Rock on: Rocks from the Collections of Long Islanders

A favorite island activity is collecting rocks from various island beaches, and beyond. What we do with these rocks can vary – many just sit on a shelf or in a windowsill. But others get painted or decorated, in a variety of ways. Some islanders are given rocks by the rock fairy, who delivers painted and decorated rocks to the lucky few.

Come visit this exhibit and enjoy seeing the creative spirit of islanders. May this exhibit inspire you to look at rocks in a new way.

Long Island Community Library small glass case

Open during library hours

Way out West: the west in literature

In the spring I found myself immersed into the western US, via books.

Michael and I read together, “’Catch ‘em alive Jack’ : the life and adventures of an American pioneer.” This autobiography of John Abernathy was great fun to read, although we found his adventures a bit incredible and a bit overwhelming at times (“really????”). Still, it was an interesting view of a unique time and period of American history, the whole manliness of Teddy Roosevelt and his rough riders, where a man who caught wolves would thrive (Jack wouldn’t do as well in these more modern times, when the ASPCA would be picketing Jack’s front door). A Texas native, Jack later became United States Marshal in Oklahoma.

Another book that takes place in Texas and Oklahoma is the novel “Crooked Hallelujah,” by Kelli Jo Ford. This was read for my in-town book group (admittedly, none of us liked it). It tells the tale of several generations of Cherokee women, and their poor choices in men. Well, there’s more to it than that, but that was the gist for me.

More historical in nature, as well as more gripping, is Kristin Hannah’s novel, “Four winds,” which depicts another single mother in Texas, who after seeing her farm shrivel up in the  Dust Bowl, heads further west, to California, in search of a better life for herself and her two children. If you’re looking for a cheerful story, this isn’t it – but if you’re seeking to experience vicariously the unrelenting hardships suffered by those seeking to better their lot in life, this will give you renewed empathy for the immigrants among us. Seems as if history does repeat itself, with how we continue to treat “the other” – people from other places that threaten our way of life by their poverty and willingness to do the jobs that most of us wouldn’t want to do.

My favorite book of this foursome of western literature is “Between earth and sky” by Karen Osborn. What a wonderful find! I was unfamiliar with this novel, when I found it on a free shelf somewhere. It ended up being so different from how it started, as a young woman crossing the continent with her family in the 1800s, writing home to her sister. Then it morphed into a book about an independent woman, an artist, who fell in love with the New Mexican landscape, and her unique family and life. I like that the author is also a poet, as one can see in her writing. an interesting and unique book.

Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg for western literature, but those are the books that came into my world this year. What are some of your favorite western reads?

ReadMe 2021

This summer’s “ReadMe” is up and running! (Readme is a statewide reading program sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council). This year’s choices, picked by mystery writer Gerry Boyle, are Mill Town by Kerri Arsenault (non-fiction) and Mainely Power by Matt Cost (fiction). The Long Island Community Library has Mill Town, and Mainely Power is on order. I read Mill Town a few months ago, and I’m eager to read Mainely Power for my in-town book group.

So, pick up one of these books, and enjoy reading books that many others in Maine are reading along with you! (check the ReadMe website for author talks that you can join in on)

Biddeford mill

Ode to Scotland, in poetry, music, and books

I’ve been in a Scottish mood lately – maybe it’s spring on Long Island that makes me feel like in the Highlands or on a Scottish isle. A few random occurrences have inspired me. I’m a fan of Paraclete Press and for the first time watched one of their online programs, which was a book launch for Iona: new and selected poems, by Kenneth Steven. I was so stirred by this program that I ended up buying the book, which came today! I read a few of the poems to Michael out on our front porch. Iona is one of those places I long to visit – it’s a small island in the Inner Hebrides, off the western coast of Scotland. It is mainly known for the Iona Abbey, the center of Gaelic monasticism, and the current site of spiritual retreats. It has been referred to as the birthplace of Celtic Christianity in Scotland.

I also recently enjoyed a short concert by Ed and Neil Perlman – Ed, a fiddle player, and his son Neil, a pianist, did a concert online of Scottish fiddle music, via the Portland Conservatory of Music’s Noonday Concert offerings, which I ordinarily attend in person at the First Parish Church on Thursdays at noon. These days the concerts are online – not quite the same, but still lovely to enjoy. Last season’s in person concert of Ed Perlman nudged me further in wanting to learn to play the violin (aka fiddle), which was one of the happy outcomes of living under the cloud of a pandemic.

Finally, recent visits to the Long Island Community Library pointed me in the direction of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, great favorites of Paula Johnson and Annie Donovan. I have heard a lot about this series of books, as well as the television series. I figured this was as good a time as any to finally see for myself what all the excitement is all about. Nancy Jordan also recommends the Ann Cleeves Shetland mysteries, another series, at the Long Island Community Library, that made it to the screen.

Our little island has a few Scottish ties, including an islander born in Scotland, islanders with family members living in Scotland, and a handful of last names starting with “Mac” or “Mc” (one of our Scottish-American islanders recently traveled to their ancestral home, on an island!).

I’ve only been to Scotland once. When I was in my 20s my mother and I took the train through England, including a few nights in Edinburgh, and a short visit to Inverness. So, until I can return again, I will be content to stroll the beaches of our wee bonny island, and enjoy Scottish poetry, music, and books.

Some book! A tribute to E.B. White, as seen through the eyes of Melissa Sweet

When the Long Island Community Library reopened on April 3rd, I was eager to wander over to browse the shelves, as I was in search of a non-fiction book to round out my weekend reading. Nothing too long or deep, as I had a book on hold for me at the Portland Public Library, but something enjoyable and light. I perused the regular non-fiction and biographies without success, and then wandered over to the classics and Maine books. There, at the end of the shelving, I found “Some writer! the story of E. B. White” beautifully written and illustrated by Maine illustrator, Melissa Sweet. I happily checked it out, tucked it under my arm, and strolled home. Wow, what a book! I knew just a tiny bit about E. B. White, but this lovely book really filled in the gaps. Charming and whimsical, I fell in love with the book and the illustrations. And her wonderful use of archival documents, such as letters and photographs, brought joy to this archivist’s heart.

Maine is proud to claim E. B. White as a Maine author, as he and his wife and son moved to Maine from New York City as soon as they could (early in their ability to “work from home”). E. B. and Katherine met at the New Yorker, E. B. White became known as the author of such wonderful children’s books as Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan.

In this month of April, which is National Poetry Month, I offer to you this poem by E. B. White, which may remind us of a certain famous spider:

Natural History

The spider, dropping down from twig,

Unwinds a thread of her devising:

A thin, premeditated rig

To use in rising.

And all the journey down through space,

In cool descent, and loyal-hearted,

She builds a ladder to the place

From which she started.

Thus I, gone forth, as spiders do,

In spider’s web a truth discerning,

Attach one silken strand to you

For my returning

Orphans in literature

I’m noticing another theme in literature, some of which I alluded to in the previous blog about pandemics: orphans in literature.

Recent books play this out, such as “The orphan collector,” “Orphan train,” and “This tender land.”

In “The orphan collector” by Ellen Marie Wiseman, which takes place in Philadelphia during the 1918 flu epidemic, the title character doesn’t technically “collect” only orphans, but finds children whom she can lure with a promise of a good meal. From there the are adopted into homes which the collector deems more fit for parenting (i.e., non-immigrant). Many of the true orphans end up in St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum, and some of those do go out west on an “orphan train,” where they end up adopted in families, for better or for worse.

Orphan train,” by Christine Baker Klein, tells the story of one of these orphans, Vivian Daly, a young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City who is put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

This tender land” by William Kent Krueger follows the adventures of a group of (mostly) orphans who have escaped from the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota to find their own idea of what home means.

Then there are some classic 19th century tales of orphans. Charles Dickens seems to specialize in orphan tales with characters such as Pip in Great expectations, David Copperfield, Sydney Carton in A tale of two cities, Martin Chuzzlewit, Nell Trent in The Old Curiosity Shop, Esther Summerson in Bleak House, and Oliver Twist.  More to my liking are some wonderful female orphans in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic tales. In “A little princess,” Sara Crew finds herself orphaned and relegated to an attic in Miss Minchin’s boarding school for girls in London, and from there finds a magical world in an adjoining attic. In “The secret garden” Mary Lennox finds not a magical attic, but a “secret garden,” and like Sara, also finds a new family.  

One of my favorite classic books about orphans is “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte, where Jane spends her girlhood at Gateshead Hall with despicable relatives, and then Lowood Institution, a charity school for girls, before going off to find her true love and family (although with a few dramatic bumps along the way).

There must be something about orphans that makes for great literature – maybe as a way to create happy endings for sympathetic and loveable characters.

For more information on orphans in literature see:

https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/orphans-in-fiction

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/our-favorite-fictional-orphans/

Pandemics and plagues of the past : in literature

A year ago, most of us could never have imagined the year we’ve had – and the continued social distancing,  wearing masks, and general fear has been wearing, oh, so thin. While vaccines are now on the radar, we still have a ways to go before the world goes back to “normal.” Sometimes, reading about pandemics of the past can help us put things in perspective, to realize how good we’ve got it.

I recently read two novels which take place during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 (which has little to do with Spain, by the way). From February 1918 to April 1920 the flu affected 500 million people. In the United States, Philadelphia was particularly hard hit – 12,000 deaths resulted from crowds gathered to watch a parade to promote government bonds during World War I. “The Orphan Collector” by Ellen Marie Wiseman and “As bright as heaven” by Susan Meissner (a much better book) give a view into families in Philadelphia who were affected by the flu in tragic ways. I was reading one of these books on the ferry and looked up to see folks wearing masks, but jovially socializing. Wow, that made me grateful.

Nancy Jordan alerted me to another book that takes place during this time period, but in Ireland:  “Pull of the Stars,” a novel by Emma Donoghue. Nancy writes:

Imagine a temporary maternity ward in a hospital in Ireland during the 1918-19 pandemic.  The ward was created out of a storage area to house pregnant women near term that have the flu.  It’s small, cramped and understaffed.

Three or 4 pregnant women are housed here during the 3 days the novel takes place, and sometimes a newborn or two.  The main character is a young nurse who has been put in charge of the women, because no other nurse is available.  She recruits a very young helper, virtually off the street with no experience, to help in the chaos.

This historic novel is intense, and suspenseful, bouncing from crisis to crisis.  Because of the pandemic, the hospital staff is dropping like flies, as are the patients.  There just are not enough doctors or nurses to care for the patients.  Our heroine, Julia Power, is very capable, but she is not a doctor and has never been in charge of a ward before.  She’s running on very little sleep, and has little time to eat.  When Bridie, a young, energetic girl shows up and says she’ll help, Julia, against her better judgement, agrees, after being assured that Bridie has had the flu.

The patients are well-developed characters who are suffering in different ways.  Some die but their babies survive, some live but lose their babies.  Some are likeable, some are not.   The new helper, Bridie, is a whirlwind of activity, doing everything she’s asked in record time, very observant and a fast learner.  The reader falls in love with her very quickly.  As does Julia, leading to the tragic end of the novel, but there is an example of finding bright spots in the middle of darkness.   

The novel points up the similarities of this pandemic of over 100 years ago to Covid in current times, and also shows that we haven’t learned that much!

Nancy also writes about “A Year of Wonders,” by Geraldine Brooks: [This novel] is a slower paced novel about the plague in the 1600’s in a small village in England.  As villagers start to sicken and die in grotesque ways, the village leader, a man of the church, realizes what’s happening, and convinces the entire village to quarantine.  They get supplies by leaving lists of needs with money at a drop off place, and in return a villager from a nearby village brings supplies.  The author realistically draws the reader in and makes us feel the fear and pain.  She evokes the feel of living in a small community where everyone is dependent of everyone else to do the right thing.

The heroine, Anna Frith, a poor and uneducated young woman who has lost her husband, and an almost-lover, and her 2 little boys, works for the reverend and his wife.  She and the wife become very good friends and the main caregivers in the village, learning about herbs and poultices from the local ‘witch’ who succumbed.  Over the course of a year there are many tragedies and incidents of rebellion and conflict.  Just when the Reverend has convinced the villagers to burn everything they own, all their possessions, his wife contracts the sickness, and dies.  Shortly after, the plague runs its course and dies out.  As the Reverend and Anna begin to pick up the pieces, some very shocking news comes out, and the novel ends in a surprising way.

Nancy recommends both of these books whole-heartedly. The interesting thing about some of these fairly recent books is that they were written before COVID-19 broke out, but are very timely for us during this recent pandemic. The ones regarding the 1918 pandemic were probably inspired by the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu. But a book written in 1939, only 20 years after that pandemic, Katharine Anne Porter’s book, “Pale horse, pale rider,” includes a novella that takes place in Denver during the 1918 pandemic. My friend Liz told me about this one, as well as a course at OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning), which started January 5th, Ages of Plagues, taught by Margaret Creighton and Rob Smith, a remote 5 week course which “draws on the recent and not-so-recent past to examine literary responses to plagues.” It would be interesting to know what books they recommend to read, to give us perspective on this past year.

All this is to remind of the power of fiction to help us learn about the past, and give us a basis for understanding our world today.  

 

 

 

Notable books read in 2020

According to my Goodreads page, in 2020 I read 65 books or 20,091 pages. The shortest book, at 105 pages, that I read was Between mirage and miracle: selected poems for seasons, festivals, and the occasional revelation, by J. Barrie Shepherd. This was also the least popular, as far as Goodreads. However, in this case, it makes my “notable books of 2020” list. Here is why, as well as my other choices of recommended books.

Between mirage and miracle: selected poems for seasons, festivals, and the occasional revelation, by J. Barrie Shepherd. Rev. Shepherd is originally from Scotland, but lives in the summer on Chebeague Island. Every year, at the Choral Arts Society’s Epiphany concert, he has been reading his poetry, in his enchanting Scottish burr. At last year’s concert, I said to my fellow music lovers, “I’m buying one of his books.” This is the one I ended up with, and I have loved it so much, sharing poems with friends and my church. Favorite poems include “Ordinary time,” “Winter solstice,” “Don’t stop me … ,” “Stained glass windows,” and “Why I still go.”   

The dearly beloved: a novel, by Cara Wall. This first novel took my breath away, and stayed with me a long time. The story of two ministers, who share a church leadership, and their wives doesn’t seem like it would be that engrossing, but the characters and story really drew me in. 

Almost French: love and a new life in Paris, by Sarah Turnbull. This absorbing and entertaining book has all the right elements for me, and made me laugh out loud. It’s a great love story, as well as a commentary on French life and culture, by this Australian author, who falls in love with a Frenchman.

American dirt: a novel, by Jeanine Cummins. Lydia Quixano Pérez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore before her life changes dramatically, thanks to her favorite patron, who turns out to be her greatest nightmare. This extremely well written and paced book is a thrilling book to read, although I could only handle one chapter each evening, due to the intensity of the story telling.

To build a trail: essays on curiosity, love, and wonder, by Paul Willis. This was such a lovely book to read – I so enjoyed each chapter. I think poets make the best essayists. Reading this book by Paul Willis, a professor at my alma mater, made me wish I had been an English major. I loved his humility and honesty and humor, but best of all his fabulous writing.

The Eyre affair: a Thursday Next novel, by Jasper Fforde. What a great find! I came across this book in a Little Library, and had to bring it home, given my favorite book ever is Jane Eyre. What a rollicking tale I stumbled into – so many interesting layers of science fiction and historical fiction, with characters stepping in and out of classic novels. This book is one of the most enjoyable books I have read in a long time!

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux. I had read this book years ago (I think on a cross country train ride), but we read it again, as a “read out loud by the fire” book. It’s such an enjoyable book to read together – we learned so much from Theroux’s travels, 30 years after his original trip. He doesn’t just travel by train, he takes buses and whatever means of transportation gets him to where he wants to go. We especially enjoyed reading about Turkey, Turkmenistan, Thailand, Northern Japan, and his trek home through Russia. Despite the breadth and depth of the book, we were never bored, and thoroughly entertained.

Rodham: a novel, by Curtis Sittenfeld. This was such an amazing book, from beginning to end. First, the writing was spectacular – at times intense and detailed, and then at other times full of wonderful wit and humor. I totally felt Hillary’s passion for Bill in the early years, and loved how she says “it could have gone either way.” In real life, it went the other way, which makes for fascinating reading of what could have been, had Hillary said “no” to Bill’s proposals. I did at times get bogged down with the politics, but for being a 400+ page book it held my interest the whole way. I was very happy with the conclusion of the book.

The dirty life: on farming, food, and love, by Kristin Kimball. I had a very serendipitous encounter with this book, and was so glad I found it – loved reading about this odd couple who found each other and built on a dream, on a farm in northern New York. My kind of book, although some of the animal husbandry wasn’t as interesting to me as the relationship between Kristin and Mark, and the community they found.

This tender land: a novel, by William Kent Krueger.  Last, but definitely not least, this is possibly the best book I read in 2020. I had heard of this author, but had not read any of his books. A friend lent this to me, thinking I would like it, and boy, was she right! I so loved the writing, the setting, the story, the characters, and the somewhat mystical magic of the story. Even though there were grim themes, it always felt hopeful. This book had great depth of writing and entertainment, as well as giving insight to the times of the Great Depression, and the history and geography of the area the “Voyageurs” travel through.

May 2021 continue to bring wonderful new books our way – so far, we’re off to a great start!

All Books Considered Book Club

There doesn’t seem to be a dearth of online book clubs – two of my undergraduate schools (yes, I attended two colleges – long story) offer a book club, which admittedly I’m not very active in, but I do from time to time read the books chosen.

But here’s another one, in our own state: Maine Public’s All Books Considered Book Club

This book club will take on 6 books over the course of 2021, and it’s free! That’s one book every two months, so not too onerous. Bookstores across Maine are offering discounts on these books.

The first book featured is by Meredith Hall, her novel “Beneficience.” Several years ago I read her memoir, “Without a map,” which was magnificent (see my Favorite books of 2016 blog). So, I’m eager to read this one too, which fortunately for all of us, is available through the Long Island Community Library.

Happy reading! (in a communal way)

First ladies in fiction

Last year I wrote about two memoirs of First Ladies – by Michelle Obama and Laura Bush. Today, in honor of our upcoming election, I would like to share two books I’ve recently read about First Ladies who appear in fictional accounts of their lives.

“Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters,” by Jennifer Chiaverini, who seems to be finding a niche writing novels about Mary Todd Lincoln (see Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival), presents Mrs. Lincoln as a somewhat unpleasant and unlikeable First Lady, although she did seem to adore her husband, Abraham. I didn’t find the book to be very interesting, but I did learn a lot about Mary Todd Lincoln and her family, especially her sisters, who didn’t seem to be overly patient or kind to their famous sister.

In contrast, Curtis Sittenfeld writes a brilliant and engaging novel about Hillary Rodman, “Rodman,” which surmises what would happen if Hillary turned down Bill Clinton’s third offer of marriage, and went on to live her own life. While at times the politics of the book made it drag, overall this is a tour de force, written with some wonderful humor. I loved how this book turned out, and found Hillary Rodman quite an endearing character. I was really cheering her on throughout the book.

Regardless of how the election on Tuesday turns out, I can see foresee that a novel about Melania would be quite fascinating, don’t you?

A small library on an island on the coast of Maine