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 right there. 

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