Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Botanical Illustrations of Native Maine Medicinal Plants

Gemma at Pettengill Farm on the Harraseeket River in Freeport, Maine

At my daughter's school, Waynflete seniors research a month long independent project. Gemma combined her love of art, nature and wilderness survival for her project. She did the first drawing (the Balsam Fir) at Chewonki Semester School junior year, which was her inspiration.

It was a fun bonding experience to accompany my daughter into the woods this May. I was her location scout and guide, but she identified all the plants herself and researched their medicinal uses now and historically. I learned a lot from her.

One of the highlights was an overnight trip to Monhegan Island, ten miles out to sea, but most samples were collected within a half hour drive from home. Some, like the Mountain Ash, grow in the old growth forest behind our house. We also explored the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay Harbor.

I was impressed by Gemma's ability to render these complex plants and trees with botanical accuracy and artistic acumen. Each drawing took five or six hours to sketch in pencil and then ink. With the help of her art teacher, the results were bound into pamphlets for her peers. In her powerpoint presentation, Gemma included maps and DSLR photos too. She would make a fine teacher/professor some day. I love how we share a passion for art and nature.

The American Mountain Ash has berries rich in vitamin C, 
which have been used to treat kidney disease, diabetes, arthritis and diarrhea.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set A Watchman is a mediocre book on its own, but it sheds light on the creation of To Kill a Mockingbird. I'd advise reading this found manuscript if you are interested in the writing process and in historical accuracy. There are valid reasons not to read: possible elder exploitation of the blind/deaf author and ruining your loving memory of Atticus Finch. Idealistic readers beware.

As a writer myself, I was curios about Harper Lee's process and read Watchman as a first draft. This "new" book is unevenly paced, anecdotal, preachy and slow to launch. The first 100 pages are mostly character sketches, but it was still a pleasure to meet Scout as a 26-year-old woman. She continues to be a delightful, quirky character. In the early chapters Scout is torn between looking after her ailing father and marrying her childhood sweetheart in Alabama versus going back to her independent life in New York City.

I loved this line about her small town: "If you did not want much, there was plenty."

The central themes of racism and loss of innocence didn't launch until page 101 of this 278 page novel. In a narrative jolt, Scout makes a shocking discovery that destroys her trust in the men she loves and rocks all her beliefs. Atticus the shining knight is tarnished nearly beyond recognition. Mockingbird seems like a fairy tale by comparison.

Although painful to accept, the Watchman is more historically accurate. The racist opponents to segregation in the South included well educated men, like the fictional Atticus, who otherwise seemed to be prime examples of moral integrity. Atticus's racism is disguised as "Jeffersonian Democracy" and benevolent paternalism. Scout, who was raised "color blind" by a black maid and a white father, believes in equal rights for all. The narrative suspense rests on this feud of ideology in one family. I stayed up until dawn finishing the Watchman. This nauseating debate still feels relevant. Two weeks ago the Confederate flag was still flying at South Carolina's capitol. Racial inequities persist.

The joy of reading Watchman came from uncovering the genesis of Mockingbird. The famous climatic Mockingbird trial is summarized as backstory, and there are delightful childhood flashbacks. I can imagine the sage editor, mining these rough gems and helping the author polish them into a masterpiece. It encouraged me as a writer to see that even Harper Lee struggled in her first draft. There are so many tales than can be told. Genius is in finding the heart of the story.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Union Street Bakery, Brunswick, Maine

Although The Union Street Bakery and Cake Shop only opened a few weeks ago, it's such a perfect match for my neighborhood that it feels like it has always been here. The owner, Sandra Holland, has many years of experience as a caterer, baker and business woman. She also has an Associates Degree from RISD in Culinary Arts with a focus on pastry. When I first moved to Brunswick, Sandy was running the Humble Gourmet, a similar bakery/sandwich shop but in a less hospitable location. Her new venture is located on a quiet, tree-lined side street near the public library and in easy walking distance to everything in Brunswick, including my house.

The Union Street Bakery: 40 Union St, Brunswick, Maine
Entering the Union Street Bakery feels like visiting an old friend's home with the comfy chairs, local art and sunny window nooks. Refreshing breezes flow through windows on three sides, carrying the scent of baking bread and brewing coffee from the open kitchen. Cat Stevens played timeless favorites. I had the perfect lunch: toasted turkey BLT with avocado, a regular on the menu with other sandwiches, soup, quiche, salad, cookies and cupcakes.

After a leisurely lunch, Henry and I ordered a gluten free birthday cake for our daughter. Sandy was amazed to hear that our little girl with Shirley Temple curls could be turning eighteen and heading to college. Years ago, we'd carpooled our sons to Audubon summer day camp.

Sandra Holland & her crew
Photo curtesy Union Street Bakery
I'm so pleased to see Sandy back at what she does best: making our town feel like a neighborhood and baking the best cakes ever. My favorite is her tart but moist lemon cake, and I'm not usually a cake lover. Her carrot cake is really good too and is available in an almond flour version for those on gluten free diets. My daughter was put on a gluten free diet recently for health reasons, and it's a relief to find local businesses catering to her needs. I'm sure I'll be back on other summer days with my daughter and during the long winter with friends. It's so cozy and warm.

After lunch, I walked a couple blocks to the Gulf of Maine Bookstore to buy two copies of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, one for me and one for my daughter. She loved To Kill a Mockingbird so much, she named our dog Scout. I'm planning to post my impressions of this controversial lost-manuscript-found-book next week. Who else is reading it (no spoilers please)? You can read/listen to a free sample posted by The Guardian here. If I'm not online, I'm probably reading in my hammock.

Daisies in Pickard Fields, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Celebrating 25 Years of Marriage: a British-American Romance

Henry and Sarah Laurence
I was in college when my future husband met me by chance. After moving into off campus housing, my phone stopped working. This was years before cell phones so I knocked on a random door to test my landline in a neighbor’s outlet. Henry had a cute accent and gorgeous green eyes, but best of all, he made me laugh. “Get rid of the phone and have a beer,” were his first words to me. His British co-pats were flipping pancakes in celebration of Shrove Tuesday, a holiday new to me. I was charmed into accepting his invitation, even though I didn't usually drink on school nights.

Henry claimed it was love at first sight, but I was skeptical. I was wearing glasses with my hair in a ponytail and that doing-my-laundry outfit. When I ran into Henry the next day, he didn't recognize me at first. I groaned about a quiz on the countries, capitals and rivers of Africa. Henry sketched a map on a napkin. Then he asked me out on a date that weekend: sushi and a James Joyce movie.

A date? Nobody at college went on real dates. Henry showed up with flowers one day and with chocolates on another. He recited Shakespeare by heart, truly enjoyed dancing and never left the house without an umbrella. I felt like a character in a Jane Austen novel.

In Goring-on-Thames, England with Henry before my first white tie ball at Oxford University. Photo by Nicola Laurence.

When Henry proposed three weeks after we met, I nearly broke up with him. At barely twenty-one, I was looking for a boyfriend, not a husband. Henry was only at Harvard for one term, studying Japanese political economy. In June he had to return to his job at the Bank of Tokyo in London. I had applied to summer internships in Alaska, Australia and England. With a gentle nudge, I chose the anti-whaling campaign at Greenpeace's international headquarters in London.

Henry kept proposing under rainbows, in rose gardens and along the Thames Rivers. He tried to trick me with triple negatives: "Is it not true that you would not never marry me?" He was irresistible. Some people thought we were crazy, but for an international relationship to work, we needed a big commitment. A two year engagement gave us plenty of time to get to know each other better.

With my Dalton School friends in New York Harbor aboard the DeWitt Clinton.

I was the first of my friends to become engaged so I was clueless about weddings. My Jewish father had married my Episcopalian mother in a tiny civil ceremony. Henry was Anglican, but I didn't want to deny half of my heritage with a church wedding and we both wanted to keep it small and intimate.

Since Henry loved crew and sailing and his father had served in the merchant navy, my dad floated the idea of a ship captain performing the ceremony. We all loved the concept.

Henry below deck with Jenny and Tim Moore from London. Photo by my cousin Peter Nohrnberg.

Unfortunately a captain-officiated wedding would require being two miles out to sea in international waters. Friends and family were already traveling to New York from England, Japan and Israel.

Instead, we brought a Unitarian minister on board the DeWitt Clinton, who combined Old and New Testament readings with Shakespeare and a ceremonial breaking of a wine glass. We were wed in New York Harbor twenty-five years ago...or rather we would have been if we hadn't forgotten the marriage license! That was corrected dockside before we left for our honeymoon.

Henry and his father before the World Trade Center. Photo by Peter Nohrnberg.

In twenty five years the world has changed radically. I never thought our wedding album would become a memorial to the fallen Twin Towers. I'd sooner remember them like this, with happy memories.

We started a family early so that now in my forties, I'm amazed to find myself an empty nester. With time to date each other once again, I'm pleased that we haven't lost our special connection. Henry challenges me intellectually, and he still makes me laugh. Twenty-five long-stem roses and dinner out in Portland proved that romance didn't wilt over time.

There are more rainbows than ever before. The best anniversary gift of all was the Supreme Court ruling on Obergefell vs. Hodge, granting the right of marriage to same sex couples in all of the United States. I wish these newly wed couples as much love and happiness as we have shared over the years.
Cheers and mazel tov!

Photo credits: unlabeled wedding photos by Carol A. Turrentine. Family photo in Freeport, Maine by Annie Rose. Double rainbow photo in New Hampshire by me.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Good Summer Books for Teens, Tweens and Adults

Simpson's Point in Maine

Now that summer is finally here, you'll find me biking four miles to Simpson's Point to swim at high tide. It's paradise if you ignore the green head flies. Great blue herons and snowy egrets fish in the shallows while bald eagles and ospreys circle above. As I wait for my suit to dry, I perch on a warm rock with a good book. Here are my recommendations of books published this year in hardcover or paperback with links to my full-length reviews:

Literary Historical Fiction (paperback) 

Euphoria by Lily King: set in tropical New Guinea and inspired by Margaret Mead, this sensuous summer read was one of my favorite books from 2014 and is now available in paperback. Follow the first link to my review and interview of the Maine author.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: this year's Pulitzer Prize winner alternates between a blind French girl and a German radio operator during World War II. This book would cross over well to young adults since the two protagonists are teenagers. Gorgeous writing and a well constructed plot makes this a compelling read. The author attended Bowdoin College in Maine. One third into this Dickensian story, I'm enjoying it. My husband will be reading this next for his book group. Thanks to all the people who recommended this book to me.

Commercial Fiction

Summer Secrets by Jane Green: I'm saving this newly released hardcover for Nantucket. Summer Secrets is set on that island and in Primrose Hill, London, where I lived on sabbatical with my family. This British American author knows her settings well. I've enjoyed five of Jane's novels; she writes the best beach books. You can read an excerpt from Summer Secrets here. Her last book, Tempting Fate, with my doppelganger as the protagonist, is now available in paperback.

Young Adult Fiction 

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein: this historical novel about a family of pilots in 1930s Ethiopia would appeal to adults as well as to older teens. The perspective alternates between an Italian American teenager and her foster brother, an Ethiopian American boy. Although slow to start, this literary book soars when it takes to the skies. Elizabeth Wein is one of my favorite authors (hardcover).

This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales: this 2013 novel, recently released in paperback, is edgy, fresh and fun. An unpopular, depressed teen finds friends and romance while DJ-ing for a pop-up underground dance club. I loved this book and its alt rock music selections, stretching from now to decades past. The book includes thematic playlists and should have been sold with a soundtrack. I found this novel while browsing at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine.

None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio: a homecoming queen discovers that she is intersex and is bullied at school when a friend reveals her secret. She turns to an online community for support. This novel will speak to anyone who doesn't fit in and will help others to be more understanding. The author is a urologist/surgeon who was inspired by a teenaged intersex patient (hardcover).

P.S. I Still Love You (hardcover) by Jenny Han is the follow up to last year's To All the Boys I've Loved Before (paperback). When Lara Jean's secret love letters are sent to her crushes, her love life gets complicated. The first book ends without much resolution, enticing you to buy the second one. These paired romances also focus on sibling relationships following the loss of their Korean-American mother. A good choice for reluctant readers.

One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart: set in Florence and narrated from the perspective of a teen who fears that she is losing her mind. The style is poetic and dreamlike without much plot structure. Best for fans of literary fiction and psychology. I've read six other novels by this most unique author (hardcover).

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson is the 2015 Printz Award winner about a family of artists was one of my favorite books from last year. Narration alternates between a gay teenaged boy and his twin sister. If you want to understand why realistic young adult fiction is so big right now and crossing over to adults, try this book. I love Jandy Nelson's writing style (paperback).

Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman is the much anticipated sequel to the award winning Seraphina (2012, now paperback). In this literary fantasy, an unstable truce between humans and dragons is under siege. Seraphina, a half human/dragon music mistress, hides her secret parentage while trying to prevent war. These books reminded me of The Dragon Riders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. I loved Seraphina (my niece's favorite book) so much that I bought the sequel the day I finished reading the first book, and I don't usually like fantasy. I bought a second copy for my niece's fourteenth birthday. Although Seraphina is a teenager, most characters are adults so it would crossover well to an adult audience (hardcover).

Young Adult Nonfiction (hardcover)

I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda with Liz Welch: teenaged American-Zimbabwean pen-pals form a deep friendship over seven years in this inspiring memoir. The accessible style would appeal to younger teens and to tweens. Thanks, Main Point Books, for recommending this book to me.

Middle Grade Fiction (ages 10-12, hardcover)

A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord. An Hispanic migrant girl breaks traditions by entering the Downeast Blueberry Queen beauty pageant. Twelve-year-old Salma hopes to win a savings bond for college. No one captures small town Maine better than local author Cynthia Lord. This aptly named novel received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, won a Best of Maine Children's Book Award from Downeast Magazine and is a Junior Library Guild selection. Halfway through, I'm reading a chapter a night to savor it; A Handful of Stars would make an excellent read-aloud bedtime story for the summer.

The Disappearance of Emily H. by Barrie Summy: this paranormal mystery set in a real world middle school would be a good choice for reluctant readers. The protagonist is a 13-year-old girl who reads sparkle memories on inanimate objects to find a missing girl.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I read/recommend mostly realistic young adult fiction since that is what I write myself. Beth Kephart and Barrie Summy are my blog buddies, and at my request, I received review galleys from their publishers. I also requested a review galley of Elizabeth Wein's novel from her new editor, who is my friend. All other books I purchased at indie bookstores (Gulf of Maine Books, Longfellow Books and Bull Moose) and was not compensated for my reviews. Jane Green is an art client. Cynthia Lord and her editor are my neighbors/friends. My daughter went to school with Lily King's daughters. Yes, the Maine literary community is basically a small town.

Blog Watch: for more recommendations check out the summer reading lists posted @From The House of Edward@ The Cue Card and @ Midlife Roadtripper.

What are you reading this summer?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I Will Always Write Back by C. Alifirenka & M. Ganda with L. Welch

I Will Always Write Back is a moving memoir that advocates for compassion and respect for children in developing countries. For a seventh grade pen pal assignment, Caitlin chose to correspond with Martin Ganda in Zimbabwe because she'd never heard of that African country. Over the course of six years, they formed a close friendship. Their story is told in alternating chapters, dating from 1997.

At first Caitlin believes that Martin is well off since he pays fees to go to school and is top of his class, and he doesn't want to scare her off with the full truth. Martin assumes that Caitlin wouldn't understand, but when she learns of his impoverishment, she secretly sends her babysitting money to him. Later she convinces her middle class parents to help support Martin's family so that he can stay in school. However, sending money securely to Zimbabwe is nearly impossible. Martin's quest to find a scholarship to an American college is a page-turner story with everyday details that make it real and relatable.
"The last Fanta I had was two Christmases ago - at the beginning of the economic troubled time. My father could only afford one that year, so we passed it around, taking small sips, holding the sunshine-sweet liquid in our mouths for as long as possible before giving in to a swallow."
This engaging book teaches a lesson about the world from a personal perspective without sounding too preachy. Caitlin, despite her generosity, is not a saint. She's a typical American teenager who is more focused on shopping, popularity and boys than on her schoolwork. Most kids will relate to Caitlin and her everyday problems, which contrast sharply with Martin's day-by-day struggle to obtain basic necessities like food, water, shelter and medical treatment. His Herculean efforts to stay in school inspire Caitlin to take her education more seriously and to choose a career in nursing. She gets as much from him as he does from her. Their true story shows that it's possible to make a difference and that the differences between us aren't insurmountable.

I Will Always Write Back would make an excellent classroom supplement to an international pen pal assignment. The easy-to-read style is a good match for kids ages ten to fourteen. There are only a couple of chapters with drugs and underaged drinking, but a teacher could skip over them. Since the book follows the characters from seventh grade to college, it is being marketed as young adult. Older teens and adults would enjoy it too, but the naive perspective and simple writing style are better geared for younger readers, in my opinion. Read with a box of tissues.

Reviewer's Disclosure: the owner of Main Point Books in Pennsylvania recommended this book to me. I purchased it at Longfellow Books in Maine. As a teen, I spent a summer in Kenya studying wildlife conservation and learned how challenging life is for families in developing countries. The experience changed how viewed the world. Books like I Will Always Write Back are not only important; they are necessary. Family photo below is by my dad.

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Sorry to be slow to respond lately. I've been offline celebrating my daughter's high school graduation.