Marie’s Reading: “Country Fare: Reminiscences & Recipes from a Maine Childhood” by Esther Wood

51qX5Ku8rDL.SR160,240_BG243,243,243This is a collection of essays all about a childhood in Maine, and the food that went with it, back at the turn of the 20th century.

Esther Wood was born in Blue Hill, Maine in 1905, and grew up at Friend’s Corner with lots of family nearby.  She wrote these pieces mostly in the 1950’s and 1960’s, looking back at her youth in rural Maine.

This is a charming, affectionate look at Wood’s family, centered around the cooking they did and the food they enjoyed.  It’s also quite instructive when it comes to the culinary and social history of Maine.  Wood was an historian and teacher herself, and she had an eye for fascinating historical detail.

Wood’s family comes alive in these anecdotes–her Aunt Fan, who always introduced something new and different to the holiday table; her grandfather, who loved strawberries and took her berrying in the summer; her mother and father, who often bickered (affectionately?) back and forth about everything from how to wash the stove to what to put in mincemeat.

If you enjoy memoirs about rural living, food, and Maine in particular, give Wood’s work a look!  You can access some of her newspaper articles online, like this one from the Lewiston Evening Journal in 1963: “‘After School’ Was Exciting, Happy Time.


Marie’s Reading: “Rules for Visiting” by Jessica Francis Kane

rules for visitingMay Attaway has just turned forty, and most of her life revolves around her gardening job at the local university.  When she gets some time off, she decides to spend it visiting old friends that she’s lost touch with over the years.  As she puts it, “It seems to me that your oldest friends can offer a glimpse of who you were from a time before you had a sense of yourself and that’s what I’m after.”

May is private, prickly, and solitary, but not unkind.  She just loves and understands plants more than people, understandably.  Her backstory and family life is revealed bit by bit.  As this is narrated in the first person, May is up-front about the fact that she’s only sharing peeks.  She’s where she is in life for many different reasons, and it feels real and true that she’d want to find herself again through old friends.

I enjoyed how much of May’s passion for trees is explored in the book.  There’s a great, beautiful scene with an ancient yew (and a good friend), toward the end of the story.  May’s love and respect for plants is lovely to read about.  All of the references are nicely done–there’s a lot about classical literature, too.  In all, it’s time well-spent in someone else’s head–May is so observant and detail-oriented!

This is a quiet, funny, charming read about friendship and growth.  A nice fit for a time of year when a lot of us do our visiting with old friends and new.


December Staff Picks

New Staff Picks


Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton
We humans don’t deserve the love of our domesticated animal companions, was all I could think while reading this poignant, hilarious, and insightful novel.  Our narrator is a domesticated crow named S.T.  He lived in Seattle with his owner Big Jim, until the day Big Jim (and all the other humans) fell victim to a mysterious sickness that turned them into mindless, rotting lumps.  S.T. is determined to find out if there are any humans (or MoFos, as he calls them) still left, and to help rescue other abandoned domesticated animals along the way.  The depiction of the ultimate interconnectedness of all beings is beautiful.  The natural world has several communication networks–Aura for birds and animals; Echo for ocean dwellers; the Web, made up of the complex root systems of the underground.  There’s so much more to the world than humans see or recognize.

Marie’s Favorites of 2019

Wow, is it really time for the Best of 2019 list already?  I’m checking out books today with a due date of New Year’s Eve, so I guess it must be that time again.

And let’s be real, I’m not going to finish anything I’m currently reading in two weeks.  I should give Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann an honorable mention.  No way it’ll be done this year, but I am loving it!

Looking over my favorites this year, I see a lot of my usual–some creepy, some funny, some family sagas, some twisty thrillers, a cookbook.  I for sure didn’t branch out much genre-wise, and many of the authors I’ve listed are old favorites.

Here’s to a wonderful close to 2019, and a happy, healthy 2020.

And for fun, here’s my Books of 2019 Goodreads summary:

Marie’s Favorites of 2019

someon like meSomeone Like Me by M.R. Carey

Social Creature by Tara Burton

Looker by Laura Sims

1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart

1861Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

The Invited by Jennifer McMahon

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames

91RzlpsnrjLMidnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger

Growing Things and Other Stories by Paul Tremblay

Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Institute by Stephen King

5127Qabx6wL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead


Marie’s Reading: “Sag Harbor” by Colson Whitehead

SagHarborNovelBenjamin recalls the summer of 1985 in the black vacation community of Sag Harbor.  That year he was fifteen, he had his first summer job, and he was dealing with upheaval at home.  The novel covers that summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, all the ups and downs and adventures and transformative experiences.

Whitehead’s writing is so textured and evocative, it’s really a joy to read.  His description, whether it’s of a day at the beach, a fistfight, canned soup, the intricacies of a group of friends growing older, or Coke Classic, they’re all so rich and layered.

The story is based on Whitehead’s own experiences, and it shows in the warmth and intimacy and affection of the storytelling.  It’s hilarious, too, and the writing is so beautifully evocative of a very specific time and place.  Whitehead’s got a real gift for detailed observation.

Sag Harbor is a glimpse into a life and lived experience that I’ll never know as a white New Englander, but it’s insight that I really appreciate having.  On top of that it’s just a really great What Happened That Summer narrative with a fantastic narrator and wonderful writing.


Ken’s Reading: “Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad” by Wendy Elliott

gritGrit and Grace in a World Gone Mad: Humanitarianism in Talas, Turkey, 1908 – 1923 by author Wendy Elliott came to my attention because of a man named James Perry, who was from my hometown on the coast of Maine. Perry was murdered by Turkish brigands in 1920 while on duty with the YMCA, leading a convoy to bring supplies to the starving of Armenia and Syria. His death is noted in just one paragraph of the tale related by Grit and Grace; just one note in a catalog of chaos.

I had thought the book was going to be about missionaries spreading Christianity in Turkey; instead, it is a narrative of the horrors and genocide and calamities of the beautiful Anatolian peninsula and the founding of the Republic of Turkey. It is a story of a particular place at a very particular time, with resolute main characters, which illuminates the wider history of a continent and an era.

Our entry into this “world gone mad” is through the clear writing and narrative style
of Wendy Elliott, and her chosen heroine, Susan Wealthy Orvis, of Dubuque, Iowa. “Susan Wealthy Orvis loved her name,” Elliott notes for us in her spare and clear style.

The book begins with a succinct history of the Young Turk revolution of 1908 and then looks at the missionaries who were introduced into a world of chaos, armed only with a “a firm belief that the best way to evangelize the world was through education, health care, and leading by example.” The mission, with a limited budget and staff, built schools and hospitals and began to educate not only boys but girls and women as well. The staff were also protected to some extent by the high regard for the educated Westerners among the population and officials. Not so lucky were native Christians, in a world of “growing violence in eastern Anatolia against Christian Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks.”

The staff worked to build their mission, scrupulously obeying the official restrictions on
evangelizing. In addition to health and education, the mission tried to alleviate some of the poverty of local families by introducing home skills such as sewing and cooking. Their success in building relationships and a community in Talas forms an earnest background for the growing madness in Turkey. But there are very few chapters on the initial success and ostensible mission of the staff. As one Turk tried to warn an Armenian friend, “ A new storm is about to break upon the Armenians, and it will exceed anything that has happened before. You know I like you, so I hope you will save yourself. . . . Go to Mersine, get on a steamship, and escape to Europe.”
Elliott methodically sets the stage and delineates the organized goals and efforts of the Ottoman government. Finally the day came in August, 1915, when the orders arrived that all Armenians in Talas were to be deported. The harrowing responsibility of choosing who to save began for the missionaries. “‘Mothers and fathers came pleading for us to save their daughters from the fate of so many, many girls,’ said Stella. ‘One beautiful girl who had graduated just the year before, had been threatened by a government official and told that if she went out with her people on the road to Aleppo [Aleppo was a three or four week journey; many deportees were never seen again] she would be captured. We did not dare to take her into the school, for if we did this under the eyes of the government, we felt sure we would lose everything — the girls and women whom
we already had under our protection. So we had to refuse and to tell her to go bravely, trusting God, and be ready to accept Him whatever came.’ The local government did allow the missionaries to accept children whose parents were Protestant, Catholic, or military personnel. As the schools’ principals, Stella and Henry tried to rescue as many as possible. ‘The days of choosing and deciding which ones could be taken were hard, hard days,’ said Theda [the mission’s nurse].”
“The killings, kidnappings, deportations, and disrupted lives — it was all true. . . . ‘we were powerless to help them,’” continued another of the missionaries. The mission was closed in 1917 when America declared war on Germany, an ally of the Ottoman government.
The second part of the saga began when Susan Wealthy Orvis volunteered to serve in a
missionary center in Alexandropol, Russia, near the northern border with Turkey, just in time for the Russian Revolution. Susan arrived in Moscow via the Trans-Siberian Railroad three days after the fighting had ended. “Evidence of the carnage was everywhere as they made their way through the city. . . . ‘House walls scarred with bullet marks or smashed by shell explosions; buildings charred and gutted from fire; snow soaked with blood in the streets.’” Susan and her colleagues made it once more to the Turkish border and set up a hospital, industries, and an orphanage, but were once more driven out by the dire and chaotic conditions, and caught the last train out.

She returned, after the war, in the spring of 1919 with the first relief train heading into the region. “It takes the breath away,” reported the Missionary Herald. “To enter a land so torn by war; depopulated, desolate; with towns and villages demolished, fields lying untilled, work animals destroyed; with the dreadful wreckage of battles and massacres, deportation and pillage visible on every hand, is enough to dismay the stoutest heart. . . . To seek to repatriate hundreds of thousands of refugees, to provide care for the destitute thousands of orphans, to establish hospitals and to set in operation medical service for all the diseased and debilitated sufferers from cruelty and want, to inspire hope, and rouse to renewed action those who have sunk into despair, and to do this over vast areas of country where means of transportation, always limited, have now broken down, and where bands of freebooters and brigands lurk along the highways of travel, is a task that might well seem impossible.”
Any portion of the tale told in Grit and Grace could be expanded to fill another book. The saga was not over when World War I came to an end. The burning of Smyrna was yet to occur; the final expulsion of Christians from Turkey was ordered in November, 1922. There were still 3,000 orphans (of the original 10,000 the missionaries found on their return in 1919), and they all needed transportation south into Syria and Lebanon. Wendy Elliott’s work to catalog, illuminate, and make a cohesive narrative out of the chaos is a remarkable achievement and a truly compelling read.


Marie’s Reading: “All This Could Be Yours” by Jami Attenberg

AttenbergVictor, the nasty old patriarch of the Tuchman clan, is on his deathbed in a New Orleans hospital.  His wife and children all try to make peace with their relationships in the face of his coming death.

The action of the story takes place over a day and a half after Victor collapses.  His wife Barbra reflects on her past and marriage as she walks the hospital hallways.  Alexa, his daughter, is determined to figure out what sort of criminal mischief her father was up to all her life, because she’s convinced there was a lot, and why on earth her mother stayed with him.  Her brother Gary is in L.A., attempting to get his career back on track, and can’t quite get up the gumption to make his way to his family.  Twyla, Gary’s wife, is home in New Orleans, also grappling with her relationship to the Tuchman family.

Other characters slip in and out of the narrative as well, including ferry operators, waiters, and sales clerks.  Each one has their own history and interior life, but, as with the primary characters, none of them ever learn one another’s stories.  New Orleans on a crushingly hot day and night makes for a great oppressive backdrop to the story.

Attenberg doesn’t write about particularly nice or great people, but she sure writes intriguing and believable people.  And she’s just so observant and insightful and hilarious.  All This Could Be Yours is an uncomfortably good look at how one toxic, abusive person affects the lives of everyone around them, as well as how rare it is to actually know another person’s story and history.

If you enjoy character-driven stories about dysfunctional families that are funny and engaging all the same, you should take a look!


November Staff Picks

New Staff Picks


City on the Penobscot: A Comprehensive History by Trudy Scee
Published in 2010, I understand that this is the first comprehensive history book about Bangor, from European settlement to present.  Bangor is undoubtedly a city with rich history, and is an important place for any Maine historian to be familiar with.
–Wyatt B.

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys
In Spain during the 1950’s, in the aftermath of Spain’s civil war, and during General Franco’s 36 year dictatorship, we meet Anna whose family lives in fear for many reasons and Daniel, an american boy from an oil family in Texas whose paths cross. We learn of so many atrocities committed under Franco’s dictatorship, from murder, to torture and displacement of families and stolen and sold babies. Everyone is keeping secrets of their own and so many are connected. They are all afraid, but there is a truth to be shared. The aftermath of all of this is still going on in Spain. This is so sad and powerful and a piece of history I never knew. Another must read by Ruta Sepetys!
–Miss Amy

Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett
I can’t believe I’ve never read Jewett’s work before!  Country of the Pointed Firs, all about the doings and personalities of those who live in and visit a fishing village in Maine, is full of vibrant characters and a wonderful sense of place.

Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad by Wendy Elliott
This book came to my attention because of a man named James Perry, who was from my hometown on the coast of Maine. Perry was murdered by Turkish brigands in 1920 while on duty with the YMCA, leading a convoy to bring supplies to the starving of Armenia and Syria. His death is noted in just one paragraph of the tale related by Grit and Grace; just one note in a catalog of chaos.

I had thought the book was going to be about missionaries spreading Christianity in Turkey; instead, it is a narrative of the horrors and genocide and calamities of the beautiful Anatolian peninsula and the founding of the Republic of Turkey. It is a story of a particular place at a very particular time, with resolute main characters, which illuminates the wider history of a continent and an era. Our entry into this “world gone mad” is through the clear writing and narrative style of Wendy Elliott, and her chosen heroine, Susan Wealthy Orvis, of  Dubuque, Iowa.


Marie’s Reading: “An Almost Perfect Christmas” by Nina Stibbe

Yeah, I know it’s only November.  Nope, I don’t care.  Because frankly:

Stibbe’s essays about Christmas are charming and funny, filled with affection for the general insanity of the festive season.  She talks about how, as a kid, she was obsessed with visiting Santa because she was convinced they might be her absent father.  There’s an essay devoted to her mother’s inability to roast a turkey that isn’t dry, despite decades of effort.

One of my favorites was the essay about the Christmas tree.   Stibbe bought a very scraggly little tree one year, much to the disappointment of her children.  Stibbe’s observational humor is wonderful, as is her ability to choose the perfect illustrative details and make such excellent characterizations.  It’s a charming essay and a love letter to a little Charlie Brown tree.

My other favorite was about family Christmases at her childhood home as an adult.  Stibbe describes how she and her grown siblings would all come back to their mother and stepfather’s house for the holiday, falling immediately into familiar lines and routines–particularly the traditional trip to the pub.  And somehow, these imperfect visits seem to be the most Christmassy.

Those who enjoy the holidays might want to pick this up–it’s chock-full of very useful and funny advice about gift-giving (gift cards are not Christmas), about the annual Christmas letter (balance the good and the bad so you don’t come off as whiny or bragging), and about how to be both guest and host (special attention given to heating).  Charming and fun and full of cheer, particularly for those of us who simply cannot wait another six weeks.