Wednesday, November 26, 2014

At Bailey Island with my College Roommate

Freshman year, Harvard paired me with Bonnie and two other roommates. Before we met in person, Bonnie called me on the phone, and we discovered that we had lots in common, including adjacent geography. I was from New York City and she was from New Jersey. When I arrived on campus, I had an instant friend.

When I invited Bonnie to visit me anytime, I hadn't expected her to come in November. That's my least favorite month in Maine. The trees were bare; the skies were grey; the landscape was brown and the days were growing shorter. Bonnie doesn't like cold weather, but her son was competing in a regional cross-country meet (he finished second!) They came well prepared with warm layers and a game attitude.

I took Bonnie to Giant Stairway on Bailey Island for a frigid seaside walk.

There's a public path that skirts the cliffs.

It's a good lookout point for breaking waves, bobbing lobster pots and eider ducks.

On warmer days, I've often spent hours painting watercolors

We stopped at Mackerel Cove to watch the sunset.

It was chilly, but catching up with an old friend kept me warm.

I'm thankful for the long-lasting friendships in my life, including you bloggers.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Landline & Attachments by Rainbow Rowell, a double review

Wagon wheels at Rocky Ridge Orchard in Bowdoin, Maine

Rainbow Rowell captures the cool geek voice of my generation. She uses just the right amount of pop cultural references to place a book in its decade without making the story feel too dated. Her quirky characters are smart and well-meaning but lack judgment. We love them because we can relate to their mistakes. Rowell is best known for her bestseller young adult novels, Eleanor & Park and Fangirl, but she also wrote two novels for adults.

Attachments (2011) was Rowell's impressive debut. Twenty-something Lincoln is still living with his mom at the end of the millennium. His job at the local newspaper is to prevent a Y2K crash and to monitor employee use of email. Beth, a music and film reviewer, and Jennifer, a copy editor, raise flags for using work email for personal chit chat, but instead of issuing a warning, Lincoln reads their exchanges and falls in love with Beth before first sight. Lincoln knows snooping is wrong, but he can't stop anymore than we can stop reading this bittersweet romance.

Although I found the premise creepy, Lincoln was a sympathetic character and the cyber security issues still felt relevant today. It was nice to see a close friendship between two women portrayed realistically through the ups and downs of life. Sometimes, however, this realism became too mundane, which is the downside of using email to tell a story. This narrative device was especially irritating in my audio book since every email exchange was tagged with the sender's and recipient's full names. The listening experience improved when the characters interacted in real time. I often stayed in the garage to finish a chapter. Attachments would translate well to the screen, as it reminded me of You've Got Mail. If you loved that movie, read this book.

Landline (July, 2014), Rowell's latest, is a contemporary realistic novel with a touch of magic. Georgie McCool's marriage is crumbling. She's so wrapped up in pitching a new TV series that she doesn't notice that her husband, who is home raising their kids, has left her until a day after her family is gone. Georgie returns to her childhood home and discovers that her old landline phone allows her to speak to her husband in the past.

Given the opportunity to do-over, what would Georgie change? This compelling question was well explored in the narrative, however, the magic phone was never explained. It thus felt like a plot gimmick and didn't integrate well with this otherwise realistic story. Still, I enjoyed the book for the well-developed characters and their witty banter. I often had to put the book down to laugh.
Georgie's dog-breeder mom:
"Kids are perceptive, Georgie. They're like dogs" - she offered a meatball from her own fork to the pug in her lap - "they know when their people are unhappy."
"I think you may just have reverse-anthropomorphized your own grandchildren."
Set over Christmas, Landline reads like a modern retelling of It's a Wonderful Life with a feminist twist. If you know someone who lives for holiday specials, Landline would make a wonderful Christmas present. Attachments in paperback (not audiobook) would make a good gift too. Rowell's YA books would be a better match for the teenagers and maybe some adults on your list.

Although I prefer Rowell's young adult fiction over her novels for adults, it's nice to see an author who can cross back in forth between marketing categories. Her YA books have more gritty realism and are less sentimental so I hope she writes more. I'd read any book written by Rainbow Rowell; she's one of my favorite authors. Her writing inspires my writing too.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Wolfe's Neck Park and Farm in Freeport, Maine

As the days get shorter, I'm gathering the warm ones to store for winter. Maine weather is quite temperamental in November. Our first snowfall was followed by days in the 50's with clear blue skies. Most leaves have fallen, but some still cling to the trees in brilliant shades of red and gold. A late frost means lingering colors.

It's deer hunting season so our hiking choices are limited, but Wolfe's Neck Park is always safe. This state park is situated on a peninsula on Casco Bay. The longest hike is only a couple of miles, but the ocean views from the wooded trails are gorgeous. It's hard to believe this wildlife sanctuary is only a short drive from the outlet shops of downtown Freeport.

On the way home, we stopped at Wolfe's Neck Farm. There's an untended farm shed where you can buy their free range meat, eggs, vegetables and soap. You write what you took and leave the money in a jam jar. It restores my faith in humanity.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

I don't usually like memoirs or books written in verse, but I loved Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. Born in 1963, Jacqueline grew up in both the north and the south. Her childhood memories are captured in free-verse poems. The reading experience was like flipping through a family scrapbook with warm nostalgia tempered by sorrow.

An excerpt from "the blanket"
So the first time my mother goes to New York City
we don't know to be sad, the weight
of our grandparents' love like a blanket
with us beneath it,
safe and warm.
During hard times, Jacqueline and her siblings lived with their working class grandparents in South Carolina. Civil rights legislation had repealed the Jim Crow laws, however racial prejudice lingered.

In downtown Greenville,
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn't use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out.
Young Jacqueline grew up with mixed messages. Her grandmother tells her to sit at the back of the bus to avoid trouble, but her mother encourages Jacqueline to be proud of who she is. In "the right way to speak" her mother whips her brother for saying "ain't."
You are from the North, our mother says.
You know the right way to speak. 
This lesson about the importance of language was not lost on the children. However, Jacqueline was a mediocre student. She was a disappointment to teachers who knew her brilliant older sister. Still, even as a child, Jacqueline wanted to be writer. Her poem "composition notebook" is an ode to her dream in the face of sibling rivalry:
And why does she need a notebook? She can't even write!
For days and days, I could only sniff the pages,
hold the notebook close
listen to the sound the papers made.
Some poems were three lines and others were three pages, but all were easy to read. Although Brown Girl Dreaming is being marketed for readers aged ten and up, a younger reader would need explanation about the historical context. An adult would appreciate the literary references to Langston Hughes and to Robert Frost, whose styles influence Jacqueline's poetry. It's a book with wide appeal to readers of all ages.

Although I wouldn't usually recommend this strategy, you should start this book at the end. The author's note places her work in context, and there are charming photos of Jacqueline and her extended family. As I met the characters, I enjoyed flipping back to the photos. The cover is gorgeous too.

Brown Girl Dreaming is on the short list for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, and many expect it to win that and the Newbury Award. It would make an excellent addition to the middle school/junior high classroom or library. My one disappointment was that the memoir didn't follow the future MG/YA author beyond elementary school. I'm waiting for the sequel.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought the beautiful hardcover edition at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine without compensation. Photo is of my backyard on Sunday after our first snowfall of the season. Happy Snowvember!

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@Barrie Summy

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.