Tag Archives: Maine

Summer Reads: A Double Header: Italy and Maine

Destinations: Italy and Maine

Books: Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen (NEW in June, 2015)

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim (originally published 1922, NEW in Penguin Classics in June, 2015 with introduction by Brenda Bowen.)

Four women who are strangers come together to rent a vacation home for a month. They become friends, renew romantic attachments with the men left at home and experience the magic of place.

That describes both of these books. The venerable The Enchanted April (Penguin Classics), first published in 1922 by Elizabeth Von Arnim and the new book inspired by that one–Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen.

I realize that the style of Elizabeth Von Arnim can seem a bit dated–the book is, after all, 83 years old. But I enjoy the trip back in time and a refresher course in the dry wit and emphasis on propriety of manners seen in books from England in the 20s.

Of course, the thing that everyone enjoys about this book is not the time travel, but the travel to a gorgeous piece of the world–Italy–somewhere near a coastal village, in a mansion practically smothered in flower beds, where flowers bloom all summer, presenting a constantly changing foreground for the mountains and the sea.

I had seen the movie (1992), but not read the book. I remembered gorgeous scenery, but not much more.

I am very glad I had this opportunity to read Von Arnim’s original book. Two women meet in a private club in London where they both have noticed an ad for an Italy villa for rent in Italy. Lottie Wilkins persuades Rose Arbuthnot to join her there, and they recruit the beautiful and well-born Caroline Dester. The fourth character, Mrs. Fisher, is an older woman who likes to name drop about famous people she knew, and judge everyone around her.

 There were many things she disliked more than anything else, and one was when the elderly imagined they felt young and behaved accordingly.

Von Arnim’s well-crafted sentences of description are what was missing from the movie, although the movie showed us the scenery that we can only imagine in the book, as when Lottie first looks out her bedroom window in Italy.

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet.  The sun poured in on her.  The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring.  Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violet and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.

As I rewatch the movie on Netflix, Joan Plowright, as the very proper Mrs. Fisher, recruited to help pay the rent, still cracks me up. Mrs. Fisher’s mannered observations bring to mind Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey.  And lo and behold, Elizabeth Von Arnim makes an appearance in Downtown Abbey, so perhaps the writer was influenced by her as he penned the character of Violet.

Please don’t skip the introduction to the Penguin edition of The Enchanted April.  It frames the book perfectly, and sets the scene for the time and the style. Perhaps it will lead you to Brenda Bowen’s book, Enchanted August

Bowen, who obviously adores Von Arnim, updates the 1920s book’s concept, placing it firmly in the 20th century. Playing to an American audience rather than the British home of the other author, the book is set in Maine. The two women who launch the idea–Lottie and Rose, and the woman trying to escape all her adorers, Caroline Dester, share the names and character traits of the matching characters in The Enchanted April.

Class disparities in the American version are  based on occupation and celebrity rather than inherited titles.  Lottie and Rose meet at their children’s upscale preschool in Brooklyn rather than in a private club in London. Caroline is a movie star instead of a titled wealthy woman

Lifestyle changes in the past 80-plus years are striking. The large cottage in Maine has no servants. Unlike their predecessors in that isolated Italian villa, where they had only each other, the ladies interact with other summer residents on the small island somewhere near Mount Desert.  The two younger women have children–an encumbrance that would merely have cluttered the lives of the women in Von Arnim’s book. And of course they must worry a great deal about computer reception and cell phones with no signal.

While the women in the English book take advantage of the isolation to contemplate their lives, the American women busy themselves with projects–Rose in the village library and Caroline with a teen age drama group. Is this lack of introspection an American trait, or a casualty  of the cultural changes between 1920 and 2015?

Admittedly, in 1922, Caroline Dester also has no desire to tax herself with introspection as she lies in the sun in the Italian garden:

It was very curious, and no one in the world could have been more surprised than she herself, but she wanted to think. She had never wanted to do that before…She had not been there more than a few hours when this strange new desire took hold of her.

I found one other difference to be perhaps whimsical but. to my mind unnecessary. One of the characters–the fusty older woman, Mrs. Fisher– became a fusty older gay man, Beverly Fisher, grieving the passing of his partner, a famous poet.  At the risk of sounding incredibly politically incorrect and insensitive, I have to ask,”Why has it become obligatory to include at least one gay character in every book, movie, and TV show?” Does that make up for pretending they did not exist for the past 200 years of American literature and entertainment? I don’t think so. The question should be, what does this sex change of a character add to the book?

Answer: The character of Beverly Fisher is pivotal to Enchanted August, replacing the cook in the original version with his gourmet creations, eliciting much more sympathy than the older woman in the original, and in general practically stealing the show. But it takes away the intimacy of a women-only retreat and their sharing of knowledge about their own development and the men they deal with or have dealt with.

In general, Enchanted August presents a lovely escapists novel for summer reading. But Brenda Bowen’s writing is uneven. She took a great chance in allowing her first adult novel to be compared to the seasoned writing of Elizabeth Von Armin. There are times when Bowen rises almost to the eloquence of Von Armin, although she is writing about a much less eloquent age. And through most of the book I was eagerly turning pages to see how things would turn out for one of the characters, who were appealing each in their own way.  However, there were also times when the plot seemed to bog down in trivia and the unnecessary intrusion of subplots concerning the island’s summer crowd.

Which place would I most want to go for a month?  If I could travel back in time, as well as distance (and at 1920’s prices), the Italian villa would be a dream.  But all things considered, I have to admit that I would probably be most comfortable in a large cottage on an island in Maine.

How about you?  Would you like to inhabit the world of The Enchanted April, or that of Enchanted August. Or does a month away with three other women sound awful. Or if you’re a guy–would you join these four women if invited?

Back to Maine with Paul Doiron

A mystery set in Maine
CD: The Bone Orchard

Destination: Maine

Book: The Bone Orchard by Paul Doiron. Reviewed from McMillan audiobook read by Henry Leyva.

Maine mystery stream
Extreme low water at Barrows falls on the Piscataquis River in Monson. From Flickr. Click for more.

Good grief.  This is torture.  Summer temps are in triple digits here in southern Arizona, and I read the bio of author of Maine mystery books, Paul Doiron, “He lives on a trout stream in coastal Maine with his wife.”

Since I’ll be meandering through Maine on my way to Nova Scotia later this year, I don’t let my envy stop me from listening to The Bone Orchard.  And I am rewarded with a delightful tour through Maine as well as a ripping good story.

I am a lot more enthusiastic about the fifth book in the Mike Bowditch Maine mystery series than I was about the fourth one, Massacre Pond, that I reviewed last year.  I suggest you take a look at that review, too, because what I had to say about the reader on the audio tape (same one for both books) and about the Maine Game Warden service still applies.

What is different about The Bone Orchard is that I care a lot more about the victims. Also, because Bowditch is no longer employed by the Warden service he is able to wander around the state instead of being confined to basically one patch of woods. It was good to get a look at Portland, Augusta, the far north of Maine in Presque Islae and the settlement of Sweden, and other glimpses of the variety of the state in addition to the woods.

Setting in Maine mystery
View from cabin in Sweden Maine. Photo from Flickr. Click for more info.

On Doiron’s website you can find a map of “Mike Bowditch’s Maine”, but unfortunately it only covers the first three Maine Mystery books.  A map showing all the wanderings in The Bone Orchard would take a lot of work, but would certainly be interesting.

I complained in that last review that I did not feel the personal aspects of Mike Bowditch’s life were well integrated into the book.  The Bone Orchard structure seemed to me to make much more sense. Still the classic troubled modern man/detective in this book, he has voluntarily left the service to become a hunting and fishing guide. While he is still a bit haunted by his mother’s death from cancer and fumbling to reconcile himself with two past love interests, these personal concerns make more sense within the context of a vicious attack on the woman who has been his mentor in the Game Warden service.

Mike Bowditch’s independent nature makes it plausible that he would delve into solving a crime even though he is no longer a officer of the law.  The story is gripping and I found myself neglecting a long queue of recorded programs on my television and turn on the CD player so I could hear what happened next in this enticing Maine mystery.

As for this book’s value to travelers…..One of the downsides of reviewing audio books is that it is a lot more difficult for me to quote passages from the author. You’ll have to take my word for it, that even if you’re living in a more temperate climate than I am, you’ll be very tempted to take a road trip through Maine after you read Paul Doiron’s descriptions.

Note: MacMillan audio provided the audiobook for review, but that does not affect what I tell you about the book.  Links here to Amazon make your shopping easier and earn a few cents for A Traveler’s Library. Thanks for shopping Amazon through my links. (It costs you no more.)

Novelist from Russia Bridges Two Worlds

Book by Russian Novelist
Destination: Russia and Maine

Book: The Scent of Pine by Lara Vapnyar

When I read books in translation, there is always the nagging doubt that the writer’s true intent has come through in the second-hand version. But Lara Vapnyar, a writer from Russia who lives in the United States and writes in English, handles her adopted language so adeptly that there is no need for translation.

Russia pine forest painting
Painting , Morning in a Pine Forest (1899) by Ivan Shishkin and
Konstantin Savitsky . From the Hermitage. In public domain.

Generally, at A Traveler’s Library, we read books that describe a particular country or region so vividly that the book makes us want to drop everything and go there.  But there is another way to “get inside the skin” of a country we want to know more about.  Read books by authors from that place, like Lara Vapnyar, novelist from Russia.

Maine pine forest
Wood canvas canoe on Munsungan Stream just above the falls, Maine. Photo by NIck Gallop

In The Scent of Pine: A Novel, we see both a cabin in the woods of Maine and summer camp in Russia,  in both cases the scenes focus on the people than the place. And for once, that’s okay with A Traveler’s Library.

Vapnyar tells us about the stages of her character’s adoption of life in America during thirteen years after coming from Russia.

Originally, she had imagined America as a land steeped in adventure, which filled her with panicky adoration.  Then there was the incomprehension and dejection which characterized her first months in America, when everything had seemed so strange and hostile: the scenery, the climate, the people.  Mostly the people.  Everybody seemed to participate in a complicated game based on very particular rules.  But eventually, she stopped looking at Americans as a unified mass. 

This is no doubt very personal, since the novelist had been in American 13 years when she wrote this.

While this section is setting up the dissatisfaction and loneliness that fuels the action of the novel, it strikes me as an accurate portrayal of anyone who tries to adapt to a new country, not just immigrants from Russia to the United States.  And that includes Americans who try living in a different land as several books about moving to Tuscany, Paris or Spain  have illustrated.

In The Scent of Pine, Lena goes to an academic conference and meets another academic, Ben.  She is married with two children. He is engaged to a long-time partner. But the two of them hook up, and Lena decides instead of going home to Boston, she’s going to go with Ben to his cabin in Maine for the weekend.  Along the way she tells him the story of her summer as a camp counselor in Russia.

Maine woods
Maine woods. Photo by Angi English

The Scent of Pine is a  novel about story-telling. Stories make time pass, but they also can elongate time.  Lena thinks

The story will be over sooner or later.  As will the story of Lena and Ben.  If only she could learn some of Scheherazade’s storytelling magic and make it last.

And as their weekend affair continues, we are kept in suspense by the present story of Lena and Ben, and the many complications in her story of summer camp. She weaves her story until, inevitably, past meets present in surprising ways.

Lest you think this story of two sad people will be a drag–Vapynar writes with a knowing wit that will have you chuckling in recognition of life’s foibles.

The thing that particularly struck me about the summer camp was not so much the cultural differences–well yes, American camps would probably not be next door to military camps and have the mixing of personnel–but the similarities. The teenage concern with clothes and music, the younger children’s homesickness and the bad food and boring activities. And the flying saucers.

Lara Vapnyar, it turns out, learned English from reading Romance novels and watching the movie Pretty Woman before moving on to more complex uses of the language. The makes it particularly striking that she presents this off-beat romance in such a lovably realistic way. The lovers are shy, bumbling, unsure and no one knows where their tryst is leading.

In my case, the novel leads to wanting to read more of Vapnyar’s books–particularly her debut There Are Jews in My House, a collection of short stories, and Memoirs of a Muse, which is described as a satiric coming-of-age novel.