Thursday, July 24, 2008

souvenirs from a trip

One of the best things about Blue Hill, Maine, is the fantastic indie bookstore on Pleasant Street. I could move to this community for the bookstore alone! Okay, the lobster, coastline, and New England charm help. Blue Hill Books is in a cozy (former) house with an inviting front porch, where the store’s bestsellers are proudly announced. And, it's a really good, obviously independent list.

Once you enter, all vestiges of the building’s former function are stripped away, and, as Alice through the rabbit hole (apologies for the cheesy cliché), you’re standing in a clean, well-lighted space, filled with books. To me, that’s heaven. The store highlights for me are new releases, fiction, and local authors/interests up front, as well as the various nonfiction sections and the fabulous, cozy alcove devoted to children’s books, found on the lower level.

Naturally, I selected a few souvenirs from among the many books that caught my eye:

The Edge of Maine by Geoffrey Wolff
Part of the National Geographic Directions travel series written by leading literary authors, this book explores Down East Maine. I’ve never read a travel essay that more precisely describes the area where I was standing than this one. This series is so well done, especially matching author to subject, that I could—and hopefully will—make a challenge out of reading all of the titles in it. I have also read Oliver Sacks’ Oaxaca Journal and William Kittredge’s Southwestern Homelands.

Homer Price by Robert McCloskey
In this little family, we’re all nutters for Robert McCloskey. While I was pregnant with son number one, I purchased Make Way for Ducklings as "baby’s first book," and it has always been a favorite. Blueberries for Sal is, disputably, set on Blue Hill, the small mountain after which the town was named. I'm not here to argue the claim, but, make no mistake, One Morning in Maine, chronicling Sal’s further adventures, is set in nearby Bucks Harbor. Five years ago, when we visited the area, Mr. Bibliotonic and I rode the Brookville Loop on bike, making a pilgrimage to Condon’s Garage in Bucks Harbor. So it should follow, that five years later, the little Bibliotonics would be ready for McCloskey’s tales of a ten-year-old boy.

Slipknot by Linda Greenlaw
When we visited this area five years ago, I read Linda Greenlaw’s Lobster Chronicles, her memoir of being a Maine lobster fisher. Slipknot is the first book in a mystery series, also set in the region. I enjoyed Greenlaw’s storytelling in Lobster Chronicles and look forward to seeing how she handles fiction writing.

Monday, July 21, 2008

vacation reading

When I left off here, I was getting ready for a week in Maine (which was wonderful and restful and fun, btw). Packing reading material for any trip is a challenge. In typical fashion, I agonized over which books to bring, knowing full well that I’d bring too many.

Elsewhere I’d written this:
Books. Well certainly you need something for the plane and something to span the time until your return flight. Maybe there’s a long car ride from the airport to your destination so you’ll need something to read aloud to the driver. Mass-market mysteries are perfect for leaving in plane seat pockets if you finish in-flight or if the book is too unbearable stinky to finish. A book related to the place you’re visiting can be nice. Something literary can keep you busy for a while, especially if you like to re-read stunningly written passages. Story collections or essays serve up short pieces, ideal for short attention spans and for when you’re short on time. No hardcovers, as they’re too heavy in the carry-on and can be too unwieldy to hold.
Am I able to head my own advice? Hell, no.

I wanted this trip to be different from the trips where I bring more books than I can possibly read, what with sightseeing and general vacation busy-ness. Couldn't one book sustain and entertain from door to door? With this fresh idea in mind, I purchased Tim Weiner’s National Book Award-winning Legacy of Ashes. It's sort of a door-stopper at 812 pages, but it would last the week (and then some). Best, even in paperback, this fat book fit comfortably in my hand.

In the weeks leading up to my trip, I felt pretty good about knowing what I was going to read while on vacation. I could skip all the late-night drama over choosing books. Yet, as I packed, I must have picked up Legacy of Ashes, placed it in my carry-on, and pulled it out, at least five or six times. Ultimately, I just couldn’t commit to just one book. Nor could I leave a novel out of the mix of reading material. So what did I bring? An ARC, a slim novel, and some magazines in my carry-on, as well as a few mass markets (tucked into my checked luggage).

What did I read?

On my departing flight to Maine, as a warm-up to cracking a book's spine, I read the July Vogue. And, a week later, on the flight back to St. Paul, I read the August Vogue. As far as books go, I started Apologize Apologize, a first novel from Twelve (a Little Brown imprint) coming in April ’09. For some reason I expected the protagonist/narrator to be female so I was a little thrown when I realized, a few pages in, that the protagonist was very much male. Starting the book again helped. The first thirty-eight pages of this family drama drip with faux quirky and feel overwritten, but it’s promising. Something about the protagonist is very likeable.
I also had an opportunity to dip into Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. Just before my trip, my friend Caryl and I had a chance to pop into indie bookseller Magers & Quinn, where I spotted this title in a beautifully packaged edition from NYRB. I could not resist buying this novel that follows the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter, who spend the summer on a small island in the Gulf of Finland. The setting seemed to match the area in Maine where I would be spending vacation, and the story, told in vignettes, seemed heartwarming. In a word, perfect vacation reading.

We did a lot of driving on this trip. Well, I should say: my husband did a lot of driving. First, there was the five-hour drive from Boston to Blue Hill, Maine. Conversely, there was the return drive from Blue Hill to Boston. In between, we commuted from the inn, on one side of Blue Hill, where we were staying, to Gruesome Gables, my in-laws’ rental on the other side of Blue Hill. One day we drove over an hour, each way, to Acadia. All of which yielded ample car time during which I could read a book aloud to the driver.

Mr. Bibliotonic and I tend to gravitate toward mysteries when we read-aloud. Mysteries and thrillers give us a chance to visit favorite characters, as well as offer short chapters, which suit frequent interruptions from the junior Bibliotonics in the back seat. On this trip, we cozied up with Daniel Silva’s A Death in Vienna. Art restorer and ex-Mossad agent Gabiel Allon is summoned for another mission. This time in Vienna, under cover of authenticating a painting, Allon identifies a man in a photograph who may have been a key player in the Nazi’s Master Plan, as well as having brutalized Allon’s mother during the Death March from Auschwitz. The mystery is clever and suspenseful, successfully enriched by historical events.

Mr. Bibliotonic covered the boys’ bedtime reading with the second book in the Ranger’s Apprentice series, but I got to sneak in random tales from Homer Price. We loved Homer for his ingenuity, curiosity, and adventurous spirit, and we’re grateful to Robert McCloskey for the wonderful illustrations that impeccably capture the characters from Centerburg. I chose this book mostly for the local connection to the author. McCloskey lived in Blue Hill, Maine, not far from which is Bucks Harbor, the setting for One Morning in Maine. Homer Price’s Centerburg is probably found in Ohio, where McCloskey spent his formative years. There is, however, a universal appeal to the town. Substitute the small town or suburb where you grew up, and you’re likely to feel a connection.

As is typical, I packed too many books and could have used Nancy Pearl's advice for choosing a carry-on book, which came a moment too late for this trip. Next time!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

gone fishing

Tomorrow morning, I'm flying to Maine, with my little family, for a week. We hope to have quality family time that includes seeing siblings/in-laws and cousins, as well as eating our fair share of lobsters and blueberries. As I will be without a computer while away—horrors, I know—details about my trip will have to wait until my return.

It's almost midnight and there's still much to do, such as selecting my vacation reading.


Thursday, July 03, 2008


Few would argue against the wide-held belief that M.F.K. Fisher was the greatest food writer or that she effectively established the culinary essay as a genre.

I first encountered M.F.K. Fisher in 1989, while working as a professional bookseller. The bookstore where I was employed gave me a section to maintain: cookbooks. My first thought was that the assignment was a serious mistake—I didn't cook. Why should I be expected to become an expert on cookbooks if I didn't use them?

I'm here to tell you that, in any self-respecting independent bookstore, there's more to the cooking section than cookbooks. So I didn't cook, but I did love to eat, and the culinary essay subsection whetted my appetite for any author with the sort of descriptive powers to make me feel like I was eating a fine meal. Enter M.F.K. Fisher.

Shortly after a trip to Burgundy in 1998, I lost myself in Long Ago in France, her memoir of living in Dijon, which took me right back to the France I had just visited. Still I had not read her food writing, despite owning most of it. For years, The Art of Eating, the massive multiwork volume of M.F.K. Fisher's early food writing, has been taunting from the foodie shelves of my personal library. This morning, in honor of Fisher's birthday, I pulled down AoE and dipped into Consider the Oyster (1941):
There are three kinds of oyster-eaters: those loose-minded sports who will eat anything, hot, cold, thin, thick, dead or alive, as long as it is oyster; those who will eat them raw and only raw; and those who with equal severity will eat them cooked and no way other.
There are several things to do with oysters beside eat them, although amny people believe firmly in that as the most sensible course.
I'm hooked on her lavish descriptions of food, her presentation of the social, historical, cultural, and political aspects of food, as well as her personal experiences and observations.

Here is Garrison Keillor's very brief tribute from "The Writers Almanac":
It's the birthday of food writer M.F.K. Fisher, (books by this author) born Mary Frances Kennedy in Albion, Michigan (1908). She's the author of many books about food and eating, and best known for The Gastronomical Me (1943). During World War II, she published How to Cook a Wolf (1942), which suggested all kinds of ways people could eat well on food rations. She wrote, "When the wolf is at the door one should invite him in and have him for dinner.
You can read more about M.F.K. Fisher here and here.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Summer Reading

Summer is here! Pull out your flip-flops and swimsuits, the water sprinklers and popsicles.

Sure, the season officially began a few weeks ago—I recall something about a solstice—but I hardly noticed. Mid June, at high noon, here in Minnesota, we were still wearing jeans and cotton sweaters. Today, however, the thermometer hit 90 degrees F, and with it came the brilliant and intense sunlight only experienced during this time of year.

This kind of summer heat zaps my energy and my appetite. Consequently, I lighten the menu by preparing tossed green salads and keep the kitchen cool by grilling meat and vegetables outside. Wearing lightweight cotton skirts and sundresses helps me keep my cool throughout the day. Do you see where I am going with this?

I like my summer reading lite.

Certainly, summer reading means different things to different people. I have even heard of folks who dig into chunksters—such as Anna Karenina, The Stand, or Cryptonomicon—during the dog days. But not me. I like easily consumed—but high quality—literature. You know—the kind of reading that doesn’t make you break a sweat.

Some of my favorite summer reading memories happened during high school when, by day, I read and read and read. I read books to prepare myself for the upcoming debate season, which, the summer before my junior year found me gorging on criminal justice topics and developing an obsession for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and biographies about the Rosenbergs.

The summer before senior year, I ardently devoured classics in a last-ditch effort to be well-read by the time I started college. My American Studies literature teacher created a reading list for me that included Henry James, Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, among many others. Since none were required reading, it was a pleasure to work my way, methodically, through the list. That is, until the day I impulsively picked up a horror novel at the library and dove headlong into Stephen King’s backlist (as it existed in 1984). Carrie, Cujo, Pet Sematary, The Shining, Christine, Different Seasons were just a few of the titles that kept me company as I worshipped the sun, flipping from back to stomach with the same frequency as I flipped my Duran Duran cassettes from Side 1 to Side 2.

There was that summer after sophomore year of college, when I was sharing a house with friends, working in a bookstore, waiting to leave for my London JYA. That summer, I read biographies of rock musicians—Stardust, a mediocre bio about Davie Bowie—and purely escapist fiction—like Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles—stripped copies of which I would bring home from the bookstore.

In summers since, I have tried to recreate that same spirit of entertaining, carefree, non-taxing reading. And, since I'm not working this summer, I have an opportunity to read more than usual. Dipping into my archives for the past 12 years, I have some recommendations for perfect summer reading:

Biographies and memoirs—live someone else’s life or take inspiration from the subject’s great character and deeds
~ Katherine Lanpher’s Leap Days
~ Jill Ker Conway’s True North
~ Julia Child’s My Life in France
~ Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love
~ Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs
~ Elizabeth Arthur’s Looking for the Klondike Stone (about summer camp)
~ Katherine Graham's Personal History

Escape with a travel narrative
~ Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods (Appalachian Trail)
~ Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country (Australia)
~ Polly Evans’s It’s Not about the Tapas (Spain)
~ Linda Greenlaw’s The Lobster Chronicles (Maine)
~ Tim Moore’s French Revolutions (cycling in France during the le Tour)
~ Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita (Antarctica)
~ MFK Fisher’s Long Ago in France (Burgundy; read while there in '98)
~ Paul Theroux’s Pillars of Hercules (European Mediterranean and Northern Africa)

Food narratives stimulate the appetite when the rising mercury strips away hunger
~ Fuchsia Dunlop's Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper
~ Mark Kurlansky’s Big Oyster (microhistory w/marine biology and geography, too)
~ Steve Almond’s Candyfreak
~ Tony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour (also qualifies for travel narrative)
~ Calvin Trillin’s Feeding a Yen
~ Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking and More Home Cooking

Slim novels, under 300 pages, can be read quickly for a great sense of accomplishment
~ William Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader
~ Winifred Watson’ Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
~ Jonathan Lethem’s Girl in Landscape
~ Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea
~ Elinor Lipman’s The Inn at Lake Devine
~ Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado

Mysteries and thrillers set in exotic locales transport me
~ Lyn Hamilton’s archaeology series (Thai Amulet)
~ Donna Leon’s Venice-set Commissario Brunetti books
~ Julia Smith’s New Orleans mysteries
~ John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, and Bangkok Haunts
~ Nancy Fairbanks’s foodie mysteries (Perils of Paella, French Fried)
~ Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction
~ Katherine Neville’s The Eight

Short story and essay collections are the ultimate when I’m short on reading time—or attention span
~ Steven King’s Skeleton Crew
~ Sleepaway (essays about summer camp)
~ Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree
~ Shirley Jackson’s Just an Ordinary Day
everything by David Sedaris

I hope you find something new, old-but-never-read, or inspiring from this list.

What sort of books are part of your summer reading?