Our staff picks for July focus on favorite new fiction and authors at the library.
A number of authors have made recent middle grades debuts with stories of children contending with difficult situations through forming relationships with the natural world (Kate Allen’s The Line Tender, Sandy Stark-McGinnis’s Extraordinary Birds). Emma Otheguy’sSilver Meadows Summer is a particular gem that tells of eleven-year-old Carolina’s search for belonging when she moves with her family from Puerto Rico to upstate New York. Carolina tries to construct a sense of place by fixing up a cottage in the woods and drawing her surroundings, undulating between finding solace in the delights of this new natural landscape and aching for the flamboyán tree outside her old home. Like a steady chant throughout, Robert Frost’s iconic fork in the woods converses with Spanish poet Antonio Machado’s “Caminante, no hay camino,” reinforcing for Carolina that she can forge her own path by walking. A beautiful read for children navigating unfamiliar places or for all of us as we consider the experiences of many members of our community who are trying to recreate home in a new country.
Here are a handful of brand new or forthcoming YA titles that our Teen Librarian is looking forward to reading this summer:
For my LGBTQ+ Realistic Fiction shelf: Birthday by Meredith Russo
For anyone looking for a fun new graphic novel for middle school and teen readers, try The Breakaways, a story of a soccer team full of kids who are really not so good at soccer, but are learning to be good and supportive friends. It’s a funny and sweet story, and one that will appeal to any kids who love a good graphic novel about friendship.
For teen readers and fans of YA fiction, check out Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, a richly illustrated graphic novel. Freddy is desperately in love with her girlfriend Laura Dean, and very aware that Laura Dean is a really bad girlfriend. Freddy’s friends are increasingly uninterested in helping her to break up, since Freddy is pretty bad at committing to it. Friendships are central to this graphic novel, as is learning to recognize when you’re being a bad friend and need to do better. Mariko Tamaki’s graphic novels are thoughtfully written, and combined with Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s illustrations, the overall effect is delightful.
Anyone looking for a new science fiction book to jump into should check out LightFrom Other Starsby Erika Swyler. Nedda Pappas is one of four people living aboard the space shuttle Chawla, on a mission to save humanity by colonizing a distant planet. Chapters take readers back in time to 1986, when Nedda was an 11-year-old child growing up in Florida and thrilled to watch Challenger’s launch. In this story, Challenger’s explosion not only rocks her community, but also causes one of Nedda’s father’s inventions to trigger an unexpected series of events, altering time. In a book that could be all about fantastical scientific events, Swyler also writes rich relationships between Nedda and her family, and fellow space travelers.
If you’re looking for more reading perfect for summer escapist reading, try a romance!
While I don’t manage Portland Public Library’s fiction collection, I am an avid reader of the genre. One of my favorite things about being a librarian is reviewing trade publications for the latest novels. When I read a trade, I often have two tabs open: our ordering platform and my personal Goodreads account.
Audiobooks are the perfect complement to long car rides stuck in traffic on Route 1. I nabbed Daisy Jones & the Six as soon as it became available on CloudLibrary, and I was not disappointed. It boasts an uncomplicated story and Fleetwood Mac-level drama. Plus, the cast includes Jennifer Beals and Judy Greer, who are delightful narrators. I roared through this 10-hour audiobook in a few days.
Mona Awad’sBunnyis my top choice for beach reading this summer.“Dark Tales of College” is one of my favorite niche sub-genres. Bunny follows the exploits of one MFA student as she enters a strange rich-girl clique with a horrifying secret. This book sounds like it will be a combination of The Secret History, Heathers, and my friend’s erotica writing group; I can’t wait to read it!
The library’s hold lists show that a startling number of Portland readers are itching to get their hands on Ocean Vuong’s debut On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Colson Whitehead’s newest release The Nickel Boysthis summer. As the hold lists continue to grow, what do we read while we wait our turn?
There are a few hidden gems coming in late July that I plan to snatch up for those lazy lounging days. The first is Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. This historical fantasy is set in Mexico in the late 1920’s, post-revolution into the Jazz Age. Protagonist Casiopea, feeling stifled by small town life and working as her grandfather’s maid, opens a strange box in his room as an act of defiance and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death. The novel fuses fantasy, mythology, and historical fiction to tell the story of Casiopea’s odyssey across Mexico and into the Mayan underworld. A feisty female protagonist, an alluring god, underworld adventure, 1920’s Mexico…yes, please!
Next is The Escape Room by Megan Goldin. Summer is the perfect time for a psychological thriller, and this one promises not to disappoint. Picture a group of Wall Street elite believing they’re taking part in a team building exercise – an escape room challenge – only to realize that it’s not a game and their lives are on the line. And it all takes place in an elevator! This fast-paced, compulsive page turner sounds perfect for a day at the beach.
The day Mrs. Christie came toward me with that iron, I remembered what it was like…to want to protect the ones you love. More steam was coming off her body than the iron she held.
I’ve been there. Our bodies carry steam for us.
I kicked off summer reading with The Travelers, falling into Regina Porter’s writing and characters, so focused on their voices that I read almost the whole novel through on one of June’s rainy days off work. The Travelersis a page-turner full of secrets and truths with a captivating cast of parents and children, cousins and neighbors, friends and lovers: a world of gripping, intertwined histories and voices that collide and spark on the page, moving deftly through decades from Georgia to Vietnam to Portsmouth to New York to Berlin. Withhistorical photographs, anhomage to the aviator Bessie Coleman, and a deep dive into the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse, a historical novel about a genius mathematician and a mysterious theorem, is at the top of my hold list: “The first thing I remember being said of me with any consistency was that I was intelligent—and I recognized even then that it was a comment leveled at me with as much disapproval as admiration. Still, I never tried to hide or suppress my mind as some girls do, and thank God, because that would have been the beginning of the end.”
She sensed something murky was creeping towards her. It was a cruel thing, trying to sprout and find the light of day. It was truth. She wasn’t sure that she wanted it.
It is London, 1940. Juliet Armstrong (whose compelling backstory stands tall on its own even without the intrigue that quickly unfolds) toils away at the keyboard of an Imperial typewriter, transcribing recordings of Nazi sympathizers meeting in what they think is a safe place for folks of their ilk to further their political ends. Inside and outside of the Dolphin Square apartments where this bit of MI5 business is conducted, alliances are formed, dogs are encountered, adventures are had, blood is shed; and Miss Armstrong’s transcription, necessarily imperfect and inconclusive, goes on and on. If there is truth to be had, it curls elusively in the indecipherable spaces, the “inaudible gaps” where revelation is muted or overwhelmed by extraneous sound or obliterated by the occasional technical glitch.
Twists and turns are de rigueur in any Atkinson narrative, but anticipating the unexpected doesn’t get me anywhere close to predicting what’s ahead. Ever. She seems to write from an odd remove, but very much in the moment. That is certainly true of Transcription, this 2018 spy novel. The story begins with an ending, bends around to the beginning, leaps to a conclusion… make that conclusions, very much plural. The road to page 335 is littered with questions, all seeking truth, or maybe masking it. Or manufacturing it. Doubting it. Shrugging in the face of it, perhaps? Well, Juliet would approve of that summation. She and Atkinson both love a well-placed question mark, it seems. They are scattered across every page like bread crumbs in a fairy tale forest. In a story where characters morph and shift constantly, it only makes sense that even familiar names would be followed by question marks: “Juliet?” “Perry?” “Godfrey?” Is nothing certain? In fact, it is not.
The writing is strong, the story is gripping. It is on our New Books shelf just waiting to be scooped up for a lazy summer’s day read. But I warn you, you will find yourself thinking complicated thoughts in spite of the warm sun on your face, or the sound of soft rain on the porch roof. Lazy won’t cut it with a Kate Atkinson book, but she is worth the effort.
Our hearts are saying hi! June Staff Picks explore LGBTQ+ voices in music, poetry, art, and our nonfiction and fiction collections.
My June pick is the soundtrack for the original Broadway musical Fun Home, adapted from Alison Bechdel’s brilliant graphic memoir of the same name. Bechdel came out to her parents in college, and shortly after learned that her father was a closeted gay man. Fun Home explores these broad plot strokes with countless other precise and memorable details about Bechdel’s life. The stage production won five Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and is the first musical ever to feature a lesbian protagonist. Both the memoir and musical are complex stories, artfully told, but the soaring music and clever lyrics (by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron) make the soundtrack especially worth picking up. Check out the tracks “Changing My Major” for a sweet, comic take on first love, and “Ring of Keys” (quoted above) for an innocent, profound moment of discovery.
At the moment, I’m also relishing a collection of Molly Malone Cook’s photographs with accompanying text by her life partner, beloved poet Mary Oliver. What a delight to hold a book that softly glows with Oliver’s love as she speaks of Cook’s craft. The very title, Our World, brings forth the idea of two artists finding a way to approach the world we all share, but also a way to share it intimately as a pair. A reminder of all love should be allowed to be: simple, abiding, proud.
Sarah R’s Picks
On a recent and rare trip to the movies I got to enjoy Wild Nights With Emily, in which Molly Shannon gives life to Emily Dickinson’s lesser-known but delightfully gay side. Pulling from a collection of love letters, which history had straight-washed, the film sheds light on the (sometimes secretive) queer romances of great poets. Why not get whisked away by some verse from LGBTQ+ wordsmiths across the ages? Might as well begin with the many translations and unearthed fragments of Sappho, the Ancient Greek poet laureate for women who love women. Onward to the early twentieth century: spend some time with Maine-born bisexual icon and Pulitzer Prize for Poetry-winning Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose own sapphic correspondences can be found in a book of collected letters. For woke and hilarious poetry by a living, breathing, captivating writer, check out Nature Poem by Tommy Pico. The book-length poem muses on colonialism and pop culture among other things, and is full of cheeky remarks on dating as an Indigenous, queer city dweller: “I don’t like boys, men, or guys,” the protagonist states at the top of a page, later concluding with, “Men dancing is fine tho. / Or like maybe men in socks? I dunno.”
“In the beginning, there is no he. There is no she.”
In her 2015 novel She of the Mountains (our Reader’s Advisory June 10 Book of the Week) Vivek Shraya shares two tales of love: stories of the goddess Parvati and her beloved Shiva intertwine with those of two lovers in modern Canada. A lyricalexploration of the complexities of individuality, queerness, and understanding, and a powerful story about hearing your own voice over the din of the crowd, Shraya’s riveting work challenges homophobia and identity policing from all corners. This swift, heartfelt, thought-provoking read resonates.
Bonus picks: Vivek Shraya’s new nonfiction title I’m Afraid of Men looks at “how we might reimagine gender for the twenty-first century.”
In May our staff explores Nature and Science at the library—subjects that inspire wonder, attention, exploration, and care.
Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, alternating between reflections on place and language and regional glossaries of natural phenomena in the British Isles, is a transformative look at human relationships with nature. Macfarlane offers gems like blinter (“dazzle, but with a particular sense of cold dazzle: winter stars or ice splinters catching low midwinter sunlight”) alongside crittlecronks, fireflacht, and hundreds of other culturally specific words that fly off the tongue with delight to form visions. The foundation of Landmarks is one of reciprocity: our relationships with our landscapes are shaped by our language but, so too, our language is shaped by the earth, sea, sky, and land—by the particularities of the places where we rise, walk, settle, or gripe about geeve (“almost imperceptible fine rain that nevertheless gets you wet and cold quickly”). Within the treasure trove of reader-submitted words that end the book lies that which best sums up what happens when we attend to our natural surroundings:
cynefin place of belonging Welsh
If Landmarks inspires you to engage in the act of noticing, Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious is the ultimate field guide to alert the inquisitive investigator to signs of seasonal change and natural life in New England. Maybe after some trips out with Holland’s month-by-month guide, you’ll feel attentive and empowered enough to compose your own glossary of the land.
I’m grateful for the athletes and artists who capture the beauty of extreme mountain environments. Check out Meru and Free Solo, two breathtaking documentaries in the PPL collection, both co-directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. They could be seen as films about human accomplishments, but truly, they are odes to the mountains themselves, and to the unforgiving intensity of nature.
When I moved here, years ago, after a life in Chicago, St. Louis and Atlanta—places I loved for many reasons, yet steeped in billboards, developments, malls, concrete and traffic—Maine’s coasts and forests, mountains and lakes, wildlife and wetlands felt precious and rare.
My three picks are newer books that celebrate the ocean, relationships, and interconnectedness:
As an adult, I love children’s book author and illustrator Andrea Tsurumi’s candid, thoughtful gaze at life and her reflections in pen and ink and color and words. Her new picture book is a recent favorite, and, curious, I read about what inspired her. “Why did I make Crab Cake? A picture book about a cake-baking crab confronting a huge ecological disaster?” she reflects wryly, quietly. “As a kid, I [was often] overwhelmed by giant, complex and messy problems…but in the face of disaster, people can respond with love and action.”
Yvonne AdhiamboOwuor’s novel The Dragonfly Sea celebrates one woman’s relationship with the sea, her loved ones, and Pate, her island home off the Swahili Coast; in its lyricism Owuor’s work also carefully examines foreign states and the government in modern Kenya and their impacts on individuals, communities, and the environment. The story came to Owuor while “Loving the ocean, dreaming of its many lives…[and] the other question of what China’s return to Eastern Africa through the seas might imply for small intimate histories, and what the responses of the ‘ordinary people’ might be.” An engrossing, brilliant novel.
Susan Hand Shetterly’s The Seaweed Chronicles is a must-read about seaweed in Maine (and beyond) and the many lives tied up in it—from phytoplankton to eider ducks to our own.
PBS American Experience’s Rachel Carsonis a short and sweet introduction to the famous environmentalist. While it offers key biographical information around her education, career, and the writing of Silent Spring, much of the documentary is devoted to her time living on Southport Island. Her relationship with Dorothy Freeman takes center stage; while they were only neighbors during the summer, their relationship stretched throughout all seasons through their devotional letters. If you are a fan of Rachel Carson and enjoy stories of female friendship and romance – all set on the picturesque Maine seaside – this is a documentary for you.
Do you love nature but aren’t good at remembering the names of any flora or fauna? In The Sense of Wonder, A Celebration of Nature for Parents and Children, Rachel Carson says, don’t worry about it! “I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.” I loved this slim volume, with beautiful photos by Nick Kelsh, for its wisdom, encouragement and inspiration.
Cooking, gardening, home repair. Birding, rock hounding, star gazing. Trebuchets, parachutes, flight. At the heart of it all, there is science. There are explanations to be found, logic to be had. We can find them by moving backward through the known or forward into the surprising inevitable.
For me, understanding most often treads on the heels of words that I find beautiful, not a hallmark of most textbooks. This precondition made me a disappointment to my longsuffering science and math teachers, and proved detrimental to my grade point average.
Despite this, there are books that mark my place in comprehending small fractions of the world and the science that makes it tick. Exhibit A in my continuing education is a mercilessly truncated list of titles that have eased me happily into relationship with the natural world. What they have in common is that I engaged them willingly and they filled spaces in me that needed filling: gaps in knowledge, holes in holistic understanding, dark corners full of not much.
Exhibit B demonstrates that I am a sucker for the whimsical and possibly tasteless possibilities available. Just one title here, not because I don’t tread the path of silliness with embarrassing regularity, but because it is my most recent random find. It is light in tone and weight, informative and answers my favorite kind of question: the one I don’t know I have.
Does It Fart?: the Definitive Guide to Animal Flatulenceby Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti. I probably won’t be bulk buying it for gift giving, but it is fun. Now I can respond with authority when someone asks me if cockroaches fart. I won’t spoil it for you in case you want to read it. By all means, do read it.
My wish for everyone is that they find themselves comfortable with wondering how the natural world works. Not with knowing, but withwondering. And then I wish for them the time and will to assemble their own pile of books that make them forget that science isn’t their thing.
Each book takes me by the hand and delivers me to the next. Thank heaven for that. It means this merry chase can go on forever, tumbling headlong through a world that is, after all, all about science.