Category Archives: Books

Notable books read in 2021

According to Goodreads, last year I read 62 books! The shortest book at 112 pages was a book of poetry by Scott Cairns: “Anaphora.” The longest book was Diana Gabaldon’s first in her Scottish Highlander series, “Outlander,” at 850 pages. The average book length was 314 pages (around my ideal book length). The most popular book was Delia Owen’s “Where the crawdads sing,” which was read by at least 2,627,916 people on Goodreads. The least popular (read) book was “Sussex, Kent, and Surrey” written in 1939 by Richard Wyndam (only 19 people had that on their “shelves.”)

This year, my favorite books tended to be non-fiction. I read a lot of wonderful novels, but because I wrote about some of them in other blogs last year, or they were popular books that were raved about by many (such as Maggie O’Farrell’s lovely Hamnet), I will only highlight two fictional books that I enjoyed last year, that may not be as well known.  Usually I profile 10 books, but this year are only 8. And one of my new years’ resolutions for 2022? Find more wonderful novels to share with you this time next year!

Here are some of the most delightful, entertaining, and thought-provoking books I read last year:

Dinner Party with the Saints: the People Behind the Halos / by Woodeene Koenig-Bricker. This was a very charming book, with the supposition of a dinner party in heaven, with a variety of saints, some more familiar than others. Their interactions with each other are quite humorous. Each chapter introduces another saint into the story, and then gives historical background on them. As each saint brought a dish to the dinner party, a recipe was included. Mostly I loved the glimpse of a kind of heaven I could look forward to – a gathering of friends over food and drink, with lots of love and laughter, and special guests. Published by Paraclete Press, one of my favorite publishers.

Running Away to Home: Our Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters / by Jennifer Wilson. Nancy Jordan recommended this one to me. This thoroughly entertaining book epitomizes one of my favorite genres, where a family from the American suburbs ends up in a quirky little village in Europe. Written with great humor and pathos, Jennifer Wilson, weaves a story of a family’s cultural immersion into Jennifer’s ancestral village, and how some of the family members adapted better than others.

A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith / by Timothy Egan. This book is such a great blend of travelogue and religious history (which is sad and depressing), as well as an internal journey for the author. I also liked how at various times Egan’s son, daughter, and wife walked with him, to give an added element of interest. I had never heard of the Via Francigena before, so that was fascinating to learn more about – although I may never walk it, I can certainly walk it vicariously, through this marvelous book.

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation / by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. This was a title I just couldn’t resist. This book is a must read for anyone (like me) who cannot fathom how Christians can vote into office someone who is the antithesis of all who Christ is. Kristin Kobes Du Mez presents a fascinating history of the past 75+ years that brought us to this point in time, into a rabbit hole of the Religious Right’s support of the view of Jesus as warrior and thus the cult of masculinity, along with racism and anti-feminism. I think my jaw dropped on every page, and I was so shocked to read about people I had grown up knowing about. What makes the author so credible is that she also grew up in the same faith I did, and although she teaches at a Christian Reformed university (which I attended briefly in the early 80s), she is able to take a historical view of the phenomenon which brings us to where we are today. Definitely not a separation of church and state in our history of a country, at least in the past century. I will be contemplating all I learned in this book for many years to come.

Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch / by Erin French. Years ago Michael and I took a road trip for my birthday to the Maine towns of Union, Hope, Liberty, and Freedom (see September 2014 blog post). There’s not much to see in Freedom, but we walked around a little, and stopped by the Mill at Freedom Falls. We peeked in the windows and saw a sign for “The Lost Kitchen” and learned about this new restaurant, which was on the verge of opening up, but didn’t think much about it. Since then, though, the reputation of the restaurant has grown exponentially, and now it’s the place to be, for an ultimate culinary experience. A friend gave me Erin French’s cookbook, and when this book came out I was the first at the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association to check it out. I really loved reading this book, and found it to be a page turner – more than that, it was beautifully written. Obviously Erin French is as good of a writer as she is a cook (which it seems like she thinks of herself, more than being a chef). This is probably the most popular book on my list, especially here in Maine, but it’s worth an extra shout out – because it’s so good!

On the plain of snakes: a Mexican journey / by Paul Theroux. Paul Theroux makes my list for the second year in a row. After re-reading Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar, I bought this book for Michael for us to read together. If you’re looking for a travel book to make you want to visit Mexico, this is not it. But if you’re looking for a fascinating read to give you insight into the complex country of Mexico, you will want to read this book. Initially the book is pretty depressing, as the first part is about the border, and all its sadness and drama, but it does get better. And actually, by the end, it almost makes one want to visit Mexico, although with caution. Of course, we love “Don Pablo” and his writing, so this was a great read, although quite horrifying in parts. But Paul Theroux has so much respect for the Mexican people, and continues his relationship with them even after the book is published – by the end of the book we felt so enchanted with the country and the people, and if we ever make it back there, we’ll have a better basis for understanding the culture and history of our neighbor to the south.

This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers / by Lillian Daniel and Martin B. Copenhaver. This was a serendipitous find (at the Portland Public Library’s free shelf).  I had read another book by Lillian Daniel, and was excited to see that she was one of the authors of this wonderful book. I enjoyed both her essays and Martin Copenhaver’s essays about the ins and outs of being a pastor, especially of a larger church. The writing is so good – funny but with great depth.

Garden spells / by Sarah Addison Allen. Another serendipitous find at the Portland Public Library’s free book truck out on Congress Street.  I had never heard of the author but was taken in by the cover (see, you can judge a book by its cover) and the title.  I like this book so much that after it was over, I reread favorite parts of it (always a good sign).  It’s totally my kind of book – quirky garden, interesting characters, good romance, food, humor, great setting, and just really lovely all the way through. I’m looking forward to reading the next book (and possibly last?) book in the “Waverly family series.”

Long Island in fiction

I was recently introduced to a trilogy of books: Seashell Bay novels. While in the genre of romance novels, Long Islanders would be interested in reading this series that takes place on an island in Casco Bay called “Seashell Bay” (which seems like kind of an odd name for an island, but whatever).

Written by V. K. Sykes ( the husband and wife duo of Vanessa Kelly and Randy Sykes) the first book, “Meet me at the Beach” is dedicated “For Phil and Anne Kelly, who showed us the way to Seashell Bay.” In the acknowledgements, they write “Seashell Bay is a fictional place, of course. But there is certainly a Casco Bay, and it provided us with much inspiration for our series. Grateful thanks go to the residents of one small island in particular, especially Bob Stack, Liz and Robin Walker, and Harriet Davis and her two wonderful girls, Claire and Annie (thanks for finding the missing angel, Claire!).” Turns out Vanessa is the daughter of Phil Kelly and his first wife Flora. As most of you know Anne’s sister is Liz, and her niece is Harriet. So, the Davis family was Vanessa’s introduction to Long Island, and inspired her setting her trilogy on our fair island.

Reading through “Meet me at the Beach” is great fun for a Long Islander, trying to glimpse familiar places. In some ways Seashell Bay seems to be a bigger island, perhaps more like a Peaks Island. But there are common themes to Long Island – dances, the VFW, trying to control development, local kids leaving home to get as far away as possible from the island, local kids who choose to stay, the lobstering life, family feuds, generations of Irish American families, alcoholism, a Catholic Church, and the pros and cons of having a car ferry. I’m eager to read the other two books in the series: “See you at sunset,” and “Summer at the shore,” both of which follow the story of two of the friends of Lily, the heroine in the first novel. It’s always fun to read about your hometown, even under the guise of romance novel/beach reads.

Ode to porches

What better way to while away a sunny afternoon that to curl up on a porch swing with a good book? For 20 years or so our porch was inaccessible, but when we renovated our house we opened up our front porch, and it’s now an extra room for us to spend time in, whether enjoying afternoon tea or coffee with friends and family, watching the birds, waving to passersby, or reading the newspaper. Even on a rainy day we can sit on our porch, and listen to the rain coming down.

In researching porches, I came across a charming book (from the Portland Public Library) called “Out on the porch: an evocation in words and pictures.” While more Southern in examples, it showcases some wonderful porches in photographs, and quotes by famous authors such as Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, and Flannery O’Connor, that appear in fiction and non-fiction.

“One afternoon I found her sitting alone upon the front porch, reading”–from Black Boy by Richard Wright.

And so, I invite you to carve out a place on your porch, and open the pages of your favorite books, to savor some quiet time to read, and enjoy fresh air and ocean breezes.

Authors on the Bay: Dr. Chuck Radis

This month, as part of our occasional series about authors on Casco Bay, we introduce Dr. Chuck Radis, a resident of Peaks Island. This summer Dr. Radis presented a reading and talk about his new book: “Go by Boat: Stories of a Maine Island Doctor” at the Long Island Learning Center to an enthusiastic and engaged crowd.

To follow up on his excellent talk, I asked him a few more questions, which he graciously answered for this blog:

Which came first, your love of writing or your interest in medicine?

While in college I wrote several articles for the now defunct Maine Times. It was after my second year in college that I switched from an interest in marine biology to medicine after a chance encounter with a family practice doctor on a long bicycle trip in Baja California

Did you keep a journal or is your book based on memory?

I’ve kept an At-A-Glance Pocket counter in my shirt pocket since I began my internal medicine residency in 1982. By surreptitiously writing down memorable quotes or a few sentences during patient encounters I’ve been able to expand or recreate house calls or office visits later that day, or months later.  

Amidst a busy medical career, how do you find the time to write?

I found writing a tonic for stress. The more I found time to write, the better I felt. There’s no question it helped me avoid burn-out and helped me better understand my patients. It most often occurred early in the morning before the rest of my family awakened.   

How long did it take you to write your book, and what was the process of getting it published like?

The first time I thought I finished the book was in 2001. Here are 2 short essays I wrote on eventually finding an agent and getting my book published. Yes, it took a long time.

A Writer’s Tale – Dr. Chuck Radis ( 

A Writer’s Tale Part II – Dr. Chuck Radis (

Do you have favorite authors who are physicians? (i.e., are there books out there that inspired you?) I’ve enjoyed Atul Gawande’s Better, as well as The Beautiful Cure by Daniel Davis, but the writers which have influenced me the most are James Herriot All Creatures Great and Small, and nearly everything by John McFee. McFee has had, by far, the most influence on the way I tell a story and try to expand on the lives of my characters.

What would you see as the unique needs and challenges of providing medical care on islands, especially in Maine? Besides not having lab or x-rays to assist me in diagnosis, the greatest challenge I faced was getting my patients to agree to go to Portland for testing or admission to the hospital.

How does humor play a role in your writing, and in your life?  Although I’m not Jewish, I grew up with a group of very funny Jewish friends. One is a professional comedian and another is a talented magician. I was the straight man in their antics but appreciated their humorous take on nearly everything in life.

Do you have ideas for other books? My second book was accepted by Down East Books and is scheduled for release next April. It’s called Island Medicine. The Wildflower Guide to the Flowering Plants of Casco Bay (which I’ve co-written with my know-it-all brother Rick) should be out by Christmas this year. I am the editor (and primary writer) for a book on John Jenkins, Maine’s first black state senator and the former mayor of Lewiston and Auburn. It’s due out next June.

Long-term, I have plans for a book on Rheumatology and autoimmune diseases (that’s the specialty I eventually I went into after I left my island practice). It would be in the same vein as neurologist Oliver Sach’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

A copy of Dr. Radis’ book can be found at the Long Island Community Library, and we look forward to reading his future books.

To read the first chapter of Go by Boat and other essays on island life, go to  

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:

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.