Librarian’s Report

This past Monday, August 14, we held our Annual Meeting at the Monhegan Memorial Library. As usual we talked all about what has happened this summer as well as plans for the future. And, we bid a fond farewell to outgoing board member Sue Bolman. Sue has served the Library for twelve years, and we will miss her. We also welcomed incoming board member Sally Boynton, and new President Miki Partridge!

It’s been a fabulous year. You can read all about it in our Annual Report . Thanks to everyone who loves our little library!

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Book Review 9: “The Underground Railroad”

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Genre: Fiction
Have in the Library? Yes
Reviewed by: Kelena Reid
 
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is an exploration into the history of bondage, racial violence, and the journey to “freedom”, told through the eyes of Cora, an enslaved woman. Whitehead tells the story of Cora’s escape using history and story telling through a non-linear and surreal narrative.  The story moves from the slave holds on the coast of Africa, to a plantation in the South, and through several portals on the “Railroad” as Cora searches for freedom. Coleson’s account does not diminish the pain and violence of slavery and I appreciate Whitehead’s use of other interrelated pieces of African American history and the history of American racial violence. For example, one of Cora’s stops on the “Underground Railroad” on her way to “freedom” exposes her to the cruel medical experimentation performed on black men and women in the South. Cora originally believes this stop on the Railroad to be a life of freedom, but slowly realizes it is another form of enslavement, and so she continues her journey and travels further North. Cora loves, and is also torn from, figures such as her grandmother, Ajarry, and Ceasar, the man who entreats her to escape. Whitehead is a talented writer. Ajarry, Ceasar, and Cora are fully human and powerful – as much as they are trapped within a system of exchange and violence. “Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times on the trek to the fort, passed between the slavers for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase, eighty-eight human souls for sixty crates of rum and gunpowder..”
The Underground Railroad is an important book which contributed to my understanding of the legacy of American slavery.

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Monhegan Memorial Library welcomes Paul Doiron!

The Monhegan Memorial Library is delighted to announce a program by Maine mystery writer Paul Doiron to take place on Monhegan Island. This three-day event will consist of a Murder Mystery Party at the Partridge Cottage at 7:30pm on Friday, August 4th, an Author Talk by Paul Doiron at the Monhegan Church at 7:30pm on Saturday, August 5th and a Q & A for Writers at 10:30 am (advance sign-up required) at the Monhegan Memorial Library on Sunday, August 6th

Paul Doiron is a Camden writer and the author of the Mike Bowditch of crime novels. The first book of the series, “The Poacher’s Son,” was nominated for an Edgar Award and called “an adventure worthy of its magnificent Maine setting.” (Julia Spencer-Fleming). Often praised for his sense of place, Mr. Doiron is active in the Maine outdoors scene that his novels draw from, working as a Registered Maine Guide specializing in fly-fishing. He is also an editor emeritus of Down East Magazine, having served as Editor in Chief from 2005 to 2013.

Paul Doiron’s visit will be the second program in the MML Distinguished Writers Series, established last summer. We are pleased to announce that this year’s event is in memory of James Rubin.

 For more information, please contact Mia Boynton, 207-596-0549monheganmemoriallibrary@gmail.com

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Book Review 8: “Night Sky With Exit Wounds”

Night Sky With Exit Wounds

by Ocean Vuong

 

Genre: Poetry

Have in the Library? Yes

 

This chapbook is a welcome surprise for those (like me) who have trouble with poetry. Ocean Vuong’s collection of 35 poems are direct, simple but subtle, painful yet light. They glimmer with repeated motifs: fathers, guns, fields and bodies. Ocean Vuong writes from many intersections: as a Vietnamese immigrant in America, a war survivor, a gay man. Yet none of these elements overwhelm. Instead, they meld together into one hymn of a man trying to find his way through his own history.

The poems can be read individually at random but it’s rewarding to read the book straight through, beginning with his invocation, a poem appropriately titled “Threshold”:

“In the body, where everything has a price, / I was beggar ” he begins, and the rest unfurls from there. The stars are “what we always knew/they were: the exit wounds/of every/misfired word.” In “Aubade with Burning City,” the fall of Saigon is interspersed with verses from “White Christmas.” Like a “good son,” he “seal[s] [his] father’s lips/ with my own & begin/ the faithful work of drowning.”

Vuong’s language is wonderful. He doesn’t use arcane words, just precision: the room is “bomb-bright,” a father is “all famine & fissure.”

To me, the loveliest part of this book is hope. For Vuong, hope seems delicately balanced, more a process and less a destination. “Dear God, if you are a season, let it be the one I passed through/ to get here,” he says. And by the end it seems he has arrived at a place that is at least peaceful.  In my favorite poem, “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” he is soft and calming: “Ocean, don’t be afraid./ The end of the road is so far ahead/it is already behind us.”

For all its sorrow, “the refugee camp sick with smoke & half-sung/ hymns,” Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a book of healing. As he says in “Seventh Circle of Earth” : “Say amen. Say amend./ Say yes. Say yes/ anyway.”

 

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Book Review 7: “The Fifth Season”

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

Reviewed by Bill Oram

Genre: Science Fiction

Have in the Library? Yes

This novel throws you into the middle of an absorbing, violent world.  The world is literally violent.  It’s rent by earthquakes and volcanoes and periodic catastrophes (“fifth seasons”) that cause decades of crop failures, interrupting and sometimes ending civilizations.  The planet itself seems an enemy, and a common exclamation is “Evil Earth!”  The book opens with two tragedies, the death of a child and the start of a fifth season.  “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we” the deadpan narrator begins, “and move on to more interesting things.”  The more interesting things include the self-destructiveness of the world’s civilization as well as the earth’s violence.  But these large issues appear through the experiences of the three female protagonists, a child, a young woman and a middle-aged mother, each of whom features in a different plot, at a different time.  The narrative shifts between them.   

The three women are all orogones—human beings with a special capacity for identification with and control of the earth and its molten energies.  The general population fears and hates the orogones (it’s not clear if they have been taught to do this) while the government enslaves them, brainwashes them, breeds them, and uses them to stabilize the environment.  The novel follows the protagonits’ various attempts to create places of safety, freedom and dignity.  The book is partly about race, and it’s also about the relation between knowledge and power, and the need of each of the characters to come to terms with her own nature. There is also a lot of wild and fascinating invention—a sinister race of stone-eaters, mysterious obelisks and the gradually clarifying history of the past.

As with many science fiction novels, this one throws you into its world and asks you gradually to figure it out. The three plots are all related, and by the end of the novel you see the connections but, since it is the first of a trilogy, you don’t learn everything, and the novel ends with many balls in the air.  It’s a terrific book, deeply absorbing and it stays in the memory.  Its characters are vivid, understandable, and their experiences are moving.  For all its grimness, it’s full of wonder.  It won a Hugo award and was nominated for practically all the other SF and fantasy awards that count.  I loved it.       

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Book Review 6: “Bring Up the Bodies”

Bring Up the Bodies
by Hilary Mantel

Genre Fiction
Have in the Library? Yes

This book begins with the dead: his children (his, Thomas Cromwell’s), Grace and Anne, briefly reborn in the guise of royal falcons carrying their names. As they drift above the English countryside, Mantel paints the scene:

The horseboys of Wolf Hall swarming around us, Wiltshire and the western countries stretching into a haze of blue; let us stand, the king’s hand on his shoulder, Henry’s face earnest as he talks his way back through the landscape of the day, the green copses and rushing streams, the alders by the water’s edge, the early haze that lifted by nine; the brief shower, the small wind that died and settled; the stillness, the afternoon heat.

It’s 1535 and King Henry VIII is going across the countryside for sport. Henry here is childlike, with England as his playground for falconry and courting, while Europe falls into chaos. Cromwell, his handler, watches on the sidelines, at the whim of the King but secure in the knowledge that it is really his hand that controls the court and country.

“Bring Up the Bodies” is the second novel in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy. The first, “Wolf Hall,” charts Cromwell’s unlikely rise to power and first forays in Henry’s court. Now in “Bring Up the Bodies,” we find Cromwell firmly established with a happy household and a prominent position as Secretary to the King. The final book, “The Mirror and the Light,” is slated to come out later this year.

Though the storyline picks up immediately from where “Wolf Hall” ended, this book stands alone. I liked it better than its predecessor. The action is more tightly packed, the writing tauter, and everything is tuned just a little bit darker. The endless court intrigue that bogged down “Wolf Hall” is pared down here and the events go by at a rapid pace. Cromwell is also different. Now with years at court behind him, his cruel side is starting to show as he tries any means possible to sabotage Anne Boleyn. Here we get a more tragic Cromwell. Though he seems to slide through the days as smoothly as ever, inside he is eaten up by loss: the deaths of his wife, daughters and former master Cardinal Wolsey.

As someone who hasn’t studied British history, I had no idea who Thomas Cromwell was. Anne Boleyn and Henry were just names. There is a lot of history going on here to be sure; place names and people names and levels of hierarchy that I occasionally found myself glossing over. I don’t always like historical fiction for this reason, but in “Bring Up the Bodies,” those details are just background noise. Following the rise and fall of fortunes, you are swept up and see the events taking place as though you are really there.

What makes the difference in Mantel’s writing is her sense of time. She writes in present tense, which should feel strange but isn’t. In doing so, Mantel implies that the past is present. Though different in details, the dramas of the Tudor court are presented as just as urgent as any contemporary politics today. The consequences are just as deadly.

The book ends with the dead, this time Anne Boleyn, “Anne sans tête.” The chapter on her trial and the execution is one of the best written scenes as Mantel spares nothing in depicting the brutality of the proceedings. Yet it’s her quieter passages that are most powerful, as in the last chapter where Cromwell reflects:

When the time comes I may vanish before the ink is dry. I will leave behind me a great mountain of paper, and those who come after me…they will sift through what remains and remark, here is an old deed, an old draft, an old letter from Thomas Cromwell’s time: they will turn the page over, and write on me.

“Bring Up the Bodies” is a portrait of a time in history, when plagues stalked the land and when a shift in power was heralded with executions. One thing seems certain: in Tudor England, no one is safe. Cromwell is remarkable because of his willingness to look ahead in the face of this helplessness, his endurance, “stuck like a limpet to the future.”

The truth of it is not so different today. Death is still the constant, or to put it less morbidly, the fact of our impermanence in the world. Like Thomas Cromwell, Henry the XVIII or Anne Boleyn, we spend our lives plotting and scheming for more: love, power, creation of a bloodline or creation of a book. Yet in the end history teaches that there will always be an afterwards. Whatever we gain is not forever. But, Mantel gently suggests, perhaps we misunderstand the “nature of endings.” Just as the falcons named for his departed daughters soar in the sky, in these pages Cromwell can again open his wings and fly. We, the reader, feel the exhilaration as though we are standing there with him in that summer field.

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Book Review 5: “The Once and Future King”

The Once and Future King

by T.H. White

Genre Fiction/Fantasy

Have in Library? Yes!

 

Confession: I love fantasy. It feels like a confession because fantasy too often exists simply as “genre” writing: fun to read, but not considered as serious canonical literature. Especially in light of everything going on in the world right now, it feels indulgent. Who needs escapism? How can stories about made up things contribute to a serious examination of contemporary issues?

Enter “The Once and Future King.”

*Spoilers ahead … if you don’t already know the story of King Arthur, that is!*

This four-volume story begins with “The Sword and the Stone,” and for most of us, that’s where it ends. This tale follows King Arthur when he is a boy named Wart, learning about knighthood at his foster father’s estate in the picture-perfect English countryside with his eccentric tutor Merlyn. This is fantasy as we know it, Disney-ready (the movie came out in 1963): talking animals, magic spells, and a satisfying story arc where we can watch Wart transform from underdog to hero when he pulls the sword from the stone. But look closer. Even here there are hints of deeper meaning. Wart has a series of adventures in which Merlyn transforms him into animals: a pike, a goose, a falcon, and an ant, so that he can learn the inner workings of the animal realm. It is a place of cruelty, where “eat or be eaten” is the rule of the day. Yet the badger tells him: “homo sapiens is almost the only animal that wages war.”

The second book of the saga, “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” has Arthur already king, tasked with uniting the Orkneys with the rest of England. Here the humorous tone that ruled the first book is juxtaposed with new scenes of darkness. King Pellinore’s friends dress up like the Questing Beast to cheer him up while Morgause’s children enter into a twisted quest for a unicorn that can only be caught by a virgin. It’s unsettling to see adults act like children while children meddle in pursuits too mature for them. This gives the whole volume an off-kilter, disturbing feel and introduces us to the themes of sexuality and violence that will carry through the rest of the saga.

The comedic is lost all together when we get to the third book, “The Ill-Made Knight,” which is the tragic chronicle of Lancelot’s adventures. In White’s version, Lancelot is an ugly, self-hating man tortured by issues of purity. (Autobiographical nod?) This book is yet another tale of men by a man, but TH White’s take on women is refreshing. Guenever is smart and complicated, as is Elaine, who transforms quickly from Lancelot’s damsel in distress to a free agent who schemes for what she wants. On Lancelot’s first meeting with Guenever, White writes:

The young man knew, in this moment, that he had hurt a real person, of his own age. He saw in her eyes that she though he was hateful, and that he had surprised her badly. She had been giving him kindness, and he had returned it with unkindness. But the main thing was that she was a real person. She was not a minx, not deceitful, not designing and heartless. She was pretty Jenny, who could think and feel.

Now that Arthur has united his kingdom, he must try to rule it. Despite Merlyn’s early teachings, Arthur develops his own theory of reconciling war and justice.

Why can’t you harness Might so that it works for Right?…You can’t just say there is no such thing. The Might is there, in the bad half of people, and you can’t neglect it. You can’t cut it out, but you might be able to direct it, if you see what I mean, so that it was useful instead of bad.

TH White was born in India but educated in England, where he wrote a thesis on Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” while at Queen’s College. He lived out World War II as a conscientious objector in a countryside cottage. It was at this place that he began to reconsider the work of Malory and to write “The Once and Future King.” Like fellow-war time writers C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, T. H. White may be telling “fairy stories,” but he is working against the backdrop of one of the most scarring times in history. In White’s case, “The Once and Future King” is both his homage to Thomas Malory and his own searing response to the carnage of World War II.

By the last book, “A Candle in the Wind,” we find Arthur caught in the trap of his own laws, his newest idea to forge a peaceful kingdom. In a ridiculous turn of events, the King unwillingly sentences his beloved Queen to death and pins all his hopes on Lancelot swooping in to the rescue. Yet he knows that if Lancelot succeeds, it will mean that he must eventually meet him in war, breaking the Round Table forever. Despite all Arthur has done, in the end innocent blood is still spilt, justice is a charade, and the “uncivilized” emotions of revenge and fear still have a way of ruling the day.

My favorite part of the book was the last chapter, when a broken Arthur reflects for the last time about war. To fantasy cynics, if great literature is that which is still relevant today, read these words and think about our current political situation:

The fantastic thing about war was that it was fought about nothing—literally nothing. Frontiers were imaginary lines. There was no visible line between Scotland and England, although Flodden and Bannockburn had been fought about it. It was geography which was the cause—political geography…Countries would have to become countries—but countries which could keep their culture and local laws. The imaginary lines on the earth’s surface only needed to be unimagined. The airborne birds skipped them by nature. How mad the frontiers had seemed to Lyo-lyok, and would to Man if he could learn to fly.

Ultimately, Arthur fails. The book closes with a scene in the King’s tent, as he readies himself for his own “war to end all wars” where he will be slain by his own son Mordred. The Round Table and the era of chivalry is ended, and while a young Thomas Malory escapes with the story, White implies that the end becomes life as we know it. The Arthur legend fades and the history of England takes over, leading up to, at the time of his writing, the horror of World War II. Like Arthur, we are left with the unsettling conclusion: are we by our very nature simply doomed to be violent? Perhaps in the end the only hope is in passing the stories on, so that one day, some day, we might learn from them. It does indeed seem like “a candle in the wind.”

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