Peaks Island Press

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Book Love: An island tradition welcomes babies

Mira Ptacin and Theo on Peaks Island

Mira Ptacin and Theo on Peaks Island

New Year is a time for sweeping gestures that clear off the surfaces of our lives, clarifying what we could have done, if only our daily habits hadn’t hijacked our best intentions. In that new year spirit, I share this story of Book Love, a beautiful tradition that welcomes babies to Peaks Island. This is a story that I’ve been meaning to write for many, many months. Enter island author, Mira Pitacin (and her little Theo), to whom I’m grateful for helping me share this tradition.

Many Peaks Islanders have met Mira, a creative nonfiction and children’s book author whose essays have appeared in everything from New York Magazine to Epiphany Literary Magazine. A graduate of the MFA program in nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence College in 2009, Mira currently teaches writing at another of her alma mater, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.

Mira writes of her transition to Peaks Island in one of her recent articles, “Is a Baby a Luxury?” (published in Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics): “One morning in October, ten weeks after moving to Maine, I woke up feeling awfully nauseous. A chemical stick revealed that the life of our little family was about to change. We were overjoyed. But not insured.” The heartbreak, joys, and angst of the journey to motherhood and the economics of health insurance and child-rearing are among the life-stuff that Mira bravely charts for her readers.

This past summer, when Mira and her husband, Andrew, welcomed baby Theo into their lives, they experienced a beloved tradition maintained by the Friends of the Peaks Island Branch of the Portland Public Library. In the midst of those bleary first few weeks of sleeplessness and new routines, Mira heard a knock at her door. I’ll let her tell the rest:

“I was about 15 days a mom, sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, scared, hormonal, overstuffed with visitors. I was on the verge of a meltdown (not really but somewhat) when there was a knock on the door and a totally unexpected guest bearing a gift–a tiny little bag with tiny little books for my tiny little human. I felt so much love in that moment, and so much support from the Peaks Island community, and also felt that from them towards my son. That’s when I bear-hugged the deliverer of the bag and possibly held on longer and more tightly than she’d expected. But she’s a mom and I think she could remember how I must’ve felt. Anyway, the whole experience was one of the best and most poignant ones from the first memories of being a new mom. Powerful stuff.”

The “unexpected guest” a.k.a. library book angel was island resident, Kathryn Moxhay, a member of the library Friends group that shares this book love, celebrating new readers one birth at a time.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine.

Making Sense of Madness: Julie Fisher Talks about Democracy

Author Julie Fisher event

From riots and imprisoned journalists to dictators and free elections, Julie Fisher’s scope manages to make sense of what at first appears to be sheer madness globally – a march toward democracy. As Peaks Island Press published in July, the struggles in Turkey, Egypt, and other countries that have inflamed international news have also spotlighted the most recent book published by Peaks Island scholar and author Julie Fisher. Fisher’s hot-off-the-press Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan, and Argentina (Kettering Foundation Press, 2013) illuminates the nature of struggles for democracy internationally with a clarity that should make Americans sit up and take notice. While much U.S. foreign policy tries to export democracy militarily or by fostering free elections, Fisher advocates for a fuller understanding of what’s required for democracy to “stick,” one that would support countries engaged in democratization.

Now it’s your opportunity to hear her speak and ask the questions that trouble you every time you read the newspaper. The Friends of the Peaks Island branch of the Portland Public Library are hosting Julie on Tuesday, November 19th at 7:00 PM in the Peaks Island Community Room.

Homemaking, Snowbabies, and the Search for the North Pole: Josephine Diebitsch Peary and the Making of National History

North by Degree

North by Degree

After crossing Casco Bay by ferry, packages are delivered to islanders by the taxi driver. This week, I found a package on my doorstep and hurried it inside, just as a rainstorm hit the island. I was thrilled to find that it  contained a copy of the newly-published book “North by Degree: New Perspectives on Arctic Exploration” (Lightning Rod Press, American Philosophical Society) that includes my article “Homemaking, Snowbabies, and the Search for the North Pole: Josephine Diebitsch Peary and the Making of National History.”

Josephine Diebitsch Peary

Josephine Diebitsch Peary

Since 2007, Peaks Island Press has offered its readers a glimpse of the daily lives, inspirations, and publications of the many authors who call Peaks Island home. Once in a great while, I turn the spotlight on myself and share something about my own writing process or publications. “Homemaking, Snowbabies, and the Search for the North Pole” started with a conference presentation that I gave at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia in 2008 where an amazing assemblage of speakers gathered to bring new perspective to the history of Arctic exploration. The timing was very meaningful as 2008 was the centennial of Robert E. Peary’s 1908-09 North Pole Expedition and it was also the fourth International Polar Year. I was honored to be invited to share my research: an account of Robert Peary’s quest for the North Pole through the eyes of his wife, Josephine. Here’s an excerpt from the article to give you a sense for the story:

Patricia Erikson in Greenland, researching Josephine Peary

Patricia Erikson in Greenland, researching Josephine Peary

“The notoriously deadly and tragic outcomes of many prior Arctic expeditions had made the idea of taking a woman, more specifically a white woman, to the Arctic seem ridiculous to the American public in the 1890s. In 1891, three years after their marriage, Josephine embarked on her first of several Arctic expeditions with Robert Peary. She did this despite public criticism that the expedition was too dangerous for her and in spite of the male expedition members who resented her presence and what they called her “scandalously short” traveling costume. (Erikson, p. 266).

I don’t believe my research travels ever involved a scandalously short traveling costume, but I did a fair amount of retracing Josephine’s footsteps before I wrote about her. That journey included interviewing Peary family members, visiting the Peary cottage at Eagle Island, diving into the archives at the Maine Women Writers Collection (UNE), at Bowdoin College, and at Dartmouth College, and traveling to Qaanaaq, Greenland to gather oral history from Inuit peoples whose ancestors played crucial roles in the Peary expeditions. I’ll share more about these adventures for those of you who love research, non-fiction, and travel.

In the meantime, if you’d like to read some of my writing about the Peary family, you can check out the following that are available online:

Come aboard for Sailing & Seamanship book events with Twain Braden

Boats on Peaks IslandA few months ago, Peaks Island Press caught up with Twain Braden to talk about his newest publication, The Complete Guide to Sailing & Seamanship. Now that we’ve had what may be the hottest day of summer and this finely-illustrated and -narrated book has hit the docks, it’s time to turn out to hear Braden and illustrator, Sam Manning, speak at Longfellow Books on Monument Square this Wednesday, July 17, at 7 p.m.

If your barbecue schedule conflicts with the event this week, then don’t despair, Braden will also speak at the Peaks Island branch of the Portland Public Library next week, Monday, July 22, at 7 p.m. This talk will entail more of a hands-on discussion of navigation techniques. Feel free to bring charts and navigational tools if you’re interested in learning coastal piloting skills.


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Importing Democracy: Peaks Islander Julie Fisher influences dialogue on world affairs

Julie Fisher, giving a radio interview by phone

Julie Fisher, giving a radio interview by phone

Struggles in Turkey, Egypt, and other countries have inflamed international news recently and, in the process, spotlighted the most recent book published by Peaks Island scholar and author Julie Fisher. Fisher’s hot-off-the-press Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan, and Argentina (Kettering Foundation Press, 2013) illuminates the nature of struggles for democracy internationally with a clarity that should make Americans sit up and take notice. While much U.S. foreign policy tries to export democracy militarily or by fostering free elections, Fisher advocates for a fuller understanding of what’s required for democracy to “stick,” one that would support countries engaged in democratization.

My visit with Fisher at her island home coincided with one of her many radio interviews, some given in studios and others by phone. Since our interview followed on the heels of the ouster of Egypt’s President Morsi, Egypt started our conversation.

“Democracy is a ‘puzzle’ whose various pieces must find their place. Egypt is the number one story in the news right now. In order to get the democratization process going anywhere, you need a whole triangle of processes; Egypt demonstrates that election is only one piece of the democratization puzzle,” Fisher said.

What are the elements of the triangle of democratization? It goes something like this:

1) Loyal Opposition (the opposition to policies of a ruling regime without overthrow); and
2) Popular Support (as seen in protests demanding accountability of government); and
3) Civil Society (the whole collection of organizations that are non governmental, such as churches, non-profits, and community organizations).

Fisher explains that most countries achieve political participation and protests, but not loyal opposition. Or, their civil society is too weak to carry forward the work of protests because she said, “People tire of being in the streets. They need the non-profit organizations to continue the change.” Importing Democracy outlines several case studies of what Fisher calls “democratization NGOs”, or the “spear carriers” that help strengthen democratization processes. These case studies are based upon her own research.

Importing Democracy by Julie Fisher

Importing Democracy by Julie Fisher

Fisher’s new book is garnering attention locally and internationally. Keith Shortall of Maine Things Considered invited her to speak with him about the ideals of U.S. democracy in honor of Independence Day; this interview joined that of many other radio stations from California to Colorado and Minnesota to Florida. Fisher was also invited to speak at the The Anne Frank Center USA in New York City and at the Library of Congress.

If you would like to meet Julie or see her book, you can catch her this week at the Color and Pages of Peaks event on July 12-13 or you can attend her Brown Bag Lecture and book signing at the Portland Public Library on September 27th at noon.

Twain Braden: The Complete Guide to Sailing & Seamanship


Twain Braden with his newest boat renovation project

A year and a half ago, Peaks Island Press caught up with Twain Braden when he and his family migrated back to “the Rock,” back to living on Peaks Island like so many other families who have left and then returned, including my own. The 2011 post talked about his Ghosts of the Pioneers and hinted that his next book was in production. Now, “The Complete Guide to Sailing & Seamanship” (Skyhorse Publishing 2013) is hitting the market just in time for the intended audience – beginner and expert sailors alike – to grab a copy before they give up leisurely reading for hauling sails. Although Twain practices law, he’s also known to be the kind of guy who clings to a bowsprit in 30 knot winds, if that’s what the situation demands. Suffice it to say, Twain is not your average island author. A Complete Guide to Sailing & Seamanship joins a long list of Twain’s maritime publications – Wooden Boat and Ocean Navigator articles,  The Handbook of Sailing Techniques: Professional Tips, Expert Advice, Essential Skills (2003) and the non-fiction thriller In Peril: A Daring Decision, a Captain’s Resolve, and the Salvage that Made History written with Skip Strong (2003[2005].

Unlike most encyclopedic manuals, The Complete Guide to Sailing & Seamanship animates instructional methods with stories of maritime adventures and beautiful illustrations. Everything from knots and lines to sailboat anatomy to anchoring, mooring, and berthing has its own chapter. By interweaving stories from his experience as a mariner with hands-on techniques, Twain makes clear the critical importance of good seamanship.


Twain Braden looks over the page proofs of The Complete Guide to Sailing & Seamanship

Readers of this newest book will be delighted to see that Twain has partnered with world-renowned marine illustrator Sam Manning who Mainers know from his over 30 years of illustration for Wooden Boat Magazine. Over 100 black and white illustrations enhance this guidebook.

Looking over the page proofs of the book, Twain pointed out one of Manning sketches that illustrates the story of a particular journey by the schooner, Bagheera, from Maryland to its new home in Maine. Twain has described the experience of the Bagheera losing its propeller and getting hammered by a storm front.


Twain points to one of Sam Manning’s sketches that illustrates one of Bagheera’s misadventures

Navigator, Jan./Feb. 2003, “

“At some point on that cold, miserable night, I made the choice to turn back for Gloucester. Twenty to 25 knots and a few breaking waves was one thing. Thirty to 40 knots and green water washing down the decks of an old boat that deserved better – and a seasick crew – was no one’s idea of a good time…We ultimately limped into Portland, Maine, feeling more like whipped dogs than conquering heroes (see Ocean Navigator “It’s hard to go home again”).

You’ll have to grab a copy of The Complete Guide to hear more of these stories. And with the renovation of a 20 foot Small Point One Design yacht under way (see above) with Lawrence Mott, more adventures are sure to follow.

Empowering from Within: Julie Fisher Melton

Julie works on her third book at a partners desk she shares with her husband

Chatting with Julie Fisher Melton is like taking a virtual round-the-world tour, so don’t do it unless you’re ready to either go where her professional travels have taken her or strap on your best walking shoes and keep up with her as she hikes around Peaks Island. Either way, you’re likely to see the world through her eyes, something that international organizations have sought for years. Julie – a Pomona College alum and doctoral graduate of John Hopkins University – has shared her extensive experience with and research about NGOs (non-government organizations) in two books: The Road from Rio: Sustainable Development and the Nongovernmental Movement in the Third World, Praeger, 1993; and Nongovernments: NGOs and the Political Development of the Third World, Kumarian, 1998. A third book is under contract with her former employer, Kettering Foundation.

Julie’s passion centers on empowering people, collectively, to address problems affecting their lives, their community, and their nation. We’re talking about poverty, unemployment, and every manner of exploitation – not issues for the faint of heart, but then a woman whose career began researching how civil organizations worked in Latin American squatter neighborhoods doesn’t shirk from challenges.

Julie holds a piece of her grandmother's rose medallion porcelain from 1850s China

In “Road from Rio” Julie wrote, “Poverty, population, and environmental degradation ride roughshod over the aspirations and hopes of people everywhere…Third World NGOs will be essential contributors to this process [of survival], provided their remarkable creativity is understood and supported.” As a former consultant for Save the Children, she knows a great deal about the challenges facing a large proportion of the world’s population. When I asked her more about her work, Julie articulated the broad gulf between typical forms of international aid interventions and the local facilitation and empowerment from the grassroots level upward. After researching in Latin America, Argentina, South Africa, and Tajikistan, she’s quite certain that the latter model promises the best potential for sustainable change and improvement in people’s lives.

If you’re looking for inspiration on how to make the world a better place, be thankful that Julie keeps writing.

Twain Braden: Ghosts of the Pioneers

Twain Braden

When it comes to journeys, Twain Braden knows how to take them – and how to write about them. Professional mariner, lawyer, camp director, and writer, this renaissance man has returned to Peaks Island with his wife, Leah, and their four children after “living “away” since 2003. He returns with several published books and articles to his name with more in the queue.

A graduate of Hobart College and Charleston School of Law, Twain braves not only legal tomes but the unexpected adventures that wilderness trips and sailing the Atlantic Ocean or Caribbean Sea can throw at him. I got to know Twain and Leah as near-neighbors who had a son the same age as my daughter. Our shared stories broadened when my husband helped Twain (then co-owner of Portland Schooner Co with Scott Reischmann), sail the historic schooner Bagheera from Delaware up to its new home in Portland. These days, when he’s not sailing or writing, he’s directing Camp Glen Brook in Marlborough, NH.

Twain has published articles with Wooden Boat, Northern New England Journey, and Ocean Navigator. He also authored The Handbook of Sailing Techniques: Professional Tips, Expert Advice, Essential Skills (2003) and the non-fiction thriller In Peril: A Daring Decision, a Captain’s Resolve, and the Salvage that Made History written with Skip Strong (2003[2005] – both published with The Lyons Press.

Ghosts of the Pioneers

The summer before Twain graduated from law school in the spring of 2007, he and his family embarked upon a cross-country journey that led to the publication of Ghosts of the Pioneers: A Family Search for the Independent Oregon Colony of 1844. Twain blogged as they camped from Charleston to Independence, Miss. and then followed the Oregon Trail. In places, such as along a stretch of Rte 80 in Nebraska, major roads overlay the historic trail’s path. In other more rural areas, wagon wheel ruts remained visible. Twain’s first-person narrative  juxtaposes the story of the Independent Oregon Colony’s arduous journey westward with his family’s own modern-day trip. None other than documentary film director/producer Ken Burns said of Ghost of the Pioneers “This is a wonderful, close-to-the-earth book about the West, that magical place where the best of us met the worst of us and nothing was ever the same.”

Welcome back to The Rock, Twain, where writers are always welcome! We’re looking forward to the news of your next book, already in the hands of a publisher.

Twain's Writing Closet

Stalking the Ghost Bird with Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg at Trout Pond on Peaks Island

Ancient forests, ghost birds, and intrepid scientists. This might sound like a blurb for Rollins’ sci-fi Amazonia, but instead it describes the non-fiction content of Michael Steinberg’s “Stalking the Ghost Bird: The Elusive, Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in Louisiana” (Louisiana State University Press, 2008).

“I was always interested in birds growing up in Missouri. I would read Peterson’s Field Guide every night before bed. Then, once on vacation in Florida, I thought I spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker. Ever since then, I followed the news of sightings.” This love of birds and the environment led Mike into the field of Geography and eventually into a teaching position  at the University of Southern Maine. There his academic writing focused on Mayans in Belize who were adapting their indigenous agricultural traditions to a drug economy. Steinberg and his family were then lured out of state by other opportunities that allowed him to write and publish Stalking the Ghost Bird – a culmination of his lifelong interest in this bird.

Stalking the Ghost Bird

The book recounts how scientists cautiously refused to disclose their rediscovery of the supposedly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker  until, finally, they captured a short video and sound clip of the bird. Publication of their findings in Science triggered frenzied media coverage and controversy among birders and scientists who disagree – and continue to disagree – about whether the bird really exists. Mike’s writing explores the public fascination with this mysterious species.

These days, Mike migrates a fair amount himself, living part-time on Peaks and part-time in Tuscaloosa where he teaches at the University of Alabama. He brings his research and writing to Maine in summer where he enjoys time with his wife and two sons. “We wanted to move back, to move our boys to where lots of families pursue outdoor adventure for themselves and their kids. Maine is that place for us. Definitely.”

Maine’s literary community has led Mike on a different kind of journey; he enrolled in and graduated from the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing, a two-year low residency program based out of the historic Stone House – a waterfront property designed by John Calvin Stevens in 1918. He now appreciates the skills entailed in writing narrative non-fiction.

Traversing a Peaks Island wetland by boardwalk

We won’t need to wait long to read another of his books. I pulled him away from editing his latest manuscript so that we could traverse together the cattails surrounding Peaks Island’s Trout Pond. In between pulling me out of the mud and pointing out a cedar waxwing, he balanced on a jagged boardwalk and described how “A Brook Trout Pilgrimage” (under contract with University of North Carolina Press) recounts his pilgrimage through brook trout habitats from northern Georgia to Labrador. “I’ve gone from the ivory-billed woodpecker to brook trout.” The connection? “They’re both indicator species – one for bottomland forests and the other for cold water habitats.”

Mike and his family join many who have left Peaks, only to return once again. I’d like to think the island’s literary habitat drew him back. Whatever the reason, we’re glad for it.

Nancy 3. Hoffman: Uncovered and Exposed

Uncovered and Exposed by Hoffman

Hoffman's Guide to the World's Only Umbrella Cover Museu

The extraordinary Nancy 3. Hoffman has added “published author” to her notable list of achievements that already includes singer, accordionist, pianist, musical director, and Curator/Director of the world’s only Umbrella Cover Museum. Her performances with the Casco Bay Tummlers Klezmer Band and The Maine Squeeze accordion ensemble have demonstrated Nancy’s talents to audiences nationally and internationally, but founding the Umbrella Cover Museum, well, that put Nancy in a category all of her own, something you might expect from a woman who sports an integer for a middle name.

Nancy 3. playing her accordion

Now that Nancy has published Uncovered and Exposed: A Guide to the World’s Only Umbrella Cover Museum, you can discover the cultural landmark that Peaks Islanders pass daily on their way to the post office and grocery store – a quirky museum that National Public Radio, BBC Radio, The Weather Channel, and the New York Times have been talking about!

So get Uncovered and Exposed, hop on a Casco Bay Lines ferry, and visit the museum. Nancy might even serenade you with a song or two.


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