Bookish Maine: An Off-Syllabus Field Trip

I’m so sorry I have been absent for the last couple of weeks! Last week I was traveling with my family, and I’ve also just moved into a new place, so it’s been a bit of a hectic August. The trip was wonderful, though. Readers who saw my review of The Witches will know that I was lucky enough to visit New England, a part of the country I’ve never really seen before. It was a bit of a whirlwind trip, and I’ll have at least a couple more posts about it in the future, but the bulk of the trip was spent in the southern region of Maine (and a pretty good portion of that was spent by the beach–as you can imagine, I got quite a bit of reading done, and I can’t wait to share my thoughts on those books with you).

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I’m perhaps not the most subtle when picking out beach reads.

One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to check out local bookstores, and luckily for me, there were two great options close by. One of them was a bookstore/coffee shop/bar combo I had remembered reading about in an article on Book Riot. I had remembered that the article included a place in Maine, but I figured it would probably be too far away to realistically justify the trip. Turns out, ELEMENTS: Books Coffee Beer was about a fifteen minute drive from where we were staying, making the trip a necessity.

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The name of this place alone was the first thing that attracted me–what more could you want? When I visited it was earlier in the day, with the vibe leaning more coffee shop than bar, and I immediately felt comfortable. ELEMENTS is exactly the kind of place I loved to frequent in college (it reminded me a bit of Columbus’s own Kafe Kerouac, where I spent a lot of time studying as an Ohio State student). It had an array of tables, a cozy sofa in the back, and most importantly, book shelves all around the walls. The books were organized by genre, with square-shaped chalkboard signs designating the different categories in tall capital letters that resembled an element on the Periodic Table (i.e., you might see “Fi” for Fiction, “Hu” for Humor, etc.). The bright colors, exposed brick, and plethora of windows made the inside warm and inviting, the kind of place where you could spend hours reading and writing as you refill a coffee mug; many of the patrons seemed to be doing just that. Being surrounded by books only made the place feel even more studious, and I wished I had brought my writing to work on.

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The selection of books was also surprisingly expansive–maybe not as wide as a traditional bookstore, but certainly enough for the place to earn its hybrid bookstore/coffee shop/bar title. It seemed to stock mostly used books, but everything was in good shape and sold at a pretty good bargain. My best find came from the sales cart in the back. The books there were a little more worn, but the titles themselves were often surprising. I scored a copy of The Lover by Marguerite Duras for a quarter! While I perused the book selection, I didn’t sample as much of the food and drink as I should have. In a bizarre, perhaps vacation-induced divergence from the norm, I was not in the mood for coffee when I visited, but the mug of chamomile tea I sipped while looking through the stacks was perfect. The staff was also kind and conversational. The woman who rang me up for my books told me that if I was interested in bookstores, I definitely had the check out the ones in nearby Portland–a piece of advice I’m glad I heeded.

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I had just a blip of time to spend in Portland, but a quick Google search told me that if I only had time for one bookstore, the independent bookstore Longfellow Books was probably it. It’s in the hub of downtown Portland, making it an easy walk from a lot of the tourist attractions along the harbor. Longfellow Books was physically a bit smaller than I was expecting, but the size didn’t keep them from having a great selection, and they used their space well; the amount of books was dense but well organized, and it was easy to wend through the shelves and tables. The table displays and staff picks were interesting and well put-together, and the children’s section was impressively large, taking up what seemed to be about a third of the store. My quick Google search also told me that I had just missed a reading by Terry Tempest Williams (why did I have to be in Ohio the week before?), but in the midst of my disappointment, I remembered that a recent author visit probably meant that there were leftover signed books to be found. The friendly staff was able to locate the titles I was looking for right away, and sure enough, I went home with a signed copy of  Finding Beauty in a Broken World. As excited as I was about this, it was probably not the most memorable element of the bookstore experience at Longfellow. That award went to the resident bookstore cat, who was adorable, cuddly, and up for adoption.

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Whenever I travel, I always like to daydream about living in the place I’m visiting. What would it be like to be in this landscape all the time? Where would I go to get a cup of coffee? That’s why I like visiting local bookstores so much–the experience is a big part of what would make a place feel like home to me. After sampling a tiny slice of the bookstore culture in Maine, I think it’s pretty safe to say I can keep daydreaming about living there.

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THE WITCHES by Stacy Schiff

Later this summer, I will have the opportunity to travel to New England, a part of the country I’ve never been to before. The nexus of the trip is Maine, but I had an opportunity to plan a couple of day trips, and Salem immediately came to mind. I’ve always enjoyed learning about history, and as readers who have seen my October posts know, the occult is also a subject of endless fascination. As I started planning the trip, though, I realized that I didn’t know as many details about the witch trials as I would like to before visiting. It seemed like the perfect time to head to my local library and check out a book from my backlist–Stacy Schiff’s The Witches.

Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction writer, and The Witches certainly demonstrates why. It is a thoroughly researched and compelling account of the myriad factors–the people, the environment, the traditions, the historical context–that coalesced in 1692 Salem to create one of the most troubling and mysterious moments of our history. The scope of Schiff’s work here casts a wide net, but that doesn’t mean she grazes over any details. From what little information is available to us, Schiff is able to turn the actors in the trials into full characters, and to turn the panic, suspicion, and antipathy of Salem into a setting for this travesty. This is not a simple story of good guys and demons, nor of charade and liars; it is a real story of a real place, and so is inevitably as complicated and entangled as any moment of life and culture tends to be.

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In The Witches, Schiff introduces the reader not just to the men and women imprisoned, tried, and hanged for witchcraft, but also to their accusers and their judges. She lays the groundwork for the kind of place that Salem was at this time, the kind of place that could foster this sort of mass hysteria. I think, going in, I was expecting there to be a more tidy resolution: a known plot on the part of the accusers, for example, or a clear-cut agenda in the judges towards the people they tried and accused. It was surprising and, in ways, more disturbing to read about the ambiguity and complication that we’re left with. Schiff paints a picture of a community unique to its time: a rigidly religious community where anything other than hard work and prostration before God was seen as suspect and dangerous. Schiff puts the reader into this world, one that presses down upon you with constant surveillance and paranoia. She writes about the world as the Puritans saw it, highlighting the “incidents” of witchcraft as another part of the cultural landscape. This was a world constantly under threat, and as a reader, you feel this threat. The witch-fever seems, instead of anomalous, almost inevitable.

Of course, the horror of the innocent deaths is not underplayed. Perhaps one of the most chilling passages was the execution of George Burroughs, a former Salem minister that had been accused of being the ringleader of the scourge of witches. Schiff details the moments before his death, in which Burroughs delivered a stirring sermon in argument for his innocence, and in hope of the Lord’s mercy. He then proceeded to perfectly recite the Lord’s Prayer (a task which was put before accused witches–it was believed that a witch could not say the prayer without stuttering or faltering, which many did.) The crowd reacted to Burroughs: “For a few moments it seemed–tears welling in the eyes even of prominent men–as if the crowd would obstruct the execution.” But of course, it proceeded, and over the protests of the crowd, one of Salem’s leaders, Mather, assured them that the very thing that should have proven Burroughs’ innocence instead ensured his guilt. Schiff explains: “The devil stood beside Burroughs, dictating to him. Who else could preach so eloquently? […] Minutes later the minister dangled from a semi-finished beam. The life had not gone from his body when Mather stepped in to smother the sparks of discontent […] What better disguise might the devil choose on such an occasion than to masquerade as ‘an angel of light’? It was time-honored tactic. In the encyclopedia of backhanded compliments, this one qualified among the greatest; to the last, George Burroughs was to be condemned for his gifts. His sentence had been a just one, Mather assured the crowd. The protests quieted, as did the minister who dangled in midair. He may have heard a portion of Mather’s remarks.”

The grip of this insistence of evil in the accused–and the insistence of justice on the side of the accusers–is infuriating throughout. But it is also complicated: again, Schiff has done an excellent job of building the world in which these events transpired. We may never fully understand the perfect combination of factors that fomented this kind of mass delusion, which was unusual and noteworthy even in its time. Then again, we might. The biggest takeaway from The Witches is that a society built on paranoia–on the certainty that deviants are a threat, on the constant surveillance of neighbors and friends, on the fractious community that this kind of value system engenders–can easily allow terror and hatred to overtake logic and compassion. It’s a dark stain on our history, and a prescient reminder, making this book worth the haunting read. (For a condensed version, you can read Schiff’s New Yorker article on the subject here.)

Midnight Release Party for HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD: An Off-Syllabus Field Trip

The last installment in the Harry Potter series released nine years ago, but it’s been clear from that point onward that neither J.K. Rowling nor Harry Potter fans are done with the wizarding world. On this blog alone I’ve written a travelogue of the Potterverse theme park attraction in Universal Studios and a review of the supplemental “textbooks” Rowling published. Rowling is constantly updating fans on her fictional universe, either by describing the future and progeny of her characters or giving more insight into the already-existent canon, sometimes to the ire of her fans (to be clear: Team Ron and Hermione forever). In November, we’ll even be getting a new Potterverse movie about Newt Scamander, the magizoologist who wrote one of Harry’s textbooks, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. The Harry Potter phenomenon has never really ended, and it doesn’t seem like it will anytime soon. Even still, it was a surreal and wonderful experience to be standing in line at a bookstore at 11:59 p.m. waiting for a new Harry Potter book.

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To celebrate, I went to the release party hosted by my favorite bookstore, Half Price Books (where, full disclosure and all, I worked until recently). I arrived with other Harry Potter fans at the bookstore at 10 p.m., waiting in a line designated by Marauder’s-Map style footprints leading to the kid’s section. We were all given slips of paper reserving a copy of the book for us, and then we were free to roam about until about 11:30. The store had crafts and snacks set up in the kid’s section, including Butterbeer (creme soda), Felix Felicis (lemonade), and Every Flavor Beans. The employees were all dressed up in Hogwarts attire, and one person led a game of Harry Potter trivia. Other than that, we were free to hang out and continue shopping until it was time to line up (and of course, exploring a bookstore is one of my favorite activities).

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At about 11:30, we all lined up, eagerly chatting away about Harry Potter trivia. I overheard discussions about Hogwarts houses (“You’re not a Hufflepuff! Stop lying! You are totally a Ravenclaw!”) and memories of the last time spent waiting in a midnight line. There were people of all ages there, and as many single adults as families. Everyone was friendly and excited. When the time finally came, all four registers opened–each of the employees sporting different house colors. The manager directed us to the next available register with a point of her wand and the cadence of the Sorting Hat: “Slytherin! Ravenclaw! Gryffindor!” And then suddenly, there was a new Harry Potter book in my hands, along with a poster, a lightning bolt temporary tattoo, and a “Fantastic Beasts” sticker. I’m trying very hard to avoid corny, obvious puns, but it really did feel a bit magic.

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My opinion on the book itself? I won’t give any spoilers, but if you’re even trying to avoid reviews, go ahead and stop reading. The book itself was a bit of a mix for me. There was a lot about it that I liked (mostly the characters, some of them new and some of them further developed from the original story). There were some elements that I wish were different. The plot is not what I would have expected–it was both a little out there and also not the most original? But it did provide some fun character explorations, even if it didn’t do much else for me. Reading the story in play format was actually pretty enjoyable, and more than anything, it made me REALLY wish I could see the staged performance (some of the stage directions and plot points just don’t even seem possible, so I’m sure it’s spectacular). Basically, I fall somewhere in the middle of reactions towards it. I enjoyed myself well enough, but I understand (and agree with) some of the criticisms.

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In the end, my ambivalence about the story didn’t take away from the fun. The experience of going to the bookstore, of bringing home a new Harry Potter title, of opening the cover (slowly, reverently) and reading the first words one more time, brought me so much joy. The story might not be perfect, but the evening was.

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So, did you go to a midnight release party? What did you think of The Cursed Child? I would love to hear your feedback in the comments!