SSoP Podcast Episode 52 — Maine: Lighthouses, Lobster Rolls, and the King of Horror

SSoP Podcast Episode 52 — Maine: Lighthouses, Lobster Rolls, and the King of Horror

Monday, 15 May, 2023

This is a transcription of Maine: Lighthouses, Lobster Rolls, and the King of Horror.

David: Hello. Welcome to Strong Sense of Place.

Melissa: In each episode, we focus on one destination and discuss what makes it different than any other place on earth.

David: Then we recommend five books we love that took us there on the page.

Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan.

David: I’m David Humphreys.

David: We’re going around the world one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.

[cheerful music]

David: Welcome to Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about Maine. In Two Truths and a Lie, I will tell you about a man who spent three days in Bangor, Maine, thinking he was in a different city — a city far from Bangor.

David: Then we’ll talk about five books – including a nonfiction book about a man who spent 27 years alone in the woods. He walks among us now. He came out in 2013.

Melissa: I’ve very excited to talk about a magical novel that’s adapted from a wildly popular American play. And it’s all about love.

David: But first, Mel will bring us up to speed with the Maine 101.

Melissa: Maine is a state in the northeast of the United States. If you visualize the map, it’s in the top right corner. It’s being hugged by Canada, with the state of New Hampshire on its southwest flank and the Atlantic on the east.

Melissa: The capital is Augusta, a lovely little city on the Kennebec River. You might know Portland, that’s Maine’s largest city. It’s on a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic. It’s pretty charming. It still has a working fish wharf, cobblestone streets, and Victorian-era mansions. And you might think that’s where all the hauntings happen — the ghosts of Victorian widows looking out to sea for their husbands. But let’s not forget about Bangor.

Melissa: Bangor is, of course, the home of Mr. Stephen King. His stories are mostly set in a triad of fictional towns: Castle Rock, Jerusalem’s Lot, and Derry. That one, he says, is based on Bangor. It’s also the town terrorized by Pennywise, the evil clown from the novel It. Part of his time-travel novel 11/22/63 is also set there.

Melissa: Stephen King’s house in Bangor is just what you want it to be: It’s a red brick Victorian with irregular windows, a turret, and a wrought-iron gate out front decorated with bats and a spider web. There’s a Stephen King tour of Bangor to visit the sights that inspired his books. It’s run by a couple that owned a bookstore for 20 years specializing in King’s books and memorabilia. The tour has more than 1500 5-star reviews.

Melissa: Important to note, if you like kitsch, Bangor is also home to one of the world’s largest statues of Paul Bunyan, the mythical lumberjack. It’s 31 feet tall; that’s 9 1/2 meters.

David: That statue came alive in the movie version of It.

Melissa: It did! Why is Paul Bunyan celebrated in Maine? Because 90% of it is covered in forests. It’s called the Pine Tree State.

Melissa: Maine is also a showoff in the ocean category. It has more than 5000 miles or 8000 km of coastline. To give you an idea of how long that is — that’s about the same as the distance between New York City and Moscow.

Melissa: The east coast is dotted with more than 3000 islands. Some of them are private, some are just uninhabited craggy rocks. Others have towns on them.

Melissa: There are several good reasons to care about these facts:

Melissa: Fact #1 Lighthouses! If you think lighthouses are romantic or eerie, or both, Maine is the place for you! There are 67 of them standing guard over Maine’s coast and islands. The oldest is the Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth. It was finished in 1791 and was lit with whale oil.

Melissa: Fact #2 Boats! Maine’s islands are connected by ferries, or if you’re lucky, a friend’s sailboat. If you’re more Action Jackson, you can go sea kayaking and canoeing. There’s a waterway called the Maine Island Trail, so you can paddle among 200 islands and camp out.

Melissa: Fact #3 Funny names! I find it delightful when we discover beautiful destinations with unusual place names. We talked about this in our Jamaica episode — Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come remains a favorite. In Maine, the founding fathers really outdid themselves. There are funny names, like Junk of Pork, Hamloaf, Lazy Gut. Maybe they were hungry? Some are fun to say, like Blubber, Smuttynose, and Nubble. Nubble, by the way, has a darling red and white lighthouse that’s been there since 1879 and is still functioning. You know the islands named Mistake and Witch Island must have spooky stories attached to them. But my favorite might be Irony Island. No one can describe it, but they know it when they see it.

Melissa: The fourth exciting fact about Maine’s coast and islands is the sea animals! Summer is prime time for whale watching and seal sightings. If you’re a puffin fan. And what kind of monster isn’t a puffin fan? You can see puffins in the middle of summer on Eastern Egg Rock. It’s a bird-only island, but you can see them from a boat tour and watch the birds pop in and out of their burrows to feed their newborn pufflings.

Melissa: I need to tell you about the moose. It’s the state animal, and there are between 60 and 70,000 moose in Maine’s forests. That’s the second-most of any US state. Maine is an excellent place for your Disney princess training with forest creatures. There are black beers and white-tailed deer. Also, river otters, beavers, foxes, mink, and the star-nosed mole.

Melissa: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Acadia National Park. All the stuff I’ve already told you about? The park has all of it, plus cycling, hiking, and bald eagles.

Melissa: On the bookshelf, Maine has more to offer than Stephen King. Other authors claimed by Maine include Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and EB White, author of Charlotte’s Web and The Elements of Style. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was America’s first professional poet. He was born in 1807 in Portland. His poem My Lost Youth is about growing up in Maine. Here’s a snippet:

  • I remember the black wharves and the slips,
  • And the sea-tides tossing free;
  • And Spanish sailors with bearded lips,
  • And the beauty and mystery of the ships,
  • And the magic of the sea.

Melissa: And let’s not forget Jessica Fletcher.

Melissa: Other good things from Maine include sweet things like blueberries, donut holes, and whoopie pies.

David: Yes! Whoopie pies! Those are soft chocolate cookies stuck together with cream like a sandwhich.

Melissa: While in Maine, you should also try Needhams. They’re a soft candy square made from mashed potatoes flavored with coconut, sugar, and vanilla, then coated in chocolate.

Melissa: And finally, we need to talk about the iconic sandwich, the lobster roll. In 2021, about 100 million pounds of lobster was caught off Maine’s coast. That’s a lotta lobster! According to the website Eater, to make the perfect lobster roll, you must only use lobster from Maine. Because it grows in cold Atlantic waters, Maine lobster is sweet, tender, and not too salty. You also have to use the right roll: It must be a split-top bun which is kind of like a piece of white bread folded in half. You must never, ever include lettuce, you have to go easy on the mayo, and it’s best eaten outside, near a seaside shack while listening to the waves lapping the shore.

Melissa: Which brings me to what may be the best thing to do in Maine: park yourself in an Adirondack chair, watch the sun set over the Atlantic, and then gaze up at the stars. That’s the Maine 101.

David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?

Melissa: I am!

David: Okay. I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. First statement: A Detroit graffiti artist united a town in Maine with a town 5,000 miles away.

Melissa: What?

David: Two: In 1977, a man spent three days in Bangor, Maine believing he was in Toronto, Canada. And three: In the early 1900s, Maine couple invented life-hacking.

David: OK, let’s start from the top. A Detroit graffiti artist united a town in Maine with a town 5,000 miles away.

Melissa: True!

David: That is true: If you go to the charming seaside town of Biddeford, Maine — population 23,000 — you will find a street painting. It’s the size of the side of a building, about two stories tall. The picture is of a young boy in a baseball cap, sitting, and he’s talking on a phone.

David: It is not apparent who he’s talking with. Unless you travel 5,000 miles to a town in Iraq. In Sulaymaniyah, Iraq there is a street painting. It’s also about two stories tall. And it’s a local girl, talking on the phone.

David: This project was done by Pat Perry, an artist from Detroit. It was part of an effort to connect fourth- and fifth-grade students in the two towns. The two children in the paintings were modeled on local kids. It’s a lovely project, and there’s a really nice video about how it came together that we’ll point to in the show notes.

David: Part of the project was that the children got to participate, and they added small graphics and messages to the wall. One of the things the two paintings have in common is that they both say — in their local languages — ‘Life is better with friends.’

Melissa: Oh, I love that!

David: Statement two: In 1977, a man spent three days in Bangor, Maine believing he was in Toronto, Canada.

Melissa: Lie!

David: That is true! In 1977, there’s a German man — a brewery worker. His name is Erwin Kreuz. Kreuz had never been more than a day-trip out of Germany. But he decided to blow his life savings on a once-in-a-lifetime birthday trip to beautiful San Francisco. He’d seen it on TV and he’d always wanted to go.

David: So he gets on a flight in Frankfurt and tells the stewardess what he’s up to. Everybody’s excited. Then he probably had a few. He was in the habit of drinking a dozen and a half beers a day. He probably falls asleep crossing the ocean. Then the plane touches down, and he wakes up. The aircraft has landed in Bangor, Maine to refuel, but he doesn’t know that. And the stewardess he was talking to – she’s finishing her shift – and she looks at him and says, ‘Have a nice time in San Francisco!’ And she disappears out the back of the plane.

David: And he hears that and thinks, ‘Oh, we must be here.’ And Kreuz gets off the plane. And for the next three days, he thinks he’s in San Francisco.

Melissa: [laughter]

David: In his defense, there are bridges, there are Chinese restaurants, there are hills, and there’s a beautiful ocean. He thought maybe he was in a suburb. When he asked a cab driver to take him to downtown San Francisco, the cab driver just took off. I GOT NO TIME FOR THAT.

David: Finally, after three days of wandering around Bangor, he gets help from a friendly waitress. She calls a Czech immigrant who speaks German. And they figure out what’s happened. And then the news gets wind of it. There’s an article in the Bangor Daily News. People think it’s funny, but they also want to be good hosts for this poor guy. Within days, he’s become an honorary member of the Penobscot Indian Nation. He met the governor. Someone give him an acre of Maine scrubland.

David: The San Francisco Examiner hears about this, and they fly him out to the west coast. He meets the mayor there. He goes to the rodeo and gets a standing ovation in the middle of the ring. Kreuz is mentioned in Time and on the Today Show.

David: Finally, after four days in San Francisco, the Examiner sends him back to Germany with a big sign that says, ‘Please let me off in Frankfurt.’

Melissa: What a sweet story!

David: And three: In the early 1900s Maine couple invented life-hacking.

David: First, full disclosure. The man was from Maine. The woman was from Oakland, CA. Frank Gilbreth was an efficiency expert in the early 1900s. He spent most of his life figuring out how to do things ‘the one best way.’ He also owned a construction firm specializing in industrial buildings — factories, dams, and paper mills. But that’s not what we know him best for.

David: We know him best for being the inspiration for the father in the “Cheaper By the Dozen” movies. He was played by Clifton Webb in 1950, Steve Martin twice in the early 2000s, and most recently by Zach Braff in a version that went straight to streaming last year.

David: The outline of that story — that he was a father with 12 children and was driven by efficiency — is true. Those movies were originally based on a book one of his children wrote about growing up with him. But Frank Gilbreth was not alone in his dedication. His wife, Lillian Gilbreth, was right there with him. She had a Ph. D. in applied psychology from Brown. If anything, she was an even bigger adherent to using science and psychology to improve the workplace.

David: Together they ran Gilbreth Incorporated, a consulting firm. They did pioneering work on ergonomics. They were among the first to use motion pictures to examine movement in the workplace. One of the things they did was study surgery. They suggested that all the instruments be in the same place, every time, and that the surgeon have an assistant. The ‘scalpel,’ ‘scalpel’ bit — that’s them. You are hearing the long voice of the Gilbreths. They also championed things like good lighting and employee breaks and suggestion boxes.

David: And that was all going well, until one day, in 1924. Frank was talking to Lillian from a train station in New Jersey. And he had a heart attack, and he died. And now Lillian has a problem. She’s lost the man who is both her husband and her business partner. She’s raising twelve children. Alone. At the time, the oldest was 13. And the corporate business consulting that she’d been doing — the engineers that her husband had been talking to — they’re not going to take advice from a little lady in 1924. And now she has to be the breadwinner.

David: So, she pivots. And she takes her ideas about industrial efficiency – and she turns that to the home. Lillian brought the ideas of efficiency, motion studies, and science home. This was challenging for her. She didn’t like home life. She had help for that. But she knew what she had to do.

David: She encouraged women to do their own science. For example, count the number of footsteps it takes to make breakfast. Have your child follow you with a ball of yarn to measure distance. That kind of thing. She wrote for magazines and newspapers. Eventually, she started working with corporations. She consulted with Johnson & Johnson and Macy’s about sanitary napkins and human resource issues.

David: She’s credited with popularizing the idea of having uniform work surfaces in the kitchen, and the invention of the foot-pedal trash can, and wall-light switches, which we all take for granted now.

David: She became a celebrity. In 1950, she saw her life played by Myrna Loy in the first ‘Cheaper by the Dozen.’ A movie she hated. Because it depicted her as a sweet, stay-at-home mom who deferred to her husband.

David: Lillian Moller Gilbreth would go on to be internationally recognized and have a list of honors that range from being described as ‘a genius in the art of living’ to having her likeness in the National Portrait Gallery. She worked until she was in her 80s. She died in 1972 at the age of 93.

David: If you’re interested in more, her son’s books, Cheaper by the Dozen’ and the follow-up ‘Belles on Their Toes’ are said to be better than the movie — funny and touching and insightful. And Vox has a video on the story of the Gilbreths. We’ll put links in the show notes.

David: That’s Two Truths and a Lie. Are you ready to talk about books?

Melissa: Always.

Melissa: My first recommendation is Grange House by Sarah Blake. This is a coming-of-age story set in 1896 at the Grange House, a mansion-turned-hotel on the coast of Maine. The grande dame of the place is the very proper spinster Miss Grange. Miss Grange — has secrets. And Maisie, the 17-year-old heroine of our story, gets more than she ever imagined when she goes looking for romance and adventure during her summer vacation at Grange House.

Melissa: If you like your white-washed New England Victorian mansions to come with a whole lotta backstory, and you’re attracted to a Wilkie Collins/Henry James vibe, this book is for you. It’s a love letter to Victorian Gothic, transplanted to the all-American coast of Maine.

Melissa: Before we get into what happens at the hotel, I want to talk briefly about what was happening in the United States in 1896. This was the Gilded Age. Industries like oil, steel, banking, and railroads were booming. Names like Rockefeller, Carnegie, JP Morgan, Vanderbilt, and Standford. These men had clout and money and didn’t necessarily play by the rules. This era was given its nickname by Mark Twain. In his book, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, he wrote, ‘What is the chief end of man? — to get rich. In what way? — dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must.’

Melissa: This is the world in which our heroine Maisie lives. Her father is a well-heeled industrialist, and so far, he’s been a pretty good dad. He’s given Maisie a classical education and encouraged her to think for herself, much to her mother’s dismay. Mom would like Maisie to be prim and proper and lady-like, thank you very much.

Melissa: And now that Maisie is 17, she’s on the brink of fulfilling her destiny. She will marry appropriately, make some babies, and bask in the reflected glow of her husband.

Melissa: Maisie wants none of this! She is definitely not interested in getting married — maybe EVER — but she’s filled with an unnamed yearning. She can’t quite articulate what she wants, but she knows it’s not what society expects of her, and she burns with it.

Melissa: This is where dear old Miss Grange starts stirring the pot. She is an authoress, and she is mysterious. Here’s the description of her from early in the book: ‘Miss Grange was something of an enigma for the summer guests. She did not own the hotel, yet she inspired a curious respect… It is not to be thought that she was important in any pertinent way. Rather, her magnificence derived from the fact of her lineage. Hers was a family whose roots were among the first to stretch down into American soil. No one knew precisely her connection to the men who had built this House, but it was commonly assumed she was a distant and poor relation who had come here to live after the main branch of the family passed away. Thus, her romance derived from her situation: She was the last Grange remaining…. among the younger guests, there were the whispered rumors of buried wealth, the half-uttered suggestions of a lost love, of a secret pact into which she had entered when she came into the House.’

Melissa: So Miss Grange hints to Maisie that there’s a connection between the secrets of Grange House and Maisie’s family. She gives Maisie her old journals so the young girl can start unlocking the mysteries of the past.

Melissa: The whole shebang is told in the first-person through Maisie’s teenage voice — it’s plucky, hormone-fueled, sometimes dreamy, often confused — and Miss Grange’s atmospheric diaries. She recounts her own experiences of being a young girl at Grange House. There is plenty to keep the proceedings delightfully creepy. For example, she documented how many laudanum drops her mother took each night before bed. Spoiler: It increased every night.

Melissa: Which leads me to all of the glorious Gothic tropes included in this story. The author Sarah Blake has a doctorate in Victorian literature, so she knows what she’s doing. There are dark woods, a deep fog can play tricks on the eyes, and a raging storm on the coast. There are enigmatic conversations that trail off ominously just before revealing too much. There’s swooning and fainting and deathbed requests. Switched identities, a mysterious grave, and drowned lovers clasping each other for eternity.

Melissa: This is a romp of a read, and it might make you long to visit a fine old hotel by Maine’s crashing surf. There’s an excerpt available online if you want to check it out. I’ll put the link in show notes. That’s Grange House by Sarah Blake.

David: My first book is The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel. This is the true story of a guy who walked into the woods of Maine, alone, unprepared in 1986 — and did not come out again until April 2013. That’s 27 years of living outdoors. And that’s 27 years of solitude. He says that he spoke to one person, once, during that time. A hiker was walking by and he said, ‘Hi.’

Melissa: Whoa.

David: He survived by understanding the woods, and by being an excellent thief. Both in the sense that he was good at taking stuff, and in the sense that he was a contentious thief. As much as that is possible. The hermit carries a lot of shame for taking things. For most of that time, he would break into people’s cabins and take their stuff. Never when they were home. Typically when they were far away — most of these cabins were summer homes. And the stuff he would take was generally low-value. A sleeping bag. A year’s worth of National Geographics. All the batteries in the house. Paperbacks. At one point, he stole someone’s backpack from their home, but left behind the passports that were in the backpack.

David: This continued for so long that some community members got to know his tastes. He would take Budweiser, but not Bud Lite. Peanut butter over tuna fish. He likes candy. And he’s a reader. So after a while, the locals started leaving bags of books out for him. The hermit was really good at evading detection. People took a long time to accept that someone was out there. Because – you know – you come back to your cabin and you’re missing a tarp and a bag of M&Ms. Are you sure they were there? Maybe it was kids. Are you going to call the cops about it?

David: But when the community came to accept that someone might be in the woods, four law enforcement agencies started looking for him. There were foot searches and flyovers. At one point, they got a picture of him, stealing from someone’s refrigerator. But after 27 years, they didn’t even have a name to attach to this guy. His name is Christopher Knight.

David: He was only caught when a local game warden, Terry Hughes, borrowed some high-tech surveillance equipment from a friend at a government agency. Hughes set that up in a campground that Knight used to rob semi-frequently, and waited. The book begins with Knight’s arrest. Like everything else Knight does, it’s a quiet arrest. Hughes catches him in the act, and Knight goes without incident. Hughes starts asking questions. And at first, he’s not sure whether to even believe Knight. Knight says he doesn’t have an ID or an address or a vehicle, and he lives in the woods. And it’s Maine. Winter in Maine is serious business — howling winds, well below zero, wet and cold. When Hughes asks how long, Knight pauses and asks, ‘What year was the Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster?’

Melissa: Holy cow.

David: This book takes a run at why Knight would do what he did. I was expecting some kind of trauma – and there’s room for that – but it sounds more like he was disenfranchised. He just decided to leave one day. Parked his car and walked into the woods. Less Rambo and more Holden Caufield.

David: And the book looks at the reaction of the people around him. That includes people who were traumatized by this guy. The writer talks to a woman who felt like Knight had taken her peaceful cabin by the lake and turned it into a horror novel. She felt violated. But some people were sympathetic. Like the woman who owned the land he’d been trespassing on for 27 years. Or the guy who wanted to take up a collection for him to buy him his own piece of land.

David: This book did a number on me. First, I blew through it. For me, it was a great story. So it all came fast. And second, it was hard for me to determine my emotional reaction to it. On the nature side —we last went camping 30 years ago. It’s hard for me to imagine going outside between today and 2060. When Knight started his 27 years, he had never spent the night in a tent.

David: But there’s also the solitude part. I mean. I’m an introvert. I’m an only child. My mother was the biggest introvert I’ve ever met, and I’ve managed coders. So if I don’t get alone time regularly, I get squirrelly pretty quick. But. Then there’s this guy. I feel like I’m saying, ‘I like ice cream.’ And then Knight says, ‘Yeah, me too. I ate a factory once.’ YOU WHAT? And then Knight says, ‘Yeah, and if you understood society like I do, you would too.’

David: If you’re interested in the story of a man who spent a quarter century alone in the woods of Maine — and the reactions of the people around him — I highly recommend this book. It’s a great read. It’s The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel.

Melissa: My second recommendation is The Midcoast by Adam White. It’s a crime novel set in a small tourist town called Damariscotta in southeastern Maine. This is a real town with ALL the water: It’s on the Atlantic coast, and there’s a river and a lake, all named Damariscotta. It’s known as the oyster capital of New England. But the drama in this book centers around a lobsterman named Ed Thatch and his family.

Melissa: This book is the story of how the Thatch family became the people who run the town — and their eventual downfall. It’s rich with details of life on the water and a New England sensibility. The story opens with a Gatsby-esque party — if Gatsby had been a lobsterman in modern working-class Maine. Ed’s daughter is a member of the Amherst Lacrosse team, and he’s throwing a party in their honor. Here’s a description from the narrator — he’s named Andrew — as he arrives at the party with his family. They’re attending out of obligation, not a desire to be there: ‘As we made our way into the backyard, it became clear that Ed had taken the concept of pre-game reception in a whole new direction. What we were stumbling into was more like a spectacular midcoast-themed carnival. There was a train of folding tables dressed in purple gingham tablecloths, a trailer-length grill blowing smoke into the sky, and a massive white tent strung with yards and yards of hanging lightbulbs. There was even an inflatable lobster the size of an elephant. Someone had wedged a lacrosse stick into the lobster’s left claw, and visitors were taking pictures of each other standing next to it as if they had slain the poor thing. The rest of the meadow was overtaken by players, parents, and coaches, all of them wearing purple… we waded through the small clusters of guests, saying hello to anyone we knew, all of whom looked a little confused by the surrounding festivities but willing to go with the flow in exchange for an open bar…’

Melissa: This beautifully sets up a few things that are important to this story: First, Ed is halfway obsessed with his daughter’s lacrosse team and all it represents. Amherst is not quite Ivy League, but it’s a little Ivy. There’s prestige associated with that school, and he wants that glow for himself.

Melissa: Second, Ed and his wife are pretty tacky and, honestly, not well-liked, but they don’t know it. They’re both filled with blustery false confidence. Third, most of the guests are there because they feel social pressure to be there. And fourth, our narrator Andrew is not a fan of Ed’s. He’s filled with a mixture of confusion and envy towards Ed that he thinks should be admiration, but he can’t quite get there.

Melissa: As the story moves back and forth in time, we learn that Andrew is now an English teacher and aspiring writer. He’s living back in his hometown of Damariscotta after a stint out in the world — in California, New York, and Boston — where he met his equally creative wife. They’ve moved back with the kids and are trying to figure out how they fit into this community.

Melissa: Andrew’s history with Ed goes way back to high school when Andrew worked at the Thatch family’s lobster business. Andrew always says he worked WITH Ed. Ed corrects him and says that Andy worked FOR him. That gives you a nice snapshot of their conflict.

Melissa: Now, decades later, Ed is the big man in town. He owns real estate, his wife is active in town politics, his son is a cop, his daughter is at Amherst. The Thatch’s rule the scene in Damariscotta. And Andy can’t figure out how this happened. Because the Ed that he knew was just a work-a-day lobsterman with a chip on his shoulder and a halfway crappy boat.

Melissa: This is a crime novel that’s not a crime novel, a caper story without the tingling close-calls of a caper. The elements of crime it explores are stripped of any possible romanticism — it’s not the elevated world of thriller where your adrenaline is racing. There’s a good deal of action, but it’s a more somber story that depicts what it would really be like if you suddenly found out your neighbor was a criminal.

Melissa: I’m not from a seaside town, but I did grow up in a small town where the people with money thought they were a big deal. Anywhere else, they would have been middle class, but there, or in Damariscotta, they were the richest people in town, and they strutted around like it was their fiefdom. This book is a gripping study of that big fish, small pond syndrome.

Melissa: The author Adam White has a few things in common with his protagonist: He grew up in Damariscotta, he lives in Boston, and he teaches writing and lacrosse. This story feels very lived-in and authentic because of it. In an interview, he said that when he was in graduate school, a professor said, ‘You might need a little time away, but eventually all of us write about home.’ This is his first novel, and CrimeReads named it one of the year’s best books. It’s The Midcoast by Adam White.

David: My second book is Vacationland: True Stories From Painful Beaches by John Hodgman. John Hodgman has had a strange and unlikely career. I think he would agree with me on that. He started as a literary agent, then decided that he really wanted to write. So he quit, and wrote. Eventually people discovered that he was funny.

David: Somebody had the idea to put him on television. This might not be the first thing you would think if you saw John Hodgman. But he’s got a powerful nerd vibe about him. I say that as someone with a rich and varied nerd resume. To be clear. Hodgman went on to be a regular contributor to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. He played a PC for a while in some Apple ads. And he wrote a few books. One of those is called “The Areas of My Expertise,” which is an almanac full of stuff he made up. That book has sections like, “Brief Lives of Some Notable Hoboes,” and “Nine Presidents Who Had Hooks for Hands.” To hear him tell it, the primary audience for that book is 13-year-old boys who are a little too smart for their own good. He calls them ‘my key demo.’

David: This is not that book. Vacationland is a book of essays he’s written about his life. Most of the chapters in this book — maybe all of them — feel like a man going through a midlife crisis. But, you know, funny. He wrestles with being a good parent, and with the death of his mother. He tells us a lot about his childhood because he wants to talk about his life now meaningfully. About halfway through, Hodgman moves to Maine with his family. He and his wife buy a house. They win a rowboat in an auction. They meet their neighbors, whom he initially finds creepy — ‘like waking an ancient pack of vampires,’ he writes. There are some great stories about how the locals are protecting the home of a famous dead author. Hodgman plays along to the extent that he refuses to name the author, but challenges the reader to find out who it is.

David: He’s got a dry sense of humor that I really enjoy. I’m going to read about a page of the book. Here, Hodgman is visiting a campus to do the Samuel Clemens Address. That’s a speech that a Twain professor pays someone to come and do — a year-end revelry kind of thing. When this bit starts, the professor and Hodgman are walking across the campus. And the professor is meeting students as they go and encouraging them to come to the talk. And it’s April 20 – 4/20. The marijuana holiday. I have changed one word to make this slightly more family-friendly. Here’s the page:

‘One by one he would ask them, Are you coming to the Clemens Address tonight? And one by one they would smile and say, Nope! Young people are such natural sociopaths. They could have lied and said, Yes. Professor Mark would never have noticed their absence when they didn’t show up. But why should they bother? Why lie to spare the non-feelings of this faceless older mannequin who makes mouth noises about Mark Twain to them twice a week? They were asked a question, and so they gave an honest answer: nope!

Cody in particular was taken aback by the question, and answered it only with a face full of guileless confusion. What? his face seemed to say.

What did you ask? Am I going to the Samuel Clemens Address tonight? Well, let me think. Even if I had bothered to remember this thing you’ve been talking about in class for weeks — which you have to admit, professor, is a pretty unreasonable expectation — even then the answer would probably be: no.

Because this is Saturday! And may I remind you, professor, it is also 4/20. So as for tonight, I hadn’t really thought it through, but I think I’ll probably smoke marijuana. In fact, now that I say it out loud, I’m going to make it a plan. I’m going to smoke a little, and drink a little, and maybe go to a party. I’ve heard Paige is having a naked party tonight. (That is something we young people do because we all look good naked and are too young to give a [crap shit] about our furniture.) And after that naked party I’ll probably go out and eat two or three whole pizzas, or a steak bomb. But rather than going sadly back to my room to watch Friends reruns, I will instead go back to the party. And surprisingly I will be thinner and better looking than when I left, because I have the metabolism of a white-hot sun.

Then I’ll probably have sex with a man — or a woman — we don’t really use labels anymore. And after that, I’m not really sure. I might just go back to my dorm room and watch a movie. Yeah. I’ll probably just watch a nostalgic movie from my childhood. Because even though I am physically mature, inside I’m still very much a child who is terrified by the drunken, high, naked, fornicating adult I’ve become.

And so I’ll probably bring out my blankie that I brought from home and still sleep with every night openly and without shame, because all of my roommates are going through the same thing. What’s that? Which nostalgic movie from my childhood will I choose to watch? I’m not sure. Probably Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, because that came out in 2005. And in that year I was only ELEVEN YEARS OLD.

Oh sorry, I got distracted. What did you ask me? Will I go to the Samuel Clemens Address? I think you can understand that the answer to that is: nope, not ever. Ever ever ever – ever.’

David: I found Hodgman to be a friend I wish I had. Surprise! — I can relate to the funny, old, white, male nerd. But I also appreciated the description of what it’s like to move to Maine. If you’ve ever wondered that or are just looking for some wry humor from a great storyteller, I suspect you’ll enjoy this. It’s Vacationland: True Stories From Painful Beaches by John Hodgman.

Melissa: My final recommendation is a sweet novel about love called Almost, Maine by John Cariani. Before I get into the book, we need to talk about the author. John Cariani is an actor and a playwright. He was on Law & Order for 5 seasons as forensic expert Julian Beck. He also starred in one of my favorite Broadway musicals — Something Rotten! He was nominated for a Tony for his portrayal of Motel the Tailor in the 2004 Broadway Revival of Fiddler on the Roof.

Melissa: But before he did all of that, he wrote a play called Almost, Maine. It’s one of the most popular plays in the United States. It’s been performed by 100 professional theater companies and more than 5000 community and school productions. The setup of Almost, Maine really drew me in. I want to read you the prologue that sets the scene for both the play and the novel. This will also give you a sense of his writing style. If you’ve heard John Cariani talk on stage or on TV, the rhythm of his written sentences totally makes sense. Here we go: ‘There is a place in northern Maine that is so far north, it’s almost not in the United States. It’s almost in Canada. But not quite. Not many people live there. Not much seems to happen there. And the things that do happen there seem pretty ordinary. Especially to the people who live there. But some extraordinary things did happen there once — on a Friday in the middle of the winter, not too long ago. Or maybe it was a long time ago. No one quite remembers. Actually, no one is even sure that the extraordinary things even happened. And no one is even sure that the place actually exists. But it’s somewhere we’ve all been. It’s a place called Almost.’

Melissa: So, we’re in the town of Almost. It’s winter, but it’s not too cold. Characters throughout the story comment on the fact that it’s 19F (that’s -7 C). Not too cold for a Maine winter! they say. On this particular Friday night, the Northern Lights are dancing in the sky, making unusual things happen to the people who live in Almost. The story unfolds in a series of linked vignettes. Like a real-life small town, all of the characters are connected to each other through friendship, romance, work, history, and proximity.

Melissa: It starts with a framing device. Two teenagers — Ginette and her best friend Paul — are realizing that they are maybe more than just friends. Ginette walks through town to think about things, passing the rec center, the Moose Paddy bar, a frozen lake where people ice skate, a boarding house owned by Ma Dudley. As she passes each location, we get the story of what’s happening to the people inside. And what’s happening is that everyone in the town is falling in or out of love in various ways.

Melissa: What I found really charming and delightful is that everything in this world of Almost, Maine, is SO LITERAL that it becomes magical. Hearts can physically break. People actually FALL into love. A character that’s losing hope gets physically smaller. Two others are so happy when dancing together that they float to the ceiling. And within this magical world, John Cariani introduces us to the beauty and difficulty of living somewhere like rural Maine. He grew up in this kind of town and really captures the gifts and the challenges of it.

Melissa: In the story, there’s a lot of driving or walking around, looking for something to do — I could relate to that so much. You know, your parents are, like, ‘Get out of here. Go do something fun.’ And you’re just thinking: ‘Where am I supposed to go? and do what, exactly?’ Also, it’s pretty tough to change your relationship with someone when you both live in this same small place, where everyone has their perceptions of you already set. How do you get them AND YOURSELF to stop thinking of you as THIS version when you want to be THAT version? In this world, the northern lights seem to help with that.

Melissa: John Cariani said that turning his play into a novel allowed him to fill in the blanks the play leaves unfilled. ‘I was able to describe the bleak beauty of a northern Maine winter and highlight the hardships that are a part of living in a place… where money and opportunity aren’t very plentiful. I feel like the book gave me a chance to underscore the strain of ache and melancholy… and maybe help people… remember that hope and joy really can visit you when you least expect it.’ That’s Almost, Maine by John Capriani.

David: Those are five books we love, set in Maine. Visit our show notes at for links and details.

Melissa: Yes! I’ll include some video of performances of Almost, Maine, and a really good interview with Sarah Blake, the author of Grange House.

David: Mel, where are we headed on our next episode?

Melissa: We’re heading backstage and into the spotlight to explore the world of theater.

David: Thanks for listening, and we’ll talk to you soon.

[cheerful music]

Top image courtesy of Annie Niemaszyk.

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