Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Review Club: December

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@Barrie Summy

This entry for the Book Review Club is utterly, completely, totally biased. Three friends of mine have books out, and I love the books to bits so I’m bloody well going to tell you about them. I’ve organized them by age: picture book through adult.

I can’t stress enough how prejudiced I am. (Got that, FCC?) One book (GOOD CAT) was even present from the author, who is in my writers group. (I bought the other two.) But I swear, if I didn’t love them I wouldn’t be writing about them at all—I’d just shut up and smile. Really. You can trust me.

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How To Be a Good Cat
Written and illustrated by Gail Page
Bloomsbury, 2011

This is Gail Page’s third book featuring Bobo, a huge, clumsy, adorable fool based on her late lamented dog, Gimpel. The New York Times once described Bobo as “the canine Oscar Madison,” and that’s about right.

In his earlier adventures—HOW TO BE A GOOD DOG and BOBO AND THE NEW NEIGHBOR—Bobo learned how to sit and stay, and succumbed to a muffin temptation that taught him to share. This time around, Bobo is saintly (we see him sweeping the floor and dusting the cake) but beleaguered by a kitten named Bonkers.

In simple, boldly colored illustrations, he tries to apply his hard-won know-how by teaching Bonkers to sit and stay. No dice. The little menace knocks over the fish bowl, unrolls the toilet paper, and pulls down the curtains.

Fortunately, Bobo still lives with Cat, the deadpan savant who rescued him in the previous two books. Cat gives Bobo a crash course in feline behavior, and the final page finds Bobo and Bonkers sharing the one thing a dog can teach anyone: a cat nap.

As a painter and illustrator, Gail is a brilliant fool herself. Bobo and Cat live with Mrs. Birdhead, who inexplicably wears a contraption on her head that provides a home for a small bird. Bobo has the outlook and mannerisms of a real dog, but he’s always on his hind legs and enjoys a bubble bath complete with back-scrubber and rubber ducky. Bonkers is the uber-kitten, insanely cute and insanely insane.

This level of whimsy is a delight to all ages, one to a hundred and one. It even delights the curmudgeon I live with. A book can meet no greater challenge. (Click on the pictures to appreciate them larger.)

By Deva Fagan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

Ever want to run away and join the circus? What if the Big Top were a spaceship, being pursued by opposing sets of intergalactic bad guys and/or bureaucrats?

When the chance presents itself to Beatrix Ling, a talented teenage gymnast whose hair has turned pink overnight, she doesn’t hesitate for a minute. Her life on earth is dreary: Her parents are dead, and she’s in a boarding school where everyone looks down on her. Among its other charms Circus Galacticus has the Ringmaster, a sequined mystery-man who insists that Trix’s pink hair proves she belongs in the Big Top.

The Ringmaster and crew are Tinkers, outcasts blessed with wildly diverse colors, shapes and skills. The Tinkers are on the lam from the militantly conformist Mandate and from an intergalactic government that has outlawed them both. Trix, whose parents entrusted her with a mysterious rock before they died, has already had a visit from one of the Mandate’s henchmen, a creep in a silver gas-mask who tried to take the rock from her.

Trix isn’t sure she’s a Tinker, but she’d sure like to belong somewhere. Her efforts to fit in among the circus’s other young adults are every bit as important to the story as the larger issues of diversity and self-determination.

Written for younger teens (Amazon has it as ages nine and up), CIRCUS GALACTICUS is Deva Fagan’s third fantasy but her first foray into science fiction. It’s heavier on the fantasy than the science, which is the way I personally like my SF, and the emphasis is on characterization. I was in Trix’s head and heart from page one, and I’m totally in love with the Ringmaster—he’s Doctor Who with humility and real sweetness.

Settle down with this book the day after Christmas. It’ll be your reward for making it through the season.

All My Dogs
By Bill Henderson
Drawings by Leslie Moore
David R. Godine, 2011

Bill Henderson is the founding publisher of the Pushcart Press and its famous Pushcart Prize. But mostly he’s a story-teller, as evidenced by this and the four memoirs that preceded it.

If you’ve read any of his previous accounts (HIS SON, HER FATHER, TOWER, SIMPLE GIFTS), you think you know Bill’s story well enough to be leery of another version. Turns out that if you want to make an old story new and fresh and charming, you simply add a dog. Or ten.

I have read three of the earlier books, and yet I couldn’t put this one down. I love dogs every bit as much as Bill Henderson does, but I’ve never paid that much attention to what they were teaching me. Bill’s chief gift is that he does pay attention.

Here, for example, is his recollection of the day in the early 50s when his dog Trixie won “Best in Show” at the elementary school pet exhibition.

She and I walked home together waving her blue ribbon, gushing in victory. (Gushing was another of Pop’s verbotens. Men of that era were supposed to be reserved.) Trixie gushed whenever she felt like it. She barked when it suited her, danced on her hind feet when asked, and charged around our house and yard possessed by her dog’s wonder of each second. She was a supreme gusher. Years later I would remember that lesson from her—it was OK to dance and wonder and gush.

I barely survived the tale of the later dogs Ellen and Rocky—I won’t tell you about it, partly because you shouldn’t know and partly because I’ll start sobbing. Each of the ten dogs Bill’s known has a tale (so to speak) of wonder or poignancy or insight. They are enriched by pencil drawings of each dog by Leslie Moore.

Read this one New Year’s Day, for solace and resolve.

EDITED TO ADD: I just realized I left out an important point (that's what I get for quitting coffee). Bill Henderson has had an extremely entertaining life--running the gamut from New York partying to religious revelation--and he tells it well. This is not an animal sob story. It's fun and funny, although also insightful.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Book Review Club: November

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@Barrie Summy

Phew! Running around like a madwoman today, but now it’s time to take a deep breath and contemplate the simple joys. Don’t forget to click the icon at the top for more reviews!

 Red Sled
By Lita Judge
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
November 2011

When a writer (speaking strictly hypothetically) is up to her neck in the complexities of the teen years plus magic plus mayhem, it's a blessing when something comes along that alters the perspective. For me right now, that’s RED SLED, a brand new picture book by New Hampshire writer/illustrator Lita Judge.

This book has a simple plot and practically no words. It’s a book someone has thought about, hard, and pared down to essentials. It’s beautiful.

Here’s the plot: A child in a white snowsuit and red hat trudges home for the night, leaving a red sled outside his/her cozy cabin in a white wilderness. A bear borrows the sled, and before long is plummeting downhill with a collection of friends from a moose to a mouse. Some of the animals are giddy; others are terrified. They crash gleefully at the bottom of their hill, then return the sled. Next day, puzzled by all the paw-prints, the child waits for nightfall and peeps out to see what’s happening.

On the last page, a delirious pile of animals and red-hatted kid scuds downhill into the snowy night.

The text consists of “hmm?” (twice), “whoa” (twice), and “alley oop” (once), plus a marvelous, thoughtful collection of sounds: “gadung, gadung” when the sled hits some bumps, or “ssssffft” as it glides past on a straightaway. My favorite is “fluoomp…ft,” which is the noise a pile of animals makes when crashing into some snow.

A parent would enjoy reading this aloud with sound effects, but a child also could enjoy it alone. No wonder it got starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal.

I’m indebted to Melissa Stewart and the New England chapter of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) for letting me know about RED SLED. The author is recovering from an auto-immune disease (here’s her blog post on the subject), and is unable to help promote her book. So the word went out on the NESCBWI drums that others should step in. I’m happy to do so, and urge you to help spread the news any way you can. Judge’s web site is, if you want more information (or a peek at her other illustrations, which you definitely should see).

This is a book to treasure regardless of circumstances. But if you’re immersed in complexities, it’s a lifeline.

Book review on the way!

Hello there, book review club! Today's schedule got a bit wonky, so I won't be posting my review until early afternoon. See you then!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

And another thing...

Look at me, blogging again!

Blogging amidst all the kt literary jollification yesterday, I forgot to mention that Bobbie Pyron featured the dog Callie and me on her website. Very cute blog idea. Callie needed some good news, having spent much of the past three weeks in her Cone of Shame from her vet surgery.

Also, there are a couple of tidbits of good news. First, SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS has been accepted for Scholastic Book Clubs and Book Fairs, starting this coming winter. THE UNNAMEABLES, meanwhile, is on the reading list for the Youngstown State University English Festival, which brings some 3,000 teens to campus every march to discuss the books on the list, among other activities.

I'm so pumped about this stuff.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


So, ten writers get together with their agent in a pair of cabins within spitting distance of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Here's how they spend the morning:

The photo was taken by Kate Schafer Testerman, the agent in question. Ten clients of KT Literary, including me, gathered with her this weekend to hobnob and eat and guffaw. I'm the one with her back to the camera. It may look as if I'm industriously writing, but I'm checking the weather forecast.

Actually, we did get out to the park right after the photo. We saw elk and an alluvial fan, plus a whole bunch of snow, which closed the road to the Continental Divide. I took a bunch of pictures, but can't upload them until I get home. That should be around the 19th, after I wander around Santa Fe for a while with my friend Shelly.

The elk are amazing--this time of year, they wander right into town, no regard whatsoever for humans or buildings or cars. Also saw magpies and bright blue jays, far brighter than out east.

Right now we're around the fire digesting a great Mexican dinner. It doesn't get better.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Book Review Club for October

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@Barrie Summy

Gotta love a man who buys you research books. This one was one of my birthday presents from Rob, who watched me struggling to read one physics book after another (okay, actually it was only two) over the summer. This one actually was fun. Who can argue with nanobots?

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Physics of the Future:
How Science Will Shape Our Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100
By Michio Kaku
2011, Doubleday

Michio Kaku has an entertaining life. When he can spare time from being a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, he hosts a Science Channel show and two radio programs, as well as writing book after book after book trying to make the rest of us understand how modern science affects us and our future.

Researching this one, he traveled around having cool and useful experiences: Matching wits with a robot here, riding in a self-piloted sports car there. He interviewed some three hundred scientists.

The guy helped found string field theory, and yet he has the common touch. He built an atom smasher in his garage in high school, blowing out every fuse in the house whenever he turned it on. At the same time he credits Flash Gordon with awakening his interest in science and the world of the future. He quotes Einstein on one page and Data the Star Trek android on the next. He’s fun to read; one suspects he’d be even more fun as a dinner companion.

The best thing about this book is the way it’s organized. Eight chapters are devoted to individual “futures”: those of the computer, artificial intelligence, medicine, nanotechnology, energy, space travel, wealth, and humanity. Each chapter has a section on “the near future” (the present to 2030), mid-century (2030-2070), and the far future (2070-2100). This drives home the point that, in many disciplines, humanity has already planted the seeds for a Jetson-like future existence in which our houses respond to voice commands and we drive to work in self-piloted hover-cars.

It all seems so plausible. And, in places, unsettling. Take internet contact lenses, for example. Already, combat forces can train on base by putting on a helmet that projects battlefield images over the existing terrain. It’s not that much of a leap to contact lenses equipped with computer chips that would enable you to surf the net or turn on a movie just by blinking your eye.

As someone regularly called upon to swear at her computer, I can imagine nothing more unsettling. Imagine: At a business lunch with your boss, you have a glass of wine and forget how to blink right. Just as your boss is confiding top-secret corporate strategy, all of a sudden Ralph Fiennes appears before you dressed as Lord Voldemort. That’s the sort of thing that makes a person choke on her chef salad.

The book’s last chapter envisions a typical morning in 2100, from the moment when a computer program named Molly projects its friendly face on the wall screen to wake you and send you into the bathroom to brush your teeth and have your daily molecular analysis, searching for potential disease.

Will the predictions come true? Maybe not. Kaku points out that, in 1964, At&T spent $100 million perfecting a TV screen for telephones, of which they sold a grand total of a hundred. He blames the Cave Man (or Cave Woman) Principle: Our wants, needs, and desires haven’t changed in 100,000 years. If there’s a conflict between new technology and our Cave Man instincts, technology will lose.

Just as our ancestors demanded that a successful hunter provide “proof of the kill” (a hunk of dead animal), we demand hard copy instead of trusting a bunch of electrons. That’s why computers have not resulted in the much-predicted “paperless office.”

Years ago, I freelanced from an attic apartment in Providence, RI, where summertime heat and humidity can be brutal. Interviewing a corporate executive on a sweaty day, I was grateful he or she couldn’t see what I was wearing—or, more accurately, not wearing. My cave woman instincts definitely would not have embraced a picture-phone.

A self-piloted sports car, though. Cool.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Nip in the Air

It's been an exciting week at Castle Ne'er-do'well. I got a Kindle. The dog had surgery. The air is full of revving-up noises from the October 1 Bangor Book Festival. It's frikkin' freezing out, although six months ago this would have felt warm. I have tomatoes, zucchini, and blackberries in the freezer.

The Kindle is a cunnin' little thing, despite my Luddite tendencies. I got it because I'll be traveling a bit and also I'd like to read my manuscripts without sitting at the computer or manhandling a largish stack of paper on the dining room table. Supposedly you can take notes on stuff you're reading. We'll see how useful that turns out to be. But my goodness, aren't they trying hard to be clever? I was impressed right off by the fact that the USB connection nestles into the power adapter.

The dog, one Calamity Jane Booraem-Shillady, is gray around the muzzle and developing noncancerous fatty tumors in various spots (one of them unmentionable in polite society and undoing a decade of "sit" training). Thursday morning, when Rob was away canoing (naturally--heaven forbid this should happen with a full staff), I discovered that dear Callie had chewed off the bottom fifth of the tumor on her front right ankle. I disinfected it and wrapped it up, but by afternoon it was still bleeding and I was on the phone to the vet. Upshot: It was infected and growing too much.Yesterday morning, the little dear had $700 worth of surgery. Now she has a classy-looking bandage, a dazed expression, and one of those Elizabethan cone things to keep her from chewing at her stitches. Also an impoverished household.

TMI ALERT (skip this if squeamish): The little dear also has a grass-eating fetish, which would be fine if she just threw it up immediately or passed it along through like a normal dog. But no. Our choices are 1) she keeps it fermenting in her gut for three or four weeks, then throws it up at 3 a.m. on the floor at the foot of our bed, where it smells like Death on Eggs, or 2) she gets a blockage and has to visit the emergency room. When I took her in for surgery yesterday, I mentioned that she hadn't pooped for 24 hours. "Hmm," said the vet. And, sure enough, when he'd finished removing her tumor he also extracted a plug of grass from the relevant oriface. Another 24 hours and she would have been writhing in pain, so that's the silver lining to this cloudy tale. END OF TMI.

The Bangor Book Festival takes place September 30 and October 1. (The Maine Edge, an alternative paper, is interviewing the authors involved. Here's my interview.)  I'll be talking about character development and doing a reading/discussion for teens with Carrie Jones. The festival will be in various venues this year, as I understand it--public library, children's museum, perhaps others. More information will be forthcoming, but definitely mark your calendar...just look at that list of authors!

I conclude with pix of my favorite season-changing event: The Blue Hill Fair, which takes place on Labor Day Weekend. I tended the county Democrats' booth in the morning and ate french fries and watched sheepdog trials and livestock shows in the afternoon. Bliss.

A couple of farm kids leave the show ring with their charges. Behind them, the judge awaits the next group.
A sheepdog drives his charges through a gate. One sheepdog (not sure it was this one) got a perfect score, which involved sending a flock of sheep through two or three gates, across a bridge, and into a pen, as well as clockwise and counter clockwise around the show ring.

What every writer (and teacher and parent and human being) loves to see.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

September Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

I’m a day late (and I’m always a dollar short, so that’s nothing new). Thanks to Labor Day and the sudden drop in summertime scheduling, I got this week thoroughly fouled up and thought yesterday was Tuesday. Today, oddly, feels like Friday, possibly because it’s raining for the third day in a row. Hmmm … curl up with a good book?

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Wicked Appetite
By Janet Evanovich
St. Martin’s Press, 2010

There are times when only a Janet Evanovich will do, and a rainy Maine day usually is one of them. She’s written so many of her signature comedy-romance-thrillers—almost forty, at last count—that if you haven’t tripped over one of them already you will soon. And when that day comes you’d be well advised to stay right there on the floor and start reading.

Don’t start with this one, though.

It could be that I’m over-Evanoviched, so familiar with her formula that I’ve finally gone sour on her. Or maybe, as I thought when I read WICKED APPETITE a week or so ago, she’s reached the too-familiar stage when she’s so hot that nobody edits her anymore. (Not at all familiar to me, obviously. But Neil Gaiman commented a while back that editors aren’t as likely to challenge him now that he’s a hotshot, so he’s under more pressure to do his own quality-control.)

I cut my Evanovich teeth on the numbered Stephanie Plum novels, starting with ONE FOR THE MONEY. As of November, they’re up to EXPLOSIVE EIGHTEEN. It was always fun revisiting hapless New Jersey bounty-hunter Plum, her sidekick Lula the ex-hooker, her nutty Grandma Mazur, and her TWO love interests, Morelli the cop and Ranger the mysterious high-tech security consultant. The books are hysterical in places, sexy in others, with a comfortable level of nail-biting. Nevertheless, somewhere around ELEVEN ON TOP I stopped salivating and started just picking them up sporadically whenever I tripped over them. As I said, that’s easy to do—they’re everywhere.

Apparently there are a few unnumbered Stephanie Plums, with titles such as PLUM SPOOKY and PLUM LUCKY, and apparently they have a supernatural element. This book—a birthday present because it’s set in my old stomping grounds near Boston—is the start of a new series in which a couple of Stephanie’s unnumbered otherworldly friends harass a brand-new protagonist, uber-baker Lizzy Tucker. Also migrating from New Jersey is a highly intelligent monkey who keeps farting and giving people the finger.

It’s a quick read with lots of laughs and steamily delayed sexual gratification, Evanovich’s stock in trade. The supernatural plot is silly and sometimes too obviously engineered for comedy, but that I can forgive, even enjoy. The finale, however, is a wet firecracker, with the real conclusion clearly to come in later books. This is something new—as I recall, the Plum books always came to a satisfying conclusion—and struck me as cynical and slap-dash. Thinking about it now makes me sad and kind of tired.

I have to say, though, that a friend of mine read this one a few months back and saw nothing wrong with it. Maybe I am Evanoviched out. That really would be sad.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Gaaaah! Book Review!

I JUST this minute realized that today's Wednesday, not Tuesday. And I was supposed to post my September book review THIS MORNING.

I am an idiot. See you tomorrow, Book Review Club. *slinks into corner, weeping.*

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Science, and an Apology to Vermont

Well, I suppose I feel pretty proud of myself, don't I?

Science has proven that you will suffer an extended power outage under one or more of the following circumstances: 1. You haven't showered in two days; 2. You have a sink full of dishes; 3. The bathroom is a pit of iniquity. So it was that I spent the 24 hours before Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene showering, cleaning the bathroom, and washing every dish and teaspoon before it hit the sink. I also vacuumed.

Also, Rob moved the cars into the back yard next to the house. (To avoid this.)

I picked all the flowers in my garden, arranged some in vases, gave the rest to a neighbor.

I moved all the plants inside from the deck.

For something to do rather than fidget, I re-filled about half of the emergency water bottles in the cellar with fresh water.

As a natural and scientifically proven result, Irene moved west and whupped the tar out of Vermont. We had a little wind, less rain, and asix-hour power outage (child's play around here).

Again, I deeply apologize to the people of Vermont.

Further Scientific Fact:

If someone has planned a surprise birthday party for you, that will be the night you exercise-bike yourself into a sweat and opt not to take a shower afterwards because dinner's ready. You will also have laundry drying on racks all over the living room.

And so, two nights before I was scientifically scheduled to turn sixty, Rob leaped up in the middle of the Nightly News and said brusquely, "I'd get the laundry upstairs if I were you. That's all I'm saying." He then walked out the front door into the night.  I followed, and discovered twenty-five or thirty people standing in the front yard, each holding a cupcake.

I swore in hospitable fashion and ran inside to haul the laundry racks upstairs.

Turned out Rob had hand-delivered invitations to everyone, instructing them to show up with one cupcake apiece. (So that's why the morning coffee run kept taking so long. I thought he might be having an affair.) Here's most of them:

One pair was equipped with sparklers, so Rob lighted them out on the porch.

I looked like utter crap. I was, however, very happy. Here I'm holding one of two T-shirts our neighbors Lisa and Peg made for the occasion. Rob (seen frantically unearthing snacks) is wearing the other. They say, "Our favorite small person with wings is 60." 

Lisa and Peg also made cookies to top their cupcake entries, featuring a frog dressed in panoply. You have to read SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS to understand that, ditto the fact that there are a few Tampax-shaped cookies in there.

Lisa and Peg also made this video. They do not believe in half-measures when it comes to celebrations.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Yeah, Well, It's August

This isn't the worst blog hiatus I've suffered, nor will it be the last. I probably should just announce that August in Maine is a blog-free month, because it always has been and probably always will be.

As usual, the month started with the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta on the sixth. As usual, Rob and I joined our kayaking friends on Hog Island. Not at all as usual, we did not have the island to ourselves--apparently word has gotten out that this is the best possible vantage point for the race if you're not on a boat. (I suppose I shouldn't be telling you that. *Waves wand.* Obliviate!) The place was packed, although fortunately most of the invaders decided to stay down on the beach rather than joining us up on the ledge, which is less comfortable but more spectacular. (We always go for spectacular discomfort.)

Despite the (relative) crowds, it was a lovely day. The fog lifted, the breeze blew, although it came up a bit later than the race committee wanted, so the start was delayed by what was officially a half hour but felt like at least an hour. We'd already scarfed down our sandwiches and gorp and brownies--we like our spectacular discomfort to be as cholesterol-laden as possible--by the time the first boats scudded by.

We left before the race came back, mostly because the tide came up and there were people sitting where we normally would beach the kayaks. We had them (the kayaks, not the people) moored to a rock instead, so they were bouncing around and crashing a bit more than even plastic boats like to bounce around and crash.

The early departure turned out to be fortunate, because by the time we'd paddled to the other side of the island the tide had almost marooned our friends Peter and Marcia and their dog, Honey. (Well, not really marooned -- they would have been fine without us if perhaps slightly wetter.)

Peter and Marcia had beached their boat on the eastern shore of the island and trekked across to join us on the ledge. They trekked back across to find that they'd have to wade out to the boat and climb in from the rocks, which might have been a bit teetery. Rob put on his blue tights and billowing red cape and helped Peter haul the sailboat around to a rapidly diminishing spit of sand where everyone could board comfortably, then hauled them out to where the water was deep enough to start the motor.

Herewith, the photographic journal:

Peg, Lisa, Rob and a new acquaintance cool their heels on our Hog Island ledge, waiting for the race to begin. You can just barely see the fleet to-ing and fro-ing in the center distance.

At long last the race filters past, some huge motoryacht steaming along right in the middle of the fleet. We christened the yacht the SS Honeybadger, after the nervy fellow in this YouTube video. (Yes, I know, this is not the most famous or funniest version, nor is it the one we really meant.  But I write kids' books and I chickened out. If you MUST find the funny voice-over one, it's in YouTube's sidebar to this one.)

Another, less honeybadgerish approach to spectating.

The daring rescue at sea: Rob hauling Peter and Marcia's sailboat around to the sandy side of a little rocky islet. Peter is out of frame, on the islet hauling on the bowline.

Under the baffled eye of Honey the dog (no relation to the badger), Marcia and Peter climb aboard ...

... and Rob hauls them out to deeper water.

I'm out of time, so the rest of August will have to wait. Meanwhile...

The writing report: I'm in this weird almost-writing-but-still-researching stage on the next book while waiting for my editorial letter on CONOR'S BANSHEE. This very day I got the idea that is starting to make the new book work, and is getting me excited about writing it.  Then I went kayaking, because kayaking buddies Lisa and Peg are about to go home to Minnesota and we had to get one more in. Hey, it's August.

The knitting report: Got the yarn for a cotton-blend sweater, and it could be very cool. Before Lisa leaves, she has to translate the directions for the sleeves. And then let the torment begin.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Book Review Club: August

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@Barrie Summy

Okay, this one's a little friendlier to the beach reader than my last one was. It's a hoot, plus it's old enough to be out in paperback. Don't forget to click the icon for more reviews!

The Wordy Shipmates
By Sarah Vowell
Riverhead Books, 2008

When we think somebody’s a totally repressed killjoy, we call him a Puritan. Sarah Vowell would like this to stop.

Not that the Puritans were a barrel of laughs—especially those who came to New England in the early 1600s. (You couldn’t be a comedian and still lead a religiously triggered invasion of somebody’s homeland.) But they were a lot more complicated than popular history leads us to believe.

For a start, they didn’t call themselves Puritans—other people did, mostly decades or centuries past their seventeenth century heyday. They often called themselves “the godly”—as distinct from their arch-enemies, the Catholics and, for some, the Church of England.

Also, they weren’t a homogeneous group. Some of them still belonged to the C of E but wanted to purify it. Others thought anyone who stuck with the C of E was the spawn of Satan. (Or, possibly, of satin.)

Also, they didn’t mind sex, as long as it was sanctified by marriage vows.

Sarah Vowell has made a career out of reinterpreting history through the eyes of a non-historian. A former, long-time contributing editor for the public radio show “This American Life,” she has written six books that dance from history to social commentary to travelogue. This was her fifth, and the only one I’ve read. I’ll probably let some time pass before I read another, but I’m very glad I found this one.

Vowell’s tale this time is of the Puritan colonization of New England between 1630, when the Massachusetts Bay colonists arrived, and 1692, when Salem got crazy about witches. Her chief characters are John Winthrop, the colony’s first governor, and the colony’s first major outcasts, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson.

Williams believed in religious freedom and thought the English king had no right to give away Indian land, but unfortunately was such a wack-job that his views had no effect. His only recourse was to leave and found Rhode Island. Hutchinson, banished for making a theological left turn while female, moved her family to Rhode Island en route to New Netherland, where she and most of her family ended up dying in an Indian war.

There are no chapters in this book—it’s essentially a long essay with pauses—and Vowell regularly leaps over the centuries to link the colonists’ behavior with ours. She brings in Abu Ghraib, Ronald Reagan, even “The Brady Bunch.” Anecdotes from her own life (her Pentacostal upbringing for example) illuminate the Puritans’ story, particularly when she describes her tours of the Puritans’ stamping ground.

Just after reading about the English settlers’ truly brutal attack on a Peguot fort in 1637, we watch Vowell’s horrified seven-year-old nephew contend with a museum documentary on the subject. He has to close his eyes. “When do they have Thanksgiving?” he wants to know. This is one of many points during the book when Vowell gets emotional—sometimes admiring, usually angry. The book is strongest at those points.

This is a gutsy and illuminating approach to history, offered in a wry tone that often had me laughing out loud. I lost the sequence of events at times, but you can get that elsewhere.

That tone, however, is troublesome. Vowell can’t resist a one-liner, and her snarkiness started to get old for me halfway through the book. Since I’m usually a push-over for snark and one-liners (see the “satin” comment above), I couldn’t decide whether she was trying too hard or just needed one more close edit.

That’s why I’ll take a rest before moving on to her latest, UNFAMILIAR FISHES. It’s about the Americans in Hawaii, and I bet it’s a corker.

Dear FCC: I took this book out of the library.

Friday, July 29, 2011


Some people were born to be hermits, and I'm turning out to be one of them. Since I quit my day job nearly eight years ago, there are entire days--in the winter, sometimes entire weeks--when I don't leave our paltry four acres. I found last winter that I'd lost all my small talk: At parties, the only way I survived was by pretending I was interviewing someone and peppering him/her with questions.

Also, my greatest pleasure is when some great thing presents itself just outside the back door. In the winter, I'm happiest when the snow's deep enough that I can step off the porch, strap on my skis, and glide off into the woods. This time of year, I'm all aquiver about berries.

When you cut down a bunch of aging spruce trees, as we regretfully did the winter before last, raspberries are the first to take advantage of the sunny patch. After that the hardwood (deciduous) trees pop up, followed by softwoods. I adore berries, and especially the raspy ones, so earlier this summer I waded into the patch behind the dahlias and ruthlessly did away with anything that wasn't going to enliven my Cheerios.

Here's the result:

The corner of wood poking up from the bottom of the photo is the deck railing, so nirvana is roughly two dozen steps from my cereal bowl.

Tomorrow's breakfast and the day after's. The raspberries are being very clever about ripening--just enough ripe at one time to eat in one day. Thus avoiding the torture of jam-making, which I hope never to experience.
Blackberries will be coming along in a couple of weeks, although not where I'm accustomed to them. The patch down by the vegetable garden has been taken over by bittersweet and needs to be razed and started over. Meanwhile, so many poor old spruce have fallen down out front that there's a prolific new patch there. I'm watching them so hungrily, waiting for the first signs of ripening, that I know I'm going to wake up one morning and find a bear got them all.

As I gathered this morning's cereal-garnish, it occurred to me that, if I were inclined to drone on and on about Life Lessons, a raspberry patch has them all. The best ones are on the oldest and scraggliest plants. New perspectives --bending over to look at the plants upside down, or turning to wade out of the patch past plants you've already harvested--reveal a treasure-trove that was hiding before. If you get greedy and go after more than you need, you always tip over your berry basket and lose half of what you already had. (Congress, take note.)

Fortunately, I hate Life Lessons.

The Writing Report: Still in research mode. I was struggling through A Brief History of Time, but then I met an actual physicist who assured me that it is, in fact, incomprehensible. Instead I went to the library and took out Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, which is much more fun.  I also got Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates (about the New England Puritans), which is an absolute hoot as well as being informative.

The Knitting Report: I have to find some cotton yarn for a top-down sweater, which I have to start knitting before my friend Lisa goes home to Minnesota. If I start it without her there's a chance I'll throw the whole thing into the fire.

* A play on NIMBY , which means "not in my back yard." Around here, it usually refers to someone who loves the idea of, say, wind power, as long is it's in somebody else's neighborhood. I suspect I might be one of those, actually--I love the idea, but would hate the noise. We should put them all out at sea--it's sort of noisy out there anyway, isn't it? (Oh dear oh dear -- I bet I'm being stupid.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Normally, Summer officially ends when our friends Linda and Michael pack up their dogs and toys and leave for Providence, RI, after a pandemonious week in a seaside cottage down the street. This year, L&M came up a month early, so we've had our climactic week and there's still a month and a half until Labor Day.

Normally, summer reaches its midpoint when I trek to Portland for lunch with my college roommates. That happened Monday, the day after Linda and Michael packed up the dogs and left. So the summer's midpoint came after its end, which is extremely confusing to the well-regulated mind.

I have reacted to this by spending today puttering. Peace of mind dictates that I get to work pronto. Time being in an upheaval, pronto apparently will not take place until tomorrow.

Highlights of the L&M week included a garden tour for Linda and me--of which she took pictures and I, being time-addled, did not--and matchstick sailboats, kits for which Michael assembled and sent up ahead so Rob and our friend Eric could make them in time for Michael's arrival. Rob was grateful that this year's boat wasn't as complicated and time-consuming as last year's, a miniature catboat with radio controls.

Also, we went to the Stonington Opera House for their annual Shakespeare in Stonington production, which this year consisted of two plays rather than one. With the usual mixed crew of Equity actors and local folk, the Opera House staged Much Ado About Nothing (with men playing Beatrice and Hero, as they would have in Shakespeare's time) and Elizabeth Rex, Timothy Findley's modern play set in Queen Elizabeth's barn the night before she caused Essex to be beheaded. Eager for distraction, she spends the night with Shakespeare's troupe of actors, who have just performed--yup--Much Ado About Nothing.

The Opera House production was in repertory, so the actor who played Beatrice in Much Ado scuttled across town to the Elizabeth Rex stage in the Historical Society's barn, where he portrayed the actor who played Beatrice. All the other parts matched, too. It was very, very cool. And since S in S loves to switch genders around (for example, the friar this year was played by the same woman who played the Duke/Friar in Measure for Measure last year) Findley's play fit like a lady's glove, men's size nine. Elizabeth, who rules England by playing a man's role, confronts Ned/Beatrice, who survives by playing women. Elizabeth is about to kill her lover. Ned's has killed him by giving him syphilis. Shakespeare's purported lover is about to die with Essex. Makes for an interesting conversation.

Usually, S in S takes place in August, but they switched it with the Jazz Festival this year. More time confusion. Tomorrow may be Thanksgiving for all I know.

Anyway, here are some pictures by Linda of the great matchstick sailboat regatta.

The gentlemen launched their boats at low tide, with Linda and me in kayaks to round up any craft that made a break for freedom. Here, I am pursuing one of Michael's two boats (the little sail in the center distance), while Rob's matchstick boat (right) makes for Linda, who's taking the picture. In the center foreground with the red sail is Rob's radio-controlled boat from last year, launched just to make things more interesting.

Ah, summertime in shallow water. Dudley and Mollie, L&M's dogs, wander around pondering mayhem while I lounge in decidedly unapproved kayak technique. My kayak is a Loon, the elastic waistband of the maritime world--very beamy and stable, with a huge cockpit that lets me free my legs for lounging and makes me less claustrophobic than a regular kayak.

The gentlemen , admired by Mollie.
 And, just to humiliate us all, here are my college roommates plus one. Claudia (known to all right-thinking people as Dane) and Laura and I met at Wheaton College in 1971 (actually, I met Laura in 1970, I guess) and shared a house off campus with six other women in 1972-73. Dane and her partner Juanita live in DC, but come to Maine for a week or two every summer. About four years ago, we started meeting for lunch in Portland, which is about equidistant from Brooklin and Laura's New Hampshire home. The amazing thing is that we hardly communicate for a year, and then pick right up where we left off...the nature of old friends.

Juanita, me, Dane, and Laura after an extremely long and loud Monday lunch.

The knitting report: There is none. The secretary wishes to point out that this is not her fault, as there has been no activity since the last report. Oh wait, maybe I started a new sock. I'll have to check.

The writing report: Again none, and the secretary refuses to take responsibility. Except I did get the rough draft of CONOR'S BANSHEE spiral bound so I can give it to some kids to read. Oh, and I'm reading A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME for undisclosed research purposes having nothing to do all the other time-related aspects of the day.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Book Review Club: July

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@Barrie Summy

I suppose I should suggest beach reading, something light and frothy. This book is far from that, although it is FUN so doesn't that qualify?

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Monsters of Men
By Patrick Ness
Candlewick, 2010
Young Adult

A month or so ago, away from home and requiring an immediate book, I bought THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, the first book of Patrick Ness’s CHAOS WALKING trilogy. I’d heard about it over the past couple of years and had always kinda figured I’d read it sometime.

What. Was. I waiting for.

I finished the first book in 40 seconds flat, and casually mentioned it to our town librarian. She went online, liked what she saw, and before I could get my head together to buy the second book, THE ASK AND THE ANSWER, the whole flippin’ trilogy appeared on the YA shelf beside the circulation desk. (I love our library.)

MONSTERS OF MEN, the third and final book, just won its author the Carnegie Medal, the UK’s version of the Newbery Medal and a big, huge deal. (The first two books were short-listed.) While I have a minor bone to pick with this final book, I’m deeply happy that Ness has been honored for it.

The books are set on a planet that humans are beginning to colonize, despite the fact that it’s already home to the gentle, humanoid Spackle. (Avatarish, yes. More on that later.) The first group of humans finds immediately that something about the planet allows everyone to “hear” the thoughts in a man’s head, resulting in a cacophony quickly dubbed “Noise.”

Human women can hear the men’s Noise, but generate none of their own—a man’s thoughts and intentions are visible to everyone, and a woman’s to no one. (A friend of mine said: “And this differs from reality…how?”)

All Spackle have Noise, regardless of sex. It’s how they communicate.

Animals can communicate that way, too, although at an elementary level. Here’s how the first book begins:

The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. About anything.

“Need a poo, Todd.”

“Shut up, Manchee.”

“Poo. Poo, Todd.”
Ness has a wonderful time exploring the implications of Noise. Some human men become resentful and suspicious of the women, some women a tad contemptuous of the men. The lack of privacy drives some men nuts but inspires others to use Noise for personal power. Young people—who’ve known no other planet—accept Noise as the air they breathe.

The “Todd” whose dog needs a poo is just such a young person, our narrator for all of the first book and large parts of the other two. The first book follows him as he escapes his home village, called Prentisstown after its despotic Mayor, under a threat he doesn’t understand. As he flees through the woods, he meets Viola, the first female he’s ever known because Prentisstown’s women died mysteriously in his infancy. Viola is the vanguard of another wave of human settlers—she and her parents took off from the fleet on a scouting mission, and her parents were killed when their ship crash-landed. She’s already been threatened by Prentisstown’s madman minister, so she and Todd join forces, mutually suspicious.

The first book is a picaresque adventure, as Todd and Viola make their way to what they hope will be a safe haven, pursued for enigmatic reasons by the minister and, eventually, an entire army from Prentisstown. It’s also about the growing trust between Todd and Viola, and eventually their love for one another. In the second book, they are separated but still bonded, managing to survive the rival forces in yet another dictatorship.

In the third book, MONSTERS OF MEN, the humans are at war with the Spackle, who have had about enough of being subjugated and enslaved. Two factions battle within the human camp. Noise is explained, as well as the Spackle’s Zen-like relationship to it and their planet. It turns out Noise can be manipulated if a man gets it under control. We see the politics of the human factions but also among the Spackle, as narration flips from Todd to Viola to the freed Spackle slave 1017.

In this final book and as a whole, CHAOS WALKING is one boy’s coming-of age story but also a fascinating look at larger issues: why societies fester, why dictators thrive, why we conform, why we kill, why we go to war, and what will stop us. It sets up a series of almost unsolvable conundrums, in which everyone on every side has an unarguable reason to fight, and yet fighting will probably kill them all. There’s a cliffhanger about every ten pages. Don’t plan to sleep much until you finish it.

This last book does come perilously close to being just another Clueless European Colonist vs Noble Savage story, particularly because the Spackle are so psychically entwined with their planet. (They call themselves The Land.) It mostly escapes the yech factor because Noise is such an oddball concept and because the characters are so wonderfully complex and involving. Even the biggest, baddest villain has achingly sympathetic moments.

For me, the one problem with this book is the relationship between Todd and Viola. We keep being told that they will do anything to save each other, even if it means violating core ethics, and yet the bond between them is never as deeply felt as it is in the first book. This reads as an oversight rather than a deliberate plot point.

Fortunately, there’s so much going on and it’s all so much fun that the reader—this one, anyway—accepts what she’s told and gets on with it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Grueling Grilling

Every season has its tortured pleasures: Freezing the tomatoes in the fall, putting the lights on the maple tree for winter, the tax ordeal to usher in spring. For me, summer's annual Dreaded Good Time occurred yesterday, when the Brooklin Youth Corps (the summer work/self-esteem program of which I'm president) barbecued chicken for at least 350 of its neighbors and friends. This was our fifteenth attempt.

The Fourth of July barbecue has been a tradition for decades. When we moved here 27 years ago, the event was handled by the Grand Masters of public cooking: Louise and Rocky Rockwell, George and Georgene Allen, and a host of others. Not sure if there was an organization involved--they were an organization unto themselves. Many of them have moved on to the Bigger Supper now, or anyway have passed their aprons and charcoal briquettes to another generation.

When the BYC started up in 1997, the elementary school's PTF had been doing the honors but had requested relief for some reason. So we took the barbecue on--gulping, because it's such a tradition--and survived to grill another day. It's particularly harrowing in that the BYC season is but a week or two old at this point, so we're not quite the well-oiled machine we'll be in a couple more weeks.

Every year has its little jaw-clencher, usually related to the supplies order. Last year, the order came in with skinless, boneless chicken--it turned out scrumptious anyway because we have Paul Brayton the Master Griller on our team, but he almost had apoplexy worrying about it. This year, the order came in without plastic forks, and we didn't notice until a half-hour before the hoards arrived. This necessitated a frantic run down the street to the Brooklin General Store, which donated every plastic fork on the premises, including the ones they had in a drawer for their own customers.

The chief peculiarity of the event is its timing. The parade starts on the other end of town at 10 a.m., and the color guard makes it to the town green at 10:30, followed for the next half-hour by a succession of floats and antique cars and horses and bicycles and whatnot. The first year we did the barbecue, we figured nobody in their right minds would want barbecued chicken, corn, potato salad, cole slaw and watermelon before 11 a.m. Wrong. The minute people's feet hit the grass of the town green, their noses get a whiff and their mouths start watering. They walk right past the sponge toss and other kiddie games to get in line. Go figure.

We start selling at 10:30. We're sold out at noon.

Herewith, a few snapshots. Sorry I didn't get any of the parade or the other festivities. I was up to my elbows in cole slaw at the time.

The rush begins, and the brave BYCers begin an intense hour of slinging cole slaw. (The red t-shirts have "BYC--Brooklin Youth Corps" on the back, so they're advertising their services even when hunched over and weeding.)

BYC Steering Committee members Judith Fuller (foreground) and Sherry Streeter sell tickets to...

... This crowd. This is probably 10:45.  Note that some people are already eating.

Steering Committee member Ann Brayton, whose husband, Paul, is our grilling genius, cuts up watermelon. Ann's kids were in the BYC years ago, and now she's serving a life sentence on the steering committee.

Our coordinator, Doug Mangels (in red, naturally) gives Paul a break at the grill. This was fairly late in the game--at the start, the entire grill is covered with chicken. I actually don't know the guy in blue who's helping Doug, but I think he was the Braytons' house-guest. That's what happens to the unwary visitor so come here at your peril. (This message brought to you by the Greater Blue Hill Chamber of Commerce.)
My one non-chicken-related photo. It's the sponge-throwing booth run by the school. I love the reaction of the girl in the left background.

After the clean-up, we went to our own neighborhood barbecue. I drank three (light) beers and ate, I think, four desserts. Fueling up for next year.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Gardener's Moan

One of these things gave rise to the other:

I took these photos in early May, when I got out the dahlia tubers that had overwintered in luxury (paper bags in Rob's studio). Last summer's perfect growing season had given the plants, and therefore the tubers, a burst of energy the likes of which I can only vaguely remember from my teen years.  I ended up with 27 potted tubers, which would inevitably result in 27 potted plants, which would all require homes in the perennial garden.

Which had room for about twelve. 

I've pretty much exhausted the willing recipients of dahlia plants. (My friend Kim took two or three this year, but only because she was already hooked before I admitted that her husband had previously refused them.) So, even though I had a book to finish and Places to Go later in the month, I decided, naturally, to expand the back flowerbed by roughly two-thirds. (I like to think I wouldn't have done it if I'd known I was going to be felled by the Cold that Wouldn't Die two weeks later. But we'll never know for sure, will we?)

If this had just been a matter of digging up some sod, adding compost and lime, and sticking in some dahlias, it wouldn't have been so bad. But the complication is that I've run out of sunny spots for flowerbeds, so this new bed was half-shade and unsuitable for dahlias. I had shade plants that now were in the sun because of massive tree-cutting the winter before last, plus I had newish apprentice perennials that had proved unmanageable and had been sentenced to exile in the wilderness.

So, while I finished the first round of CONOR'S BANSHEE (emailed to agent and editor yesterday, thank you very much), I also was playing perennial pinball in the garden. Dug up euphorbia and campanula, put in dahlias. Transplanted blue-flag iris, put in dahlias. Also put dahlias in their usual place, except more crowded than usual. Bought some new astilbe and astrantia (shade-lovers) and stuck them partly in the new bed but partly in the old bed. From which I transplanted violets and some other thing whose name I can't remember.

Here (below) is where it stands at the moment. The new bed is in the back, definitely a work in progress because I'm leaving lots of space for growth and the crap soil needs several more applications of compost and seaweed. The new astilbes etc (plus some old astilbes which are in the lower left.

Hmm. This isn't sounding like as much of a horror show as it was. Did I mention that we've had a weird late bloom of black flies, coinciding with the regular bloom of mosquitoes? I have your attention. One of the little suckers found its way under my shirt and bit me just above the naval. The rest were content to swarm around waiting for my organic bug-repellent to wear off, which it does about once an hour.

There are other seasonal miracles. A leopard's bane, which flowers in late April, burst into life today and emitted one more perfect bloom, which we hadn't even seen coming. Maybe the rapture is due after all.

Not a miracle (except in the broadest possible sense) but the peony's looking good, too. Kinda makes it all worthwhile, doesn't it?

The knitting report: We don't get television once the trees leaf out, so I'm a little less productive. But I'm on the second sock of another cotton pair, which will make FIVE total since I started. And yet I am not bored.

The writing report: Bye-bye Conor, at least for the moment. A day off, maybe two. Then I'm either starting something new or refurbishing something old. Not sure which.