Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Proudly Off-Grid

Winter Moose!
For the past dozen winters or so we've made a tradition of heading to West Branch Pond Camps for some backcountry skiing with friends. These trips have ranged from weekends spent solely at WBPC to longer hut-to-hut trips that include Appalachian Mountain Club properties. We might start at Medawisla (AMC), then ski to WBPC, then end the trip at Little Lyford (AMC) The New York Times recently ran a terrific piece about this very route, "Skiing Hut to Hut in the Maine Wilderness."

If this sounds exhausting, trust me: it's not. Expert staff groom the trails, and if you want they'll even transport your gear via snowmobile between huts. Granted, you might ski 8-10 miles on a cold blowing day when the wind chill makes it feel like 20 below (no joke) and you're REALLY glad you choose the backcountry skis with the great edges because the drifts skirt your knees. But that's not most days. Most days are ... yeah, cold, but hey, it's winter in Maine, so wear a hat (To quote my father-in-law, who came of age skiing in the Alps: "There is no such thing as bad weather! There is only improper dressing!") When you reach your destination a blazing woodstove fire in a warm cabin awaits and the camp chef has prepared you a hearty dinner. There might be Scrabble or Bananagrams after dinner. There might be beer.

Well ... the beer. That's if you have Dick O'Meara along for the trip. Dick is our longtime friend (he was in our wedding party and is our daughter's godfather) who not only wrangles us all for these annual treks: he also organizes his own amateur brewfest each year. Dubbed the Two Lights Maine Brewers' Fest (Dick used to live on Two Lights Road in Cape Elizabeth) it's worthy of it's own blog post. Usually held in November, this past weekend Dick supplied a mini-fest worth of new Maine beers for us to enjoy (and rate, see the "scorecards" below) after we finished skiing for the day.

I'm an Allagash Curieux fan myself, but this weekend discovered the phenomenal Allagash "Nocturna."

My point is: this is not a hardship. 

But it is a delight. Especially a stay at West Branch Pond Camps with the fabulous Eric Stirling and his family and their expert, knowledgeable crew. Family-owned for 112 years (!) and "Proudly Off-Grid," WBPC is a traditional Maine sporting camp (my husband visits several times a season for fly fishing) in the best sense. There's no internet access. No cell phone coverage. Only a few hours of electricity each day. The silence at night is breathtaking, as are the moonrises over the pond. Everyone is "unplugged" and engaged in conversation over great food (Eric's short ribs are outrageous; the WBPC "Sunday Roast Turkey Lunch" a tradition; plus he crushes the vegetarian options) whether that's in the dining room during the summer or gathered together in the camp kitchen during the winter.

Eric thoughtfully grooms miles of trails for skiers, clears a rink for pond skating, and sometimes will accompany us on a guided snowshoe trek up the Pinnacle. Here we are out on the River Trail, where we met up with Eric and his son, Oscar:


I'm an Appalachian Mountain Club member, and LOVE the lodges (Medawisla's my favorite) but there's really something extraordinary about what the Stirling family has preserved at West Branch Pond. The cabins, the hand-made furniture, the traditions, hearken back to a simpler time and a sturdier, more can-do way of being. It also strikes me that despite the quiet, and the seeming isolation of the woods, everyone knows everyone out there, and lends a hand (or a chainsaw) when needed. It strikes me as more neighborly than my packed suburban "neighborhood" in Brunswick, if that makes sense.

Here are some photos from our snowy, mid-winter visit to Eric's place. Thanks, Eric! (And Dick!)


Left to Right: Conrad and Dick

Skiing the River Trail at West Branch Pond Camps

I married that guy behind me.

Moonrise over the pond

Entrance to Cabin #3 Where we stayed!



Last bit of daylight on the mountains

 


 

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

What Was I Thinking??

Oh, wait. I wasn’t. 

For some reason I went wild in the final months of 2021 and bought every book I wanted, without hesitation. This stack represents what’s closest to the alarm clock on my bedside table, which means what I’m most likely to crack open at night. It doesn’t include the Recently Read (James McBride’s “Deacon King Kong”) or the Audio Books I’ve listened to while exercising (Louise Penny and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “State of Terror” and David Sedaris’s “A Carnival of Snackery”) or the three other stacks of Intended Reads taking up the rest of the table. 

It’s a fairly capacious beside table. Any more capacious and it’d be a book shelf. And I won’t tell you how many unread books are on my bookshelves … 

What’s WRONG with me?? I’m so greedy, SO greedy when it comes to books! And then, I spread myself too thin, trying to read them all at once. It’s like a box of mixed chocolates, where you take a bite of one, then return it to the box (for later) while you move on to the next.

True fact: you never go back to that half-bit chocolate. And you wind up with a ruined box of once perfectly good candy. 

Books are too precious to waste. 

So I’m making a resolution. Putting it here in a blog post, for goodness sake, just to make it REAL. Getting it on the record. Making myself accountable, if you will:

From this day forward, I will finish all books I begin and I will do my very best to not read more than three at a time. 

Yes: three at a time. That’s because I’m in two separate book groups, plus I need to have a new Young Adult read going at all times, plus there are all the OTHER books I want to read, so … three is an absolute bare bones minimum.

Right now I’m ripping through “Lost Children Archive” by Valeria Luiselli because one of my groups meets next week to discuss it and I’ve got miles to go. I’m also halfway through Lily King’s new short story collection “Five Tuesdays in Winter” and I’m doing this really horrible thing (I’m sorry, Lily!) where I’m also reading George Saunder’s “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” which is essentially a masterclass on the short story, using Chekov and other Russian Greats as texts-in-point. I’m kinda then examining how Lily pulls it off … 

Which trust me, she does! I know: friends don’t let friends compare each other’s work to Chekov. God knows my books couldn’t hold up to the comparison. But I’m working on my own short stories now and “learning” from the best. Which includes Lily King. 

Okay, it’s 7 degrees outside right now so I’m off to throw another log on the fire. And READ.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Summer Reads

I know … probably makes more sense to roll out all these suggestions on Memorial Day Weekend, ushering in a fab summer of reading right at Summer’s Starting Block. Alas, I was too busy reading to make time for recommending. (I was also wrestling with the camera on my iPhone, but that’s a post for another day … ) So, to quote my dear Agent, Edite Kroll: Onward!


First up: Finding Freedom by Maine author/chef/creator of The Lost Kitchen restaurant, Erin French. I remember when her cookbook, The Lost Kitchen, came out, I was struck by the wonderful writing in it. You don’t expect that in a cookbook! At least, I don’t. But each recipe is accompanied by a little anecdote/description that brings the food to life and makes you not only want to taste it but to share it with others. French has that ability to engage you in whatever she’s describing and doing.


Finding Freedom is her memoir, and it achieves all that the form requires. It has a clear voice, evokes real people and places, engages us at the heart level, and by the end has us cheering for its author. It’s a moving, marvelous, honest depiction of struggle, resilience, and personal triumph. More than once I found myself in tears reading this book. You won’t be sorry you spent your summer reading hours with this one!


At Longfellow Books, Portland
Next up on my Maine Writers list: Paul Doiron has a new one! Sorry to keep repeating myself, but “This might be his best yet!”  I keep saying that, but really, this time it’s true. Dead by Dawn is the 12th (!) in the Mike Bowditch detective series and in this one Mike has to escape all sorts of (very) grisly attacks on his person. First up  — and this is one of my personal Fear Factors — Mike has to figure out how to escape when his car is forced off the road, crashes into an icy river and begins to sink. Things go downhill from there for poor Mike as he figures out how to survive and also discerns who wants him dead.

Personal note: I picked up my copy at Longfellow Books in Portland where Paul was signing copies and chatting about all things writerly and Maine with one of our other Author Greats, Monica Wood. 


The Stack
Two more Maine books to add to your summer reading list: Landslide by Susan Conley and Mill Town by Kerri Arsenault. Conley’s novel is a gorgeously written story about a Maine fishing family on the brink after the father in the family suffers an accident at sea. It’s a beautiful meditation on family and marriage, raising boys and — naturally — Maine. It’s my favorite yet of Conley’s books, I highly recommend it.

Mill Town, I’ll confess, is still on The Stack, but everyone in my book group says it’s a good read and the reviews are terrific. It’s Arsenault’s personal account of Mexico, Maine, where three generations of her family lived and worked within and in the shadow of the paper mill that provided employment there. While the mill provided opportunity for Mexico’s inhabitants, it was also responsible for the destruction of the environment and ultimately earned the area the nickname “Cancer Alley.”


Perhaps my most compelling read of the summer is Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. This is the story of the Sackler family, the founders of Purdue Pharma and creators of … yup: OxyContin. If you want to get your outrage on and finally understand how so many people have become hooked on this powerful opioid, read this. 


Keefe, as you’ll recall from a previous Summer Reads blog post, is also the author of Say Nothing, and as he did in that book, writes a gripping page-turner which almost reads like detective fiction. He does a wonderful job of doing a deep dive into the characters he’s researching, helping us understand who they really were and how that explains what they did.


I’m a huge historical fiction fan, so Chris Bohjalian’s The Hour of the Witch has been one of my favorite reads this summer. Set in Boston, 1668, it’s the story about a woman who dares assert herself and file for divorce against an abusive husband. As you might imagine, she’s ultimately accused of being a witch. Bohjalian weaves a great tale, keeps us turning pages fast, amazes us with his research and ability to evoke the people and customs and beliefs of the day, and satisfies us with a terrific ending.


I’ve also been making my way through The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab. Honestly? I’m not convinced I like it, but I’m really interested in seeing how this author resolves it. The premise: it’s 1714, in a small village in France, and a young woman makes a Faustian bargain with a stranger — in exchange for eternal life, she has to give up being remembered by anyone. She is completely alone and untethered, for hundreds of years — until one day she wanders into a bookstore and meets someone who can remember her. And everything changes for her … again.


I’m about a third of the way through this, and intrigued, but also … beginning to tire of how many times Addie will wake up in the bed of some guy who can’t remember how she got there. It was entertaining the first time, but 300 years of sex regret gets old. Anyway … MANY people are telling me they like this book, and I’m sure I’ll finish it … Cool premise, right?


FINALLY, it wouldn’t be Teens, Writing and Randomness if I didn’t toss out a few teen suggestions, right? Hard to even know where to start, but I’ll suggest one YA (Young Adult) and one MG (Middle Grade), both from authors who appeared with me on a recent panel in St. Louis.


First off: Julie Buxbaum’s
Admission is a fun page-turner for the summer. Ripped from the headlines of the recent college admissions scandal which embroiled stars like Lori Loughlin, this story is told from the point-of-view of a privileged Los Angeles teen who may — or may not — know what her parents are doing to get her into college. It begs the question, right? How did these kids NOT know?? Buxbaum does a great job getting into the head of a teen, and coming up with a very compelling and realistic story line.




Nicole Melleby’s latest middle grade novel, How to Become a Planet, stars 13-year old Pluto Timoney, who has always loved space and always loved summer. However, this summer is different, because Pluto’s depression feels like a black hole sitting on her chest. A wonderful, redemptive and REAL story about a resilient girl working to find her way back to herself.






And FINALLY finally: some nice news. My latest, How to Build a Heart, was a finalist for the 2021 Maine Literary Awards (always nice to have a sticker on your book!) and is currently in the running for the Kentucky Bluegrass Book Award, so Hello, Kentucky Readers! I hope you enjoy getting to know Izzy and her crew of characters.


Happy Reading, all! What’s on YOUR Summer Shelf?



 

Thursday, June 4, 2020

What to Read. Now.

A few of the faves from my shelves! 
I consider questions to be good things. I see questioning as a sign of humility and a desire to understand. When I was a reporter I always ended interviews the same way: “Is there something I failed to ask you? What else do I need to know?”

So the fatigue expressed by Black people … especially students of color attending predominately white schools … who say they are SICK of explaining racism to Whites who ask, left me stranded. As a professional question asker, I wondered: what do I do now? 

How do I learn/change/grow if my very questions cause offense?

Luckily, my husband and I have trusted Black friends who didn’t mind setting us straight when we broached this with them.

“Read,” they told us. “It’s all been said. It’s all been explained. Over and over and over. It’s right there. Read.”

As a reader/writer/visiting-author-educator, turning to books comes naturally, and sharing good reads is ... well, almost a bit of a fault. I'm always thrusting a volume or two at someone. So this blog post is devoted to a few resources out there, a few books I’ve loved/learned from, and suggestions from others. 


Dr. Nell Irvin Painter's The History of White People explores the concept of "whiteness" through history and examines how being "white" is a social construct that changes over time. Check out her website to see the full list of her books and articles, plus links to interviews. Her latest book, Old in Art School, is a wonderful memoir about her decision, after a distinguished career as a history professor/scholar, to lean into her love of painting and get her MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design.

My book group read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me and James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time together. It was pretty devastating to read these profound accounts side-by-side and see how much hasn't changed.

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo will challenge you. Make you mad, make you defensive. Which is the point. I, for one, struggle to square DiAngelo's assertion that white liberals who think they aren't racist are somehow a more egregious group than the Sheriff Joe Arpaios and Earl Lees of this world. But hey: that's just my fragility. At any rate, this book changed the way I think, helped me reevaluate my words and actions and motivated me to set a higher bar for myself. Instead of smugly thinking "I'm not like those lynching sheriffs!" I'm trying to be on my guard for "Karen"-like or Amy Cooper-like biases within myself.

The Fire is Upon Us by Nicholas Buccola brings to life the famous debate about race in America at the Cambridge Union between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr.  I've linked to the review here: says it all, this is a fascinating read.

2019 and 2020 releases!

Covid-19 wiped out half my book tour for How to Build a Heart, which meant I missed appearing on a panel in March at the Virginia Festival of the Book with poet/YA novelist Morgan Parker. I still managed to read her star-reviewed Who Put This Song On? and her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning poetry collection Magical Negro. Expect to be startled: both are amazing. Also cancelled at the Festival was Jaquira Díaz who has just published a memoir, Ordinary Girls, about growing up in housing projects in Puerto Rico and Miami Beach. Visit the Virginia Humanities Council Shelf Life page to hear their interview with Jaquira and other authors who were scheduled to appear this year.

Resources and More Reading

From the Library of Congress Books and Beyond program, October 2015, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely discuss their book, All American Boys.  Not only is this story about police violence and systemic racism a must-read for all young adults right now, but Jason and Brendan are must-see presenters! They relate wonderfully to young people, and even if your school can't afford to bring them in "live," you can share this terrific video with your students.


The Beacon Press, founded in Boston in 1854, is an independent publisher of serious non-fiction. Their books promote values of free speech and thought; diversity; religious pluralism; anti-racism and diversity. Go to their website and be AMAZED at the wonders you'll find there!

The Brown Bookshelf is a fabulous source for books for children and students. Designed to promote awareness of the myriad Black voices writing for young readers, it's a great place to find wonderful blog posts as well as titles ranging from picture books to young adult novels.

Educator Lesley Roessing has written a terrific book for teachers called Talking Texts, which includes lists, topics and How-tos. Check out her Facebook page for her latest excellent suggestions. She's put together a wonderful YA list for novels that deal with "Society. Social Justice and Moral Dilemmas."

Stone Bookworms: An Anti-Racist Reading List This blogpost from Stone Bookworms has a bunch of great titles and reviews, but also additional resource links.

"The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates. "The" article from The Atlantic.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. The movie was very good; the book is life changing. It's a must-read, about the work of the courageous civil rights lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative.

Honestly? I'm realizing this list is potentially endless. So, I'll end the blog the way I end my interviews: What have I missed? Tell me what I don't know. Comment away.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Pandemic Dayze

I’m struggling to find Silver Linings right now, even though I’m well aware that we’re the lucky ones. No one in our family is sick. We have a paycheck coming in. We have a safe home where we can sequester ourselves.

Still, I’ve been working overtime to beat back feelings of sadness … and yes, worry, because this is my JOB … over the demise of my book launch for How to Build a Heart. It takes so long to write a book, and the early months of sales are so, so important getting the story out there. We had a few weeks of events before the whole thing stuttered to a halt, and I really don’t know what that means for this title. Sigh.

So, among the Silver Linings I’m trying to focus on (which include Zoom Happy Hours with friends around the country; ample time to write and garden; low gas prices … not that we’re going anywhere ...) are the creative ways the internet is filling the void.

No, I don’t mean binge watching movies on Netflix, although YES that is happening.

I mean live streaming book talks and author events and online classes.

The Tumwater High School Digital Book Club
This past week I met with a high school book group 3000 miles away in Tumwater, Washington, and laughed with them and talked to them about How to Build a Heart. This Friday I’ll zoom into a class with students from the College of the Atlantic.



And on Tuesday, April 21st, at noon EST I’ll be kicking off Shelf Life, a twice weekly livestream on Zoom and Facebook, with authors, book talks and all sorts of interesting, bookish “stuff.” I’m a little nervous about the technology (if my audio dies, I’m sunk) but otherwise I’m sure the 40 minutes will fly. And it’s a very cool, low impact way to connect with readers from around the country.

You can join us on the Virginia Festival of the Book Facebook page, or register to “Zoom in” here

The thing to focus on during these Pandemic Dayze: #SilverLinings

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Launch Day!

How to Build a Heart releases 1/28/20
It’s Book Birthday time!  Wheeeeeee! How to Build a Heart is officially “On Sale” today!

Even though my local bookseller has been ringing up copies for a few days now … shhhhhh …

But honestly, Happy Dancing Time! Launch Time! Book Party Time! Reading aloud to students and friends time! Which is my FAVORITE thing to do. I prefer it to writing. Way prefer it. But that makes sense, right? The point is to tell a story, and it’s so much more fun to tell it in person to real live breathing people. As opposed to handing someone a book and saying, “Here. Hope you like it!”

______

When I talk to students about writing I try to debunk the old “Write what you know,” rule. Honestly? If I only wrote what I “know,” I’d write about grocery shopping and balancing the checkbook. Vacuuming and emptying the dishwasher. Most teens don’t want to read about that.

“Write what you know is emotionally true,” I tell them. Dig deep. Connect with something you feel, something very personal. Chances are you’re not alone. Write about that.

For all my books I’ve tapped into an emotion or an uncomfortable feeling and used it to fuel a particular character’s motivation. In Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, my first novel, I wanted to write about friends growing apart. I remembered being in middle school and feeling terrible as certain friends drifted away from me. It was inevitable (I realize now) as we matured, but at the time it felt lonely and isolating. I don’t know if I behaved particularly well or kindly as it was happening. Connecting with those emotional “truths” helped me write from Brett’s 14-year old perspective, even though I was in my 40’s.

For this new book, How to Build a Heart, I had to dig deep again, this time into my background as the child of a Hispanic mother and Irish father. Growing up, I didn’t think much of it. That’s just who we were. Half our relatives spoke with Irish brogues, the other half spoke with Spanish accents. Dinner might be arroz con pollo followed by a hunk of Irish soda bread. One grandmother was Nana; the other was Abuela. Whatever.

But as I matured I realized: I really wasn’t fully any one thing. I didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t look Irish. Whenever I attempted to embrace one identity or another, I felt like a fraud. Growing up was like being a guest at a country club you weren’t allowed to join.

Creating the character of Izzy Crawford, a girl whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is North Carolinian, I tapped into those feelings of ethnic and cultural displacement. I threw in a few more challenges for her — challenges I didn’t share — such as economic instability, a parent’s death. I got on board with her as she travelled the winding road which finally led to a real home, and real self-acceptance. And finally, joined her as she discovered how to define “family.”


I hope readers love Izzy and her little family as much as I do.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Poem for a Friday

The Daughter, who is in medical school, shared a poem with me. Which had been read aloud during class by one of her doctor/professors (which gives me such hope for the future of health care, that young physicians are turning to poetry as well as science as they study the healing arts) and which spoke to us after losing our dear dog yesterday.

The Daughter’s had quite the week. She held a human heart in her hands for the first time. She spent hours in the ICU (and emerged declaring that “Nurses run the world”) learning about patients who are there for 36 hours and others who are there for three months. She made time to call her mom and ask how I was feeling after wrapping my arms around Frisbee and watching her die. She processed her own feelings of loss. Frisbee was her childhood dog. Their childhood dog. Our family dog. Yesterday, as Frisbee slipped out of this world, we all held hands via phone and text: my husband on a business trip to North Carolina; our son from Los Angeles; our daughter in New Hampshire. 

It’s hard to lean into suffering. It’s hard to see pain as anything but the Awful that it is, the great interrupter of “normal” life, the barrier between the simple things we want to accomplish or the person we want to be. It’s hard to recognize the opportunity for light and learning and redemption in the midst of pain, whether that’s physical or emotional pain. I know when I’ve been in it, I’ve only had the capacity to thrash, barely keeping my head above it.  

This morning, a friend called and invited me over for a warm fire in the wood stove and tea. She lost her dog several years ago and woke this morning knowing how empty our home would feel today, the first day without our dog’s constant, loving presence. No sooner was I off the phone than another friend called from Vermont: she’s lost three dogs. She knows what that quiet house feels like.

Nothing takes away the sadness we feel, but what a light these calls have been! 

Here’s the poem. How amazing that something written in the 13th century by a man who lived in the part of the world we now call Afghanistan, so far from my cold little corner of what we’re currently calling Brunswick, Maine (formerly Massachusetts; I have no idea what the Abenaki and Penobscot people called it) could tap me on the shoulder and speak to me this morning. But there you have it.

Backpain
by Rumi

Muhammad went to visit a sick friend.
Such kindness brings more kindness,
and there is no knowing the proliferation from there.

The man was about to die.
Muhammad put his face close and kissed him.

His friend began to revive.
Muhammad's visit re-created him.
He began to feel grateful for an illness
that brought such light.

And also for the backpain
that wakes him in the night.

No need to snore away like a buffalo
when this wonder is walking the world.

There are values in pain that are difficult
to see without the presence of a guest.

Don't complain about autumn.
Walk with grief like a good friend.
Listen to what he says.

Sometimes the cold and dark of a cave
give the opening we most want