the person in a muted, serious pose as a slave, a portrait painted on top of the document that details the slave’s value at sale with his or her name, age and skill: Cook, seamstress, carpenter.

Bryan then imagines that person in full color, full of joy and life, using their skills to make dreams come true.

The subject of slavery and children’s books has difficult recent history. Earlier this year, Scholastic Press was criticized for “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” because of its depiction of “happy” slaves making a cake for President George Washington on his birthday. The portrayal put the author and illustrator in hot water, and the publisher pulled the book, citing the “false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves” created by the book.

Artist Ashley Bryan, 91, pours coffee for his guests, including good friends Joyce Taylor Gibson and Roland Gibson, in the dining room of his home this summer. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Artist Ashley Bryan, 91, pours coffee for his guests, including good friends Joyce Taylor Gibson and Roland Gibson, in the dining room of his home this summer. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Caitlyn Dlouhy, Bryan’s editor at Atheneum, said she knew that Bryan would handle the topic of slavery with sensitivity and respect. “If Ashley Bryan can’t write about this subject, then nobody can,” Dlouhy said. “With the care and sensitivity and dignity that he gives to everyone, Ashley is the person who can come at this in the purest way.”

Dlouhy said Byran’s use of a factual record of the sale to imagine the full lives of the slaves if they were free was “a brilliant approach.”

“By the time he finished explaining to me the approach he wanted to take, I was in tears,” she said. “I was in tears. It was so moving and came from such a deep place in his heart.”

The book, she said, is appropriate for anyone older than 5 or 6, including adults. Bryan agrees. We cannot protect children from history, he said, trusting that adults who are present in the lives of the children who read this book will explain slavery in context with other horrors of the world.

Donna B. Isaacs, an island friend and Ashley Bryan Center board member, said this book challenged Bryan as no other. The subject was emotionally difficult, and the story wasn’t always obvious. At one point, she urged him to stop. “It’s not worth it,” she said.

He told her that other writers have written children’s books about the Holocaust “and all kinds of other atrocities.”

“I can do this,” he told her. “This is who I am. This is what I do.”

He kept working and eventually found a rhythm to his story and a way forward.

The book was difficult, emotionally and physically, he said. What else could a book about slavery be, if not difficult?

As he wrote this book, more than ever, Bryan understood what his life might have been like had he been born during slavery.

“I thought of myself, a black man, reading, writing and painting freely,” he said. “Had I been born under slavery, it would have been a crime to read or write. A slave caught in these acts would be haven been beaten or had his hands removed by an ax.”

“I was often caught up in these thoughts. Through tears, I would persist in presenting these slaves as human beings. And then I would go out in the garden and find release painting hollyhocks and dahlias.”


]]> 0, 29 Sep 2016 17:25:06 +0000
Crime writer Bruce Robert Coffin draws on deep well of professional experience Sun, 25 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Sometimes the road not taken intersects with your chosen path decades later.

After an uninspiring experience in a college creative writing class, Bruce Robert Coffin put aside his dreams of becoming an author. Instead, he spent more than 27 years in law enforcement, retiring as a detective sergeant with the Portland Police Department.

Now he’s preparing for a new career as a mystery writer, thanks to his full-length debut, “Among the Shadows,” published by HarperCollins’s Witness Impulse imprint. The Portland-based novel introduces readers to Detective Sgt. John Byron, a seasoned cop investigating the apparent murders of retired fellow police officers, even as he struggles with department politics, a crumbling marriage and a dangerous reliance on alcohol.

Born in Portland, Coffin grew up in Scarborough and attended the University of Southern Maine. He was hired as a police cadet by the Portland Police Department in 1985, retired in 2012 and now lives in Windham with his wife, Karen.

In a telephone conversation, it’s clear that Coffin, at age 52, still feels the sting of rejection from his undergraduate writing experience.

“I had intentionally taken an advanced class,” he said. “All of a sudden, I had gone from getting straight As for anything I wrote and winning scholarships with my writing ability to barely squeaking out a D.”

The low grades took their toll on Coffin’s literary aspirations. “When you’re younger, it takes very little to derail dreams like that,” he said.

So Coffin put his writing aside and began a career in law enforcement.

After attending the police academy, Coffin walked a beat in Portland. “Back then, things were different,” he said. “You really paid your dues. Everyone walked a foot beat for a couple years before you ever (drove) a car.”

Early on, it was criminal investigations that drew his interest: “the follow-up work, making contacts, figuring out who on the street knew who and where you could get good information.”

Eventually, his career took a turn into traffic enforcement, where he did a lot of operating-under-the-influence work and became an accident reconstructionist. In 1997, he was promoted to detective and began investigating property crime, before concentrating on homicides and armed robberies.

Among the more high-profile cases he worked was the 2001 murder of Amy St. Laurent, a 25-year-old young woman who disappeared after a night in Portland’s Old Port. Her body was located two months later, and the evidence eventually led to the arrest of Jeffrey “Russ” Gorman, who was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

“A lot of times the victims’ activities are the reasons they wind up in bad conditions. It was quickly apparent that wasn’t the case with Amy,” Coffin said. “She was actually a good kid and squared away.”

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Coffin spent four years working counterterrorism with the FBI. Coffin earned the Director’s Award, the highest honor a non-agent can receive from the FBI, before returning to his work with the department.

Coffin had begun a side career as a painter of portraits and other commissioned artwork, but he didn’t tell too many people about his renewed attempts to write fiction. He spent 2½ years finishing a mystery novel titled “Deathwatch.” He showed it to some writer friends, who “thought it was good for a first novel.”

Kate Clark Flora, former assistant attorney general, mystery writer and a co-author of “Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine,” an account of the St. Laurent investigation, took an early interest in Coffin’s work.

“He started out good and has put lots of time and effort into learning the craft and perfecting the craft,” she said by email.

She invited Coffin to the annual New England Crime Bake writers’ conference. By the time the weekend was over, Coffin said, he had an entirely different idea for his book. He basically started from scratch, dictating a new synopsis during his 2½-hour drive back to Maine.

That new idea would eventually become “Among the Shadows.” Awash in local color, steeped in a sense of realism born of decades of law enforcement experience, the completed novel spotlights John Byron as a complicated man in a difficult job. Shaped by the suicide of his father (also a cop), Byron has turned into a relentless investigator, pushing himself to extremes while seeking the truth and protecting the other members of his team. He’s a familiar type, but given a very specific, Maine-centric twist.

Mystery writer Paul Doiron, author of “The Precipice,” said that it is the setting that makes “Among the Shadows” stand out.

“Portland is a distinctive little city with an old shipping and fishing heritage, waves of immigrants from Asia and Africa who have made a real impact on the culture, and a recent hipster trend,” Doiron said by email. “Bruce really gets how unusual Portland is, and you sense it beneath the story.”

Maine thriller writer Chris Holm, author of “Red Right Hand,” complimented another aspect of authenticity in Coffin’s work. He comes from “a cop family,” he said in an email, and “Detective Sergeant Byron’s world-weariness and dented optimism wouldn’t have seemed out of place at my grandma’s Sunday dinner.”

Coffin’s persistence with this book paid off. Within the course of a few weeks, he landed an agent and a contract for three books with the Witness Impulse imprint, which publishes e-books and trade paperbacks. To top things off, his first short story written since college, “Fool Proof,” has also been selected for inclusion in Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt’s “Best American Mystery Stories 2016.”

At work on the second John Byron mystery, Coffin is able to see the upside in having taken so long to find his fiction groove and put his college creative writing disappointments into perspective.

“Now that I’ve done 28 years in a law enforcement career, I have something to write about,” he said. “I have all those experiences I’ve carried around with me. I think maybe that if I had not been derailed by [that writing class], I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

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, 24 Sep 2016 20:27:52 +0000
Nicholson Baker peeked inside the classroom and found chaos Tue, 20 Sep 2016 16:49:13 +0000 Nicholson Baker has written more than a dozen books on such varied topics as World War II, libraries and voyeurism. For his latest nonfiction book, “Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids,” the acclaimed novelist and author sampled a career change.

In 2014, Baker signed up as a substitute teacher in the Maine public school system where he taught at every level, over a period of 28 days. Assessing the state of education after such a meager stint may appear presumptuous. Yet Baker documents the day-to-day cacophony of the classroom, and his role in it, with a level of detail that becomes mesmerizing. Not surprisingly, he favors higher pay for teachers and a shorter school day. But this is a book about people, not policy.

“I’m trying to open a window on a world that couldn’t be videotaped,” he says. “There is so much confusion and interruption and noise that the soundtrack would be unbearable. The only possible medium to show this rich jungly world is the printed word.”

Baker, whose own children attended Maine public schools, spoke recently from his home in South Berwick about language, homework and his fear of little kids. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Reading your book, I got the sense that each day was its own kind of maelstrom.

A: The substitute teacher is the person on the lowest rung of the school ladder. Students try to break you. You don’t know what’s being taught; you have to figure it all out on the fly. If you want to get through the day, you have to pull from your background knowledge of life – the survival scraps, and the twigs and the branches that are right there. Each day was a different group, so each day was exhausting in a different way.

Q: I was impressed that the nearby teachers would check in on you, that they all seemed very kind and concerned.

A: Well, this is Maine! They sort of felt sorry for me. They would give me a heads-up that this group can be challenging. But that was the fun of it. When you’re in the midst of a mountain-climbing adventure, it’s very uncomfortable. But at the end, you’ve learned a lot and you’re glad you’ve done it. That’s what it felt like for me. I made it – I survived.

Q: We hear constantly about how needy and demanding kids are, but we hear little about how monotonous the teacher’s job can be.

A: It’s a kind of Groundhog Day experience in junior high and high school because you’re teaching the same thing, often four or five times a day. I found that I got slightly better at it over the day, but I also got slightly more exasperated with the material sometimes. Basically I just splashed through the marsh as well as I could to get to the end of the day.

Q: At the end of each section of the book, you were counting down each day. The kids are counting the minutes.

A: There’s a strange focus on the clock. Time is so important in a class. That feeling of everything being broken into little pieces and then doled out is one of the fascinating aspects of it.

We’re asking a lot of kids. Nobody knows how hard they’re working – even when they’re working to avoid work! It takes creativity to be a funny cut-up in class and not do the work. It takes energy. Every kid in school is exhausted at the end of the day.

Q: You describe one student who had 19 overdue assignments.

A: When I grew up, there was minimal homework. You couldn’t fall that far behind. Now it’s more like a very fast escalator and you can lose your footing quickly. Is it actually good for the mind to be doing this many assignments per day?

There is this belief that the mind is a muscle, and everything is like language. If you’re not exposed to it when you’re young, you will never learn it. The fact is, you learn a lot of things better, later in life, when you have a hunger for them.

Q: You had a great discussion with one class about their notion of the ideal school day. One of the girls basically said that school should start at noon and end at 12:01 p.m.

A: These kids are not stupid – they’re just not interested in learning the school’s narrow range of subjects. Some kids are brilliant at taking apart lawn mower engines, or they’re incredibly good at making stuff grow. There are all kinds of ways to be a kid. They just need to reach a certain minimum level of reading, they need to speak English and write some language. Beyond that, there are people who want to learn more, and read more and do more. You never want to get in the way of that.

Q: What was the high point of your teaching experience?

A: I had a fear of the younger kids. I thought that I wanted to teach high schoolers and maybe junior high schoolers. But it turns out that the little kids were really incredible. They have a lot to teach you. And there’s a generousness of spirit and a kindheartedness that comes out of them. Sometimes when things were out of control, one of the little kids would become my helper and give me little hints very discreetly: “You might want to think about getting us ready for recess now.”

It was a totally life-changing and life-improving experience for me in all ways.

Q: When you went into this project, did you imagine that it might be life-changing?

A: Well, I thought it would just give me a little more authority. I didn’t realize that you have to throw theory out the window and take what they have to teach you at that moment. Most of it is just raw life; it can’t be put in a textbook. I thought I would be able to bolster my opinions, but instead I’m humbler about the whole thing.

I met substitutes who were amazingly agile – good at figuring out what the teacher wanted and just making it happen. And some of the substitutes were people I really learned a lot from and admired. They didn’t necessarily have fancy resumes; they just had an instinct for people.

There are some who try being a substitute teacher and, after a day or two, say, “This is not for me.” That certainly crossed my mind several times. I really overestimated my own ability to tolerate chaos.

Q: How chaotic did it get?

A: I remember thinking at least once, “Is this the worst day of my life?”

Fifth grade turns out to be really rough. And I lost control of it. It was like flying a kite and the string slips from your hand. The principal had to come in; it was a mess. So I felt shamed and incompetent.

But what I valued most is the way kids use language. They’re trying to figure it all out, and they come up with beautiful phrasing.

Q: But they were also lucky, because you were the rare substitute who would love the way they phrased something.

A: As I started to write the book, I thought I would have more about the philosophy of education. As I got into it, I realized I wanted to talk about the way kids speak. Sometimes a kid says something that encapsulates a whole world of emotion that I wanted to convey. There was one kid who had sad eyes, and a blank piece of paper and he said, “I suck at everything.”

What are we going to do about a kid like that?

He and I could talk about anything, but instead, in the midst of this chaotic classroom, he was expected to do all this math and writing – and he couldn’t write, poor guy. He’s going to be fine. But he has been made miserable in a way that doesn’t need to happen.

Q: If you could give one piece of advice to a new substitute teacher, what would it be?

A: Any classroom is a fascinating microcosm of human behavior. You can see factions forming, and rifts and reconciliations. You could watch the whole history of the world happen in a single day, with 20 kids. I would just say, think of it as something you can’t control and try to enjoy it. When the kids laugh, laugh with them. Just ride the waves.

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

]]> 1, 20 Sep 2016 17:30:30 +0000
Three writers with Maine ties named finalists for Kirkus Prize Tue, 20 Sep 2016 14:10:41 +0000 Three writers with Maine ties were named as finalists for the Kirkus Prize in fiction, nonfiction and young readers’ literature on Tuesday.

Ashley Bryan, of Little Cranberry Island, was nominated for the picture book “Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life.” Annie Proulx, who graduated from Deering High School in Portland, was nominated for the novel “Barkskins,” and Susan Faludi, who teaches gender studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, was nominated for her memoir, “In the Darkroom.”

Presented by Kirkus Reviews, the Kirkus Prize was started in 2014 and is one of the richest in literature. The winner in each category receives $50,000. Yarmouth writer Lily King won the Kirkus Prize for fiction in 2014, for her novel “Euphoria.”

This year’s finalists were chosen from 515 young readers’ literature titles, 314 fiction titles and 325 nonfiction titles. The winners will be announced Nov. 3 in Austin, Texas.

“It’s so touching when something you do gets recognition, especially when one considers the thousands of books there are for young people alone,” Bryan said Tuesday. “It’s humbling.”

Bryan, 93, wrote and illustrated the book after purchasing documents of slave transactions during an auction several years ago in Northeast Harbor. The documents tell the name of the slaves and their approximate ages. Bryan, a decorated writer, illustrator and author, created their stories and brought them to life in prose and paint.

Faludi is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. “In the Darkroom” is about reconnecting with her long-estranged “scofflaw” father, who has undergone sex-reassignment surgery and is living in Hungary.

Proulx, a Pulitzer winner for fiction, wrote “Barkskins” about two young Frenchmen who arrive in New France, or what is now the region of Quebec, in the late 1700s and who work to clear forests in exchange for land. Her story follows the descendants of the woodcutters over 300 years.

The judges for the Kirkus awards are author Claire Messud, Connecticut bookstore owner Annie Philbrick, and journalist and Kirkus critic Gene Seymour.

]]> 0, 20 Sep 2016 23:07:53 +0000
Rep. John Lewis’ riveting ‘March’ memoir is longlisted for the National Book Award Sun, 18 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Rep. John Lewis is among the 10 authors on the “longlist” for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the National Book Foundation announced Monday.

Lewis’ recognized work is his civil rights memoir “March: Book Three” (Top Shelf/IDW), the final installment in his graphic-novel trilogy that has his 1965 Selma march as its dramatic centerpiece.

The powerful “March” trilogy – co-authored by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell – continues to attract a raft of honors, from the RFK Book Award to the Eisner Award in July.

“I am pleased and grateful that ‘March’ has struck such a chord in America,” Lewis, D-Ga. said. “This is a high honor.

1062729_606192 March 2.jpg

“As I travel around the country, over and over I hear from people who have been reading ‘March,'” Lewis continues. “I think people are getting it, and we are bringing the story of the movement to more people than ever before.”

“March” has been embraced by school systems, universities and comics fans alike, with Lewis cosplaying as his 25-year-old self to lead a march of students through Comic-Con International in San Diego.

“After years of work, this means more to me than I can possibly put into words,” Aydin tells The Post. “I probably need Nate to draw it for me. I am deeply, deeply grateful to the judges, and honored to be on the list with so many powerful and important works.”

Other works longlisted include Kwame Alexander’s “Booked”; Kate DiCamillo’s “Raymie Nightingale”; Grace Lin’s “When the Sea Turned to Silver”; Meg Medina’s “Burn Baby Burn”; Jason Reynolds’ “Ghost”; and Nicola Yoon’s “The Sun Is Also a Star.”

“It’s so moving to find such a widespread embrace of this living history, and it’s my honor to help bring it to life in the beloved medium of comics,” Powell says of the recognition for “March.” “Here’s to making a better future from its lessons, and to further illuminate some of the other great comics work being published out there.”

A decade ago, Gene Luen Yang’s “American Born Chinese” became the first graphic novel to be named a National Book Award finalist. The 2016 finalists will be announced Oct. 13.

]]> 0, 17 Sep 2016 13:54:29 +0000
Book review: In ‘Truck Full of Money,’ a tech prodigy made real Sun, 18 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Tracy Kidder has a nose for great stories. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Soul of a New Machine,” the Maine author wrote about a team of engineers at Data General who designed an early mini-computer. Three decades later, he’s back with a fitting bookend that depicts a pioneering software prodigy and entrepreneur.

“A Truck Full of Money” follows the trajectory of Paul English, a giant in the world of software engineering, who is equal parts geek, rock star and rainmaker. His singular talents for friendship, team-building and deal-making made him a standout in the volatile, high-stakes tech world. English, now 53, is best known as co-founder of the travel search engine,, which he sold in 2012 to Priceline, for a tidy $1.8 billion. No one was more surprised by this turn of events than English himself, the son of an Irish Catholic working-class family.

We first meet Paul English as a restless teen at Boston Latin School, the city’s premier public school. English signs up for the computer club and notes that his teacher’s terminal offers a much fuller menu of commands than his own. He proceeds to steal the teacher’s password and figures out how to hack into the system, undetected. This was the 1970s, and English had devised a phishing scheme – decades before phishing would become commonplace.

Tracy Kidder

Tracy Kidder Photo by Gabriel Amadeus Cooney

This episode foretells the genius and ambitions of a man who lived on the cusp of the zeitgeist, a trailblazer of the new era. Eagerly sought for his unique mix of engineering skill and marketing prowess, English held key posts at Intuit and other leading companies. Unlike most programmers, he always had an eye for the customer and for the usefulness of a product – “a superb meta sense” was how one corporate leader put it.

And he was obsessed with money – in the best possible sense. His first brush with wealth came with the sale of Boston Light Software, an e-commerce firm that he founded in 1998 during the dot-com frenzy, and sold, only months later, for $33.5 million. He immediately sought counsel from the uncle of a friend, a man with a long history as a philanthropist. Tom White would become a mentor and father-figure to English, setting the bar for donating his fortune to the causes of homelessness and medical aid.

“What else would you do with it?” said English. “I don’t think money ever really belongs to one person. Money’s supposed to move around.”

As Kidder describes him, English was driven less by the desire to make, or give away, money than by the urge to build new teams and projects, both philanthropic and commercial.

The book moves back and forth in time, surveying various of the companies and ideas that consumed English’s attention. We follow him as he establishes an incubator for elite tech start-ups; rides shotgun in a van with a doctor who treats homeless people; and buys up domain names, among them SNAPCAB, a mobile app for taxis that predated Uber.

We also witness episodes where he goes off the rails, as when he almost bought a lighthouse, out of the blue. This was a darker side of Paul English, unmanaged, in need of reining in. English sometimes described himself as being “on fire,” a reference to his manic energy – what he came to understand as his bipolar condition.

Fortunately, on the business front, two of his longtime colleagues, Bill O’Donnell and Paul Schwenk – a.k.a. Billo and Schwenk – followed English from one company to the next. They called themselves “the three amigos,” their rapport serving as a kind of checks and balances. Each respected the particular talents of the others and regarded their triad as indispensable.


“Capitalism had long depended on people with the ambition and daring – not to say greed and recklessness – to start their own companies,” Kidder writes. “But lately, entrepreneurship had become a freshly exalted pursuit. It was a church, and Paul was now one of its bishops.”

Tracy Kidder’s achievement in this biography is matched by the ease of his storytelling. Kidder takes on a hugely complicated man – brilliant, troubled, obsessive, a charismatic team leader, dutiful son and “monster coder,” as English might say – and he paints a rich, three-dimensional portrait. He also gives a sense of the wild start-up culture in which English thrived. That Paul English comes across as a shrewd, appealing character, not a saint, reflects Kidder’s success.

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, 17 Sep 2016 11:39:37 +0000
Book review: ‘Many Captivities’ offers a long look at Mother Esther’s unusual life Sun, 18 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Ann M. Little’s telling of Esther Wheelwright’s story illuminates issues of class, status and gender through the 18th century and across continents.

In her intriguing new biography, “The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright,” Ann M. Little asks a rhetocial question: Why would the portrait of this Ursuline nun be there in the Massachusetts Historical Society collection “amid this collection of prominent Puritans and wealthy merchants, in the company of men she would have disagreed with on nearly every issue, great or small?”

“And yet, there she is,” writes Little, associate professor of history at Colorado State University, “the pink face floating in the glowing white wimple, wearing that determined look.”

The facts of Esther Wheelwright’s life are remarkable. She was taken as a little girl from Wells, Maine, by the Wabanaki in 1703, and eventually removed to New France, where she was brought up French and not only entered the Ursuline Academy but became a sister, refused to be repatriated to Maine (and the Protestant fold) and was thrice elected mother superior of her monastery in Quebec. As such, she dealt with the daily routine, leading officials, a small group of recalcitrant Anglophobe sisters, the British bombardment and, after the occupation, British officials.



Few women of her era had so much responsibility in a patriarchal, status-conscious world that overlapped three lively cultures.

Many of the book title’s “captivities” include cultural incarcerations, such as the Colonial-English strictures faced by a girl on the Maine frontier up to the age of 7. This entailed not only fear of the forest, French and Wabanaki, but social barriers (Wheelwright’s family ranked near the top of her community), and confining clothing for miniature adults, such as tiny stays added to as time went on. We are also given speculation as to what toys the child Esther might have owned. Dolls for encouragement of future motherhood were indeed likely. However, this reviewer, sensitized by the author’s earlier triage on ethnically correct terminology, felt his hackles rise when it was opined that the 7-year-old might have possessed a “Jew’s harp.” I had to stop short. Should I be offended by this dictionary-sanctioned name? The instrument found in nearly every culture and all over the New England colonies was called this at that time. As a reader, it made me question where political correctness and a urge to write a fair and honest story goes astray.

This is not to say that Little’s biography fails along such lines. It is the first modern academic treatment of Mother Esther and it has been built on practically every existing sliver of documentation available. Indeed, one has to admire the author’s research skills in New England, Quebec and Europe.

Unquestionably the most speculative captivity regards the Wabanaki, who scooped up young Wheelwright while attacking Wells on Aug. 10, 1703. In the past 10 or 20 years much scholarship has been devoted to Native American culture in what is now Maine and Canada by American, Canadian and, perhaps most tellingly, Wabanaki writers. In the process, images of Indian bloodlust as told by mid-19th-century historian Francis Parkman have fallen out of favor, as more credence is given to accounts such of that by historian James Sullivan, who wrote in 1795, “There has never been one instance of an unchaste attempt among (the Wabanaki) on a female captive.” Professor Little makes a compelling case for good treatment of Wheelwright and an embracing of the Catholic faith among the people who cared for her.

In 1708, her Wabanaki family migrated to Quebec for security, and she found a new home and another language in the Chateau Saint-Louis home of Governor Vaudreuil of New France. As Little notes, “Upon her arrival it was the women of Quebec who educated and cared for her, just as the Wabanaki and New England mothers and sisters had looked after her before them.”

The story of Wheelwright is unique in its details, but ends up telling a larger story about the lives of women in the region, as well as religion, warfare, status, human nature and rivalry on a local and world stage. This is a book that deserves a permanent place on any bookshelf dedicated to the history of Maine.

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

]]> 0, 17 Sep 2016 12:00:09 +0000
Book review: Portland author Chris Holm strikes thriller paydirt again Sun, 11 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Last year, Portland writer Chris Holm inaugurated an exciting new thriller series with “The Killing Kind.” Now he’s back with a second novel featuring Michael Hendricks, the trained assassin who stalks other hit men. The results are similarly explosive.

“Red Right Hand” doesn’t waste any time getting down to business. A family of tourists have their vacation ruined and their lives turned upside down when they pose for a video greeting at the precise moment a tug rams the Golden Gate Bridge’s south tower and explodes. The footage goes viral on social media, but there are some viewers for whom the most pressing question is not “What the hell just happened?” but “Who shot that video?”

The camera operator turns out to be Frank Segreti, a federal witness once willing to testify about the Council, America’s most powerful crime syndicate. Segreti disappeared years ago and has been presumed dead ever since. FBI Special Agent Charlie Thompson recognizes him right away, but with all of her colleagues focused on preventing another act of terrorism in San Francisco, she can’t find anyone willing to fetch Segreti and offer him passage to safety.

Having exhausted legal channels, Thompson reaches out to Hendricks, who is waging his own private war against the Council. Still reeling from the brutal death by torture of his friend and tech expert, still hung up on his former fiancé who loved him before he became a killer for hire, Hendricks isn’t playing at the top of his game. He nearly gets himself killed in a botched assassination attempt and survives only thanks to Cameron, a mysterious young woman who aspires to be his protégé. She tells him, “you could use a little tech support. An eye in the sky. A voice in your ear. A ghost in the machine.”

She’s right, of course, and her and Hendricks’ investigation of Segreti’s sudden re-appearance takes them both to San Francisco and into a mission that will push them to physical and emotional extremes.

Second books in a thriller series are tricky. Many authors simply want to bank on the story elements that worked before, while somehow upping the stakes and adding some hopefully unexpected twists. Sometimes, however, the need for the new makes the plot too frenetic. In other instances, callbacks to the first novel can overwhelm the follow-up and make the narrative feel static and over-explained.

The author of the “Collector” series of fantasy pulp adventures, Holm mostly avoids those pitfalls. While there’s no absolute prerequisite to read the first installment in the series before beginning the second, the set-up of “Red Right Hand” flows directly from “The Killing Kind” and allows Holm to start the story with a bit of clever misdirection. Returning readers will understand why Hendricks isn’t the same man he was at the end of “The Killing Kind,” but newcomers will quickly see how he reconciles his existence as a “bad” man who does “good” things.

In the wake of the attack on the Golden Gate Bridge, Hendricks muses, “When war became big business, shareholders were bound to demand more of it, regardless of how many young men and women it left abandoned, rudderless, adrift. Too many of them found solace in extremism, only to discover the life vest they’d been tossed was laced with explosives, and thus the beast was fed again.” Hendricks has to acknowledge that, with his own vendetta against the Council, he helps perpetuate a cycle of violence.

The introduction of Cameron as a new sidekick works well. Although possessing a dry sense of humor, Hendricks is too intense a protagonist to be the point of view character for every chapter. Plot logistics also demand that Hendricks can’t completely be a lone wolf or an omnicompetent superhero, that he needs someone to back him up with technical expertise and moral support. Cameron fits the bill nicely.

If there’s an aspect of “Red Right Hand” that doesn’t quite live up to the previous volume, it lies in the choice of villain. The book’s boorish but dangerous antagonist, Yancey, isn’t quite the equal of suave and self-confident Engelmann, Hendricks’ nemesis from “The Killing Kind.” But Yancey serves his purpose by keeping Hendricks, Cameron and Segreti in an elevated state of jeopardy all the way to the end.

Holm gets most of the details right in his depiction of San Francisco and environs, centering much of the action around the Presidio, the military base turned national park close to the Golden Gate Bridge. He stages a climactic showdown aboard a Bay Area Rapid Transit car. While the scene is choreographed for maximum suspense, when Yancey brags that “one of my company’s subsidiaries operates the security cameras for the entire (expletive) BART system,” it may elicit a bemused chuckle from San Francisco Bay Area residents. BART is notorious for video cameras that are either decoys or simply don’t work.

In “Red Right Hand,” Holm succeeds in developing Michael Hendricks as a complexly conflicted protagonist, while keeping the level of action and intrigue running high. Smart, unpredictable and well-constructed, the novel is a worthy follow-up to “The Killing Kind,” a satisfying thriller on its own terms and likely a harbinger of pulse-quickening adventures still to come.

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, 10 Sep 2016 23:01:18 +0000
Book review: Real, imagined characters make memorable music in ‘Boston Castrato’ Sun, 11 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 What a dream! What a song! Portland author Colin W. Sargent’s second novel, “The Boston Castrato,” is a whirlwind tale, abounding in fully realized historical and imagined characters, with convincing yet phantasmagoric settings that suggest a mild hallucinogen. Storylines appear to veer in all directions, but never fear, there is a core trajectory.

Shot through with wordplay that a few readers might term cruel and unusual punishment, the book is a nonstop delight to read. In spite of what the title might seem to suggest, it proves a love story.

This is the epic story of one Raffi Pesca, a Naples street urchin taken in by a creepy but earnest talent scout of a priest in 1906. The price of this ecclesiastical largesse is Raffi’s manhood. The reward: some gold coins and the gift of an extraordinary singing voice. However, high church officials, in a fit of early-20th century political correctness, defrock the priest, close his operation down and inform him that the “church is no longer in the monster business.” As with so many situations Raffi will soon encounter, this is the twilight of a tradition.

Not knowing quite what to do with the maimed child, church fathers rename him Rafaele Peach, give him a ticket to America, a start in the new world in a Bronx orphanage smack in the shadow of a neon sign for Underwood deviled ham. That sign, ubiquitous in the Northeast, will play a role over time and place, as both symbol and physical prop.

Adventures move our hero to Boston, Italy and back to the Yankee hub of the universe in the early 1920s, where a bewildering series of events ensnares and informs the now half-worldly, half-naïve but ever-ripening Peach.

At its widest scope, “The Boston Castrato,” is a first-rate picaresque, which should be read for the pure pleasure of the story, characters and ambiance. There are more circles than “The Divine Comedy,” as Sargent weaves together an investigation of the sterilization and sealing of “bad clams,” the unfolding of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and Ezra Pound’s savaging of poet Amy Lowell’s imagism as “amygism.”

Truly, though, it is Sargent’s impressive knowledge of place, time, people and spirit that sets the novel spinning on its own internal axis. Indeed, the author states that his insight into Naples was largely gained during his hitch in the Navy as a helicopter pilot and, though the story only resides there briefly, it is most convincing. The reader is bound to ask where Sargent gained such a wondrous, convincing understanding of the Boston literary, cultural and criminal life in the 1920s.

As a great fan of that time and place, then in its gaudy twilight, this reviewer stands in awe of the historical assuredness of place and character-driven pace. Much of the action surges in and around the grand Parker House, a surviving icon.

As the blare of the 1913 Armory Show and Jazz Age swamp the bohemian Brahmins and their minions, and as gifted amateurs are overtaken by professionals, one enters a fantastic world not available in a Frommer’s Guide list of worthies, available nowhere else that I am aware of, at least not in such honesty and resplendence. The characters may all wear masks, but in the end they reveal parts of themselves in sober honesty.

In the end too, Boston Brahmin poet Amy Lowell and her presumed literary executioner both lie entombed in the same academic encyclopedias, each given their own devil’s due. As for Mr. Peach, he takes his place among literature’s delightful and original characters.

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, 10 Sep 2016 22:58:15 +0000
Book review: ‘Maine’s Remarkable Women’ inspires with stories both bold and humble Sun, 04 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Whenever my husband and I play the game Trivial Pursuit, it’s inevitable that he will win. By a landslide. And it’s also inevitable that I’ll respond to his victory with the same sarcastic defense, each and every time. “Some of us memorize history,” I’ll say. “And some of us make history.” He rolls his eyes, I snicker, and we move on.

Forever, I have blamed my poor retention of trivia-worthy facts and figures on being cursed with a bad memory and a dull-as-a-rock history teacher in elementary school. And in junior high school. And in high school.

That is, these were my excuses until I read “Maine’s Remarkable Women: Daughters, Wives, Sisters and Mothers Who Shaped History” by Kate Kennedy, and I started thinking otherwise.

Kennedy’s book is a thought-provoking collection of elegant profiles on the lives of 15 Maine women who performed remarkable acts of independence and bravery. Kennedy, who was director of the Southern Maine Writing Project at the University of Southern Maine from 2006 to 2012, lays out these biographies in great detail, her whip-smart and lyrical prose making the stories come alive on the page.

Each profile is delivered with impeccable rhythmic pacing and sharp sensory details; you actually feel as if you’re side by side with each woman in each chapter, rather than sitting back and watching as a reader. This is a hard thing for a writer to do when retelling an event she wasn’t even a part of, with information based purely on collected and researched facts. She has precision.

Another challenge that Kennedy must’ve confronted when composing this book is that many of the women in her collection might appear to have performed mild acts of bravery, when juxtaposed to triumphant men in battle, leading armies into victory. These women were quiet.

One profile is about Toy Len Goon, an illiterate peasant from southern China who raised eight children. Another was a fly fisherwoman; another a botanist. Upon first glance, the women in the book didn’t fight wars or slay back branches in uncharted terrain and claim a new country. But in fact they did.

They pushed the boundaries that were given to the women of their time. They broke new ground. (And one of the subjects, Margaret Chase Smith, was the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the U.S. presidency.)

Although these women weren’t blatantly leaders, after reading this book, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Like how exhilarated yet terrified Josephine Diebitsch Peary felt to be the first woman to take part in an Arctic expedition. Or the confidence it must have taken for Marguerite Thomson Zorach to pursue avant-garde painting (when women artists already weren’t taken as seriously as their male counterparts).

After devouring Kennedy’s book, I came to realize I often don’t remember the things that I can’t relate to, or be inspired by. If I understand the connections between the past and my present, my mind opens.

With “Maine’s Remarkable Women,” I wanted to know more. I began to see myself in the shoes of the characters, began to empathize with these women, rather than watch them from afar. I was sucked in.

So I read the book again. After passing the climactic point in each profile, especially in the stories that were seemingly uneventful (a working woman, a basket weaver, a lighthouse keeper), I stopped to think about the social and political context of the days of these women, how absolutely different it was for women in the 1800s, let alone the 1950s.

How perhaps today, a woman keeping a lighthouse might not seem like much, but in 1856, with little communication to the mainland and few boats able to deliver necessities to an island, with a great lack of technology and a tremendous amount of vulnerability, keeping a lighthouse as Abbie Burgess Grant did on Matinicus Rock, was a courageous act, nearly unheard of for a young woman, given the cultural and social expectations of her.

I’d think about the women in these pages when I was out running errands, or getting my kids fed and dressed for school, or walking my dogs, or cleaning the bathtub. (“She couldn’t just stand by and watch their dreams – and her own – expire.”) I thought about my own context and what kind of opportunities I had, and if I was actually witnessing history being made, passively, or if I was making history.

Kennedy’s stories – the true stories – in this collection, both the ostensibly milder ones of humble dignity, as well as the sensational tales (like that of Tante Blanche, strapping on snowshoes, bracing a killer snowstorm and saving her starving community by delivering life-sustaining supplies) forced me to see how these weren’t just women acting out, trying something new or pushing boundaries for the hell of it.

These were women saving lives, carving new paths, opening new doors … they were revolutionaries. And it’s not too often we read about these women in history books.

Kennedy’s book did something most history books don’t do for me. It made me think past the page. Her profiles stuck, and they didn’t just stick in my head. Her book inspired me to get out and move. To do something. To make change, be a part of a movement. To make history, not just be able to recall it. To do rather than to observe.

This book inspired me to look at the legacy I might be leaving behind and ask myself, am I an armchair observer? Or are my actions making me the person I was meant to be? Am I making the lives of others better? Am I giving it all I’ve got?

These profiles reminded me to be something bigger than just a reader. And only the best kind of stories can do that.

Mira Ptacin is author of the memoir “Poor Your Soul” (Soho Press, 2016). She lives on Peaks Island. She can be contacted through her website:

]]> 0, 04 Sep 2016 16:12:07 +0000
‘Hillbilly Elegy’ sheds light on shadowy places in the hollers Sun, 04 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 There are two very good reasons this year – or anytime – for Americans to increase their understanding on an urgent basis of so-called hillbillies, the mostly white people of Scots-Irish stock who are found in the mountainous east-central part of the United States.

The first is that these people are showing advanced symptoms of the problem that is afflicting middle-class Americans at this time – economic inequality. The second is that these people may well vote in numbers this time.

With “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” J.D. Vance has written a book that goes some way to helping the rest of us understand what makes these people tick, the lives that they lead that cause them to behave the way they do.

He came from a family from Jackson, Ky., where the men worked in the coal mines until there weren’t any, then moved to Middletown, Ohio, to jobs at Armco Kawasaki Steel, until that went away. Vance got out, serving as a Marine in Iraq and subsequently attending Ohio State University and then Yale Law School before ending up at a Silicon Valley investment firm near San Francisco, a classic “I got out of there.”

Except that he didn’t. The loyalty and secrecy of the hillbilly ethic, including what he calls “the Appalachian honor code,” stayed within him and inspired him, through this book, to try to make it, and its people, comprehensible to the rest of us.

What is so striking about the book is the counterpoint between the utter dreadfulness of Vance’s life, his persistent good humor in the face of it, and his perseverance in doing what he had to do to survive and get out of the Kentucky hollers and the American small town in spite of the monumental barriers.

He watched his drug-addicted mother hauled away by the police in a squad car while the neighbors watched. Part of what he was fighting is summed up in the statement that “working class whites are the most pessimistic group in America.”

The central, horrible, apparent characteristic of hillbilly life, according to Vance, is domestic violence. He is funny about some of it. His grandmother taught him how to fight effectively. He observes that even the best stepparents, of whom he had many, “take some getting used to.”

This book is not “Anne of Green Gables.” Grandmother’s language is eloquently foul. Vance comments that “nice guys never survived their encounters with our family.”

One of the grim facts that he cites is that “the life expectancy of working-class white folks is going down.” Another that I know is true is that “Ohio Januaries are depressing enough as it is.”

There are two problems here, nestling among what seem to me to be the truths about hillbillies. The first is that there are other groups in American society, in different parts of the country, whose situations are just as troubling, if not more so, than the problems of the people Vance writes about. They were outdoors for the most part, not jammed into crowded urban neighborhoods like many African-Americans and Hispanics and undocumented immigrants.

The other problem is that we all know from country songs that there is a definite predisposition for feeling sorry for oneself that is a major characteristic of so-called hillbillies. The story was that if one played a country song backward, one found a job, the car started running again and one’s wife came back.

Vance escapes these flaws through humor and a neat way with words. He calls the miserable experiences he and his sister had with their mother “adverse childhood experiences.” He avoids the perils of what he calls “class tourism,” looking at people he has to please like a sociologist.

“Hillbilly Elegy” is comparable to “Winter’s Bone,” with Jennifer Lawrence’s great portrayal of Ree Dolly in a 2010 movie about a family and a life comparable to Vance’s in terms of enhancing understanding of the lives of hillbillies.

His grandmother told him there was “no greater disloyalty than class betrayal.” Vance has not betrayed his people at all in helping us, his readers, understand them better.

]]> 0, 03 Sep 2016 22:25:24 +0000
Book review: Mysterious characters, Maine small-town drama complicate ‘No News Is Bad News’ Sun, 04 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 The first chapter of Maureen Milliken’s new novel, “No News Is Bad News,” opens with a deer hunter finding a blood splatter and then a pile of human guts lying in the woods.

The second chapter opens six years earlier, with Detective Pete Novotny in a dumpster in an alley in Philadelphia inspecting the unidentified, decomposing body of what appears to be a young teenage boy.

“No News Is Bad News” is the second book in Milliken’s Bernie O’Dea mystery series. The first in the series kindled a potential romance between O’Dea, a former big-time journalist who now publishes the Peaks Weekly Watcher in Redimere, Maine, and Novotny, now the chief of police in Redimere.

The romance is ignited – sort of – when they sleep together early in the latest book. O’Dea awakes regretting it, in part because they both had had too much to drink. She rises to leaves Novotny’s place before dawn, telling him before she slips away, “No sense in everyone in Redimere seeing me.”

All it takes is one person. And news of such currency in a small town doesn’t take the internet to go viral.

Their tryst complicates the twin storylines in Redimere and Philadelphia as the stories become tangled like nested snakes. “No News” is more ambitious and complex than Milliken’s first book, as the threading of stories adds overlapping characters clouded by false identifies and statements.

The case in Philadelphia regarding 13-year-old JP Donovan was what brought Novotny to Redimere several years before, when a drifter showed up claiming to be JP. It is a case that Novotny can’t shake.

Making everything murkier, O’Dea’s younger brother, Sal, shows up unexpectedly, fired from his professorship for plagiarizing, and soon becomes a prime suspect in two possible crimes. This leads to intensifying estrangement between O’Dea and Chief Novotny.

Murkier still, Benji Reeves, a drifter and con artist who wore out his welcome in Redimere several years ago, shows up again. He tells Novotny that he can help solve the case that has so haunted him.

Before Reeves disappears yet again, he tells Novotny, “I bet you’d love to kick the ass of someone who abuses kids.” And, “You want to be the tough-guy hero, but also want to have a warm house and soft lap. Someone to make you feel like you’re worth something, not the loser everyone always told you were, right? The loser you know you are.”

Milliken, who is city editor for the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, staked out large ambitions in plotting “No News.” She doesn’t, however, completely succeed in pulling it all together.

The false identities at the heart of the Philadelphia storyline, which bleed into what’s happening in Redimere, are hard to track. Also, as in “Hard News,” the author relies too heavily on the central antagonist providing a detailed accounting at the end that explains all the plot’s twists and turns. That scene’s circumstances, however, and the state of mind of the character at that moment, stretch credulity that he’d be so clear-minded and comprehensively forthcoming.

Despite that, the author is an inventive, imaginative storyteller. The backstories she introduces for both Bernie O’Dea and Pete Novotny are intriguing, especially that of Novotny, with a darkness that lurks in his childhood and the circumstances under which he left the Philadelphia police department.

Though the relationship between O’Dea and Novotny gets tested beyond either’s better nature, the ground is well laid for the next installment in Milliken’s Bernie O’Dea mystery series.

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, 03 Sep 2016 22:29:08 +0000
New book stirs old memories of Maine fires Mon, 29 Aug 2016 02:20:05 +0000 In the book “Kindling,” the fictional town of Chaldea, Maine, is terrorized as a 15-year-old boy burns his high school to the ground and then goes on a fire-setting spree through town, trying to destroy the nearby junior high, homes and a business.

The story is fiction, but it’s a reality that many Madison residents know all too well.

In October 1986, Madison High School was destroyed in an early morning fire that tore through classrooms, books and band instruments and displaced more than 400 students.

Two weeks later, an attempt was made to burn Carrabec High School in Anson, where the Madison students had been sent. In following weeks, attempts were made to burn Madison Junior High, including one that destroyed the principal’s office.

And in December, three homes and a dairy business on Jones Street were set on fire. The dairy was leveled, and one of the homes was no longer inhabitable.

Town residents were on edge, forming a neighborhood watch and sitting up nights wondering if they were next.

“It was very unnerving, especially when homes started to burn,” said John Krasnavage, principal of Madison Junior High at the time and now a member of the Madison school board. “People didn’t know who it was, and all of a sudden homes would go up (in flames). I think it’s one of the most traumatic things Madison has ever seen.”

Weeks went by with no one charged.

Then, shortly after the fires on Jones Street, investigators linked evidence at the Carrabec scene to fingerprints left at Madison Junior High and footprints in the snow that tracked back to the home of 15-year-old Toby Thibeault. Thibeault lived on Jones Street, and his house was one of those burned on the night of Dec. 1.

Thibeault was convicted in April 1987 on charges of arson and attempted arson and was sentenced to three years in the Maine Youth Center in South Portland followed by two years of probation – the maximum penalty allowed for a juvenile at the time.

The fires 30 years ago this fall would be a distant memory for many Madison residents if not for the recent release of “Kindling,” a novel by former Madison High School English teacher David Cappella.

The book, self-published by Cappella and released in January, follows 15-year-old Zeke Titcomb through his incarceration at the youth center with flashbacks to fires that Titcomb set in Chaldea – a western Maine mill town where the school colors, like Madison’s, are blue and white and the local newspaper is the Sentinel.

In a phone interview last week, Ercell Thibeault, Toby Thibeault’s father, said his son, who runs a machinery business with him in Tennessee, has stayed out of trouble since the family left Maine several years ago. He said they hadn’t heard that a book based on the fires had been published.

Thibeault said Toby, who has a son of his own, wouldn’t want to comment on the fires.

“I don’t believe he did it,” Ercell Thibeault said. “He’s never said he did or didn’t do it, and I don’t ask the question. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. It’s all behind us.”


Cappella is a poet and professor at Central Connecticut State University. At a book reading Thursday at Madison Junior High, built since the fires on the site of the old Madison High School, Cappella stressed that his book is fiction. While he knew who Toby Thibeault was, he didn’t have the teenager as a student.

But some at the reading said it is eerily true to the actual events.

“That all happened,” said Julie Forbus, a Madison librarian and member of the Madison High class of 1985. “I think there’s a real difference among people who lived through this and have read the book and those that didn’t. For those of us that lived through it, the fires were one of those before and after moments in people’s lives.

“I’d say (the book) is pretty accurate,” said Forbus, who was in her freshman year at Colby College in Waterville, commuting from Madison, when the high school burned. She was scheduled to take a French test the day of the fire, but skipped it.

“When your school burns down, that’s a day you don’t go to class,” she said.

At the book reading, which was part of the Madison-Anson Days celebration held Thursday to Saturday, Ross Turcotte, a former student of Cappella’s, said he feels the book is “99 percent” true to events.

“Everything was just spot on,” said Turcotte, 50, who worked at Madison Paper Industries before it closed in May. “I don’t read a lot of books, but I just had to pick this up. I could relate to it, too.”

In the early morning of Oct.14, 1986, fire tore through the high school, causing an explosion and canceling classes for the rest of the week.

Krasnavage, the junior high principal at the time, got a phone call in the middle of the night telling him that the school next door to his was on fire. The old junior high building, which survived two subsequent attempts at a fire, has since been demolished and replaced by a playground.

“I remember seeing the high school was totally engulfed in flames,” Krasnavage said last week. “There was fire coming out everywhere. You couldn’t really get close to anything because the heat was just tremendous.

“It was really something because there was a big trophy case in the auditorium with all kinds of old trophies and mementos from Madison and Skowhegan games from, you know, the very first one, pieces of goalposts, that kind of thing. All of that history was lost,” he said.


Al Veneziano, a longtime science teacher at Madison Junior High and current chairman of the Madison Board of Selectmen, was in his first semester teaching at the school when he learned about the fire.

“I remember being called and told it was happening in the early morning hours,” Veneziano said in a telephone interview. “Obviously when something like that is happening in a small town, you kind of run to it.”

Chris LeBlanc, the high school’s current athletic director, was a freshman in the fall of 1986.

“All of a sudden it was, ‘Where are we going to go to school?'” said LeBlanc, 44. “What are we going to do? That type of thing. Even as a kid, I think that was more of my thought process as opposed to, ‘Hey, we have a fire. Hooray! We don’t have to go to school.’ I don’t think that was in my thoughts.”

Fire departments from Madison, Anson, North Anson, East Madison and Starks all rushed to the scene.

The fire caused an explosion that knocked a janitor 40 feet when the school’s library windows blew out, the Morning Sentinel reported at the time.

Firefighters saved the gymnasium, which is part of Madison Junior High today, but the rest of the building was destroyed.

The school lost its library collection – about 7,500 books – as well as practically all of the band instruments, prompting pleas for donations.

Construction had already started that fall on the new high school at 205 Main St., and the district worked out an agreement with the school district in Anson to send its students to Carrabec High for the rest of the school year.

By late November, there was no suspect in the fire or the attempted one at Carrabec High when there was a second fire at Madison Junior High. It damaged the principal’s office and caused smoke and water damage to other areas.

Then, on Dec.1, the homes on Jones Street and a storage building used for a milk-distributing business were set ablaze. All three homes were damaged and the dairy was destroyed.


“I remember everything,” Ellen Parker said last week in a telephone interview. Her home was one of those set on fire. “When you almost lose your house and your son, you don’t forget it.”

Parker, who still lives in the house, described the scene as a war zone. She had been planning on going out, but in a last-minute change of plans stayed home to do crafts with a friend. She thinks the decision saved the life of her 16-year-old son, Chris, who was home but had headphones on and probably wouldn’t have heard the smoke detectors, she said.

Other houses on the street were already burning.

“The fire department didn’t believe we were on fire,” Parker said. “They were so concentrated on these other two buildings (down the street) that you couldn’t see past all the flames.”

Louis Fourcaudot’s home on Jones Street wasn’t one of those that burned, but he said Thursday that he remained on edge throughout the days that followed and helped start a neighborhood watch to patrol the streets at night.

“You wouldn’t sleep real soundly,” said Fourcaudot, 59. “I would sleep downstairs, and anytime you’d hear anything outside, you’d get up and you’d look.”

Fourcaudot is pictured in a photo in the Morning Sentinel, holding his 6-year-old son, Marcel, in one arm and a shotgun in the other. He told the Sentinel he slept on the couch armed with a shotgun and a fire extinguisher.

He asked Ercell Thibeault if he and Toby wanted to be in the watch group. Thibeault said they didn’t.

David Crook, the Somerset County district attorney, said in mid-December 1986 that Thibeault was a prime suspect in a total of 10 fires, but no charges were brought for most of them.

Crook, who is retired, said in a telephone interview Friday that the judge who oversaw the juvenile hearing to resolve Thibeault’s case did not allow the state to use a pattern in the way the fires were set as evidence that they were connected.

The state had strong evidence for the two fires that Thibeault was ultimately convicted of being responsible for – the arson at the junior high and attempted arson at Carrabec – based on fingerprints and footprints found around the junior high and a matching footprint that was found in the urinal of the boys’ bathroom at Carrabec, where Thibeault had stepped in order to put two bottles of gasoline above the ceiling tiles for use as an accelerant.

Crook couldn’t remember the details of why charges weren’t brought in the Madison High fire, but said it “did not matter, because he was obviously a sick kid and the punishment could not have been increased.” A New York Times story at the time said that Crook directed Madison police to close its investigation of the other fires upon Thibeault’s conviction.

Krasnavage said there was too much damage to the high school for any evidence to be recovered.

Thibeault was also charged with burglary for break-ins Oct. 27 and 30 at the dairy that later burned, according to a Sentinel story at the time. He was apparently never prosecuted on those charges.

Thibeault’s parents testified in the four-day trial that their son was in bed asleep when they went to bed on the night of the junior high school fire and he was there when they awoke the next morning, according to the Times.

Thibeault was found guilty on April 3, 1987, and sentenced to confinement at the Maine Youth Center in South Portland until he turned 18 and to probation until age 21, the maximum sentence for a juvenile. Crook said he served the entire sentence and was only arrested once that he knew of after that for a burglary in Vassalboro.

Authorities estimated the fires did more than $2 million in damage, according to the Times.


The fires were the subject of widespread interest at the time and generated several stories in The New York Times describing the nightly police patrols, the rarity of such a crime in a small Maine town and an atmosphere that one church administrator likened to terrorism.

Part of the aim of “Kindling,” Cappella said, is to explore the psychology of pyromania, which he said is rooted in psychosexual desire. The other aim of the book is to show the effects that a traumatic event can have on a small town.

“It’s a horror,” he said. “People in small towns have integrity. They survive. But it’s a scar and a wound they have to live with, and often times they keep it to themselves.”

Cappella said he got the idea for the book in 2008, honing in on the voice of 15-year-old Zeke Titcomb. The introduction to “Kindling” says Zeke was bullied at school, didn’t have real friends and was stifled by an overbearing father.

The book opens with the line “I like flames.”

A psychologist interviewed by the Morning Sentinel said whoever was setting the fires was on “a real power trip.”

“If there’s a burglary, the police are going to show up,” David Staples of Kennebec Valley Mental Health Center said in the Dec. 7, 1986 Sentinel. “But if there’s a fire, everyone comes … Dramatic things happen.” He also said the arsonist was probably an extremely angry person who felt misused by society rather than a “chronically mentally ill person who sees things and hears voices.”

He said arsonists he’d treated had in common that they were angry over perceived mistreatment at the hands of family or society.

Ken Quirion, who investigated the fires for the state Fire Marshal’s Office, said there are different reasons for arson, but that with Thibeault he felt there were issues going on, probably at home, for him to cause that much damage.

For instance, evidence that Thibeault allegedly set his own house on fire led Quirion to believe it was set in anger. Thibeault, who was home alone, told firefighters that night he had just finished eating dinner when the blaze started. Quirion said that when he studied the damage to the house, he found a barely touched TV dinner on the floor.

“I think there was something going on and he was home alone again,” Quirion said. “I think he threw the dinner down and just up and burned his own house. I think there was a lot of anger. I don’t know if anybody ever addressed that.”

Krasnavage said that while no one was ever charged in the high school fire, most residents in Madison “were pretty well convinced the fires were all connected.”

Like others, he said he isn’t sure what prompted Thibeault to try to set the junior high and Carrabec High on fire and possibly set other fires. Over the years there has been no shortage of speculation, though ultimately many of Thibeault’s teachers and neighbors said they were puzzled.

“He was a good kid,” Fourcaudot recalled. “He helped me do work around the house one day. He wasn’t a bad kid at all, other than that he liked to light fires.”

Quirion said he was on a late-night watch in a marked police car outside the boy’s home one night after Thibeault had been identified as a suspect in some of the fires and Thibeault brought him coffee and doughnuts.

Crook said he thinks the fires were the result of “psychological issues,” and that Thibeault was seeking attention from his parents.

“If you were to look at him in terms of his school performance … the opinion people held of him at that time, he was a most unlikely candidate,” Crook said. “But as the evidence mounted, it was like one piece of evidence was a string and when you put all the strings together it becomes a very strong rope.”


]]> 0, 28 Aug 2016 22:24:59 +0000
Max Ritvo, poet who chronicled life with cancer, dies at 25 Sun, 28 Aug 2016 18:53:44 +0000 LOS ANGELES – Max Ritvo, a poet who chronicled his life with terminal cancer in works that were both humorous and searing, has died. He was 25.

Ritvo died Tuesday morning at his home in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, his mother, Ariella Ritvo-Slifka, said Friday.

Ritvo was diagnosed at 16 with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer that affects bones and soft tissue in children and young adults.

Treatment brought about a remission that permitted Ritvo to finish high school and attend Yale University, where he performed in an improv comedy group. His teachers included Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Gluck.

Ritvo’s cancer returned in his senior year, but he completed Yale and this year earned a master’s degree from Columbia University.

Ritvo’s experience with the disease informed his works. A June poem in The New Yorker discussed an experiment in which cells from his tumors were used in cancer drug treatment experiments with mice.

“I want my mice to be just like me,” Ritvo wrote. “I don’t have any children. I named them all Max. First they were Max 1, Max 2, but now they’re all just Max. No playing favorites.”

Ritvo’s first book of poetry, “Four Reincarnations,” is scheduled to be published this fall.

In radio and podcast interviews, Ritvo spoke about his suffering. But he rejected any idea that he was a victim of the disease – especially a heroic one.

At their wedding last summer, Ritvo and his wife, Victoria, banned words such as “inspirational” from the speeches, his mother said.

“He was about love and compassion, human and animal rights and about writing and sharing himself with the world,” she said. “He didn’t want people to see him as an invalid.”

Ritvo saw humor not as a coping mechanism but as an intrinsic part of dealing with his illness.

“You know, we imagine in our hysteria that it’s disrespectful for the sadness. But when you laugh at something horrible, you’re just illuminating a different side of it that was already there and it’s not a deflection, it makes it deeper and makes it realer,” he said last month in the WNYC Studios podcast “Only Human.”

Ritvo also inspired people with his attitude, his wife said.

“Max said ‘I love you’ to everyone. He hugged everyone. He just wanted there to be more love and laughter,” she said.

Ritvo was writing until just days before his death and had told his family that the end would be near when he was no longer able to write.

The day before his death, he told his mother and wife: “I can’t write anymore, I can’t speak, I can’t breathe…I’m not me…You guys have to be OK with me going,” his mother said.

Earlier this month, Ritvo tweeted a link to poem called “The Final Voicemails,” which he said was “about goin a bit loopy under quarantine and what Death is.”

Its final lines: “Red as earth, red as a dying berry, red as your lips, red as the last thing I saw – and whatever next thing I will see.”

]]> 0, 29 Aug 2016 08:09:43 +0000
It’s nearly fall. Pull up a blanket and a good book Sun, 28 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Fall is for books – cool weather, warm sweaters, steaming beverages and books. We asked three local booksellers to tell us which they’re looking forward to this season.


Picked by Jack Marrie, bookseller and buyer at Longfellow Books in Portland.

“The Risen”

By Ron Rash. Ecco. Sept. 6. 272 pages. Hardcover. $25.99.

I’ve been following Rash since his novel “Serena,” which has one of the most compelling opening paragraphs in fiction. He has a terrific ability to make the locale of his novels real to the reader, and being that most of his work takes place in the South and I myself am a son of that land, his work has a particular resonance for me.

“The Risen” is set in a small North Carolina town in 1969 during what will prove to be a pivotal summer for two brothers. They meet a young woman moving to a very different beat. The impact she has on each brother, and the effect on their relationship to one another, will reverberate for decades to come.

“Mister Monkey”

By Francine Prose. Harper. Oct. 18. 304 pages. Hardcover. $26.99.

Francine Prose is as sharp a writer as we have these days. Anything, fiction or non-fiction, even book reviews, with her name on it, is worth a look.

“Mister Monkey” looks to be a relentlessly cutting and comic novel following the all-too-slow demise of an ill-conceived though long-running children’s musical. Through her deeply flawed and beset characters, Prose turns a critical and earnest eye to love, aging, art and our own, often suspect, hopes.


By Per Petterson. Harvill Secker. Nov. 22. Hardcover. 144 pages.

Perhaps no author is able to be so thoughtful in their treatment of childhood without resorting to sentimentality than Norwegian writer Per Petterson. His writing is hypnotic in its ability to convey deep emotion and heady themes with such calm, spare prose. Some credit must surely be given to his translator.

In “Echoland” our hero is the recurring Arvid, who is holidaying with his mother at his grandparents house in Denmark. Arvid is on the cusp of young adulthood, but he isn’t able to decipher the tension between his mother and grandmother. To escape that cloud, emboldened by an emergent sense of self and curious about his new surroundings, we join Arvid in his exploration of this seaside town and his own burgeoning curiosity about what life may have to offer.


Picked by Josh Christie, co-owner of Print: A Bookstore, opening in Portland.

“Rad Women Worldwide”

By Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl. Ten Speed Press. Sept. 27. Hardcover. 112 pages. $15.99.

One of the best nonfiction surprises of the last couple years was “Rad American Women A-Z,” Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl’s 2015 book profiling 26 American women who made history in art, science and culture. Their new book is a logical follow-up, expanding their focus to 40 “Artists and Athletes, Pirates and Punks, and Other Revolutionaries” who have changed the world. The scope is wide, covering the ancient (Hatshepsut) to the modern (Malala Yousafzai). As in “American Women,” Schatz’s biographies are well-researched and captivating, and Stahl’s bright, expressive artwork continues to impress.

“They Can’t Kill Us All”

By Wesley Lowery. Little, Brown and Company. Nov. 15. Hardcover. 256 pages. $27.

The Washington Post received a Pulitzer Prize last year for its coverage of police shootings. Their deep reporting was a project that was proposed by journalist Wesley Lowery, and the topic he expands upon in “They Can’t Kill Us All.” Lowery, who made headlines of his own in 2015 when he was arrested covering protests in Ferguson, Missouri, offers a historically informed look at the current tension between the police and those they protect. The author spent a year conducting hundreds of interviews in Ferguson, Cleveland, Charleston and Baltimore, and the resulting book is the first to take a deep dive into the activists of the Black Lives Matter movement. Lowery also manages a delicate balancing act with his voice and tone, writing in a personal and open voice that will build his profile for years to come.

“Words on the Move”

By John McWhorter. Henry Holt and Co. Sept. 6. Hardcover. 272 pages. $28.

As much as readers and writers are sometimes loathe to admit it, our language is constantly changing and evolving. “Literally” now means “figuratively” to a chunk of the population, for example, and online jargon like LOL and BRB has worked its way into spoken language. In “Words on the Move,” Columbia professor John McWhorter doesn’t just look at the phenomenon of our changing language, but makes a compelling argument that we should embrace its evolution. Rather than a eulogy for a dying language, the book is a celebration of English’s dynamism and resilience. High-minded praise aside, it’s also a fount of word-nerd trivia for dinner party chatter, loaded with history on the words and expressions we use every day.


Picked by Leslie Pryor, bookseller at Royal River Books in Yarmouth.

“Welcome to Wonderland”

By Chris Grabenstein. Random House. Oct. 4. 304 pages. Hardcover. $13.99.

From perennial favorite author Chris Grabenstein (“Island of Dr. Libris,” “Mr. Lemoncello’s Library”) comes the first in a new series, “Welcome to Wonderland: Home Sweet Motel.”

Eleven-year-old P.T. Wilkie lives with his mother and eccentric grandfather in a fun and quirky motel and amusement park that his grandfather built in Florida back before Disneyworld came to town. P.T. and his friend Gloria love the motel and its constant access to rides, ice cream and swimming pools. But their beloved motel is struggling from a lack of customers and the friends decide on a crazy scheme to save the place from bankruptcy.

Short chapters and wonderful illustrations make this a great choice for young readers.

“The Most Frightening Story Ever Told”

By Philip Kerr. Knopf. Sept. 6. 320 pages. Hardcover. $16.99.

Bestselling author Philip Kerr has written a brand new middle-grade novel that has been described as a cross between R.L. Stine and Roald Dahl.

After an accident, quiet Billy Shivers spends most of his time reading alone in the library. He loves ghost stories, but is he prepared for the Haunted House of Books? Billy gets drawn into a contest to see who can make it through the reading of a terrifying tale inside the spooky old Haunted House of Books. With lots of interesting characters and adventure, this is a spooky but fun tale that is alternately hair-raising and hilarious.

“The Distance Between Us”

By Reyna Grande, Aladdin. Sept. 6. 336 pages. Hardcover. $17.99.

This new edition is the young readers version of Grande’s award-winning memoir of what happens to her family when they decide to leave Mexico in pursuit of a new life in America.

Their new life doesn’t exactly unfold as planned, and Reyna and her two siblings have to endure living with a grandmother while they wait for their parents to find work – and a better life – in America. This touching and ultimately triumphant story is an inspirational tale of the immigrant experience from a child’s point of view.


By Raina Telgemeier. Graphix. Sept. 13. 256 pages. Hardcover. $24.99.

From favorite author Raina Telgemeier (“Drama,” “Smile”) comes a new graphic novel about Catrina and her sister Maya, who are moving to the coast of California in an effort to alleviate Maya’s illness, cystic fibrosis. Sad to leave their home and their friends to begin life in a new place, the sisters discover that their new town has a secret: ghosts.

This is a touching and sweet tale of adolescence, loss, courage and adventure.

]]> 0, 27 Aug 2016 19:16:15 +0000
Book review: An imaginative take on the Underground Railroad Sun, 21 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 The calendar year hasn’t even slipped into September, and Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” is already being talked about as the book of the year (and that’s with a slew of big books heading our way in the fall, including works from Ann Patchett, Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0, 20 Aug 2016 18:26:51 +0000
Book review: In ‘On Trails,’ an unexpected adventure on the Appalachian Trail Sun, 21 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 “Once, years ago, I left home looking for a grand adventure and spent five months staring at mud.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0, 20 Aug 2016 18:27:55 +0000
Meet the duo behind Print – Portland’s newest bookstore Sun, 21 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Nearly everything about their decision to open a new bookstore in Portland appears counterintuitive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She needed to get away.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

]]> 11, 20 Aug 2016 21:02:46 +0000
Book review: ‘Unknown Caller’ rearranges the pieces of a family’s story Sun, 21 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Maine writer Debra Spark’s new novel, “Unknown Caller,” shatters the conventions of storytelling like a Cubist painting fractures realism. The result is a story that closely approximates real life – messy and confusing, with important pieces misplaced and time distorted by the force of circumstances and events. The reader may find the storyline hard to get a handle on at first. It’s best, as in life, to simply go with it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ending is deeply honest and affecting.

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

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

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

]]> 0, 20 Aug 2016 18:26:23 +0000
Best-selling author Michael Koryta dives into Maine Sun, 14 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 As visitors flock to Maine for summer vacation, Michael Koryta is here to work. The 33-year-old Indiana native has rented a place near Camden, where he’s researching his next book. The critically acclaimed bestselling author of 11 thrillers and suspense novels, Koryta (rhymes with “margarita”) wants to experience Maine in a way that eludes most tourists. He plans to interview fishing guides, historians and other local experts for a plot line that takes place on the Maine coast. It’s part of the immersion-style research for which he’s become known.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Tell me about your writing routine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Have you been warned about winter in Maine?

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

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

]]> 0, 13 Aug 2016 21:31:08 +0000
Signings, etc.: ‘Mechanical Horse’ author traces bikes’ history Sun, 14 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday

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


INFO: 888-563-3207,

]]> 0, 13 Aug 2016 20:38:57 +0000
Book review: A haunting debut effort and a writer on the verge Sun, 14 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Readers will feel the tug of Anne Britting Oleson’s debut novel, “The Book of the Mandolin Player,” in the first few pages. It’s done with a soft but evocative touch in introducing the two main characters, Meg and her 10-year-old niece, Maeve, who has been entrusted to her care. This is a story about the entanglements of family, and how grief and regret so often feel inescapable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0, 13 Aug 2016 21:22:10 +0000
Book review: John Hadden’s conversation with his father is a window to a secret life Sun, 07 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 When I first came to Portland, I was invited to join the Committee on Foreign Relations, which used to meet at the Cumberland Club. One of the regulars, not to say stalwarts, was John Lloyd Hadden, a Brunswick resident. It was an accepted fact that John, like a number of retired people living on the midcoast, had worked for the CIA. After spending some enjoyable dinners together, we became good friends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Urquhart is a former director of Maine Audubon.

]]> 0, 06 Aug 2016 16:14:13 +0000
Book review: Sisters compete with danger in ‘Roses and Rot’ Sun, 07 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 What would you be willing to sacrifice to be the best in your field? What would you give up to achieve artistic success beyond your wildest dreams? Those questions lie at the center of New Hampshire writer Kat Howard’s debut fantasy novel, “Roses and Rot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0, 06 Aug 2016 16:12:56 +0000
Book review: Neighborly justice and jealousy fuel complex Maine drama in ‘Straw Man’ Sun, 31 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 An elderly woman needs trees cut to quickly raise cash in an emergency. Jack McMorrow, a freelance writer for The New York Times, and his two buddies, Clair Varney and Louis Longfellow, former combat Marines, drop everything to head off into the woods to aid her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0, 30 Jul 2016 22:47:04 +0000
Book review: A mother dances with disaster in Alaska in Eggers’ latest Sun, 31 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Among his best-selling literary fiction peers, Dave Eggers alone is engaged in a sustained effort to write about contemporary America. He’s been going at it so regularly and so swiftly that he’s keeping pace with the times, if not getting a half-step ahead. Perhaps he knows what’s next for us: In “Heroes of the Frontier,” his protagonist Josie runs off to Alaska after her life falls apart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHEN: 6 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: Belgrade Public Library, 124 Depot Road, Belgrade


INFO: 495-3508;

]]> 0, 01 Aug 2016 08:21:01 +0000
Book review: ‘Night Work’ wades with style into 1950s New York Sun, 31 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Finishing David Taylor’s “Night Work,” I immediately regretted not having read its predecessor first. Titled “Night Life,” it came out last year and introduced Detective Michael Cassidy, a hard-boiled New York cop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0, 30 Jul 2016 22:53:03 +0000
Book review: In ‘Death at Breakfast,’ life experience serves the sleuths Sun, 24 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 The first pages of Beth Gutcheon’s “Death at Breakfast” are a gentle entry into a sometimes outrageous mystery. The book’s two protagonists, longtime friends Maggie Detweiler and Hope Babbin, have just begun a post-retirement vacation at a gorgeous Maine resort called Oquossoc Mountain Inn. Besides hiking and canoeing, they look forward to gourmet cooking classes with the inn’s chef.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0, 23 Jul 2016 19:56:41 +0000
Book review: ‘Monterey Bay’ reimagines ‘Cannery Row,’ with the passion of a teenage girl Sun, 24 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Writer Lindsay Hatton takes a big gamble with her debut novel, drawing on both history and invention to explore a setting made famous by a Nobel laureate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter: mlberry

]]> 0, 23 Jul 2016 19:52:06 +0000
Signings, etc.: Stefanie Jolicoeur, author of ‘Devil’s Chair’ Sun, 24 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Author Stefanie Jolicoeur will discuss her debut adult novel, “Devil’s Chair.” The book is the story of a woman who buys a home near the legendary Devil’s Chair in Waterville, not knowing the history of the land. Soon eerie things begin to happen in the house.

WHEN: 10 a.m. Saturday

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


INFO:; 603-742-0876

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 1, 16 Jul 2016 20:24:29 +0000
Signings, etc.: Wendy L. Miller Sun, 17 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Wendy L. Miller will talk about and sign copies of her just released book, “Sky Above Clouds: Finding Our Way Through Creativity, Aging, and Illness,” a work that is both manual and memoir, showing a couple’s journey through aging and illness.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: Camden Public Library, 55 Main St.


INFO:; 236-3440

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter: mlberry

]]> 0, 16 Jul 2016 20:44:12 +0000
Book review: ‘Cold Blood, Hot Sea’ tries mystery novel pacing with heavy dose of climate science Sun, 17 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 In “Cold Blood, Hot Sea,” Charlene D’Avanzo’s first mystery novel, Mara Tusconi is a scientist with the Maine Oceanographic Institution. Headquartered in Spruce Harbor, Maine, the institution is an international leader in climate change research. Tusconi’s particular field of study is climate change’s effect on ocean temperatures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

]]> 0, 13 Jul 2016 11:13:31 +0000
Signings, etc.: Author to talk about his Joshua Chamberlain novel Sun, 10 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Author Matthew Langdon Cost will talk about his latest book, “Joshua Chamberlain and the Civil War: At Every Hazard,” a historical novel about one of that war’s genuine heroes, a college professor with no formal military training who, together with a small company of men, turned the tide of the battle and the war with a bayonet charge at Gettysburg.

WHEN: Noon Wednesday

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


INFO: 871-1700;

]]> 0, 12 Jul 2016 18:56:19 +0000