Wednesday, October 29, 2014

October Favorites in Maine

Reading in my hammock, under a canopy of gold,

Wearing flannel shirts without jackets,

Picking apples with my daughter,

Biking on country roads,

Shopping at the farmers' market,

Brilliant maples at Bowdoin College 
(my husband's lecture hall)

Painting en plein air at Lookout Point,

Bird watching on Seawall Beach

Hiking safely at Morse Mountain (before deer hunting season)

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

My daughter's song "Flooded to Black"

Gemma has written a song, "Flooded to Black," which was recorded for a documentary on tar sands oil:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Autumn Seduction

Golden morning

Leads me into the woods

On pine needle footsteps, 

Over tap-tapping bridges,

Past gurgling reflections,

Under rustled leafshine,

Where brazen maples

Shimmy, blush and wave,

Flirting with that cool sky.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

From Farm to Cider Press

Last weekend we were invited to an apple cider pressing party, bring your own apples. Our favorite place to pick is Rocky Ridge Orchard in Bowdoin, as much for the pumpkin donuts as for the apples.

It's about a twenty minute drive from our house, unless you're riding in one of these classics!

Before harvesting our apples, we had roast chicken sandwiches on the patio overlooking the orchard. The maples were in peak color, and it was unusually warm, mid 60s. Autumn is my favorite time of year in Maine, but it's bittersweet, watching the leaves fall, knowing that winter is so long.

After years of practice, my daughter is an expert picker. We like Cortlands the best for eating, but any apple will work for cider, even fallen bruised ones.

A budding



my daughter




the camera



Later that day we biked to our friends' house

and learned how to press cider.

Two grocery bags of apples

make one gallon of cider.

The apples were dropped in the top

and cranked into the catch bucket

(the pulp was saved for the chickens.)

The juice dripped out the bottom

and was filtered before decanting.

It was the best cider ever. Cheers!

Blog Watch: Congratulations to Kristen Lindquist, this year's winner of Maine's Postmark Poetry award! You can sample her haiku poems and occasional nature photos on her blog, Book of Days.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Euphoria by Lily King: review & interview

Euphoria by Lily King is the best book I've read this year, and I read a lot of books. This historical novel has brilliant insights on human nature, and the writing is as gorgeously lush as the tropical setting. The story was inspired by the life and work of Margaret Mead, an American anthropologist. Mead was controversial for her personal involvement with her research subjects and for her revolutionary theories on sexuality and adolescence. She was also one of the forerunners of feminism. Euphoria's Nell Stone embodies her spirit.

The narrative takes place in 1930's New Guinea on a tropical backwater isolated from the civilized world. The central characters are three anthropologists: American Nell, her Australian husband, Fen, and their British neighbor, Bankson. Although sexuality is part of their uneasy dynamic, the connection between these fascinating characters is more intellectual than erotic.

Nell's greatest passion is her work. Fen is jealous of his wife's fame, but Bankson finds her work ethic and ease with the natives inspiring. Nell nurtures the men in her life but resents her dependence on them for access to her male subjects. The three researchers have unique talents, and when they come together in an orgy of ideas, they create a new theory that rocks the world and has unintended consequences.

Nell describes the favorite part of her work, which gives the novel its title:
"It's that moment about two months in, when you think you've finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It's a delusion - you've only been there eight weeks - and it's followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It's the briefest, purest euphoria."
True to Margaret Mead, Euphoria portrays New Guinean tribal societies with respect:
"'They are human, with fully functioning human minds. If I didn't believe they shared my humanity entirely, I wouldn't be here.' She had real color in her cheeks now. 'I'm not interested in zoology.'"
Euphoria has a marvelous sense of place. It's a book that's meant to be read slowly, with every sentence savored. It's worth buying the beautiful hardcover edition, featuring a Rainbow Gum Tree. The rough-cut pages seem to stick together with the humidity described in lush, tactile words. When the dry season comes, the plot pivots too in this tropical world of extremes:
"Because the rains were late, the road was a desiccated crust, hard as marble underfoot. Ripe fruit exploded when it hit the ground. Hot air blew down from the high trees, their dry fonds cracking against each other. Bugs aimed for her eyes and mouth, looking for moisture."
Every page is brimming with luscious prose, and yet the pace never lags. The writing doesn't distract you from the story. Historical and anthropological details are informative but not didactic. The characters are vibrant. It's not easy balancing all these elements, and few authors manage to achieve such narrative harmony. Lily King's Euphoria could be shelved beside and Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, Ann Patchett's State of Wonder and Isabel Allende's Eva Luna: beautiful stories about strong, intelligent women in wild, primitive places. Euphoria won the New England Book Award for 2014.

Flamingos at Lake Naivasha, Kenya

I'd enjoyed Lily's previous novels, but the subject of Euphoria holds more personal resonance for me. For years I've been fascinated by Margaret Mead and other women scientists who broke into fields dominated by men. At college, I studied Anthropology and considered a career in field biology. I spent summers doing field research in Kenya and on the Gulf of Mexico. Euphoria felt all the more real because I'd lived and worked in similar conditions, albeit with fewer luxuries. Then again, I had malaria medication. After reaching the last page, I had many questions.

Luckily I didn't have far to travel for answers. The author lives near me, and we'd met briefly once before through the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. Lily suggested meeting at "Brakes and Shocks," a new coffee shop in the West End of Portland. The building used to be a garage and then a laundromat. The cafe's official name is Tandem Coffee + Bakery, but I'm still calling it Brakes & Shocks. It had a cool retro-modern vibe, gourmet coffee and fresh baked goods. The goat cheese, caramelized onion and apple scone sounded like an odd combo, but it was delicious. With its walls of glass, Brakes & Shocks was a wonderful place to chat on a sunny autumnal day.

My Interview of Lily King

Author Lily King at Tandem Coffee + Bakery, photo by Sarah Laurence

Sarah: Your previous novels were contemporary fiction and well received. Why did you switch to historical fiction for your fourth book?

Lily: I didn’t mean to. Nine years ago, when I was just starting my third novel, Father of the Rain, I found Jane Howard’s 1984 biography of Margaret Mead in a used bookstore and I got to this chapter all about this fieldtrip to Papua New Guinea she made with her husband in 1933 where she met and fell in love with another anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, with whom she connected both emotionally and intellectually, and they had this really intense love triangle for five months. I couldn’t help thinking that scenario would make an interesting novel. So that got me reading Mead’s memoir, her academic work, and her letters. But for a long time I didn’t think I could actually write that novel.

Why not?

It was just so far out of my comfort zone on every level. These people would not live in houses but in the jungle of a country I’d never been to. It would take place in 1933 and the three main characters would be scientists. Plus it was historical and I don’t usually read historical fiction. I don’t like feeling that I’m being fed a lot of research.

Your writing was very tight and focused. How did you hold onto your story?

Thanks. I really tried, even as I was doing the initial reading for the novel, to keep my mind open to ideas and possibilities. And I limited the amount of researched detail I used. I used a fraction of what I wrote down in my research notebooks. It had to be essential to the action. Otherwise I chucked it. The narrative had to drive the story, not the research.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead, photo from Wikipedia
Why did you change Margaret Mead’s name to Nell Stone?

Nell is not Margaret Mead. I got the idea by reading a biography of her and I definitely borrow many details from her life and the lives of her husband Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson, but in the end I tell a very different story. I thought at first I would use their names but by the end of the first chapter, as the characters took shape, I felt handcuffed by history and I had to break away from it. Once I changed their names, my characters were free to be different people. They became my characters. I didn’t land on their names immediately. Nell was originally Polly, but she wasn’t a Polly. Andrew Bankson started out as Geoff. Characters grow into their names.

Since Nell is the protagonist of Euphoria, why didn’t you narrate the book from her voice?

Initially, I tried to write it exclusively from her point of view, then from all three of their perspectives. But Bankson’s voice was the one that really felt right. Once I got his voice I realized it was his story. And that really changed all my ideas for what would happen in the end. But I did need her perspective, so I included her journal entries, which were initially letters from her to Helen, her lover of many years.

I was surprised to learn from other interviews that you wrote Euphoria in your attic without ever visiting New Guinea. Your book has a marvelous sense of place and vocation. Have you done fieldwork in developing countries?

No, I was an English major and never took an anthropology class. The only experience I have had in the jungle was when I went up the Amazon in Peru with my new boyfriend (now my husband). I definitely remembered the heat, the oppression of the heat, and the things we did, but when I found a little notebook I’d brought on that trip, I thought I would find all sorts of good details, but all it had in it was the beginning of a letter to my sister all about how he and I weren’t getting along in the oppressive heat. So I had to be an armchair traveler for this novel. I read everything I could find about the region and anthropology, ethnography and fieldwork.

How long did it take you to research and to write Euphoria?

I researched the book intermittently while I was writing Father of the Rain. When that was finished, I spent a few more months reading about Mead and New Guinea, then started in. I wrote the first draft of Euphoria in a year and a half, then spent about six months revising on my own. After I’d written six or so drafts, I shared it with my husband, my writers’ group, my agent and my editor. Then there were more revisions.

 Do you have an editorial agent?

My agent, Julie Barer, is an editorial agent. She had me do a good bit of revising before sending it to my editor, Elisabeth Schmitz, whom I’ve had the great fortune of working with at Grove Atlantic for all my books.

Will your next book be historical or contemporary fiction?

My next novel will be contemporary, I think, set in somewhere between 2003 and now. I have six pages of notes and a page and a half of the first chapter. I have a lot of research ahead of me. It’s going to be a really challenging book to write.

Tandem Coffee + Bakery (Brakes & Shocks)
742 Congress St. Portland, Maine
What is the best writing advice you received?

I think it’s a quote by E.L. Doctorow:

“Writing is like driving at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

That's one of my favorite quotations too, and it fits our location. Sometimes I wish for fog lights when I'm revising. 

Thanks, Lily, for joining us at the book review club, and good luck with the next book!

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@Barrie Summy

Reviewer's Disclosure: I was not compensated for this review, but I have a personal connection to the author. Lily's daughters attend the same school as my daughter. She agreed to the interview on my request and didn't ask me to review her book. I bought my copy of Euphoria at Longfellow Books and two more at Gulf of Maine Books to give as gifts. My mother enjoyed Euphoria too.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

10X10 Art Show, Brunswick, Maine

On Friday night my watercolor painting will be part of a group art show to benefit Arts Are Elementary, a non-profit organization which brings artists, writers and performers into Brunswick elementary schools to work with students. Local restaurants are donating tasty hors d'oeuvres. Come join us!

Reid State Park, watercolor by Sarah Laurence

At this time of year if I'm not online, I'm probably out on location at work. I usually complete my paintings in one afternoon, racing the tide and waiting for the sun to reveal the shadows. Watercolor captures the flow of the ocean, and it's easier than oil paint to take on location. My studio is a rocky cliff, a secluded beach or a peaceful lakeshore.

I painted Reid State at this time last year, feeling wistful about these final beach days. I might be the walker or I could be reading a book, painting or enjoying the spectacular view. That's Seguin Island on the horizon as seen from One Mile Beach at Reid State Park, Georgetown, Maine. It's a half hour drive from my house.

10X10 Benefit Art Exhibit & Sale 
Next door venues on Pleasant Street, Brunswick, Maine 04011 
Friday September 26, 2013 from 6-9 pm 
(art is $200, including 10-inch-square frame) 
Public Preview
Thursday 9/25 6-9pm and Friday 9/26 12-3pm 
or visit the online preview
(my painting is at St. Paul's Church)
More info:

Blog Watch: BookLust is hosting #Diversiverse, a link list to reviews of books by authors of color. My review of Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier was posted last week. Reviews must be posted during the last two weeks of September so it's not too late to join. Right now I'm reading a recommendation, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. This marvelous memoir in free verse is on the National Book Award long list too.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier #Diversiverse

Tanuja Desai Hidier's Born Confused mixes typical teenaged angst with multiculturalism to create an original novel that both captures and transcends ethnic identity. As the book opens, Dimple Lala appears to be well assimilated in New Jersey. She shops at the mall for trendy clothes, has a blond best friend  and dates white boys. On her 17th birthday, Dimple receives a fake ID from her best friend, Gwyn, and returns home drunk.

Dimple's disappointed parents set her up with a "suitable boy," the son of their best friend from India. When Karsh Kapoor arrives in pleated khakis, doting on his mom and kissing up to her immigrant parents, Dimple rebels. Meanwhile Caucasian Gwyn tries to claim Dimple's cultural heritage as her own, dressing in traditional Indian clothes and flirting with Karsh. When the suitable boy is revealed as a less suitable DJ, Dimple has second thoughts. She focuses her camera on her heritage and discovers that her family and the Kapoors are not as traditional as she had assumed.

The premise of this young adult novel reminded me of two of my favorite books for adults. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (1993) follows a Hindu family's quest for a husband for their daughter Lata during the tumultuous time of post-partition India. I quit my book group to read Vikram Seth's 1,474 page historical novel. Another favorite, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake follows Gogol Ganguli from his teen years to early adulthood as he comes to terms with his Indian American identity. I wish Gogol and Dimple, both born in the USA but in different decades, could had met in high school. Interestingly, The Namesake and Born Confused were published the same year in the USA: 2003, although Born Confused was first published in the UK in 2002. Born Confused is a debut by a young author so it's not as polished as these two literary masterpieces, but there are thematic similarities, and its humor and pop culture references make it better suited to a teen audience. Nonetheless, adults would appreciate the multi-aged characters, philosophical questions and cultural depth.

The writing was good too:
Dimple explains why she use photography to communicate with her grandfather in India: "It was so much easier to make the world black and white than brown."
In a genuine teen voice, she expresses her confusion: "I guess I'm just not Indian enough for the Indians or American enough for the Americans, depending on who's looking."
I enjoyed her quirky metaphors: "A warm feeling filled me like tea."
Tanuja Desai Hidier
Scholastic Press photo
Dimple was a delight, and the secondary characters were well developed too. Karsh was an appealing love interest, although it seemed odd that no one objected to him being a college student while Dimple is not yet a senior in high school. His passion for remixed Indian-fusion music was pitch perfect (the author is also a singer/songwriter.) I loved how photography was used in the narrative to show Dimple's inner character. Her older cousin, parents and grandfather were well rendered too. It was wonderful to see a book with charismatic LBGTQ characters, who weren't there to play victims. The flattest character was the white best friend, and even so, Gwyn has more dimensions than are at first apparent.

My only (mild) criticism of Born Confused is the opening pace/length, given the teen audience. The book starts with backstory about Dimple's family, her best friend and disappointing boyfriends, and the narrative doesn't really take off until Karsh is introduced about a third of the way through the 515 page book. Then the book was hard to put down. I read the galley on my Kindle concurrently with a new release book from one of my favorite authors, and I put aside Haruki Murakami's brilliant novel without regret to finish Born Confused. I was hoping to read both Born Confused and its newly released sequel, Bombay Blues (560 pages), for this post, but I only had time to read the first book. After a break to finish other books, I plan to read Bombay Blues.

I first heard of Born Confused in 2006. The Harvard Independent (I was once a staff photographer) revealed that teen author Kaavya Viswanathan had plagiarized Tanuja Desai Hidier's novel (as well as books by other YA authors). The story was in The New York Times and on major networks with denials of intentional wrong doing. I'm still mad on Tanuja's behalf, all the more so after reading Born Confused; it's a ground-breaking novel that is still relevant a decade after its publication.

I'd strongly recommend Born Confused to readers aged 14 and up, who enjoy literary young adult fiction and multicultural books. There is underaged drinking and drug use but not without consequences. This book would crossover well to an adult audience. Teachers, Born Confused would pair very well with The Namesake in a class about multiculturalism, immigration and assimilation.

Seawall Beach at Morse Mountain, my favorite time of year.

Reviewer's Disclosure: this post is part of #Diversiverse: a challenge for bloggers to review a book by an author of color. This wasn't much of a challenge for me since I already read and review diverse books. I had requested a free galley of Born Confused from Scholastic Press before I had heard of #Diversiverse. I support efforts to broaden people's horizons by sharing books by diverse authors and/or with diverse protagonists. Over 100 bloggers have joined #Diversiverse. Thank you, Aarti at BookLust, for hosting!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

How to Speak Brit by Christopher J. Moore

Despite living three years in England and marrying a Brit, I'm not quite bilingual. British has a different "colour" from American English. I tried to capture this amusing linguistic confusion in a young adult novel about an American teenager on sabbatical in England (on submission to publishers). So I was as pleased as punch to find How to Speak Brit by Christopher J. Moore. The author is an Englishman with an MSc in Linguistics; Moore appreciates the history, as well as the humor, inherent in British expressions.

Like the Union Jack, which is an amalgamation of the flags from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the British language is highly regionalized. Word choice and accent tell other Brits the hometown, the education and the class of the speaker. Moore's book highlights the linguistic diversity in Old Blighty, but at 120 pages, it is not an encyclopedia, although there is a helpful index in the back.

How to Speak Brit is the humorous type of book a Brit would expect to find in the loo. Moore claims that the British slang word for bathroom/toilet came from the Battle of Waterloo. The Oxford Dictionary lists several other derivations for loo. My favorite one (not included in Moore's book) dates to medieval times. Servants would shout, "Regardez l'eau!" (French for "Look out for the water!") before dumping a chamber pot out the window into the road. I used this more colorful derivation in my novel and added a warning that a British "bathroom" may not necessarily contain a toilet.

Moore acknowledges that there are multiple origin stories behind British expressions, and How to Speak Brit is not meant to be an academic book. He organizes the phrases loosely around themes such as food (the Ploughman's Lunch) and etiquette (Fair Play). I would recommend the hardcover version over the ebook to appreciate the blue woodblock-print-style illustrations. Since there is no narrative arc, the book is best consumed in small chunks. Personally, I prefer narrative nonfiction, like Bill Bryson's books, which tells a story while delivering facts, but Moore's book succeeds on its own terms.

How to Speak Brit would make a jolly good visiting gift for an Anglophile, with the aim to amuse without risking offense. Moore avoids the more raunchy expressions that pepper the British vocabulary. Most of Cockney rhyming slang was designed to disguise swearwords and was quite useful for me in a novel marketed to a teenaged audience. Moore skips quickly past Cockney rhyming slang to focus more on quaint expressions with historical origins. His book might be helpful to a foreigner moving to a posh neighborhood in the UK but not to a visitor hoping to pick up current street slang. A linguist or a word pundit would enjoy it the more.

I would recommend How to Speak Brit to Downton Abbey and P.G. Wodehouse fans. The American edition uses Yank spelling and explanations. Chin up, chaps; there's no need to be flummoxed any longer. How to Speak Brit will be released on September 11, 2014 in both the USA and the UK.

Reviewer's Disclaimer: Gotham Books, Penguin USA gave me a digital galley and a print advance copy upon my request. I did not receive any other compensation for my review.

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@Barrie Summy