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Parts of who we are tend to be defined by the places we’re from. We are more than our hometowns, but forever OF our hometowns. And telling our own stories of those places can be far more complicated than we anticipate.

Kerri Arsenault’s “Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99) is her story, a story about her hometown and her family’s life there. It is also about the place in a grander sense, defined as it is by the presence of industry and the town’s risk/reward relationship with it. Telling the tale of her family is inextricably entangled with the story of the town – and you can’t tell the story of the town without telling the story of the mill.

What follows is a memoir, yes, a remembrance of a small-town childhood. But it is also a thorough look at the lasting impact – positives and negatives alike – that the town’s reliance on and acceptance of the mill has had on those who live there. It’s a story of the compromises we’re willing to make – and the untruths we’re willing to tell ourselves – in the name of perceived prosperity.

Published in Style

They say that history is written by the victors. But so too are the victors most often the ones written into history.

That fact is even truer in the sporting realm than it is elsewhere. By its very nature, sport is concerned with winners and losers. And while those who win are celebrated and lauded in the years that follow, their victory burnished by the sheer volume of memory – what of those who fall short? What of those who reach the pinnacle, only to be stopped just short.

“Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scorecard” (Penguin, $17) is a collection of pieces devoted to looking at those who never quite reached the top of the mountain. Edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas – both of whom also have work included within – this assemblage of essays spans more than a century of athletic near-misses.

All told, there are 22 pieces here, 14 of which are previously unpublished. Every one of them is devoted to exploring what it means to lose, to be beaten. The reasons behind their shortfalls vary – some are faced with legendary opposition, while others simply deal with a bad day or bad luck – but all of them find ways to reflect the impact of almost. Some of these stories are funny, while others are sad and still others inspire, but all of them together paint a portrait of the truth behind loss. It’s a compelling journey through the competitive landscape, with all manner of sport and athlete represented.

Published in Sports

It’s a reality of life that nothing lasts forever. All things are transient. Everything that begins must eventually end.

And I do mean EVERYTHING.

Even the universe itself will eventually come to an end. Entire fields of study are devoted to beginnings and endings on a cosmic scale, with brilliant scientists spending their professional lives staring out into the universe and deep into the atom in an effort to understand not just how everything works, but how it might eventually stop working.

Astrophysicist Katie Mack’s new book “The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking)” (Scribner, $26) is a smart, surprisingly funny look at some of the ways that cosmologists believe the universe could potentially end. Don’t worry – it probably isn’t taking place anytime soon. Most of these endings won’t happen tomorrow. Probably.

It’s an accessible and engaging work of pop science, one that finds a way to strike a balance between the intricate physics and mathematics that go into these explorations and an easy narrative tonality that allows even those without PhDs to wrap their heads around these big-by-definition ideas. Consider this a crash course in cosmic eschatology, a sort of End Of It All 101. It is informative and entertaining in the way that only the very best science writing can be.

Published in Tekk

Everyone has gaps in their pop culture knowledge. There’s just too much content out there. Even someone like myself, a person professionally tasked with maintaining a thorough understanding of the zeitgeist, is bound to miss some things.

And those blank spots can occasionally lead to opportunity.

Take “Twilight,” for instance. Now, I have a general understanding of the overall mythos, as someone who was, you know, conscious during the mid-00s – the whole thing was inescapable – but I never read the books and I actually only saw the final two movies, based on the final book in the series (I was … let’s just say confused). So yes – a basic understanding without much knowledge of the specifics.

This confluence of circumstances means that I get to review Meyer’s return to the “Twilight” universe with eyes of unexpected freshness.

This new offering is titled “Midnight Sun” (Little, Brown and Company, $27.99); it’s a retelling of the events of the first “Twilight” book, only from a different perspective. Instead of the story unfolding from Bella’s point of view, we get to experience Edward’s interpretation of events. And boy oh boy are there some EVENTS.

Now, I can’t speak to the relative merits of this book as opposed to its predecessor – I don’t know how well Meyer has aligned this latest offering with the work that came 15 years before – but I can say that, while I might not have found “Midnight Sun” to be the most literarily brilliant work I’ve read, it certainly didn’t live up (down?) to the less-than-stellar stylistic reputation of the first four books. The writing isn’t spectacular, but neither is it spectacularly bad.

Published in Buzz

There is a tremendous amount of craft that goes into writing a book. The meticulous attention to detail necessary to build a truly engaging narrative is incredible, folding together character development and plot and research, all with an eye toward continuity and consistency. And if it all comes together just right, you get a killer story.

Now imagine doing all that while constructing things so that the book can be consumed in a different order and still tell a killer story, albeit one with a different shape.

That’s what Alex Landragin did with his debut novel “Crossings” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99), a marvelous puzzle box of a book that spans centuries and offers more than one way to consume its compelling story. It’s a novel in three parts, built to be read either in the standard front-to-back fashion or via an alternate to-and-fro chapter order.

Epic in scope, spanning a century and a half and featuring a cast of characters that is somehow both sprawling and small, “Crossings” is that relatively rare experiment in form that doesn’t sacrifice substance in the name of style. It’s conceptually cool, of course, but it’s also beautifully written and one hell of a riveting tale.

Published in Style

It might seem that writing a thriller is relatively easy. You could be forgiven for thinking so – there certainly are a fair number of them populating bookshelves out there. And there’s a tendency to underplay their merit, to consider them as somehow less than because of their subject matter.

Rest assured – writing a book, any book, is a monumental task. And writing a thriller that works, that puts the pieces together in a way that viscerally clicks? That takes real skill.

Skill like that possessed by Jen Waite.

Waite’s new book “Survival Instincts” (Dutton, $26) offers precisely the sort of well-crafted tension that we seek from a thriller. This story of three generations of women – daughter, mother, grandmother – isolated and endangered for reasons that none of them understand is engrossing and tightly paced. It captures the fear that springs from a danger that feels both predestined and utterly random while also engaging with the courage that comes from the desire to protect our own, no matter the cost.

A good thriller is a high-wire walk, one that requires an author to maintain complete control at all times. Finding the ideal balance between character and conflict requires both delicacy and bravado – and Waite pulls it off. We move from present to past and back, shifting perspectives from timeframe to timeframe and person to person, all in service to a chilling, haunting tale.

Published in Style

The last decade or so has seen an explosion of indigenous voices in the realm of speculative fiction. Native American and First Nations authors have always used elements of their respective cultures in their work, but the last 10 years has seen a real growth of distinct and diverse voices in the realms of fantasy, sci-fi, horror and the like.

One of the most prolific – and most talented – indigenous genre authors working right now is Stephen Graham Jones. In many ways, Graham, with his two dozen books over the past couple of decades, has led the way – he’s definitely a huge part of the vanguard.

His latest novel is “The Only Good Indians” (Gallery, $26.99), a tense and thrilling work of horror fiction. It’s a tale of the consequences – both mundane and supernatural – that spring from the decisions that are made. A decade ago, four friends embarked on a fateful hunting trip – one whose aftermath cast a ten-years long shadow over their lives … and the price ultimately paid.

Published in Buzz

This beloved game show host and television icon has a new book out in which he looks back on a long and storied career.

Who is … Alex Trebek?

The longtime host of “Jeopardy!” has written a memoir, titled “The Answer Is…: Reflections on My Life” (Simon & Schuster, $26). It’s a chance to not just celebrate who Trebek has become, but to remember the earlier parts of the journey that led here – and to do so in his own words.

It’s a gentle voyage, to be sure. In a lot of ways, the book offers up its titular answer in much the spirit of the game show that came to define him – simply, concisely and accurately. The book matches the man, largely genial but with just a hint of remove.

As it should be.

(This is where I remind everybody that I was a contestant on “Jeopardy!” In fact, I was reading this book two years to the day after I got the call that I was going to be on the show. Obviously, this influenced the way that I experienced this book and I’m not going to pretend full objectivity. Nor am I going to ignore an in-context opportunity to mention it. I apologize for nothing.)

Published in Style

Few writers are as fascinated by the intricacies of interconnectedness as David Mitchell. Fewer still have the literary skill to coherently translate those complexities to the page.

Yet the British author has built his entire oeuvre on doing just that. From his very first novel – 1999’s “Ghostwritten” – he has shown a propensity for creating layered stories featuring a multitude of perspectives from multiple points of view. And thanks to a wonderful narrative broadmindedness and wildly impressive attention to craft and detail, each of those meticulously-constructed books shares connections with all the other works in Mitchell’s canon, binding them all together in a sort of metanarrative – a David Mitchell Literary Universe (DMLU), if you will.

Mitchell’s ninth and newest book is “Utopia Avenue” (Random House, $30). It’s a story of the rise and fall of the titular band, an eclectic group of ahead-of-their-time musicians that fate (and an enterprising manager) brings together in London in the late 1960s. Through this idiosyncratic crew, Mitchell explores the peculiarities of fame and success during one of the weirdest, wildest times in the history of popular music.

It’s a sweeping psychedelic story, an alternate pop history that features a slew of famous and familiar names crossing the paths of our heroes in the course of their ascent. It’s a brightly colored and brutal fable that is equal parts celebration and warning regarding the raw power inherent to music. The pull of creative forces can sometimes be beyond our control, leaving the creator no choice but to hang on tight and hope for the best – a best that is far from guaranteed.

Published in Buzz

Celebrity memoirs are generally a tough sell for me. The notion that a famous person is going to tell me anything of substance about themselves – particularly in a book – seems unlikely. So often, these books are baldly self-celebratory with nary a hint of genuine introspection.

Colin Jost’s “A Very Punchable Face” (Crown, $27) isn’t the worst celebrity autobiography you’ll find. Jost, a longtime writer and “Weekend Update” host for “Saturday Night Live,” knows how to write and is unafraid to look foolish – a solid combination for someone presenting a book about their own life. While it might not be as thoughtful or reflective as you might like, Jost does pull back the curtain a little bit, particularly when it comes to his family and his Staten Island roots.

Again, it’s not some sort of soul search, but nor is it merely a wad of rehashed “SNL” backstage anecdotes (though it’s closer to the latter). Instead, we get a pleasant, perfectly cromulent memoir – one that focuses largely on the goofy stories, but still leaves room to talk a little bit about the stuff that matters.

Published in Style
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