Books – Press Herald Mon, 23 Oct 2017 22:52:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Four short novels add up to one great escape for Joe Hill Sun, 22 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Joe Hill, author of the apocalyptic “The Fireman” and the surreally spooky “NOS4A2,” demonstrated with those two novels that he’s capable of working at great length on a wide canvas.

Now he’s taking a breather from 800-page books, serving up a quartet of short novels that still reflect his macabre interests and off-kilter outlook.

Each selection in “Strange Weather” is a well-crafted piece of storytelling, with characters to care about and conflicts creepy, mind-boggling and action-packed. Weird meteorological phenomena do indeed play a role. But the book arrives in the wake of recent tragedies that may color one’s reading, imbuing at least two of the stories with extra, unexpected relevance.

The opener, “Snapshot,” is a straight-ahead supernatural thriller, set in Cupertino, California, in the late 1980s. When teenager Michael Figlione rescues his elderly neighbor, Shelly Buekes, after he spots her shambling through the suburban streets in a state of confusion and disarray, his act of compassion puts him on a collision course with a fearsome figure known alternately as “The Phoenician” and “The Polaroid Man.” A heavily tattooed thug with a white Cadillac and a caustic attitude, The Phoenician carries a camera that seems to erase the memories of whomever he photographs. When Michael runs afoul of him, the encounter leads to a deadly showdown.

“Snapshot” may remind some readers of “The Sundog,” a novella by Hill’s father, Stephen King. Both stories’ central conceit involves a supernatural camera, but Hill finds a way to make the subject his own, offering a meditation on how people sometimes overlook the individuals who love them the most.

In “Aloft,” cellist Aubrey Griffin realizes at the final second that the last thing he wants to do is jump out of an airplane to impress a woman. When his skydiving lesson is interrupted by engine failure, he doesn’t have any choice in the matter. His terrifying descent ends abruptly, though, not on the ground but with Griffin precariously perched on an immense cloud shaped like a pie-plate UFO.

The oddly sturdy vapor from which the object/vehicle is built not only keeps Aubrey from tumbling to his death, but it seems to respond telepathically to his wishes, conjuring up, among other things, a bed, blankets and a beautiful companion to share them. Threatened by hunger and exposure, he can’t stay in the sky forever but must muster the inner resources necessary to save himself.

“Aloft” works perfectly at novella length. Hill needs the well-detailed build-up that allows the reader to see the roots of Aubrey’s isolation and loneliness, but the tale is short enough not to wear out its welcome.

Jonah Hill is a proven master of the supernatural and the creepy, and he’s done it again with “Strange Weather.” Photo by Gage Skidmore

The volume’s longest selection, “Loaded,” may be uncomfortably timely for some readers.

As a young girl, Aisha Lanternglass saw her beloved cousin Colson gunned down by police when he was mistaken for a carjacker. Years later, she’s a newspaper journalist investigating a deadly shooting at a Florida shopping mall. Iraq War veteran turned security guard Randall Kellaway is the supposed hero of the day, presumed to have prevented a deadly lovers’ quarrel in a jewelry store from erupting into a full-on massacre. His story doesn’t add up, though, and as Aisha picks away at the discrepancies, Kellaway descends further into a murderous fury.

Just weeks after a mass shooting in Las Vegas, reading “Loaded” may feel like too much, too soon. What might at first be taken as simply a slice of well-written Southern noir gains more urgency as it barrels toward its shattering ending. Guns, racism and misogyny are titanic forces in the United States, and Hill’s novella insists, with a final sentence that could be interpreted as breaking the Fourth Wall, that no one is safe from them.

“Strange Weather” concludes with “Rain,” a short, apocalyptic yarn about the day that razor-sharp, crystalline nails pour from the skies over Colorado. Watching from the safety of a neighbor’s garage, Honeysuckle Speck sees her life-partner Yolanda and Yolanda’s mother ripped apart by the lethal precipitation. No one can explain the tragedy, but Honeysuckle decides to leave the next day to track down her lover’s now-widowed father.

In his afterword, Hill admits that “Rain” is at least partially a spoof of his own world-ending blockbuster, “The Fireman.” He has fun chronicling the adventures of his hard-as-nails protagonist, of whom her Russian neighbor observes, “You are like if Miss Marple haff baby with Rambo Balboa.”

Again, some readers of “Strange Weather” may not be ready for “Rain.” Anyone affected by the devastating wildfires in Northern California, for example, knows that life can be upended in a single night, and that chaos can reign without warning.

Yet, thrillers and horror stories often serve as cultural safety valves. With his eclectic and captivating “Strange Weather,” Hill employs his formidable narrative skills to relieve some of the pressure of modern life.

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 Hill is a proven master of the supernatural and the creepy, and he's done it again with "Strange Weather."Fri, 20 Oct 2017 17:31:51 +0000
Sometimes, the truth hurts – or it makes you laugh Sun, 22 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Long before “fake news” came to dominate the headlines, John Hodgman was peddling his own absurdist brand of untruth. Author of several bestselling books of faux trivia, Hodgman parlayed his mock-expertise into a standing gig on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart. An actor, humorist, writer and podcaster, Hodgman is still perhaps best known for his portrayal of the hapless PC in an iconic series of ads for Apple.

These days, Hodgman, 46, plies his talents as a raconteur, telling stories that are, at once, funny, sad and true. His new book, “Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches,” is a midlife lament laced with humor. The book surprises with its poignancy amid well-honed barbs at the Pine Tree State.

“The waters of Maine are made of hate and want to kill you,” Hodgman writes. “If you make the mistake of going into it, every cell in your body will begin shouting the first half of the word ‘hypothermia’ into your brain; the second half will simply be frozen tears.”

Hodgman spoke recently from his home in Brooklyn about mortality, nerdiness and beards. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You’ve lived much of your life in the Boston area and New York City, as well as western Massachusetts and Maine. At this stage, do you consider yourself a country guy or a city guy?

A: I started going out to rural western Massachusetts with my mom and dad when I was about 10, spending longer and longer periods of time there, even as an adult. In recent years, we’ve been spending time in a completely different wilderness, which is the painful beaches of coastal Maine. That said, I am a weird, non-athletic, asthmatic nerd who grew up watching “Dr. Who,” and still do. There is no question that I am the product of citified civilization. “I am a coastal elite for life” is what the tattoo on my abdomen says – and my abdomen is very soft.

Q: When you go to Maine, how long do you last before you need to get back to the city?

A: We spent the whole summer there. My wife teaches high school here in New York. I am marginally self-employed, or whatever it is I am. Everything I do is very portable, and I barely do it, so I can go to Maine and do my work in the morning, then row a boat around and feel close to the earth and sea in the afternoon. The truth is, we spend as much time in Maine as possible, in part because we’ve gotten accustomed to the regular aches and pains that Maine visits upon you.

Q: Tell me about the “strange and luminous 13-year-olds” that are your demographic.

A: There is always a contingent at my book readings, and at my imitation of stand-up comedy, of 12- to 15-year-old boys and girls who are bookish, and a little bit weird, a little bit shy and a little bit eccentric.

Q: So they’re just like you were as a teenager?

A: Yes, I think there is still that weird, long-haired Whovian adolescent in me that is speaking to them. It’s fun to think about the end of the world when you believe you’re immortal, and that’s true about most 13-year-olds. Now that we’re facing it down – not as much fun. That’s why post-apocalyptic literature and science fiction are so popular among young people.

My previous books, which were all ridiculous, contain a lot of my personality, but they were all framed in fake history and ridiculous non-truths. To some degree, that is the kind of escapism that I really got into when I was 13 or 14. There’s a Monty Python element (I hope) of joyful anarchy that served as an able distraction from the most pressing issue of the day that any 13-year-old feels, which is impending sexuality. I was not interested in thinking about that stuff at all. I was much more interested in reading the plays of Tom Stoppard, and enjoying the absurdity of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, than thinking about hugging and kissing other human beings. That was terrifying.

Q: According to the book, you’re now beyond any form of viability because of your age, so you’ve grown a beard.

A: In my literary oeuvre, I’ve skipped over completely what passed for my sexual prime. If the first three books embodied a pre-sexual fantasia of a 13-year-old, we pick up with “Vacationland” in a post-sexual weird Dad thing, where I’ve been happily married for many years, I have two wonderful children, my genetic material is out there in the world. Biologically speaking, I am no longer necessary, therefore I have grown this facial hair to say to the world, “No, thank you, I no longer deserve physical affection.”

Q: In the book, you describe growing a beard as if it’s a bona fide activity. Isn’t that a bit like watching wallpaper peel?

A: Well, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it! For those of us who are follicularly challenged, it’s a slow and often ugly process. It is a little bit like watching wallpaper peel. But imagine if the wallpaper were coming out of your face! There’s a dark sorcery to what’s happening to your face when you stop taking care of it. Guys need to see what secret man is lurking inside of them, and see how it changes them. It’s just one of those journeys that dudes have to go on.

Q: Beyond matters of sexuality and beards, I think of your book as a skeptic’s love letter to Maine.

A: Well, it’s definitely a love letter to Maine. I would say this: Maine became known as Vacationland during a time when very few people could take vacation. It was a rather exotic concept. Going on vacation was something for very wealthy people, and they did it to get out of the heat. So it was natural that Maine would emerge as a vacation destination for wealthy Bostonians and New Yorkers whose idea was to go north to a cold, dark place during the summer – to drink martinis and not talk to their family, and stare out over a body of water that they would never, ever swim in because it’s incredibly cold and uncomfortable.

But now we live in a time when there are lots of other places to go on vacation where it’s really pleasant and very easy, and yet people still go to Maine, including my wife, who loves Maine more than any other place or person on earth – and now me. The book – the second half, in particular – is really about coming to terms with why you endure not just painful beaches, but painful things in life.

Q: The book deals with the inevitability of loss in ways that may surprise some of your long-time readers.

A: In the same way as 13-year-olds may be terrified about the inevitability of sex in their lives, people in their 40s and 50s and so on are thinking about a different kind of inevitability. You never make peace with it; that’s what I learned from my mom. Ideally, you learn to live with a little bit more forgiveness for the people around you, and with a little more attention to what’s going on right now.

Look, Maine has many natural gifts for those who are morbidly inclined, not least the fact that autumn begins on Aug. 1, more or less. If you’re inclined to think about death and loss, Maine in August is a mournful time. That’s one of the things it offers the vacationer. Even swimming in Maine is an endurance test. It offers the vacationer the pleasure of enduring pain and coming through it.

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

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A Maine fisherman encounters a porpoise In ‘The Old Mainer and the Sea,’ and much unfolds Sun, 22 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 “The Old Mainer and the Sea” is a children’s book about the hardship and magic of life as a Maine fisherman in the late 1800s. It is a story, like Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” about how what the sea brings you can transform you. Unlike Hemingway’s story, however, “The Old Mainer” is uplifting with heart, sure to appeal to small children.

“The Old Mainer and the Sea” is an exquisite collaboration, written by Maine author Jean M. Flahive, and illustrated by Mari Dieumegard. The story, though tight, is an expansive tale, fable-like, about how what truly matters in life is not what happens, but how one responds, especially to the unexpected. The artwork by first-time book illustrator Dieumegard dreamily captures the narrative of Eben Weber, who lives with his wife, Della, on Chebeague Island. Every day he rows his dory 6 miles to Portland, with his fishing hand lines out to catch cod that he sells in town. The oils and pastel illustrations are bright and mesmerizing, simple in composition but wonderfully resonant of the storyline.

“The Old Mainer and the Sea” was written by Jean M. Flahive. Photo by Kevin Bennett

The book tells the fictional story of a day in the life of real-life Mainer Eben Weber, who did, in fact, live on Chebeague. In “The Old Mainer and the Sea,” he sets out, as he always does, alone in his boat, the Hunky Dory.

On this day, he inadvertently hooks a harbor porpoise that becomes entangled in his fishing lines. Initially angered, Eben thinks he’ll sell it for bait. But he changes his mind when he sees the “unbridled fear in the porpoise’s small black eyes…” Consequently, “The old man’s anger melted into sadness.”

He carefully cuts away the snarled lines and releases the porpoise to swim free again. Farther in his journey, Eben becomes lost in the fog, is nearly capsized by a large schooner, loses an oar and finds himself in dire circumstances. All is not lost, however. The porpoise returns. It guides him safely to port, where he can sell the day’s catch before rowing home again.

Flahive is an award-winning author with a handful of books to her name, including children stories and books for young adult readers. All her stories draw on historical people and events in Maine. Flahive knew from the moment a family friend told her the story of his grandfather who lived on Chebeague Island “that I couldn’t just let it go.”

Dieumegard, who has a BFA from the Maine College of Art in Portland, has long wanted to illustrate a children’s book. Five years ago, she began sending solicitations to editors and publishers with examples of her work. She sent one to Islandport Press in Yarmouth. Two years later she received a phone call asking if she was still interested in illustrating a book.

“I was excited by Jean’s manuscript,” she says. “When I read it, I saw the visuals as whimsical with a dreamlike feel.” For Dieumegard, an elementary school librarian, working on the book was a dream come true.

“The Old Mainer and the Sea” may owe a small debt to Hemingway, but it is distinctly its own story. The book is a visual delight with a captivating story, a magic combination for young children.

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

]]> 0"The Old Mainer and the Sea" was written by Jean M. Flahive, right, and illustrated by Mari Dieumegard, above.Mon, 23 Oct 2017 08:49:42 +0000
Wesley McNair reads from his new book of poems Sun, 15 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Former Maine poet laureate Wesley McNair reads from his new collection of poems, “The Unfastening,” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Portland Public Library.

Wesley McNair Staff photo by Jonathan Adams

In his new book, McNair, of Mercer, writes about his journey from despair to acceptance, discussing his encounter with darkness and how the vision of his book guided him toward the light.

Admission is free.

]]> 0, 13 Oct 2017 17:55:57 +0000
He’s got cheating ways, sure, but is he actually a psychopath? Sun, 15 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 It’s not a spoiler to say that “A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal” is about its author Jen Waite’s marriage to a man she independently diagnosed as a psychopath. She’s been featured on Vice talking about the book, and the back cover’s blurb includes the tantalizing question, “What do you do when you discover that the person you’ve built your life around never existed?”

It’s a terrifying notion, and Waite manages to convey that eventually in the memoir, describing all the stress and fear that go along with realizing the person you love has betrayed you.

In readable, utilitarian prose, the bulk of the memoir is used to intrigue the reader into following what is ultimately a pretty simple, and unfortunately not uncommon, story. Woman meets man, woman falls for man, man and woman live happily ever after – until they don’t, at which point woman moves back home to Maine, where her parents help her out. In sections titled “Before,” we see Waite as an actress/waitress falling in love and beginning to build a life with a man she calls Marco. In sections called “After,” we see the process in which she begins to discover his nefarious behaviors – namely, that he’s having an affair with a 22-year-old “Croatian,” as Waite refers to the blonde he’s sleeping with.

Being cheated on sucks, as everyone who’s experienced it would likely acknowledge. Discovering, as Waite did, that her husband was having an affair after she herself had just given birth to their child must have been devastating. Yet the memoir doesn’t quite pull off showing how awful she felt; there is a lot of telling and little showing. For large portions of “A Beautiful, Terrible Thing,” I didn’t believe that her husband actually was cheating, since Waite’s behavior (checking Uber receipts, phone records and emails) seemed paranoid, even uncalled for. Perhaps this is where the strength of the memoir lies – in Waite’s ability to make her husband charm the reader so thoroughly that we don’t believe her instincts. It’s unfortunate that we aren’t charmed by Waite in quite the same way; she seems to hold the reader at a remove, unwilling to share much of her inner life, so that she remains somewhat bland, though a generous reader might describe her as an enigma.

Jen Waite Photo by Evynne Morin

Still, despite the note from the author at the start of the book claiming that Waite is not a mental health professional, and “this is not a clinical diagnosis of psychopathy,” the book treats Marco as if he were, indeed, clinically diagnosed. After leaving Marco, Waite begins to surf various online forums where she discovers character traits that Marco possessed, as well as that “many, if not all, psychopaths are sex addicts and sexual deviants.” Calling a large group of people “sexual deviants” is enough to rub this reader the very wrong way, but even more disturbing to me was when Waite finally goes to see a therapist, who tells her during their very first session that, yes, indeed, her husband seems to have sociopathic tendencies.

Mental health is a tricky thing, and even books like “Confessions of a Sociopath” by M. E. Thomas haven’t much clarified the field of antisocial personality disorders. Waite, I think, means to be inspirational, but unlike many people, she has a caring family and a great support system to help her when things go wrong. She’s not a strong writer, and she has few insights on the page. It’s hard for a book whose biggest hook is a cheating husband and an amateur diagnosis to sustain a reader’s interest or sympathy.

Yes, it must have been absolutely awful to have discovered that Marco was cheating. Yes, it must have been really, truly terrifying to be gaslighted by his continued insistence that he wasn’t sleeping with anyone else and that, in fact, he was certain there was something wrong with him physically that was making him cold all of a sudden. But it’s also scary, as a reader, to see the way a mental disorder as complex and still misunderstood as antisocial personality disorder used to both explain bad behavior and to sell a book.

It’s not that I don’t believe Waite’s experience – I do, and I think readers will as well, and some will likely jump at the chance to label their exes as psychopaths like Marco. Yet I don’t think it’s useful to use a word like “psychopath” to describe what Waite’s mother tells her at one point: “You have to start thinking of him as a deeply, deeply flawed person who tried his best and failed.” Maybe that’s not true. Maybe he didn’t try his best. Maybe he really is a psychopath. But by labeling him as a kind of “other,” don’t we run the risk of losing our empathy, the very thing psychopaths lack?

Ilana Masad is a book critic and fiction writer starting her Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, StoryQuarterly, Broadly, the Washington Post, the LA Times and more.

]]> 0 WaiteSun, 15 Oct 2017 20:40:25 +0000
Novelist Jonathan Lethem headlines new Word festival in Blue Hill Sun, 15 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 BLUE HILL — Novelist Jonathan Lethem and Slate columnist Laura Miller will speak at Word, a new literary arts festival next weekend in Blue Hill. Miller will interview Lethem at 7 p.m. Friday at Emlen Hall.

Also participating in the festival will be Portland poet and teacher Mikhu Paul and multimedia producer Galen Koch, also of Portland. Southern Maine children’s and young-adult novelists Megan Frazer Blakemore, Cynthia Lord and Maria Padian will discuss how they handle harsh realities in books for young readers.

Jonathan Lethem Ben Marcus photo

A 2015 MacArthur Fellow, Lethem has written 10 novels, five short-story collections, six books of nonfiction and many essays. He is best known for the novel “Motherless Brooklyn.” In 2006 he interviewed the elusive Bob Dylan for Rolling Stone magazine. He teaches creative writing and English literature at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

His latest collection of essays, “More Alive and Less Lonely,” was published in March. Lethem is a part-time resident of Blue Hill and the son of painter Richard Brown Lethem.

Miller is a columnist for Slate and author of “The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia.” She co-founded in 1995 and wrote the “Last Word” column for The New York Times Book Review for two years.

The festival will present a Saturday night spoken-word event, a daytime literary marketplace and workshops for adults and children, including Koch’s two-hour workshop on “Preserving Your Stories.” A graduate of Portland’s Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, Koch is preparing a project that will take a portable recording studio to Maine fishing communities to record histories and personal stories.

Blakemore, Lord and Padian are award-winning authors of multiple novels for children and teens. They will join fantasy novelist Ellen Booraem of Brooklin on a panel entitled “Can’t You Write About Something More Pleasant?” The panel begins at 12:30 p.m.

Mikhu Paul will participate in a Saturday afternoon “poetry crawl” through Blue Hill businesses. A Maliseet Indian, she is the author of the chapbook “20th Century PowWow Playland.” She created a one-woman show of poems and art at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, “Look Twice: The Waponaki in Image and Verse.”

The poetry crawl will run from 2 to 6 p.m., featuring Paul and fellow poets Henry Finch, Bea Gates and Carl Little at downtown businesses and concluding at 5 with a reading by New York poet and teacher melissa christine goodrum, who spells her name in lower-case, and Stuart Kestenbaum, Maine’s poet laureate.

For information, visit or call 374-5632.

]]> 0 LethemFri, 13 Oct 2017 18:03:39 +0000
Debut short story collection links sad, funny, annoying, flawed characters Sun, 15 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 In “Outside is the Ocean,” through 15 interlinked short stories set between 1967 and 2019, Matthew Lansburgh charts one family’s efforts to survive the misunderstanding and heartbreak they inflict upon each other in their quests for love and connection.

The stories are presented in non-chronological order and feature a wide variety of protagonists and viewpoint characters. At the center of the narrative sits Heike, a German immigrant who, having endured a wretched post-World War II childhood, comes to America craving monetary and emotional security.

Readers first meet Heike in “Queen of Sheba,” set in 1993, when she’s in her early 50s. Staying at the Circus Circus casino with her 70ish third husband, Al, his daughter, Laurie, and granddaughter, Crystal, Heike learns to play blackjack while flirting with Jerome, “a wonderfully dressed gentleman with blazer and tie.” Although “for two years (she) had been a good girl,” the thought of a new romance appeals to Heike, especially in light of Al’s recent and regretted affair with a checker at Vons supermarket. A drive into the desert with Jerome, however, fails to meet her expectations.

Heike proves to be both charming and abrasive, obsessed with helping others as long as she isn’t inconvenienced herself. She sees nothing wrong in swimming uninvited and topless in her neighbor’s pool, sending her adopted child to live with a family of Russian immigrants or breaking into an acquaintance’s home in order to walk her dog. Her behavior is frequently baffling and infuriating, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for her when reality punches a hole in her daydreams.

“She had no sense of boundaries or decorum,” her son says of her. “She liked to be in charge, to exercise control. Over pets, renters, people she came across at Vons or Taco Bell, over Gerry, over her 24-year-old son, an adult last time he checked.”

The stories gradually introduce a cast of richly rendered characters: Stewart, Heike’s scholarly gay son, who exists in a perpetual state of embarrassment regarding his mother’s smothering manner, odd obsessions and self-deceptions; Raymond, Heike’s cold, cruel first husband and Stewart’s father; Gerry, Heike’s second spouse, who provided some of the stability she always craved; and Galina, a Russian orphan with a deformed arm, adopted by Heike against everyone else’s better judgment.

Although some story collections encourage readers to skip around willy-nilly, the selections in “Outside Is the Ocean” ought to be read in order for maximum impact. Lansburgh, winner of the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award, excels at offhandedly dropping narrative questions and answering them many pages later. For example, in “Enormous in the Moonlight,” Heike states that Stewart has committed suicide, which is odd, since he makes appearances in stories set years later. The mystery is eventually solved, but it pays to remember that narrators – and especially Heike – are not always reliable.

Matthew Lansburgh

The title story focuses on Stewart in 1994, as he lets himself be picked up by Nigerian banker Tazik Eze, who takes him to his opulent Boston apartment and ties him face-down to the bedpost with tape over his mouth. Oddly, the situation reminds Stewart of the time when he was in grade school and his father tried to teach him how to handle a gun properly. Raymond told him to “look at the target in the distance, to stand up straight and throw back his shoulders and stop sniffling and, once and for all, to be a man.”

The story resolves in the morning with Stewart, alone and unbound, exacting a tiny revenge on Tazik. The story can stand on its own, but it has an extra kick, thanks to previous references to Raymond’s style of parenting and Stewart’s long struggle with the meaning of masculinity.

Set a few years from now, “Amalia” and “Buddy” provide closure on Heike’s chaotic life. An ill-fated surprise Thanksgiving trip precipitates a major life change, one that allows Galina and her mother the chance to put forward their better selves. The pathos of missed opportunities pervades the final selections.

Lansburgh, whose fiction has appeared in Columbia, Glimmer Train and StoryQuarterly, possesses a keen eye for the telling detail, whether he’s describing Heike’s latest harebrained scheme or chronicling Stewart’s romantic misadventures. The humor and the sadness contained in each story seem unforced, balanced so that neither overwhelms “Outside Is the Ocean.” There is a certain repetitiveness in the structure of some of the stories, which often open with some outrage perpetrated by or against the protagonist and end with a moment of hard-won empathy, but each is built on a solid foundation.

Heike is a genuine original, but it’s likely the reader knows someone like her. With his debut collection, Lansburgh makes his readers cringe at her behavior and sympathize with her plight. Only the hardest-hearted will be unmoved by this graceful and empathetic chronicle of fractured family life.

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, 13 Oct 2017 18:16:08 +0000
In haunting new memoir, a daughter casts light on her mother’s Maine murder Sun, 15 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 When 30-year-old Crystal Perry was stabbed to death in her Bridgton, Maine, home during the night of May 11-12, 1994, the event sent shockwaves back into the past and forward into the future. For Perry’s extended family and her 12-year-old daughter, Sarah, life changed irrevocably in those horrifying moments, with secrets exposed and destinies altered. It would be a dozen years before police identified, and a jury convicted, the murderer, but even then, disturbing questions lingered.

How do you make sense of a hard-working, devoted young mother being brutally killed while her daughter cowers in a nearby room? That’s the question Sarah Perry attempts to answer in her harrowing, haunting new memoir, “After the Eclipse.”

Two days before the killing, the sun was briefly hidden by the moon during the daytime. Even though eclipses have traditionally been viewed as ill omens and harbingers of catastrophe, “precocious and nerdy” Sarah took a much more positive view of the phenomenon.

Perry writes, “I saw only beauty in that fire-ringed darkness. I didn’t know that one small moment of darkness foreshadowed a much greater one. One that would block out the light entirely, and hover there for a very long time.”

The eclipse also serves as a metaphor for Sarah’s obscured understanding of the terrible night in question. In a difficult to read but riveting chapter titled “The Night,” Perry chronicles her experience of being awakened by her mother’s screams of “No, no, no!” and hearing the sounds of a life-or-death struggle perhaps as close as 15 feet away. She does not see the intruder but waits in her bedroom, terrified, for him to leave, before unsuccessfully calling 911. Unable to reach authorities, she escapes the house in bare feet and bangs on neighbors’ doors until she finds someone who will let her in.

Rather than recount her mother’s murder and its aftermath chronologically, Perry employs a more ambitious structure in the first half of her memoir. Chapters designated “Before” alternate with ones from “After,” establishing a counterpoint that increases the suspense of the narrative and illuminates more starkly the connections between the Sarah’s family and the town of Bridgton. Her accounts of being shuttled among the homes of relatives who want to do right by her but don’t have the emotional wherewithal to deal suddenly with a motherless teen are all the more poignant with the knowledge of the poverty and abuse that affected previous generations. As the case goes unsolved, Perry lets the reader feel her frustration in dealing with law enforcement across the years, including the realization that some local residents think she might be implicated in the crime.

More than anything else, the structure of “After the Eclipse” allows the reader to see a fuller picture of Crystal Perry, to view her as more than just a pretty, red-headed victim, to know more about her upbringing and ambitions, to understand better some of the choices she had made regarding the men in her life – from Sarah’s biological father to her fiancé with whom she had been squabbling around the date of her death.

Sarah Perry Photo by R.K. Oliver

Through the turmoil, Sarah Perry is always able to hold onto the certainty of her mother’s love for her, exemplified by the hours she put in as a sewer in the local shoe factory. Perry writes, “I always understood that my mother worked very hard. But it is only now that I can appreciate her determination, that to work as quickly and consistently as she did meant re-dedicating herself each day, each hour, each minute, to pushing through boredom and physical pain and sometimes despair. She didn’t do this for herself; she did it for me.”

Perry holds an MFA in non-fiction from Columbia University. In her author’s note, Perry emphasizes that, while “After the Eclipse” is a memoir, “it is a work not only of memory but of journalism, and involved a substantial research component.” She states that, while she has granted pseudonyms to some individuals, there are no composite characters. That adherence to verifiable fact distinguishes “After the Eclipse” from many memoirs about trauma. The reader never senses that Perry is taking liberties with the truth or seeking to present her mother’s or her own behavior in a falsely positive light.

While she appears to have no hesitancy in naming her mother’s assailant, Michael Hutchinson, she chooses not to contact him, his family or his friends and associates. Perry writes, “This book isn’t about him. It’s about Mom.”

In an age when true-crime television and ripped-from-the-headlines dramas have inured some people to the actual cost of losing a loved one to violence, “After the Eclipse” is a sensitive, searing and nuanced exploration of family ties torn asunder.

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, 13 Oct 2017 18:23:51 +0000
‘Death cleaning’: The Swedish way to declutter Sat, 14 Oct 2017 16:13:46 +0000 If your family doesn’t want your stuff when you’re alive, they sure won’t want it when you’re dead.

That’s the blunt assessment of yet another self-help author from abroad who is trying to get Americans, who have an addiction to collecting and storage units, to clean up their acts.

The latest volley in the decluttering business comes from Stockholm, where 80-ish artist Margareta Magnusson has just published a slim yet sage volume, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.” The book will be published in America in January.

While Marie Kondo gave us strict instructions to keep only things that spark joy in “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” Magnusson’s book is straightforward and unsentimental, with a bit of humor. The main message from this mother of five is: Take responsibility for your items and don’t leave them as a burden for family and friends. It’s not fair. Magnussun says you can keep things that evoke good memories; there are no hard-and-fast rules such as folding your remaining T-shirts to stand upright in your drawers, as dictated by the KonMari method.

The concept of decluttering before you die, a process called “dostadning,” is part of Swedish culture. (It comes from the Swedish words for death and cleaning.) Karin Olofsdotter, 51, the Swedish ambassador to the United States, says her mother and father, who are in their 80s, are in the midst of it back home.

“My parents and their friends are death cleaning, and we all kind of joke about it,” Olofsdotter says. “It’s almost like a biological thing to do.” Olofsdotter says part of Swedish culture is living independently and never being a burden to anyone. How you keep your home is a statement of that.

Magnusson, who has moved 17 times, says women often end up doing the death cleaning. After her husband died, she had to declutter their house; it took her almost a year before she could downsize to a two-room apartment. Although it was overwhelming at the time, she says, she is glad she did it herself as her husband would have wanted to keep everything and her kids would have disagreed about what to keep and what to toss. This way, she made her own decisions. Now she continues to do it regularly.

Magnusson suggests that 65 is a good time to start death cleaning, but the process is freeing at any age.

A few of her tips: Don’t start with your photos, as you’ll get bogged down in your memories and never accomplish anything. Make sure you keep a book of passwords for your heirs. Give away nice things you don’t want as gifts, such as china or table linens or books, as opposed to buying new items. Keep a separate box of things that matter only to you, and label it to be tossed upon your death. It’s OK to keep a beloved stuffed animal or two.

Magnusson and one of her daughters filmed a video in which she talks about why she decluttered and how it’s not a sad process, but more of a relief. Her daughter asks whether her mom would help her begin death cleaning. They go to a storage locker overflowing with luggage and clothes and blankets topped by a garden gnome.

“Oh, my God. What are you going to do with all this crap?” her mother says in perfect English, taking a look around. They discuss how long it’s going to take.

“You are never ready with your death cleaning because you don’t know when you are going to die,” Magnusson says. “So it goes on and on.”

When you are dead, then it stops, they agree.

“Finally,” Magnusson says.

]]> 0, 14 Oct 2017 17:37:12 +0000
Author Nora Johnson, best known for ‘World of Henry Orient,’ dies Wed, 11 Oct 2017 02:22:51 +0000 Nora Johnson, who portrayed the breathless infatuation of two schoolgirls with a concert pianist in her novel, “The World of Henry Orient,” which she helped adapt into a popular movie starring Peter Sellers, died Oct. 5 at an assisted-living center in Dallas. She was 84.

A daughter, Marion Siwek, confirmed the death but did not specify the cause.

Nora Johnson Nora Johnson website photo

Johnson published seven novels and several other books, including memoirs about her father, Hollywood screenwriter, producer and director Nunnally Johnson. But she was best known for “Henry Orient,” which was derived from her teenage crush on the pianist, actor and wit Oscar Levant.

Johnson published the novel in 1958, when she was 25, and was praised by critic Judith Crist in the New York Herald Tribune for having “a very special gift for recalling – and recreating – the poignant bittersweet of late childhood.”

In the book, two students at a private girls’ school in New York become obsessed with Orient, tracking his every move around the city.

Unusual for the time, both girls are the children of divorce, and one of them leaves school early each day for psychoanalysis.

Nevertheless, Johnson captured the girls’ lives with a spirit of exuberance, showing them practicing the piano, writing in journals, trying on adult clothing and manners, and recording every sighting of Henry Orient in their notebooks. Their relentless spying reveals some unsavory facts about their hero and people closer to home.

Johnson and her father adapted “The World of Henry Orient” for the screen, with Sellers in the title role. The two schoolgirls, Valerie Boyd and Marian Gilbert, were played by Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth respectively.

The 1964 film, directed by George Roy Hill, which is considered something of a visual love letter to Manhattan, became a cult favorite and is often shown on classic movie channels.

New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it “one of the most joyous and comforting movies about teenagers that we’ve had in a long time” and praised Sellers’s “ever-surprising” portrayal of Orient as “a poseur, a popinjay, a fraud – an arch deceiver of women.”

Johnson never equaled the success of “Henry Orient,” but several of her other novels were well received. In her memoirs, she wrote about her divided life as a child, spent partly in New York with her mother and partly in Los Angeles with her charismatic father – “almost a legend in Hollywood” – where she was surrounded by “an encampment of storytellers.”

As a girl, she saw Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe at her father’s glittering parties. Tyrone Power and Darryl F. Zanuck played croquet on the lawn, and songwriter Johnny Mercer crooned “One for My Baby” at the piano.

“The high points in my young life were being alone with Nunnally,” Johnson wrote in a 2004 memoir, “Coast to Coast: A Family Romance,” “being gently courted, taken out on the town, admired and listened to with no distractions, being introduced to glamorous people, being treated like a remarkable female person.”

Nora Johnson was born Jan. 31, 1933, in Hollywood. Her parents met while they were reporters for the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper.

Her father was the screenwriter and producer of dozens of films, including “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) and “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953), and also wrote and directed “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” (1956) and “The Three Faces of Eve” (1957).

She was 6 when her parents divorced. She moved to New York with her mother, the former Marion Byrnes, and attended the private Brearley School, the inspiration for the school in “Henry Orient.” She graduated in 1954 from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she was in classes with poet Sylvia Plath.

Johnson lived most of her life in New York before moving to Dallas less than two years ago.

Her marriages to Leonard Siwek and Jack Milici ended in divorce. Her third husband, George Johnston, died in 2011. Survivors include two daughters from her first marriage, Marion Siwek of Los Angeles and Paula Siwek of Durham, North Carolina; a son from her second marriage, Justin Milici of Dallas; two half-brothers; two half-sisters; and nine grandchildren. A son from her second marriage, Jonathan Milici, died in 2001.

Johnson’s other books included the novels “A Step Beyond Innocence” and “Tender Offer,” as well as “Flashback,” about her father and the memoir “You Can Go Home Again.”

In 1967, Nunnally Johnson adapted “The World of Henry Orient” for a stage musical, causing a short-lived rift with his daughter, who opposed the idea. The play closed on Broadway after 80 performances.

Nevertheless, her father remained a lasting influence throughout her life.

“It was inevitable that I should become a writer,” Johnson said in 1986. “Even now when I write a passage that pleases me especially, I find myself thinking, ‘How he’d like this . . . I hope.’ “

]]> 0, 11 Oct 2017 10:54:14 +0000
Viola Davis writing new ‘Corduroy’ children’s book Wed, 11 Oct 2017 00:16:39 +0000 NEW YORK — The celebrated picture book “Corduroy” will soon have a new sequel, written by an Oscar-winning actress: Viola Davis.

Viking Children’s Books said Tuesday that Davis is writing “Corduroy Takes a Bow,” which continues the story of the teddy bear made famous in Don Freeman’s million-selling book. Illustrated by Jody Wheeler, “Corduroy Takes a Bow” comes out Sept. 11, 2018, marking the original book’s 50th anniversary. Freeman later wrote “A Pocket for Corduroy,” published in 1978, the year of his death.

The 52-year-old actress is known for films “The Help” and “Fences.”

]]> 0 Davis arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)Tue, 10 Oct 2017 22:31:17 +0000
From fantasy novelist Elizabeth Bear, yet another universe with an irresistible mix of politics, sorcery and derring-do Sun, 08 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 While fans of a certain hugely popular, multi-volume series grow impatient with the number of years that transpire between installments, Elizabeth Bear has been able to complete one epic fantasy trilogy and start another.

The award-winning author of the “Eternal Sky Trilogy” and “Karen Memory” doesn’t enjoy the high profile of George R.R. Martin, but her fantastical universe provides a similarly irresistible mix of politics, sorcery and derring-do. The Brookfield, Massachusetts-based Bear understands the game she’s playing, and she has the ambition and the follow-through to make her own unique mark upon the genre.

With her new novel, “The Skull in the Stone,” Bear returns to the Central Asian-inflected setting of “Range of Ghosts,” “Shattered Pillars” and “Steles of the Sky.” She moves her narrative’s spotlight, though, focusing on a mostly new cast of characters in the Lotus Kingdoms, the politically precarious remnants of a half-forgotten empire and an analog for the Indian subcontinent.

“The Stone in the Skull” opens with an attack by an ice dragon on a caravan of ships making their way to the kingdom of Sarathai. Two notable warriors partake of the battle: the Dead Man, a bitter mercenary, formerly a bodyguard to the now-deceased Caliph of Uthman; and the Gage, a magically powered brass automaton with a featureless face and an idiosyncratic outlook on life. Good friends and an impressive fighting team, they have been hired by the world’s most powerful wizard, the Eyeless One, to deliver a message to Sarathai’s ruler, the alluring and adept Mrithuri.

Elizabeth Bear

Before the Dead Man and the Gage can reach her, though, Mrithuri worries that fate is about to turn its hand against her. She receives an ill omen in the form of a red lotus, but she doesn’t need harbingers of supernatural disaster to know that powerful enemies are maneuvering around her in an attempt to reunite the Empire. A disreputable cousin wants to marry and/or murder her, and a crippled ruler known as the Boneless has his own devious plans.

Mrithuri’s best hope for an ally may lie with Sayeh Rajni of Ansh-Sahal, her widowed cousin. The mother of the princeling Drupada, Sayeh witnesses even more ominous portents, including ones that suggest that the waters around Ansh-Sahal are dangerous and on the verge of a physical cataclysm. She must protect her citizens not only from foreign invaders, but from the forces of nature themselves.

Bear knows that her characters fulfill certain generic expectations (mysterious gun-for-hire, inscrutably oracular wizard, amorous young queen), but she is careful to imbue each with hidden talents and motivations.

In what could be a summation of the author’s approach to character development, the Dead Man muses, “Always these reminders that people were layered and complex and had a thousand unexplored crannies. Every man, every woman, was like a vast system of caverns that stretched unimaginably in secret places underground. You could explore somebody for years – decades – and yet you might not even know there was a passage in a particular place, let alone where it led or what it revealed.”

It is that sense of unpredictability that makes “The Stone in the Skull” so enjoyable. The opening chapters aren’t exactly leisurely, but Bear takes the time to establish the parameters of her world, dropping hints about hidden pasts, obscured loyalties and the possibility of betrayal. As well as providing dialogue worthy of the best world-weary comedic duos, the Gage and the Dead Man play critical roles in the plot. So do their female counterparts, Mrithuri and Sayeh, whose competence as leaders is never in question.

“The Stone in the Skull” concludes with battle lines drawn, combatants assembled and a formidable menace ready to be opposed. All the elements of a richly textured saga are in place, ready for further deployment. Even though they might have to wait a year or so for the next installment, Bear’s faithful readers should rejoice in her return to a fascinating fantasy milieu.

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, 06 Oct 2017 17:17:23 +0000
In Joan Dempsey’s debut, an art history professor faces secrets of past as a WWII resistance fighter Sun, 08 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 “This Is How It Begins” is Joan Dempsey’s carefully detailed presentation of how quickly opposing views can escalate toward violence and how easily in a heated political environment a peaceful, well-established democracy can turn into an oppressive regime. Borrowing from the politics and experiences of Nazi-occupied Poland, the novel is a reminder and a warning of how closely the present is connected to the past, and therefore can be recreated in the future. Dempsey is an award-winning writer who lives in New Gloucester. In this, her debut novel, her talent is evident.

Set in 2009, the story’s central figure is Ludka Zeilonka, an artist and art history professor in her 80s and a Polish survivor of World War II. Though 64 years have passed since the war, Ludka is still very careful to keep hidden the secret of her past, when she was known as Apolonia, an operative of Zegota, the real-life underground political group that saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis.

Together with Oskar, a fellow artist and Zegota member, she had conspired to hide and preserve precious works of art, including a famous Ambroży Mieroszewski painting of Polish composer Frederic Chopin, which Ludka has illegally kept hidden in her possession all this time. Oskar was captured and sent to the terrifying Pawiak Prison, and Ludka never saw or heard from him again until the unexpected arrival of Stanley, Oskar’s grandson, who comes to steal the Chopin and demand a ransom.

As Ludka’s secret personal past has come back around and threatens to be revealed, the ugly history of oppression and intolerance also seems to be repeating itself. A growing political campaign against a proclaimed “homosexual agenda” leads to the removal of several public school teachers who are openly gay. One of those fired is Ludka’s grandson, Tommy, whose father is president of the Massachusetts State Senate. Overnight, the Zeilonka family is deeply embroiled in a growing national debate that sparks threats and violence.

While the story is structured around Ludka, the author wisely shifts the focus in each chapter so readers get the background and perspectives of the other key characters, as well. This tactic allows her to effectively detail both sides of the issue and their respective strategies, as well as to create complex, well-rounded characters.

Joan Dempsey Photo by Greta Rybus

Rather than pitting her characters against each other to score political points, Dempsey takes pain to recognize the humanity of all of them. She does this particularly well with Warren Meck, a religious conservative radio host and an architect of a political effort to promote further protections of religious freedom. Introduced as talented, intelligent, hardworking and likable, he conducts himself with integrity and treats others with respect regardless of which side they are on. His fairly drawn character contributes much to the novel’s success.

Though the storyline is fictitious, the plot is chock-full of actual history, philosophical arguments and law. Thanks to a grant, Dempsey was able to spend time in Warsaw and in Washington D.C. researching Holocaust history and, clearly, she did her homework. Her sentences are packed with meticulous detail. The novel becomes a case study of human hypocrisy and how fine is the line between democracy and demagoguery.

Along with her diligent research, Dempsey deserves much praise for her rare choice to make an old woman the protagonist. Ludka is charming, strong and fierce, but most importantly, relevant. Her age is neither glossed over nor ignored; rather, it’s embraced. Her life experiences demand respect and garner legitimacy for the thesis of the novel, summed up when Ludka declares publicly: “This is not trifle! The Holocaust did not begin with the gassing of the Jews at camps. The Holocaust began here … The Holocaust began in the hearts of people.”

The true history and real-world politics and philosophies contained within “This Is How It Begins” make the book a great choice for a high school English class, book club or any reading circle where there is the opportunity for discussion. Though the suspense strung throughout the story often seems formulaic, the book maintains the reader’s curiosity and makes for a fast-paced, entertaining read. Don’t look for escape through fiction, though, as its substantive themes parallel many of the issues Americans are debating today.

Marae Hart is an emerging writer and graduate of Portland’s Salt Institute and can be contacted at:

]]> 0 DempseyMon, 16 Oct 2017 08:02:16 +0000
‘Remains of the Day’ author Kazuo Ishiguro wins Nobel Prize for Literature Thu, 05 Oct 2017 11:15:44 +0000 STOCKHOLM — Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, best known for his book “The Remains of the Day,” has been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Born in Japan, Ishiguro now lives in Britain and writes in English. The Swedish Academy cited him for “novels of great emotional force, (he) has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

The choice of the 62-year-old British novelist Ishiguro marks a return to conventional literature after two consecutive years in which the prize went to non-traditional recipients – singer-songwriter Bob Dylan and Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich.

“The Remains of the Day” was turned into a popular movie of the same title. His most recent novel is 2015’s “The Buried Giant,” about an elderly couple’s trip through an English landscape to meet a son they haven’t seen in years.

Haruki Murakami of Japan, whose works fuse the realistic and the fantastic, and Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose political work forced him to leave for the United States, were also seen as top contenders for the $1.1 million prize.

In 2015, a rare Nobel Literature prize for a non-fiction writer went to Alexievich. Last year’s award to Bob Dylan sparked a debate about if popular song lyrics can legitimately be considered literature.

Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist and inventor whose will established the prizes, said he wanted the literature award to honor “ideal” work, without defining the term.

This story will be updated.


]]> 0, 05 Oct 2017 07:59:12 +0000
National Book Awards boss brings quest to ‘de-snob’ literature to Portland Wed, 04 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 If you don’t like the nominees for National Book Awards when they are announced Wednesday, you will have the chance to voice your opinion to the person in charge.

Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which administers the awards, will be in Portland on Thursday in a conversation with Portland writer Michael Paterniti. National Book Awards finalists will be announced the day before.

Lucas’ talk will be at the Maine Girls Academy on Stevens Avenue, presented by Portland Public Library and Longfellow Books. Her visit to Portland is part of a larger outreach effort to connect with readers and communities that read, she said in a phone interview.

“We are a national organization, and that means having relationships with people and organizations around the country who are interested in all things literary,” she said. “One of the things I talk about the most is how important literature is to us. Sometimes we just forget. We talk about movies all the time, we talk about TV all the time, and I think it’s important to say out loud all the way, literature is culturally vital to all of our lives. I like to talk about how to ‘de-snob’ that word literature. At the end of the day, we are still talking about books. As long as you read, they are there for you.”

The National Book Awards celebrate the best of American literature, with a goal of expanding audiences and enhancing the cultural value of writing. Award winners are chosen in many categories and age groups.

Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, will be at the Maine Girls Academy on Thursday. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Paterniti, who will lead the conversation, was a 2015 National Book Award nominee for his collection of essays “Love and Other Ways of Dying.”

Before joining the National Book Foundation, Lucas was publisher of Guernica, a nonprofit online magazine, and also worked as director of education at the Tribeca Film Institute, on the development team at Steppenwolf Theatre Company and as a consultant for the Sundance Institute. She also serves on the literary council of the Brooklyn Book Festival.

The National Book Awards are important because they are a chance to recognize the best of American writing, she said. “It is important to shine a light not just on a book or 20 finalist books or 40 ‘longlist’ books, but it’s important to celebrate this whole community,” she said.

Winners of National Book Awards will be announced Nov. 15.

Her talk is part of the Spotlight Series, a collaboration among the Portland Public Library, Longfellow Books and the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance.

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

Twitter: pphbkeyes

]]> 0, 04 Oct 2017 08:00:32 +0000
Unlikely fellow travelers take to the open road in ‘Paradox Bound’ Sun, 01 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Even in these times of gridlocked traffic and relatively cheap airfare, many travelers daydream about the lure of the open road. Whether inspired by Kerouac or Steinbeck or even Hunter S. Thompson, they still see something exciting about being able to jump in a car and go wherever serendipity takes them.

Maine native and former Cape Neddick resident Peter Clines, author of “The Fold” and the “Ex-Heroes” series of zombies-versus-superheroes novels, cranks the engine of his new cross-country fantasy saga in southern Maine and drives it to southern California and back with the pedal jammed to the metal.

When 8-year-old Eli Teague first meets Harry Pritchard by the side of the road in Sanders, Maine, he’s intrigued largely by the pristine Ford Model A that has run out of fuel. Harry, though, is dressed unusually, outfitted with a blue tricorne hat and a flintlock rifle. The boy observes: “He wore one of the old-timey outfits (even older than the car) that people wore for Fourth of July parades down in the Yorks or sometimes in Portsmouth.”

When Eli is 13, he encounters Harry again, and figures out (mostly by looking down her shirt), that he’s actually a woman named Harriet, one who claims to be on her way to “talk to a man about a dream.”

Harry’s Model A, operating with a thought-to-be mythical Garrett carburetor, seems to run on nothing but tap water. What’s more, the vehicle is capable of traveling backward and forward through history.

Harry never stays in one place very long, but Eli is captivated. Although he wouldn’t admit to it if asked, he spends his teens and 20s stuck in Sanders, a town that time seems to have left behind, waiting for Harry to appear again. He gets his wish in an unexpected way, leading him to quit his steady IT job at the local bank and embark on a mission to warn Harry of the dangers ahead.

In some aspects, the opening chapters of “Paradox Bound” resemble a standard set-up for a fantasy-quest novel, a Joseph Campbellian hero’s journey with all the expected mythological beats laid out so they can’t be missed. Clines, however, has a knack for surprising reversals. The plot loses its predictability as Eli and Harry travel farther across the country and skip across 200 years of American history.

Harry eventually clues Eli in on the nature of her quest, which involves the Founding Fathers, specifically Benjamin Franklin. Franklin used his influence as a Grand Master of the Freemasons to gather certain historical documents and religious texts to design a ritual that would inspire the citizens of the colonies to rally behind the idea of creating a new nation.

Harry explains, “They summoned Ptah, the Egyptian god of creation. The blacksmith god. And they came to an accord, which resulted in him forging a dream for them. The American Dream.”

Eli wants to know more: “It’s an actual thing that a group of Freemasons had a god make for them so they could convince everyone in the country to leave England?” Harry indicates that that is the gist of the matter. Although the details are hazy, the premise is that whoever controls the American Dream controls the political will of the nation. The dream has gone missing, though, and Harry and other peripatetic “searchers” are determined to find it and return it to its proper place.

Clines ably captures the appeal of the open road in a variety of time periods and provides textured portraits of selected searchers. They range from legendary trainman John Henry to movie star James Dean to Alice Ramsey, the first woman to drive across the United States. And they demonstrate the diversity of those who pursue the American Dream.

Successful gold prospector Henry “Frank” Hawkins, who set off from Maine to California at age 14, makes an important appearance. He provides some valuable clues, and in the book’s afterword is revealed to be none other than Clines’s great-great-grandfather.

No quest is complete without a formidable villain. Eli, Harry and their colleagues are pursued by nearly unstoppable foes, government agents known as “the faceless men.” Their facial features are completely covered, but if they get close enough to their quarry, they’re able to sense precisely where they are. The faceless men are, as Harry says, “certain of everything within about 300 feet.”

“Paradox Bound” is Eli’s story. He’s the one who changes the most and plays the most crucial role in the narrative’s resolution. But it’s pragmatic, resourceful and highly capable Harry who will capture readers’ hearts. No matter where in history she lands, she’s someone with whom you’d want to take a cross-country trip, if it weren’t for the creeps who keep shooting at her. Her sly and sometimes cryptic banter with Eli keeps the plot moving seamlessly during some of its down moments.

It’s a genuine pleasure to read an ambitious fantasy novel that feels self-contained in a single volume. At the end of “Paradox Bound,” the door is left open for further adventures, but there’s no cheesy cliffhanger. What remains is the satisfaction that comes from a complicated and innovative story well-told.

With “Paradox Bound,” Clines takes the time-travel thriller for a spin, puts it through some impressive paces and brings it home with style to spare.

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, 29 Sep 2017 16:08:41 +0000
Scarred by a childhood of abuse, author makes a liberating break from her unrepentant parents Sun, 01 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Three temptations face a memoirist when she begins writing her life stories. They are hard to resist, yet guaranteed to ruin a memoir by turning it into a therapy session. The three sins? Navel gazing. Victimization. And worst of all, revenge. In her recent coming-of-age memoir about surviving an abusive childhood and cutting off ties with her family, writer Jessica Berger Gross sidesteps this literary kryptonite.

“Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home,” begins simply: “My father said I was the one who started things.” From that first line, Gross jumps in to tell us about growing up in a Jewish family that appeared on the surface to be a “nice,” liberal, religious family in middle-class Long Island; her father with a Ph.D in educational psychology, her mother subscribing to Ms. Magazine and Working Mother and collecting “ethnic” jewelry. But things were not what they seemed.

The family had a “secret,” she writes. “My father had a terrible, out-of-control temper. When he exploded, every couple of weeks, he cursed at me. He hit me, and threw things. He hit my older brothers, too. And, on the very worst days, I saw him slam my mother against the peeling yellow of our refrigerator door.” His rage, she writes, “was a runaway train.”

Gross and her two brothers endured a childhood of abuse: tongue-lashings, bruises and beatings from their father with nary a word or move of protection from their mother. Gross’s parents blamed the victim, describing their daughter, Gross writes, as “fresh, a back-talker … too loud, too opinionated, and too smart for my own good.”

Despite the violence, isolation and misery that constituted her childhood, what is most striking about “Estranged” is that Gross, an essayist and author of “About What Was Lost: 20 Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope,” chose to share her story at all. She is brave and unshaken. She is also straightforward, unsentimental and matter-of-fact while still a lyrical storyteller. She gives us her truth without too much analyzing or psychoanalyzing (read: diagnosing) her family members, without giving reasons or excuses for their behavior.

Jessica Berger Gross Photo by David Zaugh

“My parents believed in corporal punishment,” Gross tells us in Chapter 1. “My parents hardly even drank.”

The growing girl finds some hope and comfort in her Jewish faith. “In synagogue, and sometimes at home in bed at night, I’d pray to God to be rescued from my family, and to somehow find a way out.” But by high school, she is a self-proclaimed “mess,” finding momentary respite – or just a change of scenery – in drugs and alcohol. She begins to loathe her family and herself, feelings that eventually manifest in thoughts of suicide. Gross’s one safe place is a diary (perhaps the seed of her writing career), where she shares “the truth of her home life,” things that she cannot not and will not reveal to anyone out of fear that it would do no good or that she was “the crazy one.”

At college, Gross is finally able to confide in friends, but even after revealing her family’s ugly secrets, she tries to forgive and forget and move on. She tries therapy. She attempts to talk to her brothers. She begs them to confront their father about the abuse, but her siblings will not (or can not?) back her up, instead suggesting that their sister just “forget about it.”

After moving in and out of jobs and relationships and dealing with recurring episodes of depression, Gross leaves for graduate school and an eventual move to Israel, taking her far, far away from her family. There, Gross learns about the concept of shalom bayit, the Jewish value of creating a happy and peaceful home. Inspired, influenced and enlightened, at age 28, she makes the “heart-wrenching decision” to break from her parents. During a job-search trip home to Long Island, Gross confronts her father and mother and demands that her father admit his guilt. When he doesn’t, Gross severs the relationship. “‘Don’t call me,’ was what I’d said to my parents back when we were standing on the street saying goodbye.” And that was that.

“When the estrangement began, I thought of it as a break,” she writes. “The days stacked up and I came to collect and register each no-parent day like someone in recovery would record a day of sobriety. The plain truth was, the longer I went without seeing my parents, the better my life became.”

Today, Jessica Berger Gross lives in Maine with her husband and young son. She moved here in search of safety and happiness – for herself and her young family. And yes, Gross does worry that being abused as a child could affect her parenting skills (“Did this mean I was destined to hit my children, too?”). Then she wonders, “How could he hit a toddler? How could anyone?” She finds solace in yoga, in nature, in faith. She listens to her intuition and inner voice, which, all this time, have prevented her from becoming a victim of the gloom, doom, victimization, self-defeat or revenge that could so easily take her over.

In “Estranged,” Gross reminds us that life is not black and white; she even comes to a sort of understanding of her parents: “They did love me, I know. Maybe they still do,” she writes. Life is that subtle gray area that we’re all constantly swimming in, and, if we are good to ourselves, we swim in the direction of shelter.

Mira Ptacin is the winner of the 2017 Maine Literary Award for her memoir “Poor Your Soul.” She lives on Peaks Island and her second book of nonfiction, The In-Betweens, is forthcoming by W.W. Norton/Liveright books.

]]> 0 Berger GrossFri, 29 Sep 2017 16:10:03 +0000
Maine children’s author Andrew Clements is an expert on elementary school Sun, 01 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 BALDWIN — It’s a crucial part of Andrew Clements’s job to clearly recall what it felt like to be in elementary school.

His latest book, “The Losers Club,” is about a boy who gets in trouble for reading too much in school – when he’s supposed to be doing math or listening to teachers. While Clements was not exactly like that in school, he has vivid memories of being singled out for being bookish.

“I heard some girls on the bus one day, I think I was in the fifth grade, saying so-and-so’s having a party and do you think Andy’s going to come,” said Clements, 68, sitting in his home office. “And the other girl says ‘Who? Him? He’s such a bookworm.’ I remember that so vividly.”

Clements has written more than 80 picture books and middle-grade novels during the past 30 years and has made a national reputation for himself writing for children about what children know best: school, teachers and the daily dramas surrounding both.

His first school-based novel aimed at a middle-grade audience (roughly ages 8 to 12) was “Frindle” in 1996, about a boy who invents a new word for pen and watches it become wildly popular. The book was a best-seller and has sold more than 6 million copies

A New York Times reviewer, writing about “The Losers Club” when it came out in August, called “Frindle” a classic and said Clements’ most recent book could not match it. But the reviewer praised “The Losers Club” for the “low-key geniality common to all his work” and said “it gives fried bookworms everywhere the satisfaction of knowing that friends may desert them (if only temporarily), but books never will.”

Clements’s geniality in writing about school kids stems from his view that school is not merely a child’s preparation for the rest of his or her life.

“Kids don’t go to school simply to get ready for life. They go to school to actually live their lives right now,” said Clements. “I’ve come to understand that childhood itself is a constant. Times and technology change, but the process of growing up, of moving from home to school, of having your first run-in with an authority figure other than your parents, doesn’t. If I can connect with that real sense of what childhood is, then my characters are going to feel real.”


A signed book to Andrew Clements from his parents from Christmas 1959. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Clements grew up mostly in New Jersey and Illinois, in a family with six children and hundreds of books. He remembers his parents reading to all their children, and that books were prized. Books were what they got for presents. On a shelf near his writing desk, he keeps the copy of the 1908 children’s novel “The Wind in the Willows” he got for a Christmas present more than 60 years ago. An inscription inside reads “To Andrew Clements: Christmas 1959: With love from Mother & Dad.”

Clements describes his childhood as “comfortably middle-class” with a father who worked in the insurance business and a mother who took care of six children. His family had spent summers in Maine for years, and as a child, Clements spent summers in the western Maine town of Hiram. About 10 years ago, Clements and his wife, Becky, bought their own Maine vacation home on Hancock Pond in Denmark. Three years ago they decided to move to Maine year-round after living more than 25 years in Westborough, Massachusetts. They bought a hilltop home, dating to 1890, in West Baldwin, west of Sebago Lake.

Though he read a lot as a youngster, Clements didn’t give any serious thought to becoming a writer until he was a high school senior and a teacher gave him an A on a poem. She also wrote that the poem was “so funny” and ought to be published.

While in college, he taught a summer writing program to high schoolers and found he liked it. He graduated from Northwestern University near Chicago and then got a master’s degree in teaching from National Louis University, based in Chicago.

He taught for seven years, in fourth grade, eighth grade and high school. But he was let go a couple times because of declining enrollments and decided to try something else. He ended up in publishing, first writing captions for a how-to book on craft projects, then in sales with a company that imported children’s books from Europe.

It was there he began writing picture books, working with illustrators, around 1985. In 1990, he went to an elementary school in Middletown, Rhode Island, to talk about his picture book, “Big Al,” about a scary-looking fish who had trouble making friends. He was talking to a group of first- and second-graders about word origins and about how words mean what we decide they mean. The kids didn’t believe him so he took out a pen and explained that if everybody started calling a pen a … “frindle” (a word he made up on the spot), then it would be a frindle. The kids all laughed, and Clements had the idea for his first middle-grade novel, “Frindle,” which came out in 1996.

Clements’s latest book, “The Losers Club.” Photo courtesy of Random House Children's Books


“The Losers Club” is about a sixth-grader named Alec who is so enamored of reading he does little else. When he gets a book for a birthday present, he reads it immediately while his party goes on without him. He’s been told not to read in school, unless that’s the assignment. He figures that’s OK, because he’s starting a new after-school program and assumes he’ll be able read there while the other kids play games.

But the rule at after-care is you have to be involved in an activity or a club, though you can start your own club with one other person. When he spies a girl quietly reading, he enlists her for a reading club and calls it “The Losers Club,” hoping it will curtail others from joining.

“I know kids like that. I think everybody knows somebody like that, typically somebody who is called a bookworm and teased about it,” Clements said.

Clements feels it’s important to make the details of childhood real in his book, which means the details of everything a child might do.

For his series “Benjamin Pratt & The Keepers of the School,” Clements immersed himself in sailing and sailing terminology, as Benjamin lives in a seaport town, and he and his dad both sail. Clements had sticky notes on each arm of his chair marked “port” and “starboard,” so he could visualize being in a ship as he wrote.

He’s currently working on a book involving buttons. It’s about a girl whose grandfather is rehabbing an old Massachusetts mill building, and she’s allowed to take whatever she wants out of it. As the mill had once made clothing, she found buttons – boxes and boxes of antique buttons.

Clements immerses himself in whatever he happens to be writing about. His next book is about a girl who becomes fascinated with buttons, so he made it his mission to learn everything he could about them.

So, on a table near Clements’s writing desk on a recent Tuesday were four plastic bins full of antique buttons he got from a Cornish antiques dealer. Clements wants to know as much about buttons, if not more, than his characters do. He can pick out an 1850s cow bone button, as well as ones made of glass, celluloid, Lucite and Bakelite.

Clements’s button-collecting girl becomes fascinated and focused on her new hobby, and Clements has a history of doing that himself. He got a D in penmanship once – he still has the report card because his mother saved it – and he decided he wanted to improve. He began practicing and later took courses in calligraphy. He got so good that one of his four sons asked Clements to write the invitations to his wedding. In his home office, he keeps a dozen or more calligraphy pens handy.

Sometimes when he speaks to school groups, Clements, bring his report card to show that you can always improve yourself. And you can always learn, even when you’re done with school.

“I always tell young writers, become an expert, no matter what you’re writing about. The more you know, the more convincingly you can write,” said Clements. “If you start digging into anything, you discover there’s a lot going on.”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 210-1183 or at:

Twitter: @RayRouthier

]]> 0 Clements has written more than 80 picture books and middle-grade novels over the past 30 years.Fri, 29 Sep 2017 16:51:30 +0000
A brave time-traveling teen anchors Gillian French’s skillfully wrought YA paranormal thriller Sun, 01 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Gillian French tackles a topic that is dark and disturbing and impresses with how she handles it in her new novel “The Door to January,” written for young-adult readers. The novel is really two stories separated by decades told in parallel, both taking place in fictional Bernier, in Hancock County, Maine.

Sixteen-year-old Natalie Payson bridges both worlds – through disturbing dreams and a time portal inside of a decrepit, abandoned farmhouse outside Bernier. Her nightmares and the portal transport her between two hells, one in her life that she knows, and one she doesn’t know but which she is nevertheless compulsively compelled to enter.

Natalie has recently returned to Bernier, where she grew up. Her family moved away after a trial regarding the shooting death of a boy. The death was entangled in an incident in which four kids bullied her and her younger cousin Teddy. Her nightmares about the abandoned farmhouse begin soon after she moved away. When the book opens, she has returned to Bernier to live with and work in her aunt’s café, wanting to get to the truth behind the shooting and to the heart of her nightmares about the farmhouse that began soon after that.

“The first night she’d spent in their new house … she’d had the dream, and it had persisted ever since … Something badly wanted her to return.”

Whenever she and Teddy are free from work at the café, they visit an abandoned house outside town. She realizes the first time she enters it that it is the same as the one in her dreams. They set up a tape recorder to see if they can capture evidence of someone or something while they are away. That night in her dreams, as always, she finds herself standing in the kitchen in front of a door. Leaning in, she hears whispers, voices calling her name.

When Natalie and Teddy retrieve the recorder the next day, all they hear is static – and then a man’s voice that commands, “Tell me my regiment?” And a small, timid girl’s voice answers, “Thirteenth Army Infantry.” The man’s voice then demands that she tell him her name, which is followed by “a keening whine” … and repeated pounding.

Natalie dreams of the house again. “In the dream kitchen, flurries drifted. Natalie opened the door with six panes of glass … The girls’ voices whispered around her, calling her name … ‘Who are you? How do you know my name.’ … ‘We are the weavers. We are the shearers … And you are the darning needle.'”

The hell in Natalie and Teddy’s lives is ever-present. They must contend with the presence in town of three of the four tormentors from the bullying incident – Jason, Grace and Lowell. The fourth tormentor, Peter, is dead. Jason, the ringleader, is as mean as ever. Grace is always wasted. But Lowell seems different. Quieter. Even friendly. After a bullet shows up in her and Teddy’s secret hidey-hole in an old birdhouse, Lowell warns Natalie that she should leave Bernier. “That shell was a warning,” he tells her.

Gillian French Photo courtey of Islandport Press

On a subsequent visit that Natalie and Teddy make to the farmhouse, Natalie slips completely into the haunted realm. It is the spring of 1948. There is a young girl, Rachel, with a small kitten and a naked doll. And George, “a queer character … a great big dark fella, six and half feet tall, broad through the shoulders and chest …”

Returning to the present, Natalie and Teddy begin doing research into the history of the house. The dreams persist. When she and Teddy visit the house again, Natalie passes again back into 1948. In repeated visits and passage back in time, she moves through the spring into summer, then fall and finally into winter. Through her time travels and research of back issues of the local paper, they learn that George Dawes, the queer character, is a ‘dark fella’ indeed. He has been kidnapping young women, holding them in the farmhouse, and abusing them.

Maine author Gillian French winds the tension in “The Door to January” ever tighter in both storylines. Natalie pursues her time travel, desperate to learn what in her dreams has called her back to Bernier. But her returning puts her at grave risk in both worlds.

The author sets up and handles the paranormal dimension of the book with surety. It is the more prominent of the two story lines, often muting the drama around the death of the boy in the woods that prompted Natalie’s family to move away. Perhaps that is inevitable, given the plot anchors of the two. Still, it is an appreciable imbalance that challenges the gravity of the story of the boy’s death.

French nonetheless stands impressively as part a trio of Maine authors with young-adult novels out this summer – each exhibiting strong social consciousness addressing important issues. French joins Anne Sibley O’Brien, whose “In the Shadow of the Sun,” a story about North Korea’s brutally repressive totalitarian regime, came out in June; and S.M. Parker, whose story “The Rattled Bones,” about the shameful dispossession of the residents of Malaga Island, came out in August. These three writers are a great testament to the literary talent resident in Maine.

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

]]> 0, 29 Sep 2017 16:06:12 +0000
Stephen King – with his son Owen King – does it again Sun, 24 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000 “Sleeping Beauties,” the new tome by Stephen King and his son, Owen King, is the story of an epic, biblical day of reckoning. It is as apocryphal as the flood in Genesis and the fire of the End Times. In “Sleeping Beauties,” women across the world succumb to an epidemic of sleep, becoming cocooned in white gauzy sacks that sprout from their mouths and skin. A beautiful woman named Evie, immune to the plague of sleep and locked away in a woman’s prison in Dooling, West Virginia, is the only one in the world capable of offering an awakening.

But as more and more women fall asleep, the men of the community split into warring factions – as men are wont to do. Some Dooling men want to slay Evie/Eve, or at minimum have her removed to a federal lab to be probed and studied. A small group of others, led by Dr. Clint Norcross, the prison’s psychiatrist, described by the wimpy assistant warden as a “politically correct softie,” battles long odds to protect her.

A prophetic epigram at the front of the book illuminates the deep, ageless roots of the plague: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

These sentences come direct from the front pages of our times. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell uttered these pearls to explain the chamber vote to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was objecting to the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

A list of characters running four pages precedes the opening. As in the Bible, the cast is legion. On the side of Right, in addition to Eve and Dr. Norcross, are Lila Norcross, chief of police and Dr. Norcross’s wife; Janice Coates, widow and warden of the Dooling Correctional Facility for Women; Barry Holland, husband, father, and attorney; Vanessa Lampley, correctional officer and champion arm wrestler; and Angel Fitzroy, Jeannette Sorley and Ree Dempster, all inmates of the prison; among others.

On the side of Darkness are Don Peters, a sexually perverted correctional officer; Lowell and Maynard Griner, low-life drug pushers, killers and all around miscreants; Kent Daley, a dirtbag high school kid; Kingsman Brightleaf, a crazed militia leader; and Fritz Meschum, a gun-running wife-beater; among others. Those that straddle the fence include Frank Geary, animal control officer, ex-husband and terrifying father with severe anger management issues; Terry Coombs, Dooling police officer and second in command; and Dr. Garth Flickinger, meth tweaker and plastic surgeon. And also a sly woodlands fox.

In the early days of the epidemic, people – mostly men – discover to their regret that tearing away the gauzy cocoons that hold the sleeping women, what some men refer to as “bitch bags,” awakens wrathful souls who rip jaws off and peel faces with a single bite.

Remarks guard Don Peters, “This stuff, it’s like the ultimate P-M-S, am I right.”

“We should have seen this coming,” another man at a gathering of vengeful men says. “The women flew too high … They flew too close to the sun and God put ’em to sleep.”

Jaime Howland, a professor of communications and a wiser, cooler head, assesses things from a different slant. “The idea (of women getting ahead), badly stated, is this: Women are sane, but men are mad.” This raises protests from men ready to storm the prison. He counters by asking who, then, makes up biker gangs and gangs that have turned urban neighborhoods into free-fire zones. Who are in power and start wars “and who are the ones – with the exception of a few female helicopter pilots and such – that fight those wars? Men. Oh, and who suffers as collateral damage? Women and children, mostly.”

At the center of all this, the imprisoned Eve is anything but defenseless. She isn’t susceptible to the pull of sleep; beyond that, she has supernatural powers that enable her to know everything about everyone. She was at the battle of Troy and hated the gore, but detests the stench of Dooling prison more. She can breathe sleep into anyone, and also awaken anyone with a single breath. She commands the vast legions of brown moths that heralded the epidemic, and the hordes of rats in the tunnels and crawl spaces inside the prison. Her safety and survival offers the only path to an awakening that will save… well, ironically, the men. Women – most of them anyway – are already somewhere close to Paradise in an Adam-less Eden.

“Sleeping Beauties” bares the inimitable King storyteller’s imprint. It must have been a blast for father and son to create such a fantastic, dramatic world in such grave peril. It is a blunt, riotous reckoning of the sins and crimes of Adam’s sons against the daughters of Eve. Seven hundred and one pages of spellbinding story, and not a single page flags.

“Sleeping Beauties” is a rich feast of the imagination. And a timely tale. It casts the craziness of our world in a stark, lacerating light. The ultimate question it raises – will the awakening come soon enough?

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

]]> 0, 22 Sep 2017 16:40:06 +0000
Magicians run amok in Kat Howard’s well-crafted second fantasy novel Sun, 24 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000 New Hampshire-based writer Kat Howard understands that magic isn’t easy. As she demonstrated last year in her debut fantasy novel, “Roses and Rot,” enchantment takes a toll on those who wield it, and acts of sorcery are never without consequences.

In her second novel, “An Unkindness of Magicians,” Howard widens her narrative focus to chronicle the machinations of the secret rulers of New York City. These powerful enchanters accumulate wealth and prestige as they walk unnoticed among the normal people – trading, storing and stealing magic like a tangible commodity.

As the novel opens, the Turning, a time of great change, is about to descend upon the Unseen World, the mystical plane from which magicians draw their power. Representatives from each House of magic receive notice by text, email or elaborate handwritten note: “Fortune’s Wheel has begun its turning. When it ceases rotation, all will be made new.”

Through a series of magical duels, each House will vie for dominance over the others. At first, the contests are non-lethal, with failure more embarrassing than life-threatening. Eventually, though, some contests will be winnable only by the death of one of the opponents.

Howard peoples her book with a strongly detailed cast of magicians. Miranda Prospero considers her House situated to withstand whatever upheavals might occur. Miles Merlin runs the top-ranking House and means to keep it that way. Up-and-comer Laurent Beauchamps believes it prudent to hire a champion to stand on behalf of his House.

Kat Howard. Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Beauchamps’s champion is a wild card, a formidable contender named Sydney. Given as a child sacrifice to the House of Shadows and now released on a short leash to do the House’s bidding, Sydney fosters her own agenda of exposure and revenge. She feels a lot of justifiable anger at having been dumped into hellish servitude for decades.

Howard writes, “She planned to drag all those dirty little secrets out of the shadows and into the light, and if necessary, the light would be cast by the flames she had lit as she burned the Unseen World to the ground.”

Every participant in the Turning is doubly on edge. Magic itself seems to be malfunctioning in unpredictable ways. Magicians are getting hurt when they should be safe, and some are losing their powers altogether.

Meanwhile, a rogue magician is luring young women away from bars and killing them for the residual magic stored within their finger bones.

Many readers will likely be reminded of Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” trilogy, which brought an adult, post-modern sensibility to “The Chronicles of Narnia” and other beloved children’s fantasies. Grown-up fans of Harry Potter might also enjoy the sorcerous showdowns presented in “An Unkindness of Magicians,” and there’s enough familial double-dealing to pique the curiosities of readers who admire Neil Gaiman or Roger Zelazny.

Howard’s novel, however, isn’t merely another cookie-cutter piece of urban fantasy. It has a unique tone and rhythm, one that keeps the reader off-balance and unsure where the plot is headed – sometimes to the narrative’s betterment, sometimes to its detriment.

Early on, keeping track of each character and his or her strengths, weaknesses and loyalties proves occasionally exhausting. With their low stakes, some of the early, non-lethal duels lack urgency, and the discussions of their strategies take up too much space. But as Sydney’s plans and motives for vengeance become clearer, her story provides fuel that ups the narrative’s ante. The novel works best with her at center stage. She is the one who sees the grave injustice at the heart of the Unseen World, and her fury at the fellow practitioners who ignore it galvanizes the novel, raises it a cut above the usual fantasy page-turner and perhaps renders the book more accessible to readers who don’t normally partake of speculative fiction.

Sydney is a genuinely tragic figure, traumatized but ready to fight back, willing to take any risk necessary. She’s sharp, sarcastic, vulnerable and often scary, and Howard understands how to use her to best effect as she spars physically and verbally with her fellow magicians.

If the novel starts slowly, it ends with suitable force and sufficient surprise. Howard is a thoughtful, careful and frequently elegant writer, and her second book displays her strengths to fine effect. Haunting, humorous and unpredictable, “An Unkindness of Magicians” works its own brand of literary magic.

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

Twitter: mlberry

]]> 0 HOWARDFri, 22 Sep 2017 16:43:48 +0000
Happy 70th, Stephen King. (And many more!) Thu, 21 Sep 2017 14:22:10 +0000 Based on his output, you’d have no inkling that Stephen King turned 70 years old today. Maine’s famous author has co-authored two books in 2017, and a solo effort titled “The Outsider” is in the works.

Not bad for a guy who started publishing in the 1960s.

He has published 56 novels and almost 200 short stories. He also has five nonfiction books and many of his works have been turned into TV shows and movies, like the recently released “It.”

Whether it’s Carrie or Cujo, King has made an imprint on the publishing world and he’s brought Maine along for the ride. His native state – King was born in Scarborough and went to high school in Lisbon – serves as the setting for many of his stories. The old writing advice is to “write what you know.” King has shown he knows plenty about telling a compelling tale, and he probably has many more in store.

Show how much you know about the birthday boy: The hardest Stephen King quiz you’ll ever take

Read more about “It”: King inspired ‘It’ filmmakers to become storytellers

]]> 0, 21 Sep 2017 13:17:54 +0000
Clinton book on loss debuts with sales of 300,000 copies Thu, 21 Sep 2017 00:15:46 +0000 NEW YORK — Hillary Clinton’s “What Happened” had a big debut.

Clinton’s book about her stunning loss in 2016 to Donald Trump sold more than 300,000 copies in the combined formats of hardcover, e-book and audio, Simon & Schuster said Wednesday. The book’s hardcover sales of 168,000 was the highest opening for any nonfiction release in five years, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks around 85 percent of retail print sales. Mark Owen’s “No Easy Day,” a 2012 memoir about the killing of Osama bin Laden, sold more than 250,000 copies in its first week.

Sales for “What Happened” far exceeded the first week numbers of more than 100,000 copies for Clinton’s book about her years as secretary of state, “Hard Choices,” which came out in 2014 as she was preparing to launch her run for president. “What Happened” has been at or near the top of the best-seller list since its publication Sept. 12 despite a suspicious early wave of negative reader reviews (later pulled by Amazon), likely posted by commentators who had not yet read the book.

“The remarkable response to ‘What Happened’ indicates that, notwithstanding all that has been written and discussed over the last year, there is clearly an overwhelming desire among readers to learn about and experience, from Hillary Clinton’s singular perspective, the historic events of the 2016 election,” Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy said in a statement. “In its candor and immediacy, ‘What Happened’ is satisfying that demand.”

Clinton’s all-time opening was for her memoir, “Living History,” a 2003 release that included her first extended comments on the affair between her husband, President Bill Clinton, and White House intern Monica Lewinsky. “Living History” sold more than 600,000 copies in its first week and came out before the fall of the Borders superstore chain and struggles of Barnes & Noble weakened the hardcover market.

Clinton had promised to let her “guard down” for her first book to come out when she was neither in government nor seeking office. Responses to “What Happened,” as with so much of Clinton’s political career, have varied widely. “What Happened” has been called everything from boring and self-serving to revelatory and poignant.

According to Simon & Schuster, the book set a company record for weekly digital audio sales and sold more e-book editions in a single week than any nonfiction release from the publisher since Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs in 2011.

]]> 0 Clinton says the church was a big part of her youth, personal faith journey and sense of obligation to others.Thu, 21 Sep 2017 18:34:36 +0000
In Sarah Moriarty’s 1st novel, 4 Maine siblings struggle with adulthood and each other Sun, 17 Sep 2017 08:00:09 +0000 There’s something about a camp on the coast of Maine – the mingled scents of pine and seawater, the sharp briny salt of the food, the way the weather can go from sweating hot to a brisk chill in a few hours. The seagulls and the small boat engines. And the houses themselves, great ramshackle shingled beasts from another era, passed through generations.

Just such a house is the setting and center of Sarah Moriarty’s lyrical debut novel “North Haven.” The house and its future – and past – are the core here, around which a family regroups to try to understand loss and change.

It’s a family in the midst of a generational shift. The Willoughby clan has had losses, with the recent passing away of their mother and, three years earlier, their father. The two brothers and two sisters return over a long summer holiday weekend, but it will be their first visit without either parent there. The children are now the adults, and the challenges that accompany adulthood come head-to-head with the entrenched ways they treat each other as siblings.

Libby, the eldest sister, is struggling with being pulled in too many directions – she finds herself taking on responsibilities her mother had always handled, and she feels taken for granted by her siblings. She’s uptight and repressed, and is harboring a secret that she fears acknowledging either to herself or to her siblings.

Gwen also has a secret, though it’s not long held a secret from readers – living a promiscuous lifestyle has lead to an unplanned pregnancy, and she’s unsure whether or not she can honestly consider herself ready for the responsibilities of parenting.

Danny is the younger of the brothers and is hit hard by the loss of their mother. Depressed to the point of having thoughts of suicide, he has dropped out of college and needs desperately to be cared for without knowing how, or by whom. “Poor Danny,” Gwen thinks, “he just wanted a little more life and a little less death.”

Tom is the eldest sibling and also has a secret, but unlike Libby, his secret involves their parents, and he can’t decide if he should share it. Tom is also struggling with his own marriage, which, judging from how he treats the other people in his family, is probably past its expiration date.

Moriarty uses the secret about their parents as more of a backdrop to the siblings’ own issues than as a primary focus, which is disappointing. The patriarch and matriarch had some baggage, and what’s inside could have been explored more robustly to great effect.

Sarah Moriarty Photo by Kat Griffith

That said, Moriarty writes convincingly about the many interconnected complex moving parts involved in sibling relationships. They bicker, they snap, they know how to push each others’ buttons. They don’t always know how to comfort each other. When a stranger leaves a note, offering a large sum of money in exchange for the property, it’s a catalyst for them to step up their efforts in resolving unfinished business with each other.

“North Haven” doesn’t fit neatly into the stereotypical mold for a breezy summer beach read. The struggles of the family dominate, and the book recognizes that families don’t usually fit into neat hero/villain categories. We don’t find resolution to a problem; we find small resolutions to parts of problems, and the moving pieces are like a game of Tetris, or a Rubik’s Cube.

In its own way, the Willoughbys’ house is like the fifth sibling, the oldest child that does what it can to shield the younger ones through the innocent misadventures of childhood and the less innocent choices the adults make. In the end, the house grows up and moves, joins with another family, starts over. There are a lot of loose ends and ambiguity at the conclusion – much like life itself, which is admirable, but also frustrating. Sometimes we want the resolutions in books that we don’t get in our real lives.

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

]]> 0 MoriartyFri, 15 Sep 2017 16:52:11 +0000
Seth Rogoff’s 1st novel shows a ‘beguiling’ writer of a book in which nothing is as it seems Sun, 17 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Sy Kirschbaum is hours away from completing his translation of a – in his opinion, the – masterpiece of modern Czech literature, by a writer named Horak. A labor of love (and, we learn, close to hate), it has taken him 17 years. Jan Horak is the greatest dissident writer of them all, but he is an egomaniacal monster. Alone in Prague, Sy broods over his struggle and his imminent emancipation.

He has also been unstrung by an eruption from his own emotional past. A short time earlier (imprecision is endemic in this book) Sy made a trip to Maine, his first since being consumed by his translation. A letter from the love of his life, Ida Fields, has summoned him back. Ida, who is the wife of his best friend, Gabe Slatky, is seriously ill, whether physically or mentally is unclear. His first stop on reaching Portland is a rendezvous with Gabe in a grubby bar in the basement of a hotel.

What takes place there over the next eight hours is a virtuoso demonstration of shape-shifting that includes, among other things, the book’s “Preface” Sy never writes.

Seth Rogoff is one of the most beguiling writers I have read in a long time. He needs to be because very little in “First, the Raven” (a reference to the raven sent out of the ark by Noah) is as it appears. On the first page, the author tells the reader, “one doesn’t always get to the essential by traveling a straight path… the essential bends and twists; it spirals off into the distance.” You have been warned.

Rogoff was born in Portland, has lived in Berlin for 10 years and now resides in Prague. All three cities make their appearance in the novel, but even the Portland bar, though called the Captain’s Cabin and decorated in maritime kitsch, exudes mitteleuropisch noire.

Seth Rogoff Photo by Tomáš Železný

Sy and Gabe have much to discuss, including a long-ago affair between Sy and Ida. As a blizzard gets going outside, they are joined by two women. On another plane, beyond the snowstorm, Ida and Horak, like two electro-magnetic poles, keep the quintet in the bar dodging and weaving. Quintet, because the protagonist of the novel Sy has translated, Josef Kostel, hovers over the discussion throughout, merging now with his creator, now with the translator. Everyone around the bar table has a doppelganger.

In some ways, “First, the Raven” reminded me of James Cowan’s books, “A Mapmaker’s Dream” and “A Troubadour’s Testament.” In both, a historical figure gets the chance to spread his wings in post-modern meditations. Rogoff takes the extra step of inventing his main character, though one as fixed in his historical milieu as Cowan’s.

Actually, Rogoff has invented two main characters and a masterwork for each one. Horak’s book, “Blue, Red, Gray,” is named for Kostel’s greatest painting. Kostel’s career as an artist (and indeed, Horak’s as a dissident) follows the horrors of the 20th century in Czechoslovakia. Describing imaginary works of transcendence, whether written or painted, has challenged many writers. Early Kostel is recognizably like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, but it’s harder to imagine his ultimate paintings, which he calls “color-light forms, or simply ‘flashes.'” Instead, Rogoff tells us how they affect the viewer. With supreme irony, an actual description of “Blue, Red, Gray” is left to a trio of commissar critics who deconstruct it in Marxist terms.

Living in Prague – and himself a translator of Kafka – Rogoff has a deep familiarity with the city that he is in no particular hurry to share with the reader. The result for this reader was a blurring between the actual and the fictional, certainly consistent with the rest of the book. Thank heavens for Wikipedia. Jan Zizka, who is mentioned early on, was an early-15th-century Czech hero. On the other hand, a heretical movement inspired by Jacob’s struggle with the angel, on which Rogoff gives a crucial exegesis, appears to be his own creation. One of its followers is a “gnostic interlocutor of Pico della Mirandola” (said to be the first person famous for being famous) called Herschel of Ancona. Googling him led to a chic line of backpacks, women’s purses and the like. I would have found Herschel of Ancona irresistible too.

Rogoff’s book shimmers in the reflections of all its levels and subplots, some of them only ever dimly seen. His command of all the intricacies he has created is dazzling. Even the typos are esoteric, ‘waive’ for ‘wave’, ‘wrung’ for ‘rung.’ Beautifully designed in a small format, “First, the Raven” is a fascinating and impressive first novel.

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

]]> 0 RogoffFri, 15 Sep 2017 17:01:43 +0000
Book review: Tale of dog and writer goes to unexpected places Sun, 10 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000 The universal theme of attachment shines through in Eileen Myles’ unconventional ‘Afterglow (a dog memoir).’

Stories about dogs and their owners can be heart-rending (”Old Yeller,” “The Art of Racing in the Rain”), but they can just as easily pose grand questions about our own humanity and the fundamentally unknowable aspects of looking into the eyes of another species.

Eileen Myles’ “Afterglow (a dog memoir)” is the story of Rosie, Myles’ canine companion from 1990 to 2006. It ventures into some of the places one might expect from an account of owning a dog from puppyhood until its death, including a number of moving descriptions of Rosie’s physical decline at the end of her life. This begins relatively early in the narrative: In the third chapter, a paragraph begins with the sentence “Rosie began dying in June, having those mysterious fits.”

Myles’ matter-of-fact prose doesn’t make the book any less wrenching to read, nor does telling the story of Rosie’s death early in the book reduce the pain of a primally moving narrative.

But while the story of Myles’ bond with Rosie is at the center of this book, it’s not the only one being told. Instead, Myles uses a familiar narrative as the springboard for a weighty exploration of several grand themes and a series of unpredictable digressions – from the metaphysical to the familial.

Myles has been active in the literary world since the late 1970s. More recently, a character based on Myles appeared on the acclaimed show “Transparent.”

Myles’ work, which encompasses poetry, art criticism and fiction, has received increased attention as of late, including an acclaimed poetry collection, “I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975-2014”; and new editions of the novels “Cool for You” and “Chelsea Girls” – the latter includes a section inspired by time Myles spent working in Maine. (Myles was visiting faculty at Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture this past July.)

Myles’ fiction is frequently autobiographical: “Chelsea Girls” and “Inferno (A Poet’s Novel)” both borrow heavily from Myles’ life and read like memoir. But much as the “novel” designation on those books can be deceiving, the “memoir” in the subtitle of “Afterglow” shouldn’t suggest that this is a work of kitchen-sink realism. Myles makes forays into the philosophical, the experimental and the absurd – including one chapter in which Rosie, after her death, appears on a talk show populated by puppets and engages in a heated discussion about the similarities between the relationships of pets and puppets to humans.

Myles also frequently writes in Rosie’s voice: “So yes I taught her to write. I showed her the way. Work changes in 1990 when I came on the scene.”

Despite the book’s unorthodox structure, the overarching theme in “Afterglow,” namely how Rosie fundamentally altered Myles’ life for the better, is a familiar one in narratives of humans and animals. And for all of the ways in which Myles remembers Rosie, the book also reveals a tremendous sense of absence and loss.

Some passages are addressed directly – and candidly – to Rosie: “But still I’m carrying that little dead dog. The new fat around my hips and waist is kind of you and how we don’t go on our walks anymore.”

Given the bleaker aspects of its subject, “Afterglow” is not always an easy book to read.

With great candor, Myles uses the emotional intimacy of a human’s relationship with a dog to discuss larger questions of emotional intimacy. Early in the book, Myles recollects a reading where, “I read a long one about dogs I wrote before I ever even had one. It was about attachment. How I wanted it. Needed it.”

That could well be an epigraph for the narrative that follows: Through its idiosyncrasy and specificity, “Afterglow” illustrates the lasting bond between humans and dogs in a new way.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of the novel “Reel” and the short story collection “Transitory” and has reviewed books for Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.

]]> 0, 08 Sep 2017 17:31:47 +0000
Book review: Black lives mattered in early Maine Sun, 10 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000 One still occasionally hears the mistaken refrain that no black people lived in colonial Maine, and even if a few enslaved Africans were here in the 17th century, such individuals were more likely servants, treated decently, a passing phase in local history.

I’d have thought that “Maine’s Visible Black History: The First Chronicle of Its People” (2006), that majestic overview volume by Harriet B. Price and Gerald E. Talbot, would have unclogged the downspouts of history. Now, if Patricia Q. Wall’s carefully researched, well-argued new history, “Lives of Consequence: Blacks in Early Kittery & Berwick in the Massachusetts Province of Maine,” fails to put an end to this absurd invention, then minds are not open to fact.

“Lives of Consequence” is published and printed by a triad of leading Piscataqua historical groups. Furthermore, Wall, an exacting researcher and former executive director of the Darien Historical Society in Connecticut, writes on a personal and town level using original documents and vital records, and not only listing Americans of African origin (some enslaved, others free) but creating biographies of as many people as possible.

As the ancient Egyptians put it: “Say their names and they live again.”

Remarkably, Wall has documented 443 persons of color in just two small Maine towns before 1790. She has uncovered references to “all my Negroes” or “any four of my Negroes” that could take the population even higher.

No researcher before Wall has compiled anywhere near the amount and detail of statistical information on the civil, home, religious and military lives of black people in Maine in such a microcosm. If anyone doubts the “Lives of Consequence” assertion that many blacks lived in Maine, let the service record stand: more than 40 black men under arms, from the Kittery Militia in 1713, to the Louisbourg Expedition during the French and Indian War in 1757, to death at Valley Forge in 1776.

Others served on the Continental ships Raleigh and Ranger, as well as as privateers. The appendices, for the historic record, also list slave owners, some of whom let their slaves buy freedom to fight in the Rebel ranks.

Often, we are given a name of a person attached to little more. Consider these two: George & Scipio (Pepperrell), Dec. 27, 1742, listed under Baptism. This is typical.

On occasion, the man or woman emerges almost in full form. Anyone who has read about the area and era is bound to have come across William Black (aka Black Will), who flourished between 1683 and 1727. He bought his way out of bondage, owned land and convinced an owner to set another slave free. In Colin Woodard’s recent review of South Berwick’s lively Counting House Museum exhibition, “Forgotten Frontier: Untold Stories of the Piscataqua” (Maine Sunday Telegram, July 30, 2017), mention is made of this remarkable man: “Will Black – whose descendants helped settle Orr’s and Bailey Islands here in Maine.”

Most historians have referenced Black and his family but sometimes using secondary sources. Wall untangles all the complex information and gives the best word portrait so far.

If the reader wants poignant action, consider the “warning out” laws. Town officials were scrupulous about poor laws, which stated that the town was responsible for taking care of any dependent person born in that community without a supporting family.

In 1771, Bet Harris (alias Black Bet), a homeless and pregnant Indian, sought shelter in Berwick.

She was taken in by a kind family, but some eight months later the selectmen “warned” her out of town, taking the expectant mother 25 miles by foot to Arundel (the town of her origin). The town fathers there escorted her back to Berwick, and so it went five times.

Finally, Tristram Warren, the good Samaritan who took her in, paid expenses but sued the town through the county.

These were not happy times, as is made clear by the gathering, unfolding and careful reading of the scattered but preserved manuscripts.

Wall has sorted out a small world of information and made a distant culture more distinct.

Historians and general readers will salute her efforts.

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, 08 Sep 2017 17:34:17 +0000
Alex Lake’s ‘Copycat’ has a clever Facebook-based premise Sun, 03 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000 “Copycat” is a psychological thriller with an intriguing premise. Sarah Havenant is a young doctor who has returned with her husband Ben and their three children to practice in Barrow, Maine, where she grew up. She receives a “friend” request on Facebook from someone she knew in childhood who also plans to return to Barrow. Her friends asks which Facebook page is hers, as there are two. Curious, Havenant checks and discovers there are, indeed, two Facebook pages bearing her name, though she has only created one. The second one, however, has all her personal information about family.

Someone seemingly is impersonating Sarah.

“Copycat” is Maine writer Alex Lake’s third psychological thriller. It starts with great promise. No-frills prose and taut plot development easily pull the reader in. Posts including photos begin to appear on Sarah’s “other” account, including one of Sarah and Ben at a restaurant having an intimate dinner. And photos of her with two girlfriends out to eat. More disturbing, a photo from inside her house showing off her new kitchen. Yet more disturbing still, a photo of her daughter in a school play. Then Sarah receives a request from her other to become Facebook friends. Someone is seemingly stalking her.

Really strange things begin to happen. Sarah goes to the pet store to buy her children a pet goldfish. Later that day she receives a notice she’s been tagged in an online post. No photo, only “Got my goldfish. She’s a beauty.” When Sarah gets home, her husband and children are upset because they found a dead goldfish in a bag in the house. Someone seems to be trying very hard to mess with her head.

Who would do this? A jilted boyfriend from college? Her friend who has recently returned to town? Sarah confides in her friend, Jean, a neighbor and a widow, now single mother of two stepsons. None of it makes sense. Both Jean and Sarah’s husband Ben are distressed and provide unconditional support.

From the start, as the story moves forward, short interspersed chapters give voice to an unidentified tormentor who savors the agony that Sarah is no doubt going through. “The Facebook account is merely the hook that lodges in the mouth of the fish … the fish struggles to free itself, but all it manages is to embed the hook deeper,” the tormentor states. “Fun. This will be fun. Fishing always is. Revenge always is.”

Books from Amazon arrive for Sarah. “Coping with Depression,” and “Living with Bipolar: Family Strategies to Cope with a Bipolar Parent.” Both are ordered on her account.

Her husband’s doubts begin to grow. Then he receives an email from the other Sarah confessing to a tryst early in their marriage. His doubts are now joined by anger.

At the same time, doubts seriously take hold in the reader’s mind, as well. Is it possible, as one therapist friend tells Ben, that Sarah is experiencing fugue states where some secret alter ego possesses her?

The plotting and the glee in the interspersed chapters from the tormenter’s point of view begin to be seen in a potentially alternative light. Is Sarah perhaps crazy?

Though the book is hard to put down, it has numerous weaknesses. Secondary figures show little real character development. And when the plot takes a radical turn two-thirds of the way in, the big reveal lacks impact, if not credulity, because the plot leap is too far without any preliminary scaffolding.

Which is too bad, as Lake has talent for imaginative plotting. Until the major reveal, the reader – like Sarah’s husband Ben – begins to question Sarah’s protests that she is the victim, not the perpetrator. Lake leads us to question her sanity. But Lake forfeits it all by taking the easy path to resolution, failing to truly deliver on the early promise of the story.

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

]]> 0, 01 Sep 2017 17:43:43 +0000
In a new collection of essays, John McPhee discusses his craft and his times Sun, 03 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000 When you consider the range and complexity of topics that John McPhee has illuminated in his essays and books, it’s clear that he’s no ordinary writer. Any topic that he turns his eye to – the Alaskan wilderness, basketball legend Bill Bradley, birchbark canoes – earns the author’s scrutiny as if from the inside out. McPhee is an interpreter, of sorts, a decoder of microcosms who converts specialized language into eloquent prose. With 32 books to his name, and four decades of teaching at Princeton, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, now 86, is widely viewed as the dean of modern long-form nonfiction.

McPhee’s latest book, “Draft No. 4: On The Writing Process” is a collection of essays that originally appeared in The New Yorker. Compiled from his years in the field and the classroom, the essays are equal parts personal reflection, storytelling, and writing manual. While there’s plenty of shop talk, including analysis of his own work, McPhee dispenses an ample dose of literary gossip and lore from his 50-plus years on staff at The New Yorker. In other words, this is a book for writers, editors and readers of all stripes.

McPhee regards writing as a machine with many working parts. “The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner,” he says. “You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with.” Later, he adds, “A piece of writing has to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there …. Beginning, middle, end. Aristotle, Page 1.”

Such no-nonsense prose is quintessential McPhee, which leads to some of his pet peeves. Among them: Editors believe it’s their right to alter an author’s headline or title, which McPhee considers misguided. Since a title is integral to the work, he argues, only the writer should change it. Similarly, people often grab a thesaurus when searching for the right word, though a dictionary, with its fuller range of meanings, would better supply the nuances they seek.

John McPhee Photo by Yolanda Whitman

Perhaps most entertaining are the sections devoted to The New Yorker, which detail McPhee’s ties to legendary editor William Shawn, and others. He describes policies at the magazine, notably a former longstanding refusal to incorporate vulgar slang in its pages – a section that’s both fascinating and funny. He also provides intricate examples of fact-checking that demonstrate how the New Yorker has come to represent the gold standard in that arena.

Significantly, the book addresses key issues that confront anyone who attempts to write – what to include or omit, how to organize a body of material, how to cut judiciously when a piece runs long – all neatly embedded within stories. One can well imagine McPhee in front of a class, his students the fortunate heirs to his narrative style of instruction. Over the years, those students have included such authors as David Remnick, Peter Hessler and Richard Preston.

Above all, McPhee is that most sympathetic author who, notwithstanding a long and distinguished career, has managed to remain humble. He contends that there are two kinds of writers – “those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure” – and all of them can profit from an editor’s guidance. Regarding his strategy for interviews, he says, “I have no technique for asking questions. I just stay there and fade away as I watch people do what they do.”

The beauty of “Draft No. 4” lies partly in our watching a master deconstruct the nearly invisible habits of his work. The result celebrates a life – probing, colorful, singular – devoted to writing.

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, 06 Sep 2017 17:29:19 +0000
Maine author Elaine Ford dies of brain tumor at 78 Fri, 01 Sep 2017 20:29:20 +0000 Elaine Ford, a novelist, retired University of Maine professor and seeker not of fame and fortune, but truth on the page, died Sunday at her home in Topsham at age 78. The cause was a brain tumor, diagnosed this year.

Poet Wesley McNair, who is writing the preface for a new collection of her short stories set in Maine to be published by Islandport Press next year, described Ford’s writing as a kind of “democratic literature” that drew him to ask her to contribute to several anthologies, including 2008’s “A Place Called Maine: 24 Authors on the Maine Experience.”

“She is one of the few writers who has been able to put into words what life is like for the sort of Mainers who stay here year-round,” McNair said. “The lifers. I wanted something of that grit, that special realism of hers, in the anthologies.”

She wrote tightly and concisely, McNair said, reworking and compressing until she found the nuance she wanted, nuance of the nature to surprise a reader. “There was no wasted space on the page of a Ford story,” McNair said.


Ford and her husband of 40 years, Arthur Boatin, were not native Mainers, and Boatin laughs about what an uninformed decision they made in moving to Milbridge in 1985 from the Boston area. “We really didn’t know Maine well,” he said. They were seeking the country, trees and inexpensive property, all of which they found. “We had no idea that even Mainers considered Washington County remote.”

But Ford warmed quickly to her new home, taking a job in the English department at the University of Maine soon after the move – she rented an apartment in Bangor and stayed there half the week. Her friend and former colleague at Orono, Harvey Kail, called her “a truly dedicated teacher” of creative writing and literature and said she was instrumental in shaping the department’s creative writing program. At Orono, she was known for her wit and her ironic take on human experience, a woman whose radiant smile provided contrast to her sharp realism on the page.

“She was both sardonic and charming simultaneously,” Kail said.

Boatin said Ford’s early influences were Thomas Hardy, Bernard Malamud and Eudora Welty. Of contemporary writers, he said, “she admired without limit Alice Munro.” She could recite whole verses of T.S. Eliot’s poetry without pause. Before her illness, she had been planning to reread a favorite comic novel, “A House for Mr. Biswas,” by V.S. Naipaul, he said.

But after the diagnosis of a terminal cancer, Ford prepared for surgery, hoping to extend her life by months. She and Boatin had moved from Milbridge to Harpswell in 2001, and in 2015 to Highland Green, a retirement community in Topsham. There she welcomed visits from all four of her still living children from her first marriage (a son predeceased her by about 15 years) and her 10 grandchildren. The surgery helped spare her some pain, Boatin said, but ultimately did not gain her time, and Ford decided to forgo chemotherapy. There were no lucky breaks in the arc of her illness. “If I had to find something good about this experience, it was the kindness of the people we encountered, and their generosity,” Boatin said.


Ford released her first Maine-set novel, “Monkey Bay,” in 1989 from Viking Penguin, and that year New York Times reviewer Howard Frank Mosher described it both as “invariably well-written” and reminiscent “of Andrew Wyeth’s stark paintings, which use the terrain of northern New England to explore a much larger emotional landscape.”

That publication, her fourth novel, marked the end of what Boatin called “this golden decade” in publishing for the New Jersey native and Radcliffe graduate. “That is not to say that she didn’t continue to write, but she was never able to have such a successful period of publishing,” Boatin said. “A lot of her completed novels were turned down.”

Among them was her most recent, “God’s Red Clay,” a fictionalized account of her ancestors in Alabama and Mississippi, who were slave owners. After research trips and a work on a nonfiction narrative about the family history, Ford wrote on her website that she was moved to write a new novel: “I’d collected such an array of good stories that my fiction-writing impulse – which had lain dormant – re-emerged.”

That book is finished, Boatin said, “but I am sorry to say it doesn’t look like it will be published,” despite having made the rounds of publishers.

“The reality of publishing is that it is really, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ ” Boatin said. Ford had won a Guggenheim fellowship and two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, but her sales were modest. “The publishers were always looking at the bottom line and she was never a best-seller.”

What did that winding down of acceptances mean for a writer who worked assiduously, her husband said, sitting down every day to write, sometimes all day long? Sometimes the pages were thrown away, sometimes only few words came. But she was doing what she believed in and she did not care about being a best-seller. As McNair put it, fame and fortune were never what Ford was after. “It was about words, dammit,” McNair said.

“She was a person who felt you should be active,” Boatin said. “You should be useful and you should contribute something to this world and to mankind.”

It was he who plucked her first novel, “The Playhouse” out of a drawer where she’d put the typed manuscript after an agent had unsuccessfully shopped it around in the 1970s. They’d known each other for years at that point – Boatin had been in graduate school with Ford’s first husband – and he was vested in her as a woman and a writer. He mailed excerpts out to dozens of publishers until he got a bite from McGraw-Hill.

“She was launched,” he said. “That was the thing. She had encouragement to continue.”

Boatin is working closely with Islandport Press on Ford’s last collection of short stories, “This Time Might be Different: Stories of Maine,” which is slated for release in March.

“She was never a person to complain or whine or say, ‘Why am I being overlooked?’ ” Boatin said. “If she had a disappointment, I think it was that she didn’t reach more readers. I hope that in the future, she still can.”

You can find a number of Elaine Ford’s stories online at her website, Her friend Harvey Kail recommends starting with “Rita Lafferty’s Lucky Summer.”


]]> 0 esfy seyf seyf ysef ysfysey fseyfysef ysfy seyf sefy seyfse f ysef ysfysey fseyfysef ysfy seyf sefy seyfseFri, 01 Sep 2017 20:30:53 +0000
Rockland celebrates the life and poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay Sun, 27 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 ROCKLAND — Rockland celebrates one of its own with the Millay Arts and Poetry Festival, with readings, an original play and live music throughout downtown, all designed to offer insight into the life and circumstances of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Millay was born in Rockland in 1892.

“She herself was a multi-faceted artist, not just a poet. She sang, played music, acted, wrote operas and plays,” said festival producer Alva Hascall. “We want to grow the appreciation of (Millay) and what she contributed to the literary arts and all of the arts. We are trying to bring many different audiences together, all loosely based on Edna St. Vincent Millay, her works and her life.”

The festival, Sept. 7-9, is presented by the Millay House Rockland at venues across downtown, including the Farnsworth Art Museum, the Strand Theatre, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and Harbor Square Gallery.

There are more than 35 events and performances that will include more than 80 authors, poets, actors, musicians and visual artists. Among those participating is national poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith, Millay biographer Nancy Milford and Richard Blanco, presidential inaugural poet and Maine resident.

The DaPonte String Quartet will perform, as will the Edna Project, a New York-based trio that sets Millay’s poetry to music.

The Millay House Rockland is a nonprofit organization that is restoring Millay’s home and using it as a base to celebrate the poet’s life, poetry in general and the arts of midcoast Maine. Hascall hopes the festival becomes a staple of the fall arts calendar for Rockland and the region. “Rockland is getting a name as an arts center, and we felt it was time to grow an arts-based festival,” he said.

A playwright, Hascall contributed an original play, “Vincent,” which will get its premiere during the festival, with New York actress Sarah MacDonnell in the lead role and the DaPonte String Quartet providing music on stage during the performance. The play is set near the end of Millay’s life, while she is looking back and contemplating.

MacDonnell and the DaPonte String Quartet also will perform a Poetry Concert at Harbor Square Gallery, in which MacDonnell will read Millay poetry and the quartet will respond. Visual artists also are exhibiting artwork inspired by Millay.

Maine writer Carl Little will moderate a gathering of Millay scholars and biographers, and there will be poetry jams, open mics and readings and workshops by Maine poets.

“We’re really trying to create a true arts festival, with something for everyone,” Hascall said.

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

Twitter: pphbkeyes

]]> 0 in Rockland in 1892, Edna St. Vincent Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923.Fri, 25 Aug 2017 14:05:09 +0000
More fall books: 3 to read, by Stephen and Owen King, Sarah Perry and Linden Frederick Sun, 27 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 “Sleeping Beauties.” By Stephen King and Owen King. Scribner. Sept. 26, 2017. 720 pages. $32.50.

It’s unusual for two Kings to rule simultaneously, but Stephen King and his son Owen have collaborated on a disaster novel that plays to their individual strengths. “Sleeping Beauties” places its action in a small Appalachian town, where the residents – cops, homeowners, and the inmates and staff of a women’s prison – witness the first signs of a global pandemic. As wives, mothers and daughters fall asleep, they exude a gauzy material that covers them like a cocoon. Soon the desperate men of Dooley start to panic, building to a bloody confrontation. This father/son horror thriller may be perfect bedtime reading as the days grow shorter and darker.

– Mike Berry, Maine Sunday Telegram contributing reviewer

“After the Eclipse.” By Sarah Perry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Sept. 26, 2017. 368 pages. $27.

In her forthcoming memoir, Maine native Sarah Perry crafts a stunning memorial to her mother Crystal. Just days after a partial eclipse in 1994, Sarah’s single mother was murdered in their Bridgton home. Sarah, who was only 12 at the time, heard everything from her bedroom just feet away. In “After the Eclipse,” she conducts a personal investigation into not just the crime, but her mother’s life – and how her sudden disappearance changed the trajectory of Sarah’s own life. With rich prose, Sarah Perry tackles grief, and how we persevere in the face of tragedy.

– Josh Christie, co-owner, Print: A Bookstore, Portland

“Night Stories: Fifteen Paintings and the Stories They Inspired.” By Linden Frederick. Glitterati Arts Incorporated. Oct. 7, 2017. 132 pages. $45.

For years, I have kept tacked above my writing desk a dozen or so 3-inch by 3-inch prints of paintings by Belfast-based artist Linden Frederick. They are unpeopled scenes – rundown markets, near-vacant motels, lonely-lit homes – yet they ooze with the shadows and implication of human touch. Not since Edward Hopper has an American painter made pictures so dripping with tantalizing narrative possibilities. In the forthcoming collection “Night Stories,” 15 writers – including Maine greats Tess Gerritsen, Lily King, Lois Lowry, Richard Russo and Elizabeth Strout – have each taken a new nocturnal Frederick painting and responded with an original short story. For centuries, poets have been reacting to visual art with ekphrastic poems, whereas fiction writers more often begin a story via an inciting incident or compelling character. It’s about time more fiction writers got into the ekphrastic business. I can’t wait to read “Night Stories” and see what this talented group has woven from Frederick’s mysterious and captivating paintings.

– Joshua Bodwell, executive director, Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance

]]> 0, 25 Aug 2017 13:43:24 +0000
More fall literary events: Belfast Poetry Festival, novelist Seth Rogoff and poet Wesley McNair Sun, 27 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 The Belfast Poetry Festival marks its 13th year with what organizers call an “all-arts festival,” which features poetry and includes a variety show, short film festival, art exhibition and literary showcase. All events will take place on Oct. 14 at Troy A. Howard Middle School, and the centerpiece is an evening of poetry, visual arts and performing arts collaborations involving 13 poets, five visual artists and two groups of performing artists. All events are free and open to the public.

Portland-born author Seth Rogoff will read from his novel, “First, the Raven: A Preface,” at 7 p.m. Sept. 8 at Print: A Bookstore on Munjoy Hill in Portland. Rogoff, who lives in Prague, writes about a rendezvous, after 20 years apart, between childhood friends translator Sy Kirschbaum and playwright Gabe Slatky inside a Maine bar during a blizzard. Kirschbaum has devoted his professional life to translating an epic Czech novel and has been summoned back to his hometown by his former lover, Ida, who is also Slatky’s wife.

Former Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair will tour the state this fall to read from his latest collection of poetry, “The Unfastening.” Photo by Malcolm Cochran

Former Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair of Mercer tours Maine to promote his latest collection of poetry, “The Unfastening.” Published by David R. Godine, the book combines sorrow, humor and joy and asks the question: When faced with conflict and struggle, how do you fasten yourself back down again? McNair will read from the book at 7 p.m. Sept. 20 at Patten Free Library, Bath; 6:30 p.m. Oct. 17, Portland Public Library; 4 p.m. Oct. 27, Robinson Room, Miller Library, Colby College, Waterville; 7 p.m. Nov. 2, Merrill Library, Yarmouth. The reading at Colby coincides with the launch of a new Colby website about the making of the “The Unfastening.”

]]> 0 Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair will tour the state this fall to read from his latest collection of poetry, "The Unfastening."Fri, 25 Aug 2017 13:46:54 +0000
Autumn leaves pulpy summer fare behind Sun, 27 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 We can hardly believe the end of summer is looming. The heat is ferocious and so are the soaking rain storms that turn our streets into canals. And who knows how many hurricane scares lie ahead?

But we’re so close to fall. The kids are complaining about heading back to school soon (parents, oddly, are not). We busted the budget with our tax-free shopping weekend. Traffic will soon be back to its regularly scheduled, miserable, soul-crushing disaster.

And the fall books are almost here.

Falls books are different from summer books (which you’re still probably trying to catch up on). They’re literary. They’re Important. But they are also often so, so good.

So to get you ready for September a little early, we present the books you don’t want to miss this fall.

“Sourdough,” Robin Sloan (MCD/Farrar Straus and Giroux): In his novel “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” Sloan unraveled a mystery about a web designer who takes a job in a peculiar all-night Bay area book shop. New technology clashed, then melded, with classic history. “Sourdough” promises a similar sort of tech and analog mashup, in this case involving the food industry: A software engineer learns to bake bread and uncovers a secret underground market. We’re hungry for it. Out Sept. 5.

“The Golden House,” Salman Rushdie (Random): “The Golden House” opens with the arrival in America of a mysterious foreign billionaire and his three grown sons, who settle in an exclusive neighborhood in Greenwich Village. Early buzz has compared Rushdie’s novel about the Obama years as a modern “Bonfire of the Vanities.” We’ll have to read it and see for ourselves. Out Sept. 5.

“Little Fires Everywhere,” Celeste Ng (Penguin): In her first novel, the devastating but beautiful “Everything I Never Told You,” Ng recounted the events leading up to the death of a teenage girl in 1970s Ohio. Ng, who excels at exploring the push and pull of family, culture and community, returns to the Cleveland suburbs in “Little Fires Everywhere,” about the Richardson family and their attraction to a mysterious mother and daughter who become tenants. Out Sept. 12.

“Forest Dark,” Nicole Krauss (Harper): Author of the haunting novel “The History of Love,” which ranges from Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe to contemporary Brighton Beach, Krauss lays out the story of an elderly lawyer and a young novelist whose paths cross in the Israeli desert. If it’s half as moving and lyrical as “The History of Love,” we will be pleased. Out Sept. 12.

“The Living Infinite,” Chantel Acevedo (Europa Editions): Miami novelist Acevedo, author of “The Distant Marvels” and an associate professor of English in the MFA Program at the University of Miami, revisits Spain’s Bourbon Court in this historical novel about the rebellious Spanish Princess Eulalia, who traveled to revolutionary Cuba and the Chicago World’s Fair. Out Sept. 12.

“Five-Carat Soul,” James McBride (Riverhead): McBride’s hilarious, National Book Award-winning novel “The Good Lord Bird” – about a freed slave boy who disguises himself as a girl and falls in with John Brown’s abolitionists – was a master class in narrative voice. The stories in “Five-Carat Soul” haven’t been published before, but we feel certain that McBride – also the author of nonfiction works “The Color of Water” and “Kill ‘Em and Leave: The Search for James Brown and the American Soul” – will employ his satiric humor and prodigious ability to flesh out unforgettable characters in every story. Out Sept. 26.

“Here in Berlin,” Cristina García (Counterpoint): The city acts as a character in this new novel by the author of “Dreaming in Cuban,” “The Aguero Sisters and “King of Cuba.” García uses an unnamed narrator to reveal the stories of Berlin through its history and its people, examining how war, politics and their aftermath shape a place. Out Oct. 1.

“Fresh Complaint,” Jeffrey Eugenides (FSG): One word – “Middlesex” – makes this collection of short stories one of the most anticipated releases of the fall. Also the author of “The Virgin Suicides” and the underrated “The Marriage Plot,” Eugenides won the Pulitzer Prize for “Middlesex,” set in his hometown of Detroit. “Fresh Complaint” is his first story collection. Out Oct. 3.

“Manhattan Beach,” Jennifer Egan (Scribner): The most anticipated novel of the fall comes from Egan, who won the Pulitzer in 2011 for her terrific novel-in-stories “A Visit from the Goon Squad” (read it now if you haven’t). “Manhattan Beach” is a complete turnaround from that post-modern masterpiece; it’s an historical novel that opens during America’s Great Depression and examines the effects of war on American lives. Out Oct. 3.

“We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” Ta-Nehisi Coates (One World): The follow-up to Coates’ National Book Award-winning “Between the World and Me” is made up of essays about the Obama era and how racial and cultural politics played out against it. Eight of the works are new, and a handful have been previously published in The Atlantic, including “The Case for Reparations.” Out Oct. 3.

“Ali,” Jonathan Eig (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): He was loved. He was hated. He was the greatest, and yet until now there has not been a definitive biography of Muhammad Ali, who died in 2016. Eig, author of “Get Capone” and “The Birth of the Pill,” aims to remedy that oversight with his latest book about one of the most compelling American figures of the 20th century. Out Oct. 3.

“Grant,” Ron Chernow (Penguin): There’s no telling if an enterprising genius will turn Chernow’s latest historical biography into a smash Broadway musical, but stranger things have happened. After all, Lin-Manuel Miranda read Chernow’s last book and thought: “Hey, you know what, I’m going to write a hip-hop show based on the life of Alexander Hamilton.” Now Chernow follows up his monster bestseller with the aim of changing the bad reputation of our 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant. Will he succeed? Well, he did help keep Hamilton on the $10 bill. Out Oct. 10.

“Future Home of the Living God,” Louise Erdrich (Harper): Winner of the National Book Award for “The Round House,” Erdrich has spent her career weaving stories around the fascinating people of an Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota (we loved her last novel, “LaRose,” to distraction). Now she turns her hand to a dystopian novel about a young mother-to-be in a world in which women are giving birth to a primitive species. If that plot doesn’t give you chills, nothing will. Out Nov. 14.

]]> 0, 25 Aug 2017 14:05:06 +0000
Book review: In her latest novel, Gabrielle Zevin reimagines Monica Lewinsky’s infamous affair Mon, 21 Aug 2017 14:24:10 +0000 Monica Lewinsky was neither the first, nor the last, political intern to gain notoriety for a sex scandal. She was, however, an early example of how a news story can morph into a punchline and become part of our national history, via the internet.

Though her infamy dates back two decades, people still opine about “that woman,” as if we actually know her. It’s a narrative as fixed as Mount Rushmore in the public imagination. In the face of this, acclaimed author Gabrielle Zevin has reimagined the Lewinsky tale in an irresistible new novel, “Young Jane Young.”

It’s 1999, when 20-year-old Aviva Grossman starts her internship in the office of Aaron Levin, a married congressman from South Florida. Hired as a gofer, Aviva proves herself savvy in the brave new world of internet searching. She becomes known as the “fact-check girl.” As a result, she wins the attention of her boss, a charmer who enjoys hanging out with the young staff. One thing leads to another, and their affair begins.

After Levin is in a car accident, however, an investigation ensues – and with it, the outing of their affair and the blog Aviva wrote anonymously about her internship. Thus “Avivagate” is born, followed by years of public humiliation and slut-shaming. Aviva, whose blunder metastasizes online, instantly becomes a pariah. The congressman, meanwhile, goes on to win yet more terms in office.

Gabrielle Zevin

In one sense, this is a story about the modernizing of shame – its speed, cruelty and permanence in the digital age. “In high school, you read ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ and it occurs to you that this is what the internet is like,” Aviva says. “The discovery of your shame is one click away.” Then later: “You need to find employment, but you are internet infamous. There is nowhere you can move that is far enough away. … The problem is your name.”

The power of Zevin’s book lies in its main characters, a quirky estrogen-laced tribe; the book’s multi-layered structure; and the big-heartedness at its core. Zevin has divided the book into five sections, each representing a key player, and the story gains depth as it moves back and forth in time.

We meet Rachel Grossman, the helicopter mom whose daughter brings shame upon the family; Jane Young, formerly Aviva, who has changed her name and decamped to Allison Springs, Maine, near Portland, where she starts a new life as a wedding planner; Ruby, Jane’s plucky young daughter; and Embeth Levin, wife of the philandering congressman. Finally we meet Aviva herself, whose version of events unfolds in the second-person style of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series.

Zevin’s defense of Jane is a plea for sanity and compassion. The author contrives a series of ironic, often funny, encounters that show how Aviva’s past continues to stalk Jane, and even her mother, in the present. At one extreme is the man who, upon hearing the forename Aviva, launches into a tirade about the scandal that was a blight on South Florida, the Jews, politicians, even civilization. This, on a first date with long-divorced Rachel, who now goes by her maiden name.

“What if Aviva weren’t my daughter?” she says, refusing a second date. “Should you really talk about anyone’s daughter that way?”

Other views range from forgiving and nonchalant – Aviva committed adultery, not murder, and besides, who cares? – to livid and betrayed, which is how Ruby reacts when she discovers her mother’s history.

Finally, it’s Rachel who makes peace with it all, years later, when she says to Jane, “What did you do? It was sex. He was ancient. You were a girl. It was a bunch of narishkeit. Everyone in Florida behaved like little babies.”

Readers of Zevin’s 2014 bestseller, “The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry,” will recall the ease and charm of her storytelling, which also permeates the current book. Part morality tale, part coming-of-age story, “Young Jane Young” portrays a three-dimensional woman whose character far exceeds the single slice of her youthful affair.

We see Jane as the naive mistress; rebellious, lost daughter; and adoring mother, with her own ambitions, to boot. Not only does she build a new life for herself and Ruby, but she’s running for mayor of Allison Springs, backed by the town’s matriarch and newspaper publisher.

“Young Jane Young” is a testament to second chances and reclaiming one’s own narrative. It’s a feminist anthem – triumphant, earthy and hopeful. And it’s a terrific read. One can’t help wondering whether and how it may reshape the public perception of Monica Lewinsky.

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 ZevinMon, 21 Aug 2017 17:03:27 +0000
Book review: Catholic saints, horror films and gruesome murders have roles in Gerritsen’s latest thriller Sun, 20 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 The Boston team of Rizzoli and Isles deals with Catholic saints and dramatic murders in ‘I Know a Secret.’

It was perhaps inevitable that Tess Gerritsen would write a novel that prominently features a horror movie. She grew up accompanying her mother to such movies as a kid, and she and her son Josh recently collaborated in the making of “Island Zero,” an indie horror film set on the coast of Maine; Gerritsen, who lives in Maine, wrote the screenplay and her son directed. “I Know a Secret” is another installment in Gerritsen’s best-selling Rizzoli & Isles thriller mystery series. The book opens with Boston detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles investigating the murder of a young woman who is found dead in her warehouse loft apartment. This isn’t your typical murder. Twenty-six-year-old Cassandra Coyle, an independent filmmaker, lies on her bed with her eyes cut out, each one placed in an open palm.

When Rizzoli and Isles interview her partners at Crazy Ruby Films, all former New York University classmates, they learn that the four had just finished their second feature horror film, “Mr. Simian.” Coyle wrote the screenplay based on a real-life event from her childhood, the disappearance of a young day-care classmate who never was found.

The plot, one of the partners tells Rizzoli and Isles, is “straight out of Horror 101. Eventually the killer must come after the heroine.”

Not long after, Rizzoli and Isles find themselves standing on a pier over the body of a young man with three arrows in his chest. Like the first murder, this one feels staged.

The story is interspersed with chapters told from the point of view of a woman who is riveted by the mysterious killings. The book opens with her attending a funeral in Newport of a childhood friend who supposedly died in a house fire caused by candles left burning.

Before she heads back to Boston, the woman drives out to the charred remains of the victim’s home. “The wind gusts and dead leaves rattle across my shoes, a brittle sound that brings back another autumn day, twenty years ago, when I was ten years old and crunching across dead leaves in the woods. That day still casts its shadow across my life, and it’s the reason I am standing here today.”

Tess Gerritsen

Glancing down at the makeshift memorial of flowers, she notices in horror a single palm leaf amidst the bouquets. She well knows its meaning. It is the symbol of a martyr.

The investigative team is slow to find the thread that links the two killings they’re working on. Then Isles pursues a hunch by contacting her friend, Daniel Brophy, a Catholic priest and her former lover. She shares photos of the two victims.

After viewing the photo of the eyeless corpse, Brophy looks up at Isles in shock. “Saint Lucy,” he says. “That’s exactly who I thought of,” Isles replies. After looking at the second photo, he says, “Sebastian, patron saint of archers and policemen.” Both are martyrs. St. Lucy, patron saint of the blind, had her eyes cut out for refusing to marry a non-Christian. St. Sebastian was shot through with arrows on the orders of Emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians (Sebastian survived but was later clubbed to death, again on the emperor’s orders).

Pursuing this line of reasoning, Isles ultimately discovers the death of Sarah Basterash, the fire victim. The pieces begin to fall together. Cassandra Coyle, who had her eyes cut out, was born on Dec. 13, St. Lucy’s Day; Tim McDougal, who was found with arrows in his chest, was born Jan. 20, St. Sebastian’s Day. And Sarah Basterash was born on May 13 – the day dedicated to St. Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake.

Rizzoli and Isles are stumped. What’s the connection? How many other victims might the killer be stalking? And later, are things really as they appear?

Gerritsen weaves a compelling horror story with a killer loose, methodically coming for his victims.

Mixed in are subplots involving Rizzoli and her highly dysfunctional family, and Isles and her continuing love for Father Brophy, as well as her haunted relationship with her mother and brother, both of whom have dark pasts as hired killers.

Several major surprises await around dark turns in the plot. As does the reveal of how Crazy Ruby Film’s “Mr. Simian,” written by Cassandra Coyle, the first victim, fits squarely into the puzzle.

Gerritsen is faithful in “I Know a Secret” to the dictates of Horror 101 in winding her story to conclusion. And though everything in the mystery is resolved, not everything in the case gets wrapped up tightly.

This is by design. Gerritsen seems to be telling her readers that some horror stories held between jacket covers are unending – just as in life. One can finish the story, but the horror remains.

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

]]> 0, 18 Aug 2017 16:12:20 +0000
Book review: Malaga Islanders’ pain haunts S.M. Parker’s new young-adult mystery Sun, 20 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Readers will sense in the opening lines of “The Rattled Bones” the pull of a world beyond the normal bounds of time and space. “My mother had been pacing the lip of the ocean for hours, talking to the Water People the way she did. They tended to visit when the fog rose high, and the fog always rose high when my mother neared the sea.”

S.M. Parker’s new young adult novel, “The Rattled Bones,” is a ghost story, coming-of-age tale and historical novel all in one.

The Maine author sets it on our coast, not far from Malaga Island, a place haunted by history and the malevolence of outsiders. Islanders, descendants of Benjamin Darling, a black man who settled here generations back, with Abenaki Indians and a few Irish and Scottish fishermen mixed in, were forcefully removed in 1931.

Mainlanders viewed them as dispensable – immoral, disease-ridden and ignorant.

Many were interned on the mainland in Maine’s School for the Feeble Minded for the rest of their days – along with bones of their ancestors who’d been disinterred and removed so the state’s governor could build a hotel on the island to attract tourists.

As a small child, Rilla Brae, the story’s protagonist, watched her mother walk the shore, talking with the Water People no one else could see or hear. Her mother was eventually committed to a hospital.

The summer before Rilla is to start at Brown University on scholarship, her father dies alone aboard his lobster boat, the Rilla Brae, leaving Rilla solely in the care of Gram, her grandmother whose loving hand had raised her.

S.M. Parker

Rilla takes over hauling traps as captain of her father’s boat, feeling compelled to earn money to put aside to care for her grandmother after she leaves for school.

Working off of Malaga Island, Rilla, too, begins to hear voices. She spies a young girl on the uninhabited island. The girl sings as she runs into the forest.

When Rilla sees her again, carrying a baby, she goes ashore in search of her. She calls after her, but finds no one – except for a university student, Sam Taylor, doing archaeological research on the former island inhabitants. Rilla is drawn to him for his natural ease with her and also in part because he knows nothing of her crazy mother and the recent death of her father.

They share an interest in learning as much as possible about the former island residents.

Between hauling traps, Rilla begins spending time with Sam digging, literally and figuratively, for the truth of what happened to the people of Malaga Island. Sam’s interest is academic, but Rilla’s is personal, for she wants to know why their ghosts haunt her now like they did her mother.

The shame of what was done to the people of Malaga is deeply steeped in the local psyche, and Rilla is desperate to know if, perhaps, someone in her family played a part in their removal.

Rilla has more to contend with than voices calling to her. Someone cuts her lobster trap lines, sending a clear message that she’s not welcome on the water. Trouble erupts with her high school-dropout boyfriend, who is angered she’s going off to college. Gram, however, remains the steady rock in her life.

And the Water People keep calling to her. Come here, come here, my dear, my dear. She has nightmares about the singing girl with the baby. Some unseen presence carves messages into the sill of her window that looks out toward Malaga Island. “Find me. Don’t go. I’m here.”

As Sam helps her dig deeper into the mystery of the people of Malaga, she takes him on as her sternman to help pull more traps. Rilla keeps the secrets of her family from him, but Sam keeps secrets of his own. Raised in Arizona, he loves being near the sea. “The sea is like nothing else I’ve ever known,” he tells her. “It’s a fresh start.”

And Gram has secrets of her own … some she knows and some she hasn’t yet discovered.

The mystery of the singing girl with the baby, however, eludes their search. Census records give no indication of her presence on the island the year before the residents were removed.

“And … what if the girl has a story that can’t be told through the archives or your dig?” Rilla questions Sam. “What if the girl from the island has a story that she’s trying to tell me?

“Maybe this girl’s heart is connected to yours somehow,” Sam says. “Maybe that’s why you can see her.”

S.M. Parker’s story is wondrously compelling. Although it is targeted for young adult readers, it offers terrific storytelling that readers of all ages will respond to – wonderfully drawn characters, a great setting, a rich vein of historic truth that cries out to be broadly known, and a highly imaginative plot. I couldn’t put “The Rattled Bones” down.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by novelist Barbara Kingsolver “in support of a literature of social change.” Smith can be reached via his website:

]]> 0, 18 Aug 2017 16:07:29 +0000
In a debut novel, Jessie Chaffee accurately captures the real complexities of eating disorders Sun, 13 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 When I first heard about Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, “Florence in Ecstasy,” from her publisher, Olivia Taylor Smith of Unnamed Press, I felt a surge of initial resistance. I wouldn’t be able to read it, I thought, let alone review it. A month or two later, the book arrived in the mail, after I’d pushed it out of my mind, and I had to grapple with the question again: How does a book critic who prides herself on being able to review anything, and enjoy the process, how does this book critic handle a book in which a woman – not a girl of 12 or 14 or even 20, but a woman recently turned 30 – has an eating disorder so similar to the critic’s? The book critic, in this case, puts on her big girl pants, reads the book, and becomes engrossed in its haunting pages.

Hannah from Boston, as she’s occasionally called by the other characters, is the narrator of “Florence in Ecstasy.” She is visiting Florence, Italy, ostensibly on a vacation, but really in order to escape. Over the course of the novel, we learn of a few fundamental threads that have unraveled in Hannah’s life – her relationship, her family ties, her job, but mostly her sense of self – and this tangled mess was easier to leave behind than to comb through and tease out. In Florence, Hannah is on the verge of going broke. In the early pages of the book, we see her finding a job, somewhat too conveniently, at a library where the work is easy and where Hannah begins to feed a new obsession.

The old obsession, the one that brought Hannah to Florence, is the eating disorder I was so fearful of approaching, of reading and then writing about. The nature of eating disorders is insidious – the thought patterns stay with many recovered people, becoming another thing in the mind that is to be ignored, like the instinct to swerve off a bridge or the insecurity of imposter syndrome. To read about eating disorders is often triggering for me, bringing up hosts of memories and concerns and a dangerous longing, and so I worried that I wouldn’t be able to do “Florence in Ecstasy” justice. And yet – and yet the way Chaffee writes Hannah’s eating disorder cuts to the core of the psychology that is rarely the focus of eating disorder narratives, even though it is at the center of so many eating disorders themselves.

“I was quite comfortable with the void. I felt safe dancing along its edge,” Hannah tells us. At the start of the novel, though, she has taken a few steps away from that void, and is eager to leave it behind. She is learning how to row with a group of rowdy Italian men, including Luca with whom she may be approaching intimacy. At the same time, she is reading about Italian saints, women who flew into religious ecstasies. Women who, more often than not, started experiencing those ecstasies after they stopped eating, and whose behaviors were extreme: “Margaret cutting down to the bone when flagellating herself, Angela drinking from the sores of lepers, Maria Maddalena licking the wounds of her ailing Carmelite sisters and punishing her own body with burning and icy water…” These women were in pain, and as Hannah realizes, “The visions provide the only relief and they are addictive – once they begin, the single, consuming desire of these women is to lose themselves in ecstasy.”

Jessie Chaffee Photo by Heather Waraksa

Self-loathing, metaphorical or real self-flagellation, and the denial of one’s bodily needs – these do provide a kind of ecstasy. There’s a reason why movements promoting the discipline of eating disorders exist on the internet, that warren where anything goes. Not eating, or eating too much and then throwing it up, or just eating too much, are all behaviors that, when sustained over time, become addictive, providing the strange duality that exists simultaneously in eating disorders: absolute control on the one hand, and its utter loss on the other.

Over the course of the book, whose plot is not complex on the surface and rests heavily on Hannah’s internal struggle and the way she reads into folks around her, we see a half-heartedly healing Hannah trying to regain her ability to feed herself and do it well. But when her former boss runs into her in Florence, her past rushes back, and her struggle begins anew: “This is how it begins… I stop eating in the morning, only the morning. It isn’t so much a decision as it seems to just happen, and once it happens, it is so easy to stay with it.”

This is how eating disorders tend to work, with an ebb and flow that has nothing to do with the notion of thinness as beauty, per se, or with the images of skinny women we see on billboards and on TV and in Hollywood. Society’s fixation on unrealistic bodies does not help, but eating disorders are broader, wider and deeper, and Jessie Chaffee succeeds admirably in mining them as she depicts a woman’s journey away from her earthly self – and then back again.

Ilana Masad is a book critic and fiction writer starting her Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, StoryQuarterly, Broadly, the Washington Post, the LA Times and more.

]]> 0 by Heather WaraksaFri, 11 Aug 2017 16:57:51 +0000
Unspeakable grief, and what it begets, in a remarkable debut novel Sun, 13 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 The deep pathos of Lisa Duffy’s debut novel, “The Salt House,” is like a high storm tide that never ebbs. It is anchored in the lives of the Kelly family of Alden, Maine, by the sudden death of baby Maddie, leaving Jack and Hope and their two daughters, Jess and Kat, floundering for air enough to breath, to go on with their lives in the small fishing village.

The story is told through alternating chapters from each of their perspectives, as each contends with the multiplicities of loss and grief caused by the death of the littlest among them. It was an accident. Kat had been playing with Maddie in her crib, and failed to notice that the golden heart-shaped locket her parents had given her for her birthday and come unclasped and fallen into Maddie’s crib sheets. Maddie subsequently swallowed and choked on it while Hope worked on her column for Parent Talk magazine 20 feet away in another room. The story opens a year later amid the lingering ruins of what had once been a tight, happy family.

Kat is 8, does not know her role in Maddie’s death and is saddened by watching her parents’ increasing disaffection with each other. Jess is 16, wanting to escape the restrictions of her overprotective father to pursue a budding friendship with a new kid in the village. Jack is angered at his wife’s continued rebuffs of affection and loses himself in longer hours pulling lobster traps, in part to make up for the loss of income from Hope’s writing, and also to avoid truly processing the death of his daughter. And Hope is tormented by her failure as a mother, angry with herself for failing to keep her child safe. Her unresolved anger, guilt and loss are underscored by online posts on the magazine’s website after Maddie’s death. Such as “What kind of mother doesn’t notice a necklace in her daughter’s crib.” And “Nice parenting. NOT. RIP sweet baby.” And “Who are you to write a parenting column?” As a consequence, Hope is crippled by writer’s block.

Plans to renovate what is known in the family as the Salt House, the ramshackle house on a point that Jack’s grandfather gave him, are on protracted hold. The family had intended to finish the renovations at the end of the previous summer. Maddie’s death foreclosed on that dream. Jack has no time and no money to do the work, as he is compelled to haul traps from dawn to dark to make payments on the construction loan for the Salt House and pay the mortgage on their home, which they had planned to rent after they moved into the finished house on the point.

Lisa Duffy

Tensions explode early in the story over a party that Hope hosts against Jack’s desires, the party given to introduce Hope’s new friend Peggy and her husband, Ry Finn, to other locals. Jack has a dark history with Ry from boyhood. It prompts Jack to demand after the party that the couple never be allowed back in their home again. Hope retaliates by kicking Jack out of the house.

Jess, who is often annoyed with her little sister Kat, is not beyond marshaling her adolescent angst and animus to go after one of Kat’s new classmates who bullies her at school, teasing her that her parents are going to get a divorce. Jess rides her bike across town to find him. It brings her face-to-face with Ry Finn, the boy’s stepfather. Jess thinks he’s a jerk for an altercation she’d witnessed from her bedroom window between Finn and her dad in the backyard on the night of the party. She also encounters 18-year-old Alex, who happens to be Ry’s stepson as well. The budding affection between the two puts Jess at cross-purposes with her father, which she attempts to manage by keeping the relationship a secret.

A potential battle brews between Jack and Finn over claims to fishing grounds that Finn had once lobstered before leaving town and now expects Jack to relinquish to him. The tragic secret that fueled their blood feud in high school threatens to consume both families.

Duffy writes with sharp insight about the troubled hearts of all her characters. The alternating narratives in successive chapters weave anger together with love, longing with regret and heartbreak with hope. “The Salt House” is a story told with a clarity and nuance that is at times startling. The story moves through entangled tragedy with great confidence, never succumbing to sentimentality. It is ultimately a story of painstaking – and painful – honesty about the fragile nature of relationships and the latent resiliency in people with fractured lives to allow grief and regret to stitch them back together with love.

Duffy writes with lean, sharp prose that sweeps the story along. “The Salt House” is a marvelous debut novel.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer. He can be reached via his website:

]]> 0 DUFFYFri, 11 Aug 2017 16:53:27 +0000
Elizabeth Atkinson’s ‘The Island of Beyond’ is a new, ready-made classic for young readers Sun, 06 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Maine seems to grow stories as naturally and abundantly as it does blueberries, as if written words were the expression of the effect on the literary imagination of the air and light and sea and rocks and woods themselves.

Maine-set books for children and teenagers occupy a particularly rich literary landscape, just as long-ago Maine summers are an integral part of many adults’ happiest memories: Alice Rumphius plants her lupines by the sea; Lizzie Bright goes against the tide on Malaga Island; Sal picks blueberries and goes clamming in Brooksville; and, more recently, the five intrepid kids of G.A. Morgan’s “Five Stones” trilogy sail off to the mysterious island of Ayda, which lies somewhere off Mount Desert Island.

Elizabeth Atkinson’s moving, enthralling new book, “The Island of Beyond,” feels like another new and ready-made Maine classic, a future beloved favorite of young readers as well as older ones.

The setting is the eponymous tiny, imaginary island called Beyond, which lies in the North Country in the middle of a lake called Nevermore, the first of many tips of the hat to Edgar Allen Poe. The story begins when 11-year-old Martin, shy and introverted and addicted to video games, is sent up to spend a month with his elderly, wealthy Aunt Lenore, a distant relative. As his father leaves Martin at her enormous shambles of a house, the real reason for this banishment is made clear: He’s supposed to get on Aunt’s Lenore’s good side so she’ll leave the place to Dad in her will. Then Dad goes back to Delaware and leaves Martin to fend for himself, with only his tiny stuffed pocket mouse, Mr. Little (as in Stuart), for company.

The book is narrated by Martin, whose first-person voice is pitch-perfect, earnestly idiosyncratic, both smart and vulnerable, but never annoyingly precocious or whiny. Through his timid, fish-out-of-water, often unintentionally funny point of view, Atkinson evokes Maine’s subtly mysterious quality of place, the darkness of the woods, that particular feeling of being out of the flow of time and far from everywhere else that makes all the best Maine stories inherently magical and compelling.

Beyond Island is populated by four misfits: eccentric, whimsical Aunt Lenore, who may or may not be senile; her companion and housekeeper, the stalwart Tess, who makes Martin do chores and feeds him according to her own strict schedule; old Uncle Ned, Lenore’s brother, an artist who comes and goes; and Sam, who calls himself Solo, a boy Martin’s age who lives in a tree and has cinnamon-colored skin and who knows how to swim, canoe, climb trees and forage. Also in residence are Lenore’s raven, Poe, and a strange small faceless figure dressed in black whose poignant identity isn’t revealed until late in the book.

Martin’s growing friendship with Solo forms the heart and soul of the book. The two boys are seemingly polar opposites, one domesticated and interior, the other savage and independent. But they’re drawn to each other nonetheless, if only because they’re the only kids in sight. As they become closer, their similarities become increasingly apparent – they’re akin, both lonely and lost, true-hearted and warm-blooded. They need each other, but they come close to losing each other when their newfound bond is tested.

“The Island of Beyond” is simultaneously a coming-of-age story, a love story and an adventure story. True to all three genres, Martin, aptly dubbed “Martian” by Solo, is transformed by his summer on Beyond. He comes to a new understanding of his place in the world, awakens to his identity and forges his own sense of belonging that has nothing to do with his parents’ view of him.

The trick of the first person is to convey more than the character himself knows, and Atkinson manages this sleight of hand with unerring consistency, never condescending to either Martin or the reader, but allowing us to see things Martin can’t, to know more than he does about what he’s perceiving and feeling and describing. As he grapples with the wild lake and the deep woods of Maine, and with the gnarled, tender-hearted people he finds there, I found myself cheering for him, from the action-packed beginning to the heartwarming, buoyant ending.

Kate Christensen is a novelist and memoirist ( whose most recent book, “How to Cook a Moose,” won the 2016 Maine Literary Award for Memoir.

Twitter: aquavita

]]> 0, 05 Aug 2017 11:46:54 +0000
Whodunit? Former Portland police detective knows whereof he writes Sun, 06 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Nobody mourns the death of Paul Ramsey when he gets hauled up, snagged on a lobster trap at the end of chapter two in “Beneath the Depth,” Bruce Robert Coffin’s new John Byron mystery. At first, Ramsey is thought to have drowned, probably drunkenly falling off a wharf along Commercial Street in Portland. But when a slug is dug out of his brain, it’s clear the notorious trial lawyer failed to win over more than just a jury on his last day alive.

Portland Police Det. Sgt. John Byron and his partner Det. Diane Joyner are called to take a ride on a fireboat out to the scene shortly after sunrise. The “floater” is identified by ID in his wallet, as one in attendance says, the “big shot attorney” who’s on the front page of the morning Portland Press Herald. The Press Herald story is about his losing a major case for his law firm the day before. A multimillion-dollar judgment hung on the verdict, as did Ramsey’s hope of finally making partner at Newman, Branch & DeWitt, one of Portland’s powerhouse law firms. Suicide? Murder? It was certainly a run of bad luck for Ramsey, whose vanity license plate was “I WIN.”

The problem that detectives Byron and Joyner face is that there is no shortage of people who harbored hard, perhaps lethal, feelings toward the arrogant, obnoxious lawyer. The group includes his most recent client, parents who’d sued the city’s major hospital for malpractice resulting in the death of their son – a couple who Ramsey had talked out of settling with the hospital, adamant that he would win them a huge settlement. There is also a bar patron that a drunken Ramsey had insulted as being stupid. Plus a gay man out with his partner who Ramsey had bumped on the sidewalk after leaving the bar, continuing with his insults. The man took his partner home, then returned to settle the score. Ramsey’s wife, Julie, is on the list of possible suspects, too, a nice enough woman who’d endured years of her husband’s philandering. Not to be overlooked is a young stripper with whom Ramsey had a running tryst. Also his drug dealer. And possibly someone in his law practice.

So many threads pull in so many directions that it is hard for Byron and Joyner to keep them all straight. Compounding things is a young newspaper reporter who seems to have an inside track that enables him to break stories on the murder case, which aggravates Byron and Joyner; their boss, Lt. Martin LeRoyer; and Chief of Police Michael Stanton. The chief wants a tight lid on everything so as not to threaten the cozy relationship he has with Ramsey’s law firm and the big donations it provides to fund the chief’s pet community projects.

Add to these, the simmering aggravation in the partnership between Byron and Joyner, who are lovers, though it is against department policy. It’s stressful enough keeping that a secret from others, which they do badly. They end up keeping secrets from one another, which, again, they do badly. Suspicions and mistrust arise, resulting in the two barely speaking to one another.

Soon enough, suspects and people of interest in the investigation start turning up dead. And then the chief of police publicly announces that the killer has been arrested – who turns out not to be the killer.

Coffin knows the procedural details of police investigations from his days as a former detective for the Portland Police Department. He also knows how to craft a tightly spun tale. The thread that ties everything together is so well buried that the mystery doesn’t begin to make sense until the closing pages. Even then, a couple of grand surprises await.

When the trap is sprung on the killer, it’s the catalyst for the killer to quickly slip the clutches of legal justice. Until this point, Coffin has crafted the story with care. I wish he’d taken a little more time to extend this last major scene, which feels rushed.

It’s a quibble. “Beneath the Depths” is still a great read.

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

]]> 0, 05 Aug 2017 14:48:32 +0000
A fictionalized Lizzie Borden picks up an ax again – or maybe not Sun, 30 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Toward the end of “See What I Have Done,” Sarah Schmidt’s intense debut novel about the Lizzie Borden murder case, one of the characters says to Lizzie’s older sister, “This house is no good, Miss Emma. It’s all sick and horror.”

Some sensitive readers might apply that observation to the book itself. But “See What I Have Done” is, in fact, “good,” at least in a literary sense. If it is filled with more than its fair share of nastiness and terror, it also occasionally reveals moments of bruised tenderness and pitiful insight.

What happened at 92 Second St. in Fall River, Massachusetts on Aug. 4, 1892 has been immortalized in doggerel familiar to generations of schoolchildren:

Lizzie Borden took an ax

Gave her mother 40 whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father 41.

Sarah Schmidt Photo courtesy of Curtis Brown Co.

What the poem doesn’t recognize, however, is that Lizzie was actually acquitted of the murders of her father, elderly banker and developer Andrew Borden, and his second wife, Abby. Since then, many detectives, amateur and otherwise, have asked whether Lizzie eluded justice or whether someone else committed the crimes and completely got away with them.

“See What I Have Done” approaches those questions from at least four different angles. Each chapter of the novel is narrated in the first person by someone inhabiting or visiting the Borden house that fateful day.

The book opens from Lizzie’s perspective: fragmentary, scattered, unreliable as she attempts to make sense of her father sprawled on the sitting room sofa, his face badly “cut.” It doesn’t seem to occur to her to look for her stepmother, who lies dead upstairs.

The older Borden daughter, Emma, eventually returns from her vacation stay in a nearby town to discover the bloody chaos that has erupted in her home. She projects a calmer, though still grief-stricken, demeanor as she deals with Lizzie, the local police and a sedative-wielding physician.

Perhaps the most objective view of the household is held by Bridget, the Irish maid. She sees her employers and their behavior with a clarity none of them can muster on their own. Even she, however, harbors secrets that threaten the Borden family’s tenuous stability.

The narrative’s wild card is a dangerous, violent stranger called Benjamin, a figure not found in the historical record of the case. In Schmidt’s version, John Morse, the Borden sisters’ maternal uncle, makes Benjamin’s acquaintance and hires him to “talk some sense” into Andrew Borden, wanting him to “reconsider where he’s spending his money.” Benjamin winds up hiding in the Borden house and surreptitiously witnessing a disturbing encounter between Lizzie and Abby.

Schmidt, who is from Australia, does an excellent job of finding a unique voice for each viewpoint character and of structuring the narrative so that crucial scenes can be replayed and re-imagined. Andrew Borden is a petty tyrant, frugal to the point of irrationality, brooking no dissent from his wife or his still-unmarried daughters.

The memory of Sarah, who was Lizzie and Emma’s dead biological mother, haunts the girls, especially Lizzie, who still calls her stepmother “Mrs. Borden” after living in the same house with her for 26 years.

Emma and Lizzie blame each other for their inability to find lives for themselves outside of 92 Second St. and for the ways in which their father plays favorites.

Readers will find themselves eager to know not only who committed the killings but why. Each inhabitant of the household displays potentially murderous motives.

When Andrew cold-bloodedly hacks off the heads of Lizzie’s prized pigeons, does he unwittingly seal his own doom? Could Bridget have attacked Abby because the older woman stole the tin containing her life savings, earmarked for passage back to the Emerald Isle?

“See What I Have Done” is not an Agatha Christie whodunnit, where the suspects are gathered together so that blame can be assigned through deductive reasoning. Rather, it’s reminiscent of the work of British crime novelist Ruth Rendell, writing within her darker Barbara Vine persona.

Ambiguity and misdirection are the orders of the day, and even Benjamin’s account of Lizzie’s trial seems perfunctory and incomplete.

“See What I Have Done” can be challenging for readers with weak stomachs. In her scene setting, Schmidt spends a lot of time focused on earthy details. Even before the murders, most of the objects in the Borden house seem to be infused with terrible smells and disgusting stains.

Various members of the household suffer from what might be food poisoning, and vomit is left to molder beneath furniture. Of course, once the killings occur, there’s a whole new level of stinks and unhygienic horrors.

It’s unlikely that the Borden case will ever be “solved” at this late date, but Schmidt makes a case in “See What I Have Done” that feels truthful in its emotional intensity. Even before murder occurred within its walls, the Borden house was haunted by regret, jealousy and rage.

Powerful, eerie and insightful, “See What I Have Done” sheds a different light on what once seemed an open-and-shut case.

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, 28 Jul 2017 16:55:55 +0000
In Tom Perrotta’s new coming-of-age story, both mother and son have growing up to do Sun, 30 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 The cover of Tom Perrotta’s satiric new novel, “Mrs. Fletcher,” depicts an attractive brunette tucked in bed, her face illuminated by the glow of a smartphone. The woman in question is the eponymous Mrs. Fletcher, a latter-day Mrs. Robinson recast in a more complicated world.

Eve Fletcher is a 46-year-old divorcee and single mother who lives at the intersection of suburbia and angst. Both Eve and her son, Brendan, are on the verge of a relaunch – Brendan into the chaos of freshman year at college; Eve into the uncertainty of the empty nest.

While her day job as director of the local senior center provides bland respectability, Eve yearns for something more. And out of the blue, it arrives. One day she receives an anonymous text that reads, “U r my MILF!” Unnerved by this message, she can’t quite shake its intrusion. So begins her darkly comic descent into the world of so-called MILF porn, where she discovers a website that hosts a seemingly endless array of amateur porn videos whose participants are middle-age folks like herself.

“There was no doubt about it – was part of that ‘unregulated cesspool’ the assistant DA had warned about so many years ago,” Perrotta writes. “Eve was regularly shocked and frequently disgusted by what she found there. She disapproved of the site – she would have been horrified if she’d ever found anything like it on her son’s computer – and sincerely wished it didn’t exist. But she couldn’t stop looking at it.”

Eve finds herself debating whether hers is an addiction or a habit – more like heroin, on the one hand, or coffee, on the other. It’s part of the slippery slope that Perrotta conveys so effectively, as Eve takes to blurring boundaries and crossing lines that would never have occurred in her earlier life.

Her steady diet of porn leads to a banquet of blunders – crossed signals with a subordinate at work, hooking up with an old classmate of her son’s, and other awkward indiscretions. And with it, a sense of emptiness and wasted time sneaks up on her more than occasionally.

Meanwhile, Brendan’s first semester at college is a muddle of booze and sex, and attempts to score more of each. He’s a mother’s worst nightmare of cluelessness and privilege, so that when he sees his image looming large on a college art show’s wall of shame, readers may cheer his comeuppance.

Perrotta, who’s known for his novels “Election” and “The Leftovers,” draws heavily from the news of the day, including such hot-button issues as body shaming, consent and hook-up culture; transgender identity, entitlement and bullying. His assault on political correctness is scathing and relentless, a running theme throughout the book.

In the end, Perrotta has written dual coming-of-age stories. In alternating chapters, we witness a mother and son at different stages of life, trying on new selves. Eve – smart, obsessed, lonely, ambivalent – has credibility and introspection on her side. She actually reinvents herself along the way, gathering new friends and adventures, albeit some more risqué than others.

But Brendan’s bro-dude-frat boy persona is so over the top that his growing self-awareness seems, at times, less convincing. As the book’s title suggests, however, Eve is the star of this show. Her inner monologue is the very meaning of vacillation with all its droll and dire missteps. Her shenanigans make for a rich stew of desire and conflict, and their inevitable consequences.

In the closing pages, Perrotta throws in a surprise ending to this racy romp, a final wink to the reader.

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, 28 Jul 2017 16:06:26 +0000
Fascination leads to house recreated, life imagined for author Jane Goodrich Sun, 30 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 SWAN’S ISLAND — Fresh out of college and full of energy, Jane Goodrich set out to rebuild one of the finest and most elegant homes she’d ever laid eyes on. Nearly 40 years later, long after completing a replica of that magnificent home on Swan’s Island in Maine, Goodrich has written a novel about the home’s original occupant, a mysterious Boston philanthropist named George Nixon Black.

He built the home, named Kragsyde, at Lobster Cove in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, in the late 1800s as a summer retreat.

Growing up in Vermont, Goodrich fell in love with the shingle-style house as a little girl, drawn in by photographs of its willowy lines, odd angles and fanciful windows that she longed to peer from. Years later, while working in her college library, she came across a familiar photo of Kragsyde on the cover of the book, “The Shingle Style and the Stick Style” by Vincent Scully.

Maine writer Jane Goodrich. Photo courtesy of the author

She went to see for herself in the late 1970s and discovered it had been torn down generations before. Devastated, she and her then-fiance and now-husband, James Beyor, a builder, decided to recreate it themselves.

They did so in Maine, on land they purchased on Swan’s Island, which is home to lobstermen and summer folk, mostly. Over two decades, they labored together, doing all the work themselves, mostly on nights and weekends, while recreating a masterpiece.

Along the way, Goodrich got to know Black very well. She not only had his architectural plans, but she developed an innate sense of who he was, how he lived and the way he thought. As she and her husband rebuilt his home and began living there, Black became a presence. He was a ghost in every corner, she said.

“You begin to imagine him after a while. I felt like he was here with us,” she said. “He doesn’t haunt the place, but he’s there in the back of your mind all the time.”

Published by Massachusetts-based Benna Books, the novel is a fictional retelling of Black’s life, though it’s all mostly true. She changed no names and created only one character, because Goodrich believed Black needed a strong female presence in his life. She thought about writing a biography, but a novel gave her more latitude and suited her style and imagination.

Writing a novel is like making a painting, she said. Writing a biography is like taking a photograph. She prefers painting.

She also thinks that Black would rather his life be told as fiction instead of fact. He was a private man, she said. And besides, “Who wouldn’t want to be the subject of a novel instead of biography?”

Goodrich researched her book like a biography, spending 10 years sifting through public records, learning his family’s genealogy, reading his will and diaries and copying photographs. Her research took her from Ellsworth, where Black was born in 1842, to Boston, where he died in 1928. He’s buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When he died, Black left his family’s federal-style brick mansion and 180-acre estate in Ellsworth, now known as the Woodlawn Museum, to the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations.

“The House at Lobster Cove” is Goodrich’s tribute to Black, whom she greatly admires for his philanthropy and good taste, as well as the way he lived.

Despite the outward expression of his taste in art and architecture, he lived quietly and modestly, and was generous with his money, Goodrich said.

“When you begin delving into Mr. Black, you realize he was truly a mysterious, romantic character,” she said. “I couldn’t find a bad thing to say about the guy. I like him better now than I ever did.”

He was a model man, dignified and loving and with a curious blend of humility and fierceness, who lived as he wanted. Goodrich outs Black as gay in the novel. Black kept his sexuality private in life.

It took Goodrich about five years to write the book. With it, she weaves a story of Boston’s largest taxpayer in the late 1800s, who joined no clubs and entertained few guests.

He grew rare plants and collected antiques and paintings, and liked to take ocean cruises with a much younger man.

Like the subject of her novel, Goodrich lives a quiet life on Swan’s Island. Using design skills that she learned in college, Goodrich cofounded Saturn Press on the island in 1986 and produces letterpress-printed craft cards on antique presses.

She printed the cover of “The House at Lobster Cove” at Saturn, reproducing a drawing of Kragsyde by its architect, Robert Swain Peabody, on cotton paper.

Between the house and the book, Black has occupied Goodrich’s mind for most of 40 years.

She’s done with him for now and thinks about him much less, she said, “although I do push the vacuum cleaner and say, ‘George, send me a servant.’ ”

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

Twitter: pphbkeyes

]]> 0, 28 Jul 2017 16:12:25 +0000
Artist discovers herself in Ashley Shelby’s ‘South Pole Station’ Sun, 23 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 In the late 20th century, American readers went “pole-crazy.”

The fad may have been kicked off by Roland Huntford, whose “Scott and Amundsen” (1979) dragged a muckrake across the grave of revered British explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Hoping to be the first man at the South Pole, Scott got there in 1912 only to find a Norwegian flag flying, planted a month earlier by his better-prepared rival Roald Amundsen.

Huntford portrayed Scott as a bumbler whose Englishmen-know-best ineptitude doomed not only himself but also four companions, all of whom perished on the return trek. (One telling difference: While Amundsen and his crew rode on sleds pulled by dogs, Scott and company walked!)

Other writers came to Scott’s defense; Huntford followed up in 1985 with a splendid, adulatory biography of another Scott rival, the Irishman Ernest Shackleton; and it wasn’t long before the far north and its explorers were rediscovered, too.

It’s in this context that Cooper Gosling, the protagonist of Ashley Shelby’s enjoyable first novel, “South Pole Station,” applies for a fellowship to study in the Antarctic. Cooper belongs to a polar family – not polar by personal experience, but through books, notably Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World” (1922) and her own father’s storytelling. She and her brother David, she lovingly recalls, “used to pretend we were members of the Scott party, back when we were kids.”

By the time the adult Cooper, a professional artist, reaches the coldest continent under the auspices of a National Science Foundation arts program, David’s long battle with schizophrenia has ended in suicide. To his sister, then, the South Pole is more than just the stuff bucket lists are made of.

Shelby, who has also written a nonfiction book about a disastrous North Dakota flood, has fun with the sort of people Antarctica attracts: misfits and eccentrics, who are stuck with one another for months at a time, almost entirely indoors and thousands of miles away from the nearest flowering of normal life.

Among several vivid characters are an assistant chef who stoops to thievery in her campaign to become top cook; a black, gay representative of the NSF whose unflappability keeps most of his charges in line; and a handsome astrophysicist named Sal, who, when not conducting experiments to understand how the universe originated, acts as Cooper’s love interest.

Because polar residence is inevitably transient, there’s a special term for Antarctic liaisons of convenience: “ice marriages.” Cooper and Sal, however, seem to be aiming for a frost-free relationship.

And then we have Dr. Frank Pavano, a global-warming denier whose presence brings out the worst in practically everyone at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. His polar peers – who bracket the word “scientist” with air quotes when applying it to Pavano – are not content to let him fail on his own; they nudge the process along by sabotaging his work.

Because Cooper has been nice to him, Pavano invites her to help him with an outdoor experiment. She agrees, and the collaboration ends badly for them both, not least by incurring the wrath of climate-change naysayers in Congress who control the NSF’s purse strings.

There’s a lot going on in “South Pole Station,” and Shelby does better with some of its themes than with others. Cooper’s attempts to come to terms with her brother’s death are surprisingly unmoving, for example, while Sal’s pursuit of a theory as to how the world came into being makes for gripping reading. (More than once, in fact, I found myself wondering if Shelby hadn’t picked the wrong member of her romantic duo to build the novel around.)

But Shelby is very good on social interactions at the end of the Earth, and “South Pole Station” crackles with energy whenever science takes center stage. She makes Sal’s abstruse theorizing both comprehensible and exciting, and excels at dramatizing the conflict between the “Beakers,” as the polar scientists are known, and the visiting congressional troglodytes.

The novel might also give comfort to bucket-list worrywarts, who now have good reason to skip Antarctica. As Cooper notes on her first day there, “You think Antarctica is going to be the purest place in the world … and you get here and it’s like Akron.”

]]> 0 Pole StationFri, 21 Jul 2017 16:25:50 +0000
An old crime sets clever plot in motion in ‘The Girl on the Bridge’ Sun, 23 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 James Hayman’s new McCabe and Savage thriller, “The Girl on the Bridge,” showcases his signature hall-of-mirrors plotting prowess. Clues are salted in early, but they have few hard edges and are easily overlooked – though they’re in plain sight.

Halfway into the who-done-it, where readers typically presume the killer has been introduced, it’s impossible to trust that assumption. You won’t be alone. Detectives Michael McCabe and Maggie Savage share the same feeling of being at a dead end.

In the prologue, Hannah Reindel, an attractive college freshman, is gang-raped at a frat-house party. Twelve years later in Chapter 1, still deeply psychologically damaged, she leaps from a bridge on a winter’s night to end the torment.

A month later, Joshua Thorne, one of her rapists, now a successful New York City investment banker, goes missing while on a business trip to Portland, Maine. His wife receives an emailed photo of him blindfolded, naked and bound on a bed with a cardboard sign on his chest reading, “Rapists Get What Rapists Deserve.” Portland Police Department detectives McCabe and Savage are assigned the case.

Thorne has been seduced at a popular Portland nightspot by an attractive, expensively dressed blonde. He’s had sex and been tied to the bed. He’s also been doped and is unconscious. Thorne’s wife Rachel flies to Portland from New York City with her lawyer brother to prompt the local police to find her missing husband.

McCabe and Savage soon discover, however, that another one of the long-ago college-boy rapists, the CEO of an insurance company, has been found dead at the bottom of a cliff in Connecticut. Suspecting his death could be the beginning of a string of revenge killings, McCabe and Savage feel it’s imperative to find the killer before more bodies turn up.

Somewhere in Portland, Thorpe comes to, finding himself tied up on a bed. He raises hell screaming for help. Eventually someone enters the room and removes his blindfold so he can have a last look at his tormentor before he is horribly murdered.

McCabe and Savage pursue all apparent angles of motive, means and opportunity. This involves a trip to New Hampshire to interview the dead rape victim’s bereaved husband, Evan Fischer.

Slowly, pieces are threaded together, and major elements of the complex plotting of the murders begin to come to light. But resolution remains elusive. McCabe and Savage come to radically different conclusions, based on evidence and individual instincts and conjecture.

Hayman’s deft plotting weakens here with the arguments and counterarguments that McCabe and Savage bat back and forth. Surprisingly, too much is given away through the clumsy logic one of them uses, making it fairly easy to discern who is on the money and who’s not.

It’s unfortunate, because the climax is dependent on continuing uncertainty about the identity of the killer.

Except for this one scene near the end, there is much to admire about “The Girl on the Bridge.” Hayman, who lives in Portland, is masterful at creating compelling police procedurals, evident here and in his earlier McCabe and Savage thrillers. And he writes with surety, planting clues in plain sight but certain his readers won’t see them.

It’s quite a trick, a sleight of hand – leading them to make false assumptions that will blind them to the end.

Crime pays in Hayman’s hands. Fortunately for us, it’s of the literary kind.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014.

]]> 0, 21 Jul 2017 16:20:02 +0000
‘The Velveteen Daughter’ echoes beloved children’s book Sun, 23 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 “The Velveteen Daughter” is that rare form of novel that blends the distinction between fiction and biography. It is all the more unique in that it subtly exploits the theme of another piece of fiction.

Laurel Davis Huber draws the aching truth of her novel out of the facts of the lives of Margery Williams and Pamela Bianco. Williams wrote the beloved children’s story, “The Velveteen Rabbit.” Bianco was Williams’ daughter, who became a global sensation for her works of art at age 11. Based on extensive research, “The Velveteen Daughter” is a virtuoso performance that pulls you into their crippling, intertwined lives with a sense of fidelity, and won’t let you go until the last page.

Huber, who lives in Maine and New Jersey, describes in her book’s endnotes that “discovering and collecting the various pieces of the puzzle that eventually arranged themselves into ‘The Velveteen Daughter’ was a wonderful obsession.”

To her knowledge, the story has never before come to light, nor has a biography of Williams ever been published. And Pamela Bianco, she writes, “has been forgotten almost entirely.”

Refracted echoes of “The Velveteen Rabbit” resonate throughout Huber’s story. Generations of children and their parents well know the story of the Velveteen Rabbit who yearns to know what “real” is. The Skin Horse tells the rabbit that it’s “a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you.”

The rabbit wants to know if it hurts, and whether it happens all at once. “It takes a long time,” explains the Skin Horse. “That’s why it doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.”

Williams’ “The Velveteen Rabbit” was published after her daughter had become famous, featured in gallery shows attended by the glitterati of the day, her paintings typically selling out in a single evening. Bianco’s starburst fame and its consequences on her life and that of her family is the factual fodder for Huber’s novel.

Laura Davis Huber Photo by Danny Sanchez

Bianco’s father, who worked in the book trade, seizes hold of his daughter’s good fortune and drives her relentlessly to paint more, show more, sell more. His zeal takes over all of their lives in unexpected ways.

Gloria Vanderbilt ends up swooping in to sponsor the family’s move to New York City so Bianco can be at the heart of the American art scene. Vanderbilt puts them up at her expense in an apartment, and provides the young Bianco a studio amid those of other artists that Vanderbilt is cultivating.

All the while, Bianco’s mother has unending misgivings about her husband’s stewardship of their daughter’s career. “How many times did I say to Francesco, ‘We must wait, she must decide for herself when she is ready.’ But he did not see it that way at all, he was all for striking while the iron was hot.” As Williams acquiesces and bends to his will, she becomes an unwitting collaborator in the destruction of their daughter’s soul.

From the start Bianco craves what is in little evidence in her life – real love. As a preteen, she develops a crush on the young poet and writer Richard Hughes, forever anticipating signs and declarations of his love for her, believing that they are destined to marry.

Delusional, she clings to this hope for years, as if believing that the touch of his love, like in “The Velveteen Rabbit,” will make her whole, make her real. It never happens. Bianco falls into despair and dark depression, repeatedly withdrawing from the world, requiring hospitalization.

Huber’s tight interweaving of Bianco and Williams’ stories, past and present, makes the book difficult to put down.

The story jumps from New York City when Bianco is barely coping as a single mother in 1944, back to Europe when she is a young girl and in her artistic ascendancy, then forward again to 1977 to her later life in Manhattan.

Huber is a storyteller of the first order and her talent gleams throughout her debut novel. It showcases the rare alchemy possible in presenting the story of real people and real lives through the magical prism of fiction. Her novel clearly signals that here is a writer to watch.

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

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In essays about travel and food, part-time Portland resident draws life lessons Wed, 19 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 “We eat to curb hunger. We feast to mark occasions. We consume for pure sustenance. Plans hatch over food and become banked in our memories. Meals mark our lives. And sometimes they change everything.”

So ends the spare four-paragraph introduction to “Meet Me at the Bamboo Table: Everyday Meals Everywhere,” a book of short essays written by Anita Verna Crofts, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington who splits her time between Seattle and Portland. Crofts, an inveterate traveler and intrepid eater, chronicles her trips and her meals in this small book, which is also filled with her photographs. Her destinations are often exotic. Yes, there are stops in Italy, Alabama and even Maine (here, she writes about the food at a summer camp where she served as a counselor), but she also touches down in Estonia, Namibia and Syria. She rides the Trans-Siberian railroad and “lumbers” into Vietnam by foot, lugging a heavy pack.

As travel writing often does, the essays capture Crofts’ personal journey; in one, she travels to Paris as a teen; some years later, her boyfriend nurses her when she falls ill in Asia and her feelings for him deepen. In a third, she grapples with turning 30. In keeping, the design has an old-fashioned scrapbook-like/photo album feel. Always, she is tasting, thinking, dreaming food.

Next week, Crofts will give a reading from the book at Print in Portland. Meanwhile, we bring you a taste. “A Sudanese Minute” is reprinted with permission from the publisher. — PEGGY GRODINSKY

“Meet Me at the Bamboo Table: Everyday Meals Everywhere.” By A.V. Crofts. Chin Music Press. $16.95.


Khartoum is a sleepy capital city. its side streets are lined with willow trees, and five times a day calls to prayer pierce the otherwise quiet air. Few tall buildings compete with the sky, and much of the city is comprised of residential compounds no more than three stories tall.

The city feels like a sign of repose.

The natural world is more visible amidst all that is man-made. Incoming dust storms clearly advance toward the city from miles away, and proximity to the desert defines this urban oasis. Sand the color of a new penny and as fine as flour sneaks into every crevice and collects like dust on tabletops, patios, and car dashboards. Brooms are always in use in Khartoum. The temperature can shift severely, dipping at night and rising to oven-like blasts throughout the day. Whenever the warm desert air greeted me as I stepped off a plane in Khartoum, flip-flops came out and socks went into my suitcase for the rest of my stay.

We joked during our trainings about the difference between a Sudanese minute and an American minute. Place your thumb and finger an inch apart and you have the latter. Now throw your arms as wide as your wingspan allows, and welcome to Sudan.

While I kept my eyes on the time during meetings and trainings, over meals it was another story altogether. Time slowed when food was on the table. No one knew this better than Wisal, a Sudanese graduate of the University of Washington with a radiance that rivaled the sun. I counted on her to be my restaurant guide.

Coffee vendors are popular in Khartoum. Beans are ground fine and then steeped in boiling water, often with a combination of spices and sugars stored in the plastic containers on display. Photo courtesy of Chin Music Press

Evening excursions took place when work was done for the day and the heat had abated, replaced by cool desert night. We used fingers to pull apart samak mashwi, grilled freshwater fish, served with key limes and a piquant dipping sauce. A hibiscus iced tea, karkaday, slaked parched mouths. Then there were meals of spiced grilled lamb with fresh wheels of bread and peppery arugula, accompanied by bowls of foul sudani, a hearty fava bean stew – think Sudanese chili. Always up for dessert, we would relocate to a cafe smack in the middle of a busy Khartoum roundabout, where you had a dizzying selection of gelato, single-serving cakes, fruit tarts, and coffee. The wide outdoor couches were made for lounging, and time unspooled as we were lulled by the shallow croons of circling three-wheeled jitneys. On weekends we returned to the cafe couches, protected from the sun by yawning umbrellas and a system of ingenious mist-makers that kept customers cool, as though we were produce needing protection from wilting in the heat.

My joy in Sudanese dining extended far beyond what was on my plate. It also included the simplicity of the ingredients, the Sudanese emphasis on hospitality, and their unhurried manner. I was treated to barbecue on the outskirts of the city, where diced meat was grilled right in front of you and presented with an onion, tomato, and cucumber salad to keep it company, along with a small bowl of sea salt, puffed pillows of bread, and green chili dipping sauce. I ate these meals seated on iron bedframes webbed with twine so that after overeating I had the option to recline and take a nap. I have been tempted by plates of kisrah, a sorghum flour pancake widely available from street vendors, and paired it with a shot-glass amount of coffee spiced with ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon. I often passed on sugar for my coffee, which drew bemused reactions from my Sudanese colleagues. I enjoyed that many meals were served communally on aluminum trays, and how I had to lean in close to eat. Sudanese colleagues were eager to introduce me to their tastes of home, and the meals lasted for hours.

Sudan fed my curiosity, and its relationship with time prompted reflection. What was I missing? Was I moving too fast? What might surface if I did not rush to talk over all the quiet? I left Sudan full every time.

]]> 0 A woman holds karkaday, hibiscus petal tea, next to a glass of it prepared and presented on a silver tray. In Sudan the tea is often cold-brewed, then strained, and served as a cool drink to counter the heat.Tue, 18 Jul 2017 18:31:10 +0000
Linda Greenlaw’s latest mystery an enjoyable beach read marred by Maine cliches and a convoluted plot Sun, 16 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Let’s get this out of the way: Linda Greenlaw’s new novel in her Jane Bunker mystery series, “Shiver Hitch,” traffics heavily in clichés about Maine life. Every Down East stereotype ever given voice by somebody “from away” can be found here. But Greenlaw isn’t from away – she runs her own lobster boat operation off of Isle au Haut – and the thing about clichés is that they usually become clichés because they’re true.

The tendency of mysteries and crime procedurals in recent times is to push at the boundaries of the genre, with writers throwing in nonstop surprise twists, supernatural elements, unreliable narrators or enough research to write a doctoral thesis. Not Greenlaw – she delivers a straightforward, by-the-numbers summer-beach-read whodunnit.

Intrepid marine insurance claims investigator Jane Bunker – who at this point should just be given full detective status, given her record of solving crimes – is still trying to adjust to the cold Maine winters, having moved to Green Haven two books ago. In a previous career, she’d worked as a homicide detective in Miami, disarming the criminal element and trying to halt illegal drug trafficking. Moving to Maine was to be a fresh start, a more peaceful life.

Fortunately for readers, Bunker gets a lot more than routine insurance claims investigations. This time around, she’s tasked with investigating a house fire on the fictional Acadia Island. This itself presents a new challenge – Acadia, we learn, is where she was born. Her family left the state when she was very young, and she’s heard stories about her relatives that leave her wary about reconnecting.

Responsibility trumps reticence, and Bunker catches a boat over to the island. The house fire seems to be little more than that, until she discovers a body in the rubble. Even then, her first impression is that it was an accident, but when diesel fuel is found on the site – and the house only had wood-burning facilities – it becomes clear there’s more going on.

At this point, things become convoluted, both for Bunker and for the reader.

We learn that she has a brother, Wally, with Down Syndrome, who has been living in Florida. He’s lost the health care funding the state provides for assisted living and so will be moving to Maine. Bunker has been living with her landlords, an elderly couple who run a lobster-themed gift shop and love to lob proverbs and idioms at each other. Where Wally will live, who will provide for his needs, and how Bunker’s life will be affected occupy a good part of her thinking as she prepares for his arrival.

Another complication involves a pair of young men who may or may not be transporting large quantities of illegal drugs, a great deal of digression regarding the various effects and impacts of winter weather in the Northeast, and character building for Bunker’s character by having her internal monologue lay out in great detail her opinions on everything from technology, to diner employee habits, to the pros and cons of grits versus home-fried potatoes.

Which isn’t to say that the central mystery is abandoned. Bunker meets the caretakers of the house that burned, Joan and Clark Proctor, and learns that the woman who burned in the fire – a Midge Kohl – had stirred up resentful feelings on the island with a lobster-processing factory. The social cache of the Kohls had plummeted after they hired ex-convicts from away to staff the factory, sending property values down and driving fearful residents away.

If that seems like insufficient reason to make a murder look like an accidental death, rest assured that the plot thickens, with the Proctors’ daughter being a near-militant protester of everything the Kohls stand for. There’s also the matter of all those ex-convicts around, and the thriving business in drug trafficking that may or may not be connected to lobster shipping. Greenlaw throws a lot of red herrings into a plot that on the surface is convoluted but at the end does not have an especially surprising resolution. That, along with too many easy Maine stereotypes, limits what could otherwise be that enjoyable beach read for people here and “from away.”

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

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Welcome to the universe of Maine writers Sharon Lee and Steve Miller Sun, 16 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 For Maine writers Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, all it took to launch a brand-new universe was a single sentence.

The opening line for what would become “Agent of Change,” the inaugural volume of their Liaden Universe space opera series, was “The man who was not Terrence O’Grady had come quietly.”

It’s not quite “Call me Ishmael,” but something about typing those 10 words back in 1984 made Lee say to her husband, “I have a novel here.” And there was sufficient inspiration on the page for Miller to say, “I’m sorry, but I think you have a series.”

Both were right. Reached by phone at their Maine coon cat-friendly home in Winslow, surrounded by oil paintings, prints, book cover and other science fiction and fantasy artwork, Miller remembered, “We sat down that night and fleshed out the basic idea for the first seven books.” Four years later, in 1988, their collaborative debut was published in paperback by DelRey.

Since then, Lee, 64, and Miller, 66, have published 20 Liaden Universe novels and nearly five dozen related short stories. Baen Books published their latest hardcover novel, “The Gathering Edge,” in May.

Space opera is Lee and Miller’s specialty, wide-canvas sagas of intergalactic trade and warfare, faster-than-light travel and non-human aliens who look like bipedal turtles.

Tom Easton, book critic and professor emeritus at Thomas College in Waterville, wrote in an e-mail that Lee and Miller’s novels are not merely set in a particular vision of the future, but build “piece by piece a single massive tale marked by complex characters with attitude, powerful romances and politics the Borgias would have found familiar.”

Husband and wife authors Steve Miller and Sharon Lee. Photo courtesy of Baen

Their fictional universe takes its name from the survivors of another universe that collapsed and who now come from the planet Liad. Among the human races – which include Terrans and the super-soldier Yxtrang – Liadens consider themselves the cultural elite.

The sprawl of the Liaden Universe allows stories of all sorts, presented in a non-chronological fashion. “The Gathering Edge,” for example, continues the adventures of Theo Waitley as she, her crew and the self-aware starship Bechimo deal with the arrival of flotsam from that previously mentioned collapsing universe. Everything from tea cups to whole spaceships are leaking through, and Theo must decide whether to help the survivors.

Some narrative arcs in the Liaden Universe are more accessible to new readers than others, but Lee and Miller take care to provide jumping-on points. An electronic edition of the first Theo Waitley novel, “Fledgling,” is available for free from or from Amazon.

“What we had going for us was that we had read a lot of science fiction,” Miller said. “We had a lot of story concepts to work from.”

In 2012, Lee and Miller received the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award for Imaginative Fiction, presented by the New England Science Fiction Association.

“They may have begun by writing space opera,” Easton said, “but it did not take them long to exceed the rather limited reach of that term.”

Both Miller and Lee grew up in Baltimore and moved to Skowhegan in 1988.

Why move to Maine?

“Because we wanted to be writers,” Lee said. “I’m a secretary by trade. Steve is a retail worker and editor.” To afford Baltimore expenses, she said, “We both would have had to work three jobs, and we wouldn’t have been able to write.”

Both Miller and Lee also have journalism backgrounds. Him: a rock band reviewer and a reporter and editor at a string of community newspapers. Her a copy editor (in Waterville at the Morning Sentinel) and a reporter and photographer. Their collaborative process has been shaped by newspapering, Lee said: “It helps immensely with the voice of the book.”

“The issue at hand is not ‘my words’ or ‘your words.'” Miller agreed. “The issue is the story. Are we covering it properly?’

Even though the Liaden Universe is far away, Lee and Miller are sometimes inspired by Maine locations. They say astute readers will spot Madison, Maine in one book. In another novel, a planet called “Surebleak” endures harsh winters and short summers. Lee said it is a place “where those from off-world (let’s call it ‘away’) are often chilly and bemused by the frontier feel.”

On her own, Lee has published five books set in Maine, two cozy mysteries – “Barnburner” and “Gunshy” – and a fantasy trilogy – “Carousel Tides,” “Carousel Sun” and “Carousel Seas.”

Their Liaden books were anything but an overnight success.

“Emotionally, it was a little bit rough when our editor at DelRey told us we didn’t have a career,” Lee said. For a while – somewhere between seven and 10 years, depending on whether you ask Miller or Lee – it looked as if the editor were right. During those lean times, the couple focused on their freelance day jobs.

Miller said, “We’ve learned to get by on brown rice and how to make three days’ worth of food last five.”

Taking encouragement from colleagues such as Anne (“The Dragonriders of Pern”) McCaffrey, who told them it might take years for a book to catch on, they never gave up writing fiction. They persisted even though, Miller said, “sometimes it was physically dangerous to us because we didn’t have any health insurance.”

Health care is a continuing concern. Recently, they were able to raise money for Miller’s dental expenses through a crowd-funding site and by providing exclusive material for paying subscribers. The contributions testify to the solidity of their fan base.

Indeed, it was online that Lee and Miller found a sense of community. Miller’s early work with computer bulletin boards brought him e-mail from fans who were passing around used copies of the couple’s books and eager for more installments. Booksellers were also hand-selling used copies of their work.

Eventually, between 1999 and 2006, Meisha Merlin Publications published 10 Lee and Miller titles. When the company ceased operations, the rights reverted to the authors, and since then, their books have been published by Baen Books.

Asked about the community of Maine writers, Miller took a moment to find the precise descriptor. He said he finds other Maine writers “very introspective.”

“Other than Stephen King or Tess Gerritsen, generally they don’t have much to do with science fiction or fantasy,” he said.

However, Lee and Miller continue to attend science fiction conventions across the country. In early August, they will be “Guests of Honor” at Confluence in Pittsburgh. Confluence is billed as the city’s longest-running literary conference, with a strong focus on science fiction, fantasy and horror. It gives Lee and Miller a chance to meet fans, discuss the craft of fiction and host a “Teddybear Tea” for attendees and their stuffed animals (not kidding). Confluence programming chair Jeff Mierzejewski said of their work, “Some these days would argue that any adventure story has to be political. The Liaden tales are something better: They’re thoughtful, optimistic, and full of reverence for a life well-lived.”

As rocky as the path to literary success has sometimes been, Lee and Miller are now in the enviable position of being able to secure a contract for a new book with little more than the promise that it will be set in the Liaden Universe. They are under contract to write six more books between now and 2023.

“We’re in an unusual position,” Miller said. “Our two prime publishers have trusted us tremendously.”

And that’s how a universe keeps expanding.

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

Twitter: mlberry

]]> 0 and wife authors Steve Miller and Sharon Lee.Fri, 14 Jul 2017 18:00:24 +0000