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I’m always leery when I engage with a creative work from an artist who is operating outside their usual purview. It’s not that I question the ability to branch out – I’m a firm believer in the artistic power of multihyphenates – so much as that I recognize how difficult it is to excel in one aspect of creation, let alone more than one.

And so it was with trepidation that I approached Ethan Hawke’s new book “A Bright Ray of Darkness” (Knopf, $27.95). Specifically, I’ve been burned by actors-turned-novelists before, so you understand my caution. Hawke has four books in the rearview (though distant – it’s been 20 years since the last one) but I hadn’t read any of them, so again – maybe the most interesting part of the book is the name attached to it.

I needn’t have worried. Hawke has crafted an engaging work of literary autofiction, a story clearly drawn directly from his own personal experiences, yet rendered in such a way as to not feel bound to his life as it was lived. It’s something that many writers – many talented writers – fail to pull off, but he manages it quite deftly.

This tale of an actor struggling with his shifting reality – moving from a world of movie stardom to the Broadway stage, torn between accepting his crumbling marriage and striving to reassemble it – and making sometimes questionable choices in the process is tightly woven and densely packed, a meditation on masculinity and the value – both external and internal – of the redemption he seeks through his art.

Published in Style

We’ve all heard the old saw “Write what you know.” However, we don’t all agree on what that actually means.

For a writer like Susan Conley, it means carrying a deep, fundamental understanding of the sorts of people and places that you’re going to bring to life. That understanding – that knowledge – is what makes her work so engrossing and compelling.

Conley’s newest book is “Landslide” (Knopf, $26.95), a thoughtful exploration of the demographic and economic shifts that have been taking place in towns up and down the Maine coast in recent years. It’s a story of struggles – the struggle to make ends meet, the struggle to find fulfillment, the struggle of married life and motherhood – marked by occasional small moments of personal victory. All of it refracted through the prism of one woman’s perspective.

Grasping the importance of connection is a hallmark of Conley’s work – see 2019’s excellent “Elsey Comes Home” for a prime example – and she continues along that path with this one. She sets up shop in her protagonist’s head, giving the reader a first-hand look at the inner strife that comes with experiencing changes that are largely unwelcome and more than a little frightening.

Published in Buzz

How much thought have you given to your voice?

Not the way it sounds, mind you. We’re not talking about the words that you might say or the notes that you might sing, but rather the actual voice itself. The physiological and neurological underpinnings of how we as human beings are able to harness its many complexities.

If you’re at all curious, then you desperately need to sit down with John Colapinto’s “This Is the Voice” (Simon & Schuster, $28). It is a deeply researched and incredibly informative plunge into what proves to be a surprisingly robust topic, one that digs into not just the nuts and bolts of how our voice works, but some ideas about WHY it works the way it does.

This unapologetically wonky book is rife with fascinating facts about the origins of human voice, packed with interviews that address the topic from all angles. Through delving into the physical, emotional and cultural connotations of voice, Colapinto illustrates just how vital a part the voice plays in our world – who we were, who we are and who we may yet become.

The fundamental idea that this book explores is a simple, yet far-reaching one. Basically, Colapinto argues that the ability to speak – not just to make sounds, but to SPEAK – has been the key to humankind’s evolutionary journey to the top of the heap. That ability to communicate concisely and flexibly is what truly separated us from the pack and allowed for the many developments that led us to our current status.

And it all started with a song. Kind of.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 27 January 2021 13:22

The grievances of airing – ‘Talk Radio’

What does it mean to be part of a community?

In small towns all over this country, people are constantly seeking ways to connect. Even in places where everybody knows everybody else, we can struggle to really be heard. Finding an outlet – any outlet – where one’s voice can ring out (figuratively or literally) is a vital part of the human experience.

Ham Martin’s “Talk Radio” (Black Rose Writing, $20.95) offers a unique and idiosyncratic look at what can happen when the opportunity to be really and truly heard is offered up to the people of a small midcoast Maine town. Taking place largely over the airwaves of a small community-oriented radio station, it’s a story that explores that need for connection, that desire to be heard … and what happens when not everyone is willing to listen.

Published in Style

I love words.

The English language is a rich tapestry, one filled with weird lexicography and etymological dead ends. There are just so many words, with more coming into being every day. And of course, the reference of choice for any lexophile worth their salt is the dictionary.

But what if you found out that you couldn’t trust it?

In “The Liar’s Dictionary” (Doubleday, $26.95), the debut novel by Eley Williams, we find out. Unfolding in two distinct storylines – one past, one present – the book explores what it means to trust wholly in something that ultimately proves unreliable, either through one’s own actions or the actions of another. It is also a celebration of language and the people who devote their lives to studying and recording its many iterations.

All that and it’s wildly funny as well. Plus, you might learn something. For instance, did you know this word?

Mountweazel (n): the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and books of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.

I’d never heard it before, but it plays a vital role in the action of this delightful book.

Published in Style

The end of the world has long been a mainstay of speculative fiction. Or at least, the end of the world as we know it. So many stories have been written about the aftermath of some cataclysmic event, something that has destroyed civilization, or at least radically altered it. You’ve got your post-apocalyptic stories, your dystopian stories – so many of them spring from that singular (and sometimes literally) Earth-shattering event.

What we get less often is the story of what leads up to that event, the tale that goes from the beginning of the end to the end.

That’s what Claire Holroyde’s debut novel “The Effort” (Grand Central Publishing, $28) gives us. It’s a story of mankind’s attempt to stave off the extinction-level event heading their way, all while dealing with the harsh reality of what it might mean when the fact that the end is nigh becomes widely known. It’s a taut, thrilling story of people committed to saving the world even as the world turns against itself.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 23 December 2020 12:13

‘From Hang Time to Prime Time’ a slam dunk

The NBA is big business these days.

Players are global icons, recognizable to billions of people. They are literally world famous, making eight figure salaries and signing even bigger endorsement deals. On the ownership side, TV contracts and ever-escalating franchise values mean big profit for anyone with a piece of an NBA team.

It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way.

Pete Croatto’s new book “From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA” (Atria, $27) takes us back to a time, not so long, when the NBA was a pro sports afterthought, a league that struggled to gain any sort of foothold in the cultural consciousness. The public perception was mixed and the product on the floor was uneven; outside of a few cities, the league was barely holding on. You couldn’t even watch games live; even the Finals were infamously aired on tape delay.

But thanks to some savvy league officials, some smart business moves, a handful of transcendent players and a few lucky bounces, the NBA transformed itself. The period from the early ‘70s through the ‘80s was transformative, a time when the league went from also-ran to clubhouse leader. It was a long journey, and not without obstacles, but ultimately, the NBA got where it wanted to go.

Published in Sports
Tuesday, 01 December 2020 14:18

Ball don’t lie – ‘The Big Three’

Winning an NBA championship is hard; the road to a title demands a lot of the players on the floor. But one could argue that assembling a championship squad is even harder, a delicate dance involving winning trades, quality drafting, good signings … and more than a little luck.

Michael Holley’s “The Big Three: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and the Rebirth of the Boston Celtics” (Hachette, $28) tells the story of one such squad and the titanic trio that operated at its center. It’s an in-depth look at how the 2008 Celtics championship squad was assembled, from the 2003 purchase of the Celtics by a new ownership group to the hiring of Danny Ainge as general manager to the acquisition of Garnett and Allen to the eventual breaking up of the band to move the franchise forward.

It’s a remarkably well-reported book, a detailed exploration of the many ups and downs that came along with trying to assemble this sort of next-level team. Through conversations and archival research, Holley crafts a portrait that focuses on the people involved as opposed to the numbers, a fine juxtaposition to Ainge’s ongoing insistence on refusing to allow the personal to interfere with his plan.

Published in Sports
Monday, 30 November 2020 14:46

Turn the page: 2020’s recommended reads

Despite everything that we’ve been through this year, it hasn’t stopped the literary machine from continuing to churn; we’ve seen many tremendous literary offerings hitting shelves in 2020.

Reviewing books is one of the best parts of my job. As part of that job, I’ve read dozens of books over the course of the past year. I freely admit that I tend to seek out works that I know will resonate for me – and hence usually enjoy the books I review – but even with that degree of curation, there’s no denying that there are always some that particularly stand out.

This is not your traditional “best of” list – not my style. Instead, consider this a collection of recommendations. These are suggestions; I enjoyed them, so I thought that you might as well. I’ve also included selections from my writings about these books (please note that the full reviews are available on our website). Bear in mind that this is not a comprehensive list – there are scores more books out there, exceptional works that I simply never got a chance to read.

I’m not arrogant enough to call these the best books of the year – it’s all subjective and this is just one man’s opinion. What I can say is that every one of these works captured my imagination and my attention … and perhaps one or more of them will do the same for you.

And now, without further ado, here are my recommended reads from 2020.

Published in Cover Story

There are few authors out there who can match Jonathan Lethem when it comes to literary genre-bending. Just a handful are even close – and none are better. He has long been a proponent of embracing the possibilities inherent to genre exploration, leading to work that is insightful, engaging … and wildly entertaining.

His latest effort is “The Arrest” (Ecco, $27.99), a post-apocalyptic tale that offers a glimpse at one possible ending for civilization as we know it. Neither a utopia nor a dystopia, but something in between, Lethem’s landscape is one is thoughtful and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a story of survival and isolation, a story about what it means to live in a society.

It’s a condemnation of overreliance on technology that also pokes fun at those who view tech as some shadowy all-encompassing bogeyman. By viewing the world through the lens shaped by the titular event, Lethem peels back the layers and gives us a glimpse of what we might try to put together if everything fell apart.

Published in Style
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