Anita Shreve’s fiery novel of coastal Maine

  • The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (Knopf), April 2017
  • In 40 words or less: A young mother’s life is upended when a catastrophic wildfire destroys her home and community. Naive and untested, she finds strength and resilience as she builds a new life for her family. Inspired by an October 1947 fire.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Maine
  • Time: 1947-50
  • Anita Shreve lulls the reader with the rich details of small town domestic life. Deftly altering the pace as events overtake the commonplace, Shreve recalibrates the storytelling for the transformations to come. A perfect summer read for anyone with an affinity for Maine and the self-reliance of its residents.

In The Stars Are Fire Anita Shreve paints a picture of village life in coastal Maine shortly after the end of World War II. Young families are being created by those who’ve returned from the war, there is some spare money for the first time since the Depression and there are good jobs, at least for the men.

Grace Holland is the mother of two toddlers. She and her husband Gene are not really in synch. Gene has an excellent job with good prospects. Grace tries to make the best of her life despite being unfulfilled in many ways. Her neighbor and best friend, Rosie, has a joyful and spontaneous life that amazes Grace. Where Grace’s life is structured, orderly and unstimulating, Rosie’s is disorganized and vibrant. Rosie and her family bring joy to Grace’s days.

As always, the rhythms of Maine life are dictated by the weather. Storms can be widow-makers for those dependent on fishing for their livelihoods, including Grace’s father. Unending rain or snow can make travel impossible and bring new meaning to cabin fever. But it is drought that can turn clear blue skies perilous.

The endless spring rains give way to a sparkling clear summer. By fall, fire danger warnings are constant. When a large fire approaches both Grace’s and Rosie’s husbands are off to help keep it at bay. As the fire overtakes them, Grace’s quick thinking saves both women and their children. When they are found by rescuers their homes are gone and Grace is seriously injured. Rosie is reunited with her husband but Gene is missing. With all this uncertainty, Grace must make a life for herself and her family.

Grace comes into her own in this new role. With no alternative, she, her mother and children move into her late mother-in-law’s home. This decision changes everything.

Anita Shreve creates in Grace a woman who will not let tragedy define her. Rather than retreating, she chooses to embrace the uncertainties she faces and determine her own future.  Shreve beautifully crafts her settings and describes the details that add depth to the story. These are some of the reasons Anita Shreve is a perennial favorite.

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It’s all about the stories

Next to Hamilton, the toughest ticket to get in the U.S. right now is admittance to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Thanks to Dan, I had tickets for this Tuesday and headed down with a small group of friends. We each followed our own path through the museum, checking in periodically and meeting up for lunch. This proved to be a great plan to get the most out of the few hours we had.

Photo by Elisabeth K. Boas

The museum has two different paths a visitor can follow: the three-level underground history galleries accessed from a single room-sized elevator, which often has a lengthy wait; or the culture and community galleries which each occupies a floor above. My story-gathering began as soon as I entered the culture gallery and noticed the cast iron skillet and sea green coffee cups that were part of many kitchens. Next to me was a woman who was struck by the inclusion of the skillet as well. And so the conversation began. She mentioned that the cast iron skillet was the one thing she really wanted when a family home was disassembled. Her grandmother used it for fried chicken and cornbread. I shared that my mother’s brisket pot held similarly memories.

And then we kept talking. About growing up in communities where there were people of different religions and ethnicities and children absorbed aspects of these cultures because it was everywhere.  We spoke about our surprise when we  each entered communities that were less accepting and racial differences created real social barriers. And we talked about where we live in now and how difficult it is to comprehend how far backward we’ve gone as a country in understanding and accepting one another. Sharon lives in New Jersey and was spending two days at the African American museum. She came with a friend who didn’t want to see the Holocaust Museum. So we talked about her coming back to DC and going there together. Two women of a certain age, one African American, the other Jewish American. Both American. Thanks, Sharon. You made my day.

There were other conversations – with a Vietnam veteran from Baltimore; a woman whose family has owned a cottage in an African-American enclave on Martha’s Vineyard for close to a century; and a woman who wishes her son (who was with her) could understand the emotions and importance of Freedom Summer. Each conversation enriched the experience.

When we did enter the floors devoted to the history of African Americans in the US the experience was very different. The artifacts and explanatory signs are
intended to deepen the superficial knowledge that most people have, particularly about the slave trade and the early US economy, and the role of slaves and free blacks in the military from colonial times through the Civil War.

There is a sanctity about the early rooms. By carefully interspersing quotations and artifacts the very personal toll of the Middle Passage is brought to life. The number of slaves captured in Africa by each of the various colonial powers is listed but seeing the ship names, the dates of passage, and the number of slaves at the start and end of the voyage brings the horror of that information to a new level. How can feeling beings put people in shackles and imprison them and name the ship “Happy” or “Excellent”?

A large area, open through all three levels of the history exhibit focuses on the unresolved conflict of “liberty and justice for all” and people as property. The backdrop to a statue of Jefferson is large stacks of bricks, each engraved with the name of one of Jefferson’s slaves. Once again, it is the details of display that connect the visitor in ways that haven’t been done before.

I’m already planning my next visit to the museum. There is so much to see. But since I always look for a book connection wherever I go, here are two:

  • Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill, a novel about the Middle Passage and life for a bright, accomplished slave and later, free woman, in the 18th century. A bit about the book and the TV miniseries here.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s National Book Award-winning historical study of the Great Migration of African Americans from the agricultural south to the industrial north during much of the 20th century.

Navigating the holiday season in this company town

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The next month is an ongoing series of office-neighborhood-networking parties celebrating the holidays and year’s end. Even for party animals who consider small talk a sport, parties this season in the Washington area have an underlying current of uncertainty. We are accustomed to the quadrennial cycle of presidential elections and the anticipated turnover of jobs, real estate and alliances.  Just like everything else this year, different doesn’t quite capture the climate.

Washington is a town where the second question asked after you meet a stranger is “What do you do?” Sometimes it is out of genuine interest, too often it is to gauge whether the person is valuable to get to know. When many people in government and not-for-profit organizations are concerned their jobs may be adversely affected and the fabric of our society has been shredded, and the politico-social environment has people shouting at rather than talking to each other, this quick sizing up of one’s value may be hard to handle.

So what does this have to do with reading and books?

Here’s my suggestion to change up the small talk with someone new – ask her (him) “What are you reading?” While there are some people who choose not to read, in this town reading is taken seriously across demographics and philosophies. Now this is not a foolproof conversation starter. I’ve been told that s/he reads a screen all day long and just can’t read at home (oh, that must be very stressful. Hope the situation changes) or the only thing s/he has time to read is Hop on Pop/Curious George/Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site (there is no greater gift than the love of reading, enjoy this time.) Thankfully, this is a question that usually perks up even the most reticent attendee.

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Over the last decade, there have been occasions where my political views have been very different from everyone else’s in the room. Rather than arguing politics, we talk books, generally histories or biographies. For those with whom I often disagree on policy, we look forward to these conversations. The focus on how history and the success/failings of leaders can inform our views tamps down the acrimony of the daily news.

And then there is the sheer joy of sharing a book or author you love with someone new. I never tire of the excitement people bring when they tell me about a new find. In these chats people seem to be all ears, listening with an open mind to what is compelling about a book, author or genre. The conversation may veer into what someone’s day job or passion is, rounding out the understanding of who you are speaking with. Expect to be surprised – the button-downed guy may be a sci-fi geek, the hipster may be on a Dickens jag, and the social worker may be into psychological thrillers. Who knows, you may come away from the event having had a break from the every day, made a new acquaintance, and have some new books to read when the news is just too much to bear.

Goodreads and Amazon reviews: bane or boon?

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In the good old days, if you were curious about whether a book, a vacuum cleaner or a new brand of coffee might work for you, you’d ask your friend, neighbor, shopkeeper or mother. It’s now the era of big data so few decisions are made without some form of crowdsourcing, a term created barely a decade ago.

Of course, readers have been curious about the latest and greatest titles for years. The first US bestseller list appeared in New York in 1895 and made its way to The New York Times in 1931. When Amazon.com changed the face of bookselling in 1995, it also changed the nature and roles of bestsellers lists and reviews. In the age of Amazon, anyone can be a reviewer and there are multiple ways to slice and dice any bestseller list.

Goodreads.com is one of the earlier virtual communities for readers. Created in 2006 by descendants of the family that founded The Los Angeles Times, its goal was to encourage readers to learn about and share their passion for books. While it received some funding early on when people bought books via online links, it was primarily a means for readers to track their books and connect with others. In 2011 Goodreads began suggesting titles based upon the information each reader entered. And in 2013 the entire system was purchased by Amazon allowing them to influence and manage the largest online reader community.

For some, Goodreads is just a repository for to-be-read lists and to record completed books. They ignore the suggested titles for purchase and the reviews and lists by other Goodreads members, sometimes rating but not reviewing those read. Many are networked to their other social media contacts on Goodreads and can still influence their contacts’ reading choices via notifications of titles added to their friends to-be-read, ratings or reviews. Other people use Amazon and Goodreads reviews to dictate their reading choices.  I’m not sold.

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So getting down to business, it’s time to judge for yourself:

  1. Grade inflation – On both Amazon.com and Goodreads.com reviewers see the average rating before clicking in to make a rating. Can people justify rating a book they finished a 1 or 2? While 3 is the statistical average, it is the rare title with any measure of popularity that has an average below 3. All ratings are whole numbers and each person’s perception of the scale is subjective. Does the fact that there are 5,000 reviews of 4 or better really tell you more than if there were 500? Remember, Amazon sells to hundreds of millions of people.
  2. Even a 4.5 rated title may not be for you – It is vital to remember that those interested in rating a book usually come from those interested in the genre or theme. Often the classification (fiction=>historical fiction=>WWII) will provide ample hints, but not all the time. Whether it is based on a publisher’s information or a scanning algorithm, mistakes happen. And then there is the author/publisher that believes the title is genre/audience crossing when it’s not.
  3. Small sample – There are several reasons for very few ratings or reviews. It may be just published or pre-publication, from a small press or self-published, esoteric in theme, out-of-print or published prior to the advent of Amazon/Goodreads reviews.  As a reader, you must carefully read almost all the reviews to tease out how any comments jive with the description of the book. Be aware that there are many people, myself included, that receive advance copies of books gratis in hope of a positive review. For those reviewers who are genuinely independent, reviewing a book way outside his/her wheelhouse may result in a dissonant review.  The upside is these truly independent reviews is they are not biased by either the major newspaper/website reviewers or widespread public opinion. But then there is the flip side;
  4. Stuffing the Ballot Box – Every writer, myself included, is in search of readership. Newly published authors, particularly those who self-publish or engage services that assist individuals in publishing their work, often will ask their friends and/or family to post enthusiastic reviews. How do you spot them? Well, look for a limited number (50 or so) written in a short period of time (maybe 3 months) of approximately the same length, commenting not only on the topic but on the insight of the author, and often with almost a unanimous 5-star rating. Amazon has made great inroads in reducing pay-for-rating services where someone would be hired to rate a book or other product in exchange for money. Also be aware that those who operated self-published and/or vanity presses are individuals that may also rate a title highly.  Clearly, even if the review is heartfelt there is a conflict of interest the reader cannot know.

Finally, my take: I’ve always tilted at windmills and backed the underdog. My preference is to go to trusted sources (newspaper and selected web reviewers), people I know and to independent booksellers, wherever I can find them. Matching readers and titles requires listening, capturing the essence of a title, and a bit of magic.

Goodreads and Amazon have developed algorithms based on what you may have looked at or bought and popular items. But those algorithms don’t know if the search was for my use or as a gift for someone with dissimilar tastes.  It doesn’t know which much-loved books are sitting on my shelf or which ones have been abandoned, those I bought on my travels, was given or received through my “bookie” activities.

In the last month, I restarted posting some ratings on Goodreads, but only from the “In the Nutshell” section of my reviews or for titles I’ve chosen not to review here. If I wish to be part of a larger community, I am obligated to participate in it, even if on a limited basis. I am encouraged that independent bookstores and print books are making a comeback. And I hope we continue to share the books we like, analyze why we disliked others and discuss the ones that make us think.

 

‘TRIBE: On Homecoming and Belonging’

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  • Unknown-4TRIBE by Sebastian Junger (Twelve, Hachette Book Group, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: An outgrowth of a June 2015 article on soldiers’ PTSD long after leaving the battlefield, Junger posits what is it about modern society that has created this problem. Using recognized research and his observations, Junger provides food for thought.
  • Genre: Nonfiction/Anthropology
  • Time: 300 plus years of communities
  • Read this for an interesting take on the how individualism and independence may leave our society vulnerable to depression, PTSD and other problems.

Sebastian Junger is a familiar name to many for his book The Perfect Storm about the New England fisherman caught as three weather fronts came together in 1991. His writing is fiercely analytical, bringing together the individual, societal and (in that case) climatological factors that marked that tragedy.

Junger spent time embedded with troops in Afghanistan. As a journalist, filmmaker, and long form author, he was struck by the strong bonding of military units regardless of the ethnic, racial, intellectual and social differences that might divide in other environments. Junger saw wounded soldiers desperate to return to their units rather than to be sent home.  Many of the same strong and courageous individuals had severe and long-lasting difficulties reintegrating upon returning home. TRIBE is his effort to understand why.

This brief book, less than 140 pages, refers to dozens of psychological, sociological and anthropological studies, business and newspaper articles on the evolution of tribal and group behavior. The primary exemplars are tribes, going back to ancient times through early America, who’s communities were completely interdependent with well-defined communal roles. His contention is the superiority of this model is reinforced by the resistance of captured American settlers to return to their communities, often fleeing to return to those who had been their captors.

Junger asserts that that interdependence is seen in military units and that the loss of it causes/exacerbates reintegration difficulties. On the civilian side, he suggests that this lack of fundamental purposefulness contributes to some instances of depression, abuse of medical insurance and other behaviors.  As evidence, he shares data that suggests catastrophes such as 9/11 resulted in reductions in suicide and symptoms of depression. Rather than turning inward, people reached out to help others both selflessly and to fulfill a need to contribute to making society whole. In my opinion, his assessment might also be worth looking at in terms of gang members and those who have been incarcerated.

This is not an academic treatise nor does he proport to be a scholar.  Having said that, I’d recommend it to those who study societal dynamics, social workers, and particularly those involved in the serious problem of appropriately training our military and reintegrating them into civilian service. Even if he isn’t spot on, his work provides a starting point for discussion.