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?

Read Me Maine 2020

Every summer the Maine Humanities Council sponsors Read Me Maine, a statewide summer reading experience. This year’s selection was made by Lily King, Maine author (Writers & Lovers, Euphoria, Father of the Rain), who chose the two books by Maine authors, fiction and non-fiction, for our reading pleasure. The fiction choice is The Vigilance of Stars  by Patricia O’Donnell. The non-fiction choice is a memoir, Roughhouse Friday, by Jaed Coffin.

I was fortunate to be able to read both these books at the same time, and found them to both be quiet yet strong books, in their own way. Although Jaed Coffin is a Brunswick author, this takes place in Alaska, chiefly in Sitka, where Coffin found himself living and working when he was a young man, tutoring and teaching in a local high school by day, and spending his spare time in a boxing gym. But this is not really a book about boxing, so don’t let the subject matter turn you away, if that’s not your thing. It’s more a book about a young man finding himself. Full of honesty and self-doubt, this book will get under your skin, as Coffin comes to terms with his parents’ marriage and subsequent divorce, and his relationship with both of his parents, as well as his own journey as a half-Thai American man. But the book is rich with the characters he finds in Sitka, as well as the landscape.

Patricia O’Donnell’s book takes place in Maine, specifically in Portland and on a lake somewhere in Maine, which makes it fun to recognize familiar places in Portland. The focus of the book is on a pregnant young woman and her disinterested in fatherhood ex-boyfriend, and their various parents and lovers (the real person William Reich, an Austrian psychoanalyst who lived in the Rangeley area, makes an appearance in a more historical segment). The writing is beautiful and mesmerizing, and while the plot is not gripping, I did find myself moving quickly through the book, and greatly interested in the characters, wondering what would happen to them, and hoping for a good outcome.

Summer is over, but you can still find these wonderful books in our island library.

Booksellers in fiction

I’ve recently read several books where some of the main characters are booksellers. As someone who loves books and bookstores, these settings resonate with me. Two of the books take place in England: “The Library of Lost and Found” by Phaedra Patrick,  and “Bookends” by Jane Green. In “The Library of Lost and Found,” the main character, Martha Storm, works in a library but becomes acquainted with a bookseller, who finds a mysterious book that has Martha’s name attached to it. The charming novel, which takes place in a seaside village, emphasizes the power of stories and writing, and of course, books, to inspire. The other British novel, “Bookends,” uses more of an urban setting, in London, to share a story of a woman whose long-time dream was to quit her dreary corporate job to take a chance to open a bookstore/café with a friend.

Island dwellers may appreciate “The storied life of A.J. Fikry” which takes place on a fictional island in Massachusetts – A.J. Fikry is a curmudgeonly bookseller, whose life is changed when he allows love to enter his world.

These are all fairly light reads, in contrast to my favorite recently read book with this theme: “American dirt” 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.

There are many more out there, that have booksellers as main characters – I would love to hear about some of your favorites!

More ways to access great books during the age of COVID-19

I recently learned of more great ways to access books these days, and a wonderful way to have books arrive in your mailbox! (and support the Long Island Post Office)

Paperback Book Swap

Here’s how it works:

  • It’s easy: List books you’d like to swap with other club members.
  • Once a book is requested, mail it to the club member.
  • In return, you may choose from 1,206,450 available books!
– You pay postage for the books you send out; the books you receive come to you postage-paid.
– Books you request are yours to keep, or swap again!
And it’s not just paperbacks – it includes hardbacks, DVDs, etc.
Another fun one is The Page 1 Book Subscription – a personalized service that hand-selects books for you based on your preferences and our knowledge. You receive a new book every month. This bookstore, out of Evanston, Illinois, has a fun website, regardless of whether or not you subscribe to the service. Sounds like the perfect gift to me!
In any case, no matter how you receive your books, happy reading!

A small library on an island on the coast of Maine