In December our library staff writes about a year of reading and a few favorites, old and new, that have stuck out for them lately. Here you’ll find trains and dragons, brave voices and new beginnings, paintbrushes and letters, friendships and journeys, and all sorts of the other good things you can discover at the library any day of the year you come to explore. As always, thank you for reading, and if you’re looking for more books, be in touch!
“He called out again, ‘Goodnight, Enda,’ then turned the wheel hard to the right and started off down the track of the moonlit, homing lane.”
In a tiny guest room wedged under the eaves of our little house, we tuck in the occasional visitor. Because I feel unease when sleeping away from home I aim to provide my minimalist notion of hospitality for those similarly afflicted: a fat comforter parked at the foot of the bed, a choice of pillows from envelope thin to Jet-Puffed plump, a nightstand with one drawer, a clock and a lamp. If a sleepover insomniac feels curious, there is the drawer to explore. Therein they will find two books, one a worn paperback copy of The All of Itby Jeannette Haien. With corners rounded to softness, wide margins to let the story breathe, its 145 pages will make wakefulness worthwhile. It is perfectly proportioned for holding while supine, slight enough to tumble gently to the covers if sleep overtakes.
The All of It encompasses life’s sorrow and gladness, wildness and wariness, judgement and forgiveness, endings and beginnings… in fact, the all of it, including a generous serving of salmon fishing. I love the beauty of its Irish-flavored cadence, the grip of main character Enda’s extraordinary and simple story, irresistibly evocative in the telling. Words to describe it? I steal “gem” and “unpretentious” and “perfection” from the reviewers; and purloin a phrase from the book itself: “soft, companionable, lyrical.” To that I will add a sigh of deep satisfaction, straight from my heart.
If you’re still awake, reach back in the drawer. You’ll have in hand a nearly wordless picture book that delights me every time I look at it, Good Dog, Carlby Alexandra Day. A respectable appearing woman sets off to do errands, leaving her crib-bound child in the capable paws of Carl, a Rottweiler whose abilities and sense of adventure make him the babysitter children, parents and grandparents alike will want on speed dial. No reading specs required for this one, making it ideal for perusal in bed. It has a happy ending. Sleep will soon follow.
I absolutely love to take the train across this vast and diverse country of ours. Train I Ride, by Paul Mosier, reminds me to hope. To have hope for the future, no matter what today may bring. Hope for myself, no matter the mistakes of the past. Hope for my daughter, and all the children of today, that they will be brave enough to keep trying to make the world a better place, even in the face of all the destruction adults have wrought. Rydr is brave and bold and real and full of faults just like us. And yet she perseveres. She rides the train to the end of the line, unsure of what might be waiting for her, and learns that the journey is what prepares us for what comes next.
One inspiring book I read this year is Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo by Zlata Filipović. She chronicles her day-to-day life during the Yugoslav war in the 1990s. I am inspired by her spirit and her bravery.
“This is an awful thing that’s happened to you, but it’s also presenting you with a rare opportunity. You have the chance to rebuild yourself from the ground up, to make a completely fresh start.”
I recently finished ReStart by Gordan Korman. It is a middle-grade novel about second chances. Chase wakes up from a coma after falling off the roof of his house (under mysterious circumstances!) to discover that he doesn’t know anything about himself, who his parents are or anything at all. He quickly begins to discover that he was mostly recently the biggest bully in his school. People cower in fear of him, and from time to time, Chase has memories that come back to him of the things that he did. He doesn’t like who he used to be, and so he begins life anew.
ReStart is a real feel-good novel (growth comes through mistakes made along the way) that will leave you feeling that it’s possible to do the right thing, while at the same time you’re reading a book you just. can’t. put. DOWN!
“I remember being born. In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the heart’s staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion. Sounds enfolded me, and I was safe.”
I’ve also been listening to the audio version of Seraphina, a YA novel by Rachel Hartman. The narrator has the most amazing English accent that somehow brings together the lavish, grand world of Goredd, with dragons masquerading as humans and lush world-building filled with delicious foods, music, clothing in a world only forty years out of a vicious and cruel civil war between the dragons and humans. Don’t miss this beautiful book, the beginning of a series which also includes Shadow Scaleand Tess of the Road. Whether you read or listen, you are in for a marvelous treat!
“She still held sorrows, but she was not made of them. Her life was not a tragedy. It was a history, and it was hers.”
I initially picked up Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road because I liked the cover (sometimes you can judge!) and because “girl dresses up as a boy and runs away” is a trope that will catch my attention every time. I had not yet read Seraphina and Shadow Scale, Hartman’s original two novels set in the world of Goredd, and so had no idea what I was getting into. You don’t need to read the duology to understand this companion novel, however—set 5 years after the concluding events of Shadow Scale, Tess’ world is built clearly through the perspective of her life story, and it’s easy to follow.
Tess is a strong and stubborn character, with a myriad of flaws and a traumatic backstory that we don’t learn the full extent of until close to the end of the book. Yes, there are dragons, and lizard-people, and other fantasy elements — but the real magic of this book is the journey Tess takes (both externally and internally) to find her place in the world. Hartman deals excellently with issues of underage pregnancy, sex-and-body-shaming families and cultures, alcohol use as a coping mechanism, coercive sex, coping with trauma, cultures with varying gender roles and expectations, disability…the list goes on, but Tess does not at all feel “preachy”–these things are simply facts of life for Tess, who has to make sense of them and herself in order to continue existing in the world. Tess is lovable in her flaws, her despair and anger and (eventual) joy, and her attempts to dissociate herself from traumatic memories are presented realistically and are relatable. When she finally does have the strength to deal with her past, there is no magical cure-all that makes everything “all better,” but instead there’s an acknowledgement that life, recovery, and hope are things we must work on in order to survive: “Maybe the world isn’t really different, but I am different, and I am in the world.”
I cannot stop thinking about this book and its message that life is, for all of us, a daily decision to continue to “walk on” through our histories and struggles. Highly recommended to anyone who has ever felt a little lost, a little hurt, and needs a little inspiration to remind themselves that sometimes just being is enough.
I read The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, earlier this year and I really enjoyed it. I thought it was easy to read yet it really made me think—also, it had very well-written dialogue!
Hundreds of books pass through my hands every week. Some I forget instantly. Others I can’t stop thinking about. Draw Your Day: An Inspiring Guide to Keeping a Sketch Journalwas one of the ones I’ve remembered. Just the brief look I had has already inspired me to begin sketching and journaling a little every day. I can’t wait for somebody to return it so I can peruse it more slowly. Get on the hold list for this book and get inspired!
Circe by Madeline Miller is an intelligent and beautifully written book about love, family, magic, adventure, and monsters, with a strong female character at the heart of it all. It’s a lovely retelling of Greek Mythology which is compelling that I haven’t stopped thinking about since I devoured it last spring. Miller is definitely a writer to watch, and I can’t wait for her next venture!
As temperatures drop and daylight wanes, I’m really feeling the vibe of Northern Hospitality with the Portland Hunt + Alpine Club. In addition to recipes for craft cocktails and Scandinavian bites that you can find at Andrew and Briana Volk’s restaurant in downtown Portland, the book has features on shucking oysters, ice fishing, and building bonfires that really evoke the feeling of Maine with a sense of wonder.
The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein—literally a bright light in the darkness of winter, beautifully imagined Nordic landscapes and wonderfully eccentric characters, this novel has been adapted to a film which will premiere at Sundance and star Jenny Slate, Zach Galifinakis, and Gillian Anderson. A perfect read for these long dark days, full of sunlight and joy. It inspired me to get out and play in the snow!
“Perhaps if we could have arrange our lives as we would have chosen—in daily association—we might have defeated ourselves by so doing, for it may well be that enforced separation, and the necessity of writing instead of speaking, have contributed to the depth of love and understanding that have developed,” Rachel Carson writes to her beloved friend in a letter excerpted in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman. And once again, I find myself nodding along to Carson’s intuitive words; my friends who know me best are those who are scattered across the country and receive my letters on the regular, not those whom I see every day. And might it perhaps be true that if we arranged our lives as we wished, we’d miss out on quite a bit that enriches our paths?
The friendship between Carson and Freeman began by chance and developed into an unabashedly loving and frenetic correspondence that traces the years 1952 to 1964 across postal routes, following everyday details, from blueberry picking to canine shenanigans, as well as the personal side of Carson’s writing, launch to success, and final illness. Perhaps Carson’s insight is a testament to the very reason for writing at all: that we often bare our truest selves more easily on the page than in person. An enveloping read for those who harbor a fondness for the days of more frequent snail mail or just want to lose themselves in a double-sided narrative infused with affection.
Sticking a letter in the mailbox is, for me, a kind of wish or prayer—a hand out in the universe asking to connect. What’s more inspiring than one wish? Myriad wishes expressed around the world in different ways, as beautifully portrayed by Roseanne Thong’s Wish. The picture book pairs verse with prose explanations of wishing traditions across the globe, and Kleven’s mixed media illustrations carry with them the joys and colors of diversity. Whether we’re pressing lucky peacock feathers, slipping dreams between wall cracks, wishing on weasels, or lobbing coins, we share in a worldwide culture that, no matter the challenges we perceive, persists in finding creative ways to launch our prayers.
Life Among Giants by Bill Roorbach was the first book I read this year and I’ve thought about this novel so many times this year, including while driving the Merritt Parkway and while eating mushroom soup, and I keep coming back to the same question, is it a mystery or is it a story about the complexities of human love? Not that those are mutually exclusive, but the characters, their relationships, and landscapes around them are so vivid that I forget that the root of the novel is a murder mystery.
Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant—as The New York Times Book Review put it: “Dunant transforms the black-hearted Borgias and the conniving courtiers and cardinals of Renaissance Europe into fully rounded characters, brimming with life and lust.”
Emily C’s Picks
The end of the year always has me thinking of the “Best Of” the year’s books I’ve read, and which favorites I discovered. I encountered new authors who wrote works I loved, like Rakesh Satyal, whose novel No One Can Pronounce My Name caught my eye on an LGBTQ+ display at the library. I was delighted to listen to new audiobooks by favorite authors, like Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, which drew me in with its world of espionage during WWII and narrator Fenella Woolgar’s wry asides. I was inspired and moved by the words of Rebecca Traister in Good and Mad, and will be buying a big stack for upcoming holiday gifting. And my kids delighted in taking out huge stacks of picture books, discovering favorites to read over and over, like The Princess in Blackand Lumberjanes, and being especially excited to discover audiobooks to pair with the stories. I look forward to sharing these favorites and more with friends and family in the coming weeks, and with readers in the library next time I’m on the desk!
Nando Parrado was a shy 22-year-old when the plane carrying his rugby team crashed in the Andes in 1972. He emerged as an unexpected leader, urging his friends to stay alive at any cost, and to coordinate their own rescue.
“Challenging the mountains was the only future this place would allow me, and so, with a sense of grim resolve that was now more ferociously entrenched than ever before, I accepted…that I would never stop fighting to leave this place, certain the effort would kill me, but frantic to start the climb.”
Parrado and a fellow teammate trekked 45 miles through the Andes in 10 days, wearing only street clothes and rugby cleats, before reaching civilization. While Parrado was responsible for saving many lives, his heroics are glossed over in favor of eloquent reflection in his astonishing memoir, Miracle in the Andes.
Written more than thirty years after the disaster, Miracle in the Andes is an inimitable reflection. Parrado describes unimaginable pain and loss with grace, balancing the spiritual with the corporeal, never playing up the salacious details or his own achievements. If anything shines through it is his humility– he writes that everyone has “their Andes,” their own seemingly insurmountable trials.
“As we used to say in the mountains, ‘Breathe. Breathe again. With every breath, you are alive.” After all these years, this is still the best advice I can give you: savor your existence. Live every moment. Do not waste a breath.”
In these days of bright screen after screen, settling in to the papery depths of a book feels like rest for my eyes, and my mind profoundly enjoys one author and one story for a time, a welcome respite from clicking and scrolling. My favorite fiction in 2018 had characters who hooked me, ideas, plots, imagination and world-building that gripped me, and sheer invention and heart that drew me in to tales riddled with ghosts, gods, spaceships and cities, islands, plagues, falcons and foxes, lovers and the dead—stories of violence, loss, end times, love, identity, tenderness, connection, life. Fantastical or realistic, these aren’t escapist stories: they all point to the world we live in and re-imagine its troubles, heroes, and possibilities anew.
The 1968 Project aims to highlight some of the historic events of the year. From protests and famous battles to chart-topping popular hits and box office smashing film, 1968 was a huge historical year with reverberations that we still feel today. The 1968 Project looks to grab snippets of these events on a monthly basis and list them here with links for further exploration.
A Wizard of Earthsea is first published by Ursala Le Guin, which cemented her place in the science fiction genre.
This is the front cover art for the book A Wizard of Earthsea written by Ursula K. Le Guin. The book cover art copyright is believed to belong to the publisher, Parnassus Press, or the cover artist.
The twelfth album by Glen Campbell, Wichita Lineman, is released. It would later become the 1969 album of the year.
November 5th Shirley Chisholm becomes the first African American woman to be elected to the United States Congress.
Shirley Chisholm on the presidential campaign trail of 1972.
Richard M. Nixon, the former U.S. Vice-President and Republican Party nominee is elected President of the United States, defeating Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey and Independent Party candidate George C. Wallace.
November 6th Head, the psychedelic movie by the band, The Monkees, is released in theaters.
The film poster for Head.
The last member of the Great Train Robbery of August 8th, 1963, Bruce Reynolds is finally captured by Scotland Yard.
The U.S. Supreme Court issues a 9-0 ruling in the Epperson v. Arkansas case. In 1928, the state of Arkansas declared the teaching of evolution to be illegal. The U.S. Supreme court invalidated that statute, stating that the state had violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Yale University announces that it will admit women students for the first time in its history, beggining with the 1969-1970 school year.
November 17th Mervyn Peake, British author and illustrator, passes away in a care home at the age of 57 after battling with health problems for close to a decade.
November 20th Glen Campbell wins Male Vocalist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year at the 2nd Annual Country Music Association Awards. Tammy Wynette wins Female Vocalist of the Year.
On this day, 78 coal miners were killed in the Number 9 mine in Mannington, West Virginia, owned by the Consolidation Coal Company. After days of trying to rescue the trapped minors, a decision was made on November 30th, to seal the mines due to gas leaks and fires, entombing the men forever in the mines.
Commonly referred to as the “White Album,” The Beatles release their double length, self-titled album.
The first ever interracial kiss on television is shown an episode of Star Trek. The kiss occurs between white actor William Shatner (Captain Kirk) and black actress Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Uhura).
The film, Faces, is released in theaters.
Most famous for his book about a Lithuanian immigrant family in Chicago working in the meat packing industry, Upton Sinclair passes away at age 90. While speaking about his book, The Jungle, Sinclair stated, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” His book would later be credited as part of the reason for the creation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
November 26th After gaining 3,187 yards and scoring 21 touchdowns for the University of Southern California during the 1968 season, running back O.J. Simpson wins the Heisman Trophy by the widest margin in Heisman history.
Children’s author, Enid Blyton, 71, passes away in a British nursing home.
Van Morrison releases his album, Astral Weeks.
Be sure to come back at the end of next month for events from the final month of 1968!
Tracy K. Smith, Poet Laureate of the United States, spoke on November 1 at the Lewiston Public Library, leading a conversation about poetry and community in a room packed with Mainers. A mic was passed around, and we heard from each other—from kids, high school students, grown-ups—on the power of poetry, voices, identity, connection, being, and being together. Smith also read from a long poem of hers, drawn from historical documents in which veterans who fought for the Union in the Civil War wrote letters advocating for the rights that were being denied them. And so, from across the years, we heard their voices, too.
The historical era we’re living through today is marked by civil and human rights movements and individuals and communities working for social change. In November our staff looks at related themes, including new books on historical figures making a difference past and present, and how explorations of many issues also shine through novels, poetry, short stories, and science fiction.
We just touch base on a few subjects and titles, and don’t cover all the important ground there is to cover in this one blog post. There are many more resources at the library (and available through the wider reach of Interlibrary Loan) to keep exploring, as well as booklists and ideas for resources that we’ve created that may not be represented in this month’s post.
-Elizabeth, Reference Staff
I can’t stop thinking about The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures From the Nazis by David Fishman. It’s the true story of prisoners in the Vilna Ghetto, led by artists, teachers and librarians, who risked their lives to hide Jewish books and religious documents. Many young workers smuggled materials page-by-page in the linings of their clothes; the poet Abraham Sutzkever built a bunker 60 feet underground to safely store art, including drawings by Marc Chagall. It’s the best kind of nonfiction: dense and well-researched but also a page turner.
Related recommendation: The Librarian of Auschwitz is a new YA novel by Antonio Irtube, based on the life of Holocaust survivor Dita Kraus. She was only fourteen when she took responsibility for 8 contraband books and painstakingly hid them inside the concentration camp. It’s beautiful, harrowing (recommended for ages 14 or older), and would be a great companion read for anyone who connects with The Book Thief or Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.
Finally, I must mention the excellent YA nonfiction book Beyond Courage: The Untold Stories of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, by Doreen Rappaport. Did you know there were documented acts of resistance in EVERY single ghetto & concentration camp in Europe? This accessible, captivating and inspiring read tells dozens of stories of ordinary people taking extraordinary risks, big and small, to protect themselves, their neighbors and their cultural legacy during the Holocaust. To me, these are not just stories from history that deserve to be told, but critical reminders for us all to amplify and preserve the voices of the oppressed.
Learning the history that has been left out of textbooks is, for me, an act of civic responsibility. There are many people who have come before us—including LGBTQ+ people, people of color, people with disabilities, women, and individuals and communities with economic disadvantages—whose complex lives and stories have been historically forgotten, neglected, or diminished instead of being sought out, taught, and shared. As a parent, I feel responsible for helping my children discover a wider range of history, so they can see where we’ve come from and help write new narratives in the future.
For a book chock full of biographies of inspiring women, check out Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women, also available on audio and narrated by a diverse cast of powerful women. My daughter discovered a love for the marine biologist Sylvia Earle, tells me facts about fossils and paleontologist Mary Anning, and chats about the crampons and skirts the Cholita Climbers wear to scale mountains in Bolivia.
If you have older readers looking for stories of world-changing women from history, check out Bygone Badass Broads, a collection of stories written by Mackenzi Lee, diving all the way back to 2700 BCE with Empress Xi Ling Shi to the 1950s with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Lee tells the tales of women who led revolutions, changed medicine, and will prove to your teenagers that history is anything but boring.
Adults looking to learn more about the role of contemporary women and non-binary people as leaders of social change could take out Modern HERstory by Blair Imani, illustrated by Monique Le. It’s an inspiring collection starting with those who laid the foundations for modern-day activist movements and discussing women and non-binary people of all ages who are making a difference today.
Can We All Be Feminists?: New Writing from Brit Bennett, Nicole Dennis-Benn, and 15 Others on Intersectionality, Identity, and the Way Forward for Feminism is a new anthology that goes deep. Editor, writer, and feminist activist June Eric-Udorie observes in her introduction: “For those not already versed in the challenges facing, and debates within, feminism today, reading this anthology is a great place to start. For those of you who, like me, live and breathe these issues, I hope you’ll find some common truth, or see experiences like yours represented in this collection, which includes only marginalized voices and so puts them front and center…Gabrielle Bellot and Juliet Jacques remind us of the precarious position in which trans women find themselves. Frances Ryan chronicles the issues facing disabled women. And Wei Ming Kam demonstrates immigration is a feminist issue. These are just some of the voices in these pages.”
Pick #2: an uplifting, heartening book about climate change? Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future investigates how hurricanes, drought, deforestation, permafrost degradation, extreme heat, and rising seas impact marginalized communities and countries, showing how human rights and climate change go hand in hand. At the same time, Mary Robinson (the former president of Ireland and UN Special Envoy on Climate Change) shares all that IS truly possible through stories of those who are impacted turning to grassroots work in climate justice that goes on to change their communities, countries, and the world.
We see how Sharon Hanshaw of East Biloxi, Mississippi became an activist for the rights of her community after Hurricane Katrina. Constance Okollot, who calls herself a “climate change witness,” advocates on behalf of women farmers in Uganda who are experiencing the crippling fallout of drought. Jannie Staffansson is a powerful voice for how climate change has affected Europe’s indigenous Saami people. Vu Thi Hien, in the mountains of Vietnam, works with local authorities and village leaders to organize communities of forest protectors who are paid for their work to reduce illegal logging, which has also empowered women in ethnic minority groups. And Ken Smith, a union leader for a former mine in Canada, protects workers and their families and communities by calling for “just transition strategies” as mines are closed and the advocacy for transition to green energy jobs begins.
With many other stories of individuals making a difference (some who helped to shape the Paris Agreement through their testimonies), Climate Justice reminds us of our own impacts as well as how many people and countries continue to be devoted to our planet’s future—and to each other.
On to new fiction: Friday Black is a powerful, unforgettable new collection of short stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah that offers a bloody critique of violence, racism, capitalism, and most especially questions of morality and humanity. Friday Black is a clarion call and a reminder that dystopian fiction (like The Handmaid’s Tale) goes to extremes so that readers are horrified: so that we are moved, so that we don’t dull in our responses to real horrors, and maybe even so that we might, if we are willing, recognize injustice and act. As Tommy Orange (author of this year’s phenomenal There There) observes in The New York Times Book Review, this writing packs tenderness and heart, too. Orange writes: “Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has written a powerful and important and strange and beautiful collection of stories meant to be read right now…Violence is only gratuitous when it serves no purpose, and throughout Friday Black we are aware that the violence is crucially related to both what is happening in America now, and what happened in its bloody and brutal history…More often than not his characters struggle with not knowing what to do, given these seemingly impossible, extreme circumstances, and not all of them figure it out. But we don’t need them to: Adjei-Brenyah’s many truths, insights and beautifully crafted sentences just sing on the page.”
Reviewer Jeff Chang writes, “Those concerned with justice and liberation must always persuade the mass of people that a better world is possible. Our job begins with speculative fictions that fire society’s imagination and its desire for change. In adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha’s visionary conception, and by its activist-artists’ often stunning acts of creative inception, Octavia’s Brood makes for great thinking and damn good reading. The rest will be up to us.”