Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Mud Season in Maine

March and April is mud season in Maine.

Rivers thaw, snow melts and fields brown.

Every step is slippery or squelchy,

And a question mark of snow remains.

Tides ripple the sand, promising summer.

Only my dog misses winter.

Blog Watch for seasonal blues: Les@Tidewater Garden hosted his annual winter walk off. Sapphire shared cherry blossom season in Japan. Petra revisited summery Lhota in the Czech Republic. Pamela@From the House of Edward posted a whimsical list for spring.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Longfellow Books Survives Blizzard Nemo

It has been a long winter in Maine. Yet another snowstorm (8 inches) shut schools yesterday. Last month Nemo dumped more than 30 inches in Portland, but Mainers are usually prepared for harsh weather. Human negligence was a greater hazard. The tenants above Longfellow Books had left a window open during the storm, causing the pipes to freeze and the sprinkler system to go off. Firefighters rushed to the rescue, but thousands of books were already ruined.

When the tragic story was shared on Facebook, readers and authors rallied to help. Josh Bodwell at Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance coordinated a fundraiser with a cash mob, online donations and a sold-out literary event at Space Gallery, featuring Maine literati: Richard Russo, Monica Wood, Ron Currie Jr., Bill Roorbach, Brock Clarke, actress Moira Driscoll and others behind the scene. Longfellow Books reopened after three days. Thanks to everyone who helped!

A good independent bookstore offers more than books; the bookseller is a connoisseur stocking quality literature. On this display table at Longfellow Books, I discovered The Indigo Notebook, and author Laura Resau, became one of my favorites. Longfellow stocks both new and used books, and browsing in a well organized store with informed staff is the best way to shop. Booksellers have told me horrific tales of people scanning the titles with their phones to order online. Indie bookstores are an endangered species so if you value them, support them. Indifference is a greater threat than a blizzard.

My latest purchase at Longfellow Books was a March 12th release, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, after reading a glowing review in The New York Times. The trailer features the author, who also appears as a character in her novel.

Spring begins with the vernal equinox at 7:02 AM today. My backyard didn't get that update.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Grammar, Identity and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive with Phuc Tran

Imagine life without WHAT IF...

Phuc Tran was a child refugee from the Vietnam War, moving with his family to Pennsylvania in 1975. He now lives in Maine, where he teaches Latin and works as a tattoo artist too. Phuc is one of the most interesting and articulate people I've ever known. He's also modest. I've only just learned of his TEDx talk in which he shared his experience of immigration and assimilation. In the clip below Phuc explains how living without the subjunctive tense can change the way you approach life.

"The subjunctive allows us to be creative, but it also allows us to become mired in regret." - Phuc Tran

The talk is 14 minutes long so pour yourself a cup of tea. Be careful not to choke on laughter.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Harpswell Cove, Maine
Elizabeth Strout excels at creating unlikable but emotionally compelling characters, each one uniquely fallible and true to life. Her books speak to me personally since some are set in New York City, where I grew up, and all are set in Maine, my home of 15 years. A Maine native, Bates College graduate and former lawyer, Strout resides primarily in NYC and writes beautifully about what she knows. Her latest novel, The Burgess Boys, lived up to my high expectations (in stores on March 26, 2013).

Central Park, New York City

Kind Bob and slick Jim grew up poor in Maine and are now lawyers in New York City. Their estranged sister, Susan, remained in Shirley Falls, a working class town (modeled on Lewiston) with a recent influx of refugees from Somalia. Brewing racial tension boils over when Susan's teenaged son, Zach, tosses a pig head into a Muslim mosque during the holy month of Ramadan. A testament to Strout's literary skill and audacity, Zach is a surprisingly sympathetic character. His deplorable act is put in perspective as the European-American and Somali-American characters strive to understand a culture foreign to theirs.

The Burgess Boys taught me a lot about Somalis (NOT Somalians) and their history of civil war, second wave migration and struggles to retain their culture (ie. to be Somalis and not "hyphenated people: Somali-American.") The book is narrated from multiple limited points of view, including a Somali elder and a Somali mother. The author also jumps inside the heads of "liberal" New Yorkers, whose initial concern for the Somalis fades into smug indifference. The most likable character in the book is Margaret, a minister who seeks to bridge the racial gap, but even she is lampooned for using The Bible as a window jam. It makes her human. The multiple head hopping was rarely confusing and added depth and texture to the story without losing the focus on the central characters. Most of the book follows "bighearted" Bob Burgess and the people important to him.

Given the initial set up, I was expecting a novel about racism and religious intolerance, but The Burgess Boys is first and foremost a book about dysfunctional family. The pig head incident works primarily as a plot catalyst to bring the three siblings together in Maine. This present day crisis is framed by a tragedy from their past, which overshadows their lives and contorts their relationships. One small weakness, in this otherwise well structured novel, is that the pig head plot line was too easily resolved. Also the prologue was unnecessary and contained spoilers. I'd save the prologue for when you finish this marvelous book and wish there were more pages to read.

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout glitters with literary diamonds:
My backyard in March
"He thought of the people in the world who felt saved by city. He was one of them. Whatever darkness leaked its way in, there were always lights on in different windows here, each light like a gentle touch on his shoulder saying, Whatever is happening, Bob Burgess, you are never alone." 
"About the Somalis, a few townspeople did not speak at all: They were to borne as one borne bad winters or the price of gasoline or a child who turned out badly. Others were not so silent." 
"The November sun - not high in the sky, but coming at the town from an angle - sliced across the streets, across the lawns that were still green, fell on half-sunken pumpkins left on stoops from Halloween, shone against the tree trunks and their bare limbs, beamed through the clear air, making mica specks in the old sidewalks glitter." 
"She pictured a dandelion gone by, the white, almost airless pieces of her family scattered so far. The key to contentment was to never ask why; she had learned that long ago." 
"The facts didn't matter. Their stories mattered, and each of their stories belonged to each of them alone."
Reviewers Disclosure: I met Elizabeth Stout when she gave a talk at our library about writing her 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteridge, and two other novels. She was charming, intelligent and modest and nothing like her overbearing, smug characters. Publisher Weekly has a fascinating biographical essay on Elizabeth Strout. I borrowed an ARC of The Burgess Boys from my friend, Maria Padian, who has written another wonderful book about Somalis in Maine, Out of Nowhere, but hers is young adult fiction. I'd recommend reading the two books together; both are excellent.

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy