“Downeast Maine, where I live, is for me the most beautiful place on earth, even in February, even on a dark day in a sharp wind.” -from Seaweed Chronicles by Susan Hand Shetterly
Every day at Portland Public Library, you can find readers of all ages curled up with books, lost in words and in other lands.
Many of us on the library staff wholeheartedly, unblinkingly believe every earnest thing said about books and stories: they can transport you to other worlds, help you figure out the world around you, expand your horizons, lighten your heart. They really can. Delving into books with our community is probably the best work there is, and we at the Reader’s Advisory desk are always curious about new ways to share the books around us.
The Book of the Week project kicked off last October just before U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith visited Maine: we posted a picture of her new anthology American Journal: Fifty Poems For Our Time. Then 52 weeks flew by (!) with a new book in the spotlight every Monday. It’s October again: the leaves are turning. Writer and musician Joy Harjo of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation is the new Poet Laureate of the U.S. And we’ll soon have new books to share. But first, here’s a brief look at the last year in reading…
“We would often wake before there was light in the sky and make coffee and let our minds rattle our tongues…It was a forty-year conversation.”-from Our World, with photographs by Molly Malone Cook and text by Mary Oliver
Book-of-the-Week Perks: Joyous Readers and Authors
One of the really sort of lovely and unexpected things that’s come from Book of Week is feedback—from readers who had enjoyed a book we shared, and from authors who were happy their books were being read in Maine (sometimes sharing hearts, sometimes shocked, Munch-scream emojis). British writer Robert Macfarlane, whose book Underland we did call “grimly beautiful,” responded, “Grimly beautiful. I’ll gladly take that. Thanks so much for this post, folks. I love Portland!”
“They were stunned by the sand dunes, the vast life of them…the lighthouse rose before them…Cheese sandwiches and salami for dinner around the campfire. The thrill of lighting the wood, keeping it burning. Laughter spiked their conversation, and when it lulled, the silence had a glow to it, crackled by flames. They were happy. They were not used to being happy. The strange feeling kept them up too late together, giddy with victory and amazement.” -from Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis
How Can Readers Explore More Books at PPL?
- Explore new titles on order…Try signing into your library account at our website, then click on “Explore” and “New Titles.” This will lead you to a page showing you all of the books (DVDs, CDs, etc) that have newly arrived, and all of the books that are on order. As soon as the librarians order a book, you can place a hold on it.
- Get a list of reading ideas from our staff…If you would like your own personalized list of reading ideas from our staff based on your interests, fill out a “Your Next (Great!) Read” form here and we’ll be in touch.
“Now you can have a party. Invite everyone you know who / loves and supports you. Keep room for those who have no / place else to go. / Make a giveaway, and remember, keep the speeches short. / Then, you must do this: help the next person find their way / through the dark.” -from Conflict Resolutions for Holy Beings, by Joy Harjo
Congrats, reader, you made it to October 2019! Can you spot any spots in the library where pictures were taken? Have you read any of the books of the week? Do you have a favorite quotation to share?
We’d be glad to hear from you. Be in touch anytime with bookish questions and requests at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 871-1700 ext. 705.
Thank you for reading.
Find Books of the Week Here:
It’s September, season of change, and the library is full of new arrivals. The great Toni Morrison unwaveringly looks out at us from the poster for Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the 2019 documentary about her life and the abiding power of her words, newly out on DVD. We’re also days away from the release of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, and Stephen King’s The Institute just hit the shelves.
Our staff shares their picks of this month’s favorite library materials—time to place your holds in summer for autumn days of books, movies, e-Books, audiobooks, and more…
Our family is getting ready to send our first kid into Kindergarten, and we’re all feeling that familiar feeling of excitement mixed with wariness. One book that’s helped all of us? The King of Kindergarten by Derrik D. Barnes. The bright, cheerful illustrations and sweet story show a new Kindergartener having a great first day of school, with happy parents to cheer him on. It’s sure to boost the confidence of any new school kids in your home, too.
For my own reading, I have a growing list of books I can’t wait to read — here are some new books to look out for, come and join me on the hold lists!
Frankly in Love by David Yoon
Frank Li and Joy Song are two high schoolers with the same problem: both are dating people their Korean-American parents will never approve of. A fake dating scheme sounds perfect — what could go wrong?
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
A young girl growing up in a house full of artifacts feels more and more like a prize hoarded away. When she discovers a book that describes doors as portals to other worlds, she discovers thrilling secrets about herself, and a way to escape her narrow world.
The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth by Phillip Pullman
For those of us who loved reading The Golden Compass trilogy, last year’s The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage was a delight. I can’t wait to listen to the next in the new series to find out more about Lyra’s adventures. (And yes, I will definitely be seeking this one out on audio, narrated once again by the talented Michael Sheen).
As summer wraps up in Maine, sigh, and most children head back indoors, SIGH, we begin to get questions about internet screen and media addiction. Many families struggle with the balance of screen time vs. family time.
Jonathan R. Werner, the Library and Instructional Technology Specialist at the Cape Elizabeth Middle School Library & Learning Commons, presented his free talk and slideshow, Resisting the Irresistible: Understanding and Combating Addictive Technology this past fall at Lincoln Middle School in Portland. Most compelling was Mr. Werner’s own story of finally coming to terms with his media addiction while on the shores of a gorgeous Canadian lake with his family. All of his materials are available free online, and he encourages people to not only share his slides, but also to contact him if they would like him to present free of charge to their school or community group.
Happily, you can also stop by the Children’s room for inspiring books, periodicals, and audio to take home, or come for a visit with your child and play a board game, build with Legos, play in the Early Literacy room, and curl up with a great book.
“On your marks, get set, bake!”
My pick for September is The Great British Baking Show. I usually read pretty severe nonfiction, but everyone needs a break from time to time, and this show has been the perfect escape. It stands out among other reality competition shows: you won’t find any huge cash prizes, product placement, snarky backstabbing between contestants, or nasty judges. Instead you’ll find a group of average people baking various breads and pastries for the simple reward of a job well done and the title of Star Baker.
The contestants are sincerely kind and supportive of each other; the judges are constructive and root for everyone. This cotton candy content has potential to be boring, but TGBBS is compelling viewing thanks to clever editing, a dramatic musical score, and quips from the comedienne hosts. Some of the competitions are real nail biters. Will Martha’s custard finish baking in time? Will Norman burn his ciabatta?
If you haven’t already discovered this gem of a show, check it out: PPL has the first five seasons on DVD.
What if our dystopian nightmare began tomorrow? Would we even notice? Ling Ma’s Severance follows Candace, a recent wayward college graduate who designs Bibles for a publishing conglomerate. When Shen Fever – an illness dooming civilization to death by nostalgia – hits New York, Candace and a group of survivors plan their next move.
Ling Ma plucks topics from our subconscious dread – globalization, pandemic illness, and the commodification of creativity – and places them together into a quietly terrifying landscape. Severance is like Colson Whitehead’s Zone One with less intensity and Shaun of the Dead with less slapstick. I also suggest listening to the audiobook on CloudLibrary, narrated by Nancy Wu with some much-needed droll levity.
September means only one thing in my book world – the release of The Testaments, the much-anticipated sequel to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I was left with so many questions at the end of Handmaid’s Tale. What happened to Offred? What the heck was going on in Gilead? Did all handmaids use butter for moisturizer? So. Many. Questions. The Testaments picks up fifteen years after Offred’s story ends and Atwood promises:
“Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.” —Margaret Atwood
Sequels are sometimes risky, and I’ve been burned before (ahem, Go Set a Watchman), but I have faith in Atwood and feel really good about this one. If you need me September 10th, I’ll be totally unavailable.
Today I’m hoping all the good books I’ve lugged home-and-to-the-library-again lately are signs of a fall of further gems. Fingers crossed, and thank you, books, for all you do…
De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s new novel, In West Mills, is a page-turning tale full of life, heart, worry and wisdom, and most of all, characters to laugh with, cry with, and root for. A great book to dive into on these still-summer days.
Memory and loss, vanished ferries and missing birds, burning libraries…a woman on an unnamed island struggles to hold on to the world she remembers. The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa is entrancing new fantastical fiction (translated by Stephen Snyder).
In New Nonfictionland, “Explorers, artists, cavers, divers, mourners, dreamers, and murderers” (as well as physicists, miners, and more!) populate the grimly beautiful depths of Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. You’ll be on the edge of your seat whether he’s describing dark matter, underground rivers, a wild drive many miles beneath the sea, or a harrowing journey through a boulder ruckle.
What’s a ruckle, you ask? Pick up Underland and shine a light—but be warned: Macfarlane is keen to tell you “what lies underground, why you should not disturb this place, and what may happen if you do.”
If someone wanted to take stock of what’s on my mind, a quick scan of our coffee table tells the story. That is where library books land when I unload my backpack. A selective survey shows that chosen cookbooks lean toward plant-based these days, with Timothy Pakron’s Mississippi Vegan forming the base of my precarious reading material pyramid. Some fiction of the fluff variety makes an appearance or two, sweet glue that keeps me happily unchallenged. Aspiration takes hold with the next few volumes: Being Bold with Watercolor by Annette Kane, Learn Watercolor Quickly by Hazel Soan, and, just to balance the craft of it with some history and unbeatable modeling, Masters of Color and Light: Homer, Sargent, and the American Watercolor Movement by Linda S Ferber.
Let me briefly sidetrack my biblio-train of thought to encourage you to take advantage of the library’s free pass to the Portland Museum of Art. I did just that earlier this summer and it was a real treat… so lovely that since then I, she of the tight wallet, have purchased a membership. Now I can walk down Congress Street during my lunch break to soak in the quiet and brilliance of it all, smack in the middle of my work day. Sublime. Each visit makes my fingers itch for my recently acquired ultra-cheap watercolors, and I imagine unearthing my inner Wyeth. So far, whichever Wyeth I think is buried deep within has proved elusive, but, more important, my inner Eileen has come closer to the surface and she is having a grand time seeing light and playing with color in whole new ways. So go to the museum. Then give in to the urge to create something.
But back to my stack: Hopes and dreams take a lofty leap with A Pretty Good Person: What It Takes to Live with Courage, Gratitude, and Integrity, Or, When Pretty Good Is As Good As You Can Be by Lewis B. Smedes. Similarly remote heights loom with How to Retire Happy by Sam Hinden. Both seem equally far off in the unreachable mists, but if I have a dilletante’s nerve to slosh around with watercolors and see what comes of it, I surely can indulge in a fantasy of good personhood and a happy retirement. Surely that.
My stack is far higher than that brief list, much wider than I am likely to conquer, and inevitably some of the books will make their way back to the library without being tapped. When I saw them, I had to hold them, call them mine for a few weeks, spend time finding if what they offered would fit the spaces curiosity creates. My teetering heap of books seems random at times, but it follows my heart whether I know it or not as I pluck each volume from the shelf. And what is going on in my heart is what’s on my mind.
What’s on your coffee table?
As ever, thanks for reading.
(You can explore more new library materials here. And if you’re looking for more ideas of books to add to your reading list, check in with our Reader’s Advisory crew at email@example.com or fill out a Your Next (Great!) Read form to get a personalized list of reading suggestions).
Our August Staff Picks focus on favorites from this summer.
“Grandmother walked up over the bare granite and thought about birds in general. It seemed to her no other creature had the same dramatic capacity to underline and perfect events—the shifts in the seasons and the weather, the changes that run through people themselves. She thought about migratory birds, and the thrush on a summer evening, and the cuckoo—yes, the cuckoo—and the great, cold birds that sail and watch, and the very small birds that sweep in for hasty visits in large late-summer parties…and about the swallows that only honor houses where the people are happy.”
Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book rules my summer heart forever. A grandmother. Her granddaughter. Two fiercely independent, questing, seeking, questioning souls, plus a salty island, birds and other creatures, mourning, storms, discovery, boats. This frank, funny, wise novel is a blazing affirmation for all who are a bit curious. It was our Book of the Week for the first week of August, kicking off Women in Translation Month.
There’s been a lot of chatter about what constitutes a “beach read” in recent weeks and while this isn’t the place to weigh in on that, I will say that I’ve been treating myself to a “no tomes” summer and it’s been glorious! Every book I’ve read has been under 250 pages and oh-so-easy to transport to the beach, or lake, or campsite, or back and forth to work via bike. My best of summer is shaping up to be Margaret Atwood’s 1972 psychological thriller, Surfacing. Told from the perspective of the female protagonist who, with her lover and another couple, venture from the city to an isolated island in northern Quebec to search for her missing father. It’s certainly an Atwood deep-cut, with the right amount of suspense to keep me entertained on the sand and in a tent, but without giving me nightmares. And at 199 pages, my paperback version has been a breeze to carry around on all sorts of adventures.
The Magician’s Assistant was my first foray into Ann Patchett’s fiction. Sabine, wife and assistant to the enigmatic magician Parsifal, is alone after his sudden death. Tragedy breeds discovery, both for Sabine and Parsifal’s estranged family. Spending time in sunny Los Angeles and snow-strewn Nebraska, The Magician’s Assistant gently explores the complexity of love, sexuality, and friendship. This book left me with deep longing on Sabine’s behalf, and a desire to follow Ann Patchett’s characters into reality. After placing your name on the waitlist for The Dutch House, go borrow this book, and enjoy the goosebumps while reading on the beach.
Lux Prima, by Danger Mouse and Karen O
What sounds in the beginning like the soundtrack to an intergalactic space opera turns into a melodic chill fest. You may remember Danger Mouse from his seminal The Grey Album where he mixed in Jay-Z with the Beatles’ White Album. Karen O’s (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) vocals complete the mid-century modern feel of this groovy album. From start to finish, this album is gold. The more pop–sounding “Turn on the Light” has turned into one of my smoother summer jams that get played on repeat. A fantastic collaboration: give Lux Prima a spin. You definitely won’t regret it!
Our Teen Librarian Kelley’s Pick
My favorite read of the summer so far is A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer. This is a YA fantasy novel told in alternating narration by Rhen and Harper, two characters from literally different worlds:
Eighteen for the three hundred twenty-seventh time, Prince Rhen despairs of breaking the curse that turns him into a beast at the end of each day until feisty Harper enters his life.
Harper has learned how to fight. Not physically (her cerebral palsy makes that hard), but against the fear she feels every day for her mom, who’s dying of cancer, and her brother, who’s keeping their family afloat through any means. When she tries to stop an attempted kidnapping on the frigid streets of D.C. one night, Harper finds herself transported to the cursed world of Emberfell.
Kemmerer does an excellent job at twisting the classic (and oft adapted) tale of beauty and beast. The result is more Sleepless (my favorite graphic novel of 2019) than Disney Princess, with an authentically strong, rounded female protagonist living realistically with a disability in a magical world. Prince Rhen is equally complex as the tortured monarch whose selfishness and ego has cost him everything, including his hope. His interior monologue is full of fear and self-doubt in the saddest possible way. With strong writing, the author avoids the many available pitfalls of fairy tale cliché and instead gives us something fresh, funny, and breathtaking in both adventure and romantic tension.
A Curse So Dark and Lonely made PPL Teen’s Disability & Different Ability in YA Fiction book list, which features a selection of our favorite books from recent years that portray characters of disability and different ability in young adult literature.
I’ve been reading the new YA biography Brave Face, A Memoir: How I Survived Growing Up, Coming Out, and Depression by Shaun David Hutchinson, the author of many YA books. Hutchinson came out in the middle of the 1990s. This is his story of how he dealt with his experience and with deep depression as well. Hutchinson has a tremendously compelling voice as a writer sharing a complex story: my reading was intermingled with sadness and the horror of knowing how many people go through similar difficulties in their coming out journeys every day, while other parts of his biography brought me moments of pure joy. I am so glad I picked this book up and would highly recommend it.
This summer I was fortunate to get my paws on a crop of excellent new Teen graphic novels. Most recently, I read Surviving The City, which takes place in Winnipeg, Canada and tells a beautiful tale of friendship between two Indigenous girls who each grapple with familial loss and separation as a symptom of inter-generational colonial violence. In 54 short pages, the novel portrays powerful demonstrations of community support and resistance, and shines a light on the very real issue of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit Individuals.
Other notable reads included Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, the newest work by Mariko Tamaki, a favorite graphic novelist of mine. Cast in a soft pink color scheme, the book bursts with spunky, queer characters and follows the protagonist as she breaks free from a toxic on-and-off-again relationship, learning how to be a better friend in the process. Visually similar but with a serene sky blue palette, Bloom is a sweet tale of budding, queer love set against a Greek family bakery in an oceanside town.
Lastly, there’s Meal, which also centers around food and a cast of queer characters: this time, the protagonist develops culinary skills and humility while aspiring to cook at a new restaurant where insects are the stars of the menu. This is a fun read that also includes recipes and insight into the history of entomophagy across different cultures.
Nonfiction & Memoir
“Okay, it’s true, I do want you to learn how to tack, tie a bowline, read a chart, steer a compass course, take a back bearing, reef a sail, and all that stuff—but as much as a means to broadening your horizons as for the sake of mastering the ancient skills required to travel from A to B with nothing but the magical assistance of the wind.”
Buoyed by late-in-life fatherhood and a love of boats, yet with no carpentry skills to speak of, journalist Jonathan Gornall set out to do something practical: build his new daughter Phoebe a clinker boat and create for her something that would outlast his physical presence in her life. The result is a questionable venture and the most delightful read of my summer: How to Build a Boat: A Father, His Daughter, and the Unsailed Seas. With a charming mix of earnestness and a self-effacing critique of his bumbling boatbuilding attempts, Gornall jumps between addressing little Phoebe and sharing technical and historical detail about the ancient art of constructing seaworthy vessels. I remember my own father once telling me of a friend whose carpentry work was so beautiful that others said his brain was in his hands. How to Build a Boat is a testament to the beauty, even if a tad fumbling, of thinking with the hands. But, also, of thinking with the heart.
Summer for me means branching out from my usual Children’s books and taking a great memoir to the beach. This summer my beach read was Ani DiFranco‘s much anticipated No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir. “No walls” refers to the house without walls that Ani’s architect mother created for her family (the lack of walls eventually inspired Ani’s move out of the house as a very young teen). A working musician from the age of 13, Ani lived completely on her own by 15. No Walls and the Recurring Dream is the story of Ani’s life from childhood through her early 30’s and chronicles her music, life, loves, trials and tribulations with the music industry, her struggle to stay independent, and her coming of age on the road. With anecdotes of some of the folk music greats, from Pete Seeger to Utah Phillips, this is a memoir for folk music lovers and Ani fans alike. And if you want to find out what the recurring dream is all about…you have to read to the end of the book!
Since I can’t resist a plug for children’s books, here are two that impacted me this summer: the picture book Hands Up! by Breanna J. McDaniel, and the chapter book Beast Rider: A Boy’s Journey Beyond the Border by Toni Johnston.
My pick is Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies, by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh with a foreword by Bill Gates. As the publisher’s description notes, “What entrepreneur or founder doesn’t aspire to build the next Amazon, Facebook, or Airbnb? Yet those who actually manage to do so are exceedingly rare. So what separates the startups that get disrupted and disappear from the ones who grow to become global giants? LinkedIn Co-founder, legendary investor, and host of the award-winning Masters of Scale podcast Reid Hoffman reveals the secret to starting and scaling massively valuable companies.”
I have been a fan of Nnedi Okorafor’s since I first picked up a copy of Binti, and have since been entranced by her Akata series audiobooks and her comic book storytelling in the world of the Black Panther for Marvel. When I learned she was writing a memoir, Broken Places and Outer Spaces, I jumped at the chance to read it. While her memoir is short, the impact is powerful, and it gave me a richer understanding of how Okorafor’s experiences have inspired her writing. When she was an athletic 19-year-old, Okorafor went in for spinal surgery to correct her worsening scoliosis. Upon wakening, she discovered she was paralyzed from the waist down. As she slowly regained mobility, she discovered a passion and skill for storytelling with an Africanfuturist lens, and learned that life’s most intense and challenging experiences can be the fuel for great creativity.
My story starts with gardening and ends with gelato.
Part One, in which I imagine a garden in the woods and elicit advice and encouragement from The Shady Lady’s Guide to Northeast Shade Gardening by Amy Ziffer.
When we nested in the woods more than 10 years ago, I had visions of a casual garden. I planted a few things that I thought would survive the acid soil (all 2 inches of it that sat atop the bedrock that held our house up) and my own benign neglect. We intentionally omitted a lawn and had no thoughts of owning a lawn mower, but what is a leach field if not a lawn that needs tending so it doesn’t revert back to the trees that were displaced to make room for it? So, after a few dismal swipes with a scythe (oh! the romantic dreams of first-time home owners!) we bought the cheapest gas-run baby we could find. I will push it over anything that I don’t want growing where I find it. I am ruthless, because ruthlessness is what I am up against. The woods want back every square inch we cleared. The volunteer landscape is relentless, which is earth’s salvation, I comfort myself by saying, not a personal insult. All these years later, Spring still finds me leafing through the inspiring and informative The Shady Lady’s Guide, but I harbor fewer illusions. Know thyself, I say, and live with it, and so I do.
Part Two, in which Wild Flowers of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont by Chapman & Bessette and the legendary Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers show me the beauty in a laissez–faire landscape where nature will out every time.
The scents of hard labor in hot weather are a mixed bag: the mower’s gas exhaust, yes; my own funkiness, absolutely… but also the mowed pine saplings, hay-scented ferns, juniper start-ups, wintergreen, wild thyme, sweet fern, the sour resinous peachiness of just split wood in the pile I push past resolutely. The smells of summer come with the place, filling the air as I plow through the overgrowth, determined to keep the driveway wide enough for a Subaru to clear on both sides with room to spare, and the side yard semi-civilized with cushiony moss and ferns and bunchberry, but minus the saplings that elbow their way in. Wild blueberries grow in the gravel of our driveway, sweet ferns sprout with abandon when I turn my head. I mow three times a year. That is the extent of my effect. I mow it down. It comes back. There is nothing broken about this. It doesn’t need to be fixed. I just need a book or two to tell me what all I am mowing. Chapman, Bessette, and Peterson help me call them by name and find neighborly joy in them. That is enough.
Part Three, in which I am educated in the ways and delights of gelato: Gelato Fiasco: recipes and stories from America’s best gelato makers by Joshua Davis, Bruno Tropeano, and Cynthia Finnemore Simonds.
Although it is too hot to think much, thinking about gelato is cool work. Once the sugar syrup is boiled and chilled, so is making it. Recipes abound in Gelato Fiasco, and I have tested out several sorbettos (No dairy products! No eggs! Rich with fabulousness despite their absence!) When the mowing is done, neither claiming victory nor admitting defeat, showered, powdered and settled in with a field guide to identify a new flower I have found in the undergrowth and a familiar fern whose name escapes me, I want to hover over a bowl of something cold, homemade, self-indulgent. With a twirl of a crank and some distracted attention from me, Maine’s own gelato masters help it happen.
Care for some gelato?
As always, thanks for reading.