Maine Studio

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When I was in Maine last week, I spent my mornings re-immersing myself in my book.  I’ve been doing some work on the last two stories in the collection, slowly unearthing their threads and helping them find their shape.

It was a beautiful place to write: with spindling pine trees outside the window, and between them the bright blue spark of the cove, dotted in bouys.  Inside, a long low bookshelf cluttered with well-worn books, and my own stack of afternoon reading.  I miss waking up to that view, that stretch of time with my manuscript.

Bookshopping: Longfellow Books

Longfellow Books is one of the two best bookstores I visited during my recent trip to Maine.  Located in the arts district of Portland, about a block from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow house, Longfellow Books is an excellent example of a hardworking urban bookstore with a core focus on serving its local community.

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Run by a team of booksellers who clearly know their literature, the bookstore is organized with tables of notable fiction and non-fiction, shelves of new releases, the bookstore’s own bestsellers, and a large table of suggested books along with handwritten recommendations.  They don’t rely on outside lists or picks or national bestsellers — an approach that speaks to the store’s confidence in its own selections and in its readership.

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There are extensive shelves of new and used fiction, a section devoted to Maine titles, a cluttered community bulletin board, and a large, airy children’s room with a plush green couch.

Longfellow Books is also home to a foster cat, Prince, who is up for adoption.  When I stopped in, Prince was nestled up on the couch with a young girl, who was completely absorbed in her novel.  A group of fellow children made a point to introduce me to Prince: they knew a lot about him.  He likes the couch in the children’s room, and the children, who sit with him reading.

With equal interest and authority, they told me about what they were reading.  (They didn’t have favorite books, though, they were careful to tell me.  “It’s too hard to choose,” one said.)  One of the children slipped and referred to the bookstore as a library, then caught and corrected herself.  I could see why she made the mistake: the bookstore, and especially its children’s room, had the comfortable, worn-in feel of an excellent library.  It’s a place where children come to discover great books and then lose themselves in them, already three chapters in and completely immersed by the time they leave the store with their purchases.

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Longfellow Books knows its literature, its readers, its community — and the store reflects that easy, comfortable confidence.  They refer to themselves as “a fiercely independent bookstore.”  And in our current bookselling world, thank goodness.  Luckily for those of us who live too far afield to curl up with Prince on a regular basis, Longfellow Books also publishes an excellent newsletter with recommendations.  For the latest, check out their website.

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All I Love and Know

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Speaking of reading, my friend Judy‘s second novel came out last week.  Judy and I were in residence at MacDowell together during the weeks she finished writing it.  Our studios were a few hundred yards apart on narrow MacDowell Road, and during our occasional afternoon walks together, we’d talk about our books-in-progress.  I’ve been excited to read this novel since.

When I stopped to visit Judy in Amherst on Memorial Day, she gave me an advance reader copy.  The novel is so good that in the days after she gave it to me, I woke up early in the mornings just so I could get in an extra hour or two of reading before work.  It’s always exciting when a friend publishes a new piece of writing, but especially so when it’s breathtaking.

All I Love and Know is a novel of startling nuance and breadth.  When a Jerusalem cafe bombing kills Daniel’s twin brother, he becomes the guardian of his young niece and nephew.  He and his partner Matt navigate a precarious new parenthood, fraught with challenges from the children’s Holocaust-survivor grandparents, the intricacies of Israeli law, the socio-legal complexities of family-building in the months before gay marriage in Massachusetts, and the painful expansion and contraction of love in the wake of grief.

It is a novel that takes place at the intersections of the interpersonal and the geopolitical.   And Frank deftly interweaves an incisive parsing of Israeli and LGBT politics with a nuanced insight into the lives and relationships of her two protagonists.  It is a novel about twin-dom and parenthood and Israel and the choices that resurface over the course of a life.  Judy explores all of this with a compassion that can hold these two men, can encompass their family’s fluctuations and elasticity.

I loved it so much, I bought another, hardcover copy this week.  Please make sure you read this book.  It’s truly an exceptional piece of writing, and a staggering work.

Street Books

Walking home from the cafe the other night, I found a half dozen cardboard boxes of books set out at the street corner two blocks from my apartment.  Someone was moving out and discarded a selection of their book collection.  Whoever it was had pretty eclectic reading tastes: the boxes were full of philosophy and politics and vintage copies of paperback fiction and foreign-language art books.  (Just like looking through other people’s bookcases, it’s awfully interesting to flip through boxes of someone’s discards.)

I was already trekking home with a bottle of wine and a laptop, but I filled my arms with a dozen street books.  I’ve already been tucking into Dorothy Parker and Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.  And there’s this wonderful drawing from a 1954 art book:

Life has been pretty tough lately.  But every so often even in the midst of terrible times, there’s the alchemic gift of street books.

Spark / Zora Neale Hurston

Did you see that Zora Neale Hurston was the logo image on Google earlier this week?

I love Zora Neale Hurston.  I found Their Eyes Were Watching God in the used bookstore in a nearby college town as a teenager and continued reading Hurston’s short stories through college, feeling as I read as though my life as a writer and human being was quickening.

But how staid Zora looks in Google’s rendering.  How unlike the spark of Zora I’ve come to know in her prose and photographs.  In images, Zora is open-mouthed, laughing.  She wears furred collars, beads, embellished sweaters.  Chic, chic hats.

All of this — this energy — must have been so key to the charisma that allowed her to walk into people’s lives and collect their stories.  So key to the balance between she struck between anthropologist-folklorist and Harlemite.

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Again and again in the accounts of her contemporaries and biographers, she is described as bold, dazzling.

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But in Google’s Doodle she looks subdued and matronly, nearly dour in her serious smile.  This boundary-defying artist captured in the cages of three ornate borders.  How did Google so completely miss her spark?

Swimming / Seamus Heaney

Two summers ago, I read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf by the pool after marathon swims in the lap lanes.  My local pool is a particularly relaxing place: seldom too crowded, grassy, shaded.  When I swim, I strive for endurance, often swimming a mile each session.  For as long as I’m in the water, my body feels no consequence from this exertion.  It is only after I get out that fatigue relaxes into my bones.

It was in a series of these post-swim quasi-meditative states that I stretched out on a plastic-banded municipal pool chaise and read Beowulf.  I read it — and Heaney’s introduction to it — surprisingly quickly.  It’s one of those works that seems totally unapproachable and unappealing until you actually read it and discover it’s a page turner, among all its other, more esoteric attributes.  In terms of sheer suspense and pleasurable readability, it’s Stephen King or Michael Crichton, a thousand years earlier.  In part, this is because Heaney himself saw Beowulf as “attractively direct” and translated it accordingly.  When you read Heaney’s Beowulf, you know you’re reading something that’s ‘Good for You’ but you’re too absorbed in the story to realize it until afterwards.

Today, as I breastroked my way through the last laps of the summer at my local pool, I kept returning to Heaney’s word “so,” which he uses to start his translation.  It is for me one of the iconic choices in literature, one of the turns of phrase that I store in my literary memorybanks for the days I’ll need to have it handy.  “So,” Heaney starts the elsewhere esoterically-translated Beowulf.  “So.  The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. / We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”

In his eloquent and personal introduction (which you must read… it’s brilliant), Heaney himself explains this choice:

Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with “lo” and “hark” and “behold” and “attend” and — more colloquially — “listen” being some of the solutions offered previously.  But… the particle “so” came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom “so” operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.  So, “so” it was…

So.  If you have not already, consider reading Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.  It will get your immediate attention.  And afterwards, it will relax into your bones.