Film, Television, Books, Dancing: David Black Does It All
By Amy Krzanik
Calling him prolific doesn’t do him justice; David Black is truly a man for all seasons. The Ghent, N.Y. resident (where he’s lived for the past 40 years with his wife, Barbara Weisberg, an author and the creator of the TV show Charles In Charge) began acting on stage at age six, and started writing and sending out manuscripts at the ripe old age of seven. He’s published nine critically acclaimed books and over 150 magazine articles in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s and Rolling Stone; is the producer and writer of award-winning episodes of the television shows CSI-Miami, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, Monk, Law & Order and its spinoffs, and others; has penned plays, TV movies and feature films; has lectured and taught writing, and is a scholar-in-residence at Harvard.
Not content to conquer only the worlds of the page and screen, for his 60th birthday Black participated in the Columbia County Fair’s demolition derby and came in 7th against, he says, “forty-nine 19-year-olds.” When he turned 70, he bought himself tap-dancing lessons.
But lest you think the author has now set his sights solely on accumulating eclectic hobbies, he assures me that he continues to write five hours a day, has just finished the third draft of a 1200-page novel about the Baby Boomer generation, and is working on three new TV pilots. “Half the time I think there’s no way I can write today, I have no ideas,” he says. “But if you sit down, and write even one page a day, you’ll have 365 pages at the end of the year.”
His newest book, the mystery novel Fast Shuffle, was recently released in paperback, and Black will read from it, sign copies and participate in a Q&A at The Chatham Bookstore on Saturday, June 4 from 5-7 p.m. If you go, be sure to ask him about how he almost broke his back riding a bucking bronco, what it’s like to attend the Emmys, and about the time Rita Hayworth proposed marriage.
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Volume Reading Series Amps Up The Author Reading Experience
By Jamie Larson
Author readings give you a chance to get your nose out of your book, hear it read in the voice that wrote it, and then meet the mind behind it. The format for readings hasn’t changed much over the years, until now. But two Hudson writers seem to have found a new formula, turning the traditional reading into a party celebrating the best in new lit.
The Volume Reading Series (which is holding its next event on Saturday, March 12 at 7 p.m.) has turned the dusty reading into a raucous happening that both enraptures its large audience and celebrates an impressive slate of authors. On the second Saturday of each month at Spotty Dog Books & Ale in Hudson, New York, you’ll find a warm atmosphere that’s a product of its organizers’ dedication, a tight hour-long set, the Spotty Dog’s convivial setting, a DJ afterwards to lubricate conversation and, of course, access to beer and wine at the bookstore’s fabulous bar to help further the conversation.
Cara Benson and Andrea Kleine
“I think people feel that we’re passionate about it,” says co-organizer Hallie Goodman. “The vibe here is perfect. People say we’ve changed their mind about readings. We don’t want to make people feel like this is school.”
Volume gets the crowds because they get the authors people want to hear. And increasingly, although they only started in October of last year, Volume is booking more and more great authors because they get great crowds.
French and Goodman
This Saturday, Volume welcomes four notable authors, all with published work just out or coming out soon. The lineup includes Publisher’s Weekly “Writer to Watch” Andrea Kleine reading from her debut novel Calf, a fictionalized account about the murder of a young girl by her socialite mother. Also reading are writer, performer and poet Cara Benson; Portland, Oregon litigation attorney Jim McDermott reading from his debut novel Bitter is the Wind; and multi-disciplined, multi-talented Rebecca Keith. And the event will be followed with a set by DJ Julian Nagy (a.k.a. DJ Salinger), and the chance for audience members to work up the courage to schmooze with the presenters.
“We have a DJ because otherwise, when it’s over, we all awkwardly stand in silence and immediately leave,” Goodman says. “Because this is a serious nerd batch. And so the music elevates that, it warms it up. It’s been working so well.”
Jim McDermott and Rebecca Keith
Friends and writers Goodman and Dani Grammerstorf French had been mulling the idea of starting a series for years. When they finally pulled the trigger and got the enthusiastic okay from Spotty Dog, Volume took off immediately.
“We were just smart enough to say yes,” says the bookstore’s owner Kelly Drahushuk. “It’s great for everyone involved: the writers, the audience and us. Beer always helps, too.”
Goodman’s writing has appeared in Paper Magazine, Redbook, The Knot and Chronogram, on Glamour.com and in many other places. French has an MFA in Creative Fiction from The New School and has been published in Playgirl and Broken Pencil. She is the co-founder of the long-running Guerrilla Lit Reading Series in NYC. So these two know what they’re doing.
“We’re inviting people we really admire,” Goodman says. “If you really think about it, you’re drinking a beer and people are reading to you. How chill is that?”
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Rodgers Book Barn: A Community Shop With A Long Shelf Life
Owner Maureen Rodgers poses next to the woodstove.
By Amy Krzanik
“Old books and CDs” read the bookmarks and business cards used to advertise Rodgers Book Barn in Hillsdale, N.Y. And while that claim may technically be true — the barn-turned-bookshop does indeed offer those items — the store’s dedicated fanbase knows this to be an obvious understatement. Even a first-time visitor to its tucked-away locale understands it to be much more: a book lover’s oasis, a neighborhood touchstone, a shelter from the storm.
The credit for this goes to owner Maureen Rodgers, who has manned the counter here for more than 40 years. Originally from England, Rodgers moved to New York City in the 1960s, where she worked selling hard-to-find textbooks to colleges. She and her ex-husband eventually moved to Hillsdale, where they purchased the “falling-down house and barn” and cleared the latter of its hay to create the two-story shop in 1972.
Rodgers points to the double supports on the first-floor’s ceiling. “A man came into the building one day and said ‘hay is a lot lighter than books’ and informed me that I needed more support to keep the second floor from buckling under the weight of all those books,” she says, laughing. “I told him, ‘you’ve got the job!’”
At first open only during the summer, the Book Barn is now a year-round business serving locals, seasonal vacationers and collectors who drive up from the city. The store is a must-stop for residents entertaining houseguests and some refer to the trip as more of a pilgrimage than a visit. There’s a colorful, light-filled children’s section upstairs that keeps even the youngest patrons entertained for hours.
The brightly painted children’s section.
In the summertime, the barn doors are thrown open, and visitors can enjoy picnics in the yard. The “free books” cart is out and the sale shed is busy. During the cooler seasons, a cast-iron woodstove keeps the place cozy, and upstairs, free coffee, tea and hot chocolate are available to keep browsers toasty (go ahead and have one, you’ll probably be here for a while).
In any season, it’s easy to lose yourself in the stacks. Seemingly around every corner (and there are lots of corners; bookshelves are good for that) is a comfy chair where you can steal some alone time with your finds. Rugs, oriental and otherwise, line the floors, stained glass lamps hang from the ceilings, and art — posters, prints and assorted knickknacks — are everywhere.
Beau the cat greets guests to the “free” table.
The store’s more than 50,000 books are carefully chosen and diligently arranged by Rodgers — this is no glorified tag sale. Unlike some second-hand shops that route their best stuff straight to their online store, here you’re getting all of what Rodgers has chosen from book and estate sales, and during private house calls. The merchandise is in great condition and the prices are a steal. (I got seven books for $19.)
Although she buys selectively at this point — the barn is pretty full — Rodgers is always looking for good classics in nice editions, as well as art books and fiction, of which she is a huge fan. Warm and knowledgeable, Rodgers is ready to chat about books or to give reading recommendations, without aiming for the hard sell.
She says her first 30 years working as a bookseller was pretty much the same, until the internet changed the nature of the book trade steadily and completely during the last 20 years. Owing to the fact that there are no big box bookstores in the area, she says, shops like The Chatham Bookstore, Oblong Books in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N.Y., and The Bookloft in Great Barrington, Mass. have been allowed to thrive, and even to allow used stores like hers to stay in business.
“We’ve all been hit by the internet, but the stores around here are still doing well. I survived because I don’t pay rent,” she says.
Thank god for that.
Rodgers Book Barn
467 Rodman Road, Hillsdale, N.Y.
November—March: Fri—Sun 11 a.m.—5 p.m.
April—October: Thurs—Mon 11 a.m.—5 p.m.
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Crime In The Gilded Age? Grislier Than You Might Expect
By Jamie Larson
Murder and mayhem may not be the first two words that come to mind when you think of our lovely Berkshires, but during the region’s “Gilded Age” life was, at times, a bit less civil than we’ve come to know it. From the 1870s to the early 1900s the region saw booming industry and vacationing high society mix with folks with a frontier mentality and a wild country still fraught with perils. These uniquely exciting times bred uniquely intriguing crimes.
Gilded Age Murder and Mayhem in the Berkshires, a new book by experienced regional crime reporter and frequent history writer Andrew K. Amelinckx, highlights some of the most intriguing crimes from the era. The tight and supremely readable collection of short stories is a captivating and dramatic read but it also serves as a meaningful addition to our local history cannon. One of the things Amelinckx says he enjoys about journalism and history is unearthing details about our shared history that deserve to be remembered.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s carriage after it was hit by a speeding trolley car near Pittsfield, Mass., on Sept. 3, 1902. The accident resulted in the death of William “Big Bill” Craig, the first Secret Service agent to be killed protecting a president, and a jail sentence for the trolley driver.
“In the Gilded Age, the Berkshires was a really anomalous place. It was a playground for the super rich from New York but still considered backwater by most of New England,” says Amelinckx, noting that the culture clash is perhaps most pronounced in the book’s first story, “The Gentleman Burglar,” about a gang that preyed on the super rich.
“There were also a lot of ax murders,” the author adds.
Some tales may be familiar to locals, such as the incident in which President Teddy Roosevelt’s carriage was hit by an unwieldy trolley car outside Pittsfield, resulting in the death of the first Secret Service agent killed in the line of duty. Others, like “The Thanksgiving Day Double Murder,” are more obscure, and more emotionally impactful than titillating. In the Thanksgiving case, an African-American man was sentenced and executed on thin evidence. While on death row, he wrote a book of his own and recounts the struggles and persecution blacks living in the Berkshires endured at the time.
Fadlo Mallak, the Syrian-born millworker who shot up a trolley car near Adams, Mass. in 1911, killing three and wounding five.
“The justice system worked much more swiftly and more violently,” says Amelinckx, who pored through innumerable old records and newspaper clippings while researching the book. “In none of these stories was there a lynching but in three or four articles, about different stories, the reporters said that had the police not gotten there, there would have been.”
Amelinckx says his work as a modern crime reporter informed the way he approached investigating these stories from those long-ago days. Over the past decade he’s written countless crime and court stories for the Berkshire Eagle and The Register Star in Columbia County. With his first book behind him, he now has ideas for another book on the historical crimes of the Hudson Valley, as well as a true-crime story about the recent Berkshire triple murder trial involving the disturbing looking Caius Veiovis, which Amelinckx covered at length for the Eagle.
The author. Photo by Rob Ragani.
“[Crime reporting] has certainly colored my perception, but not in a bad way,” Amelinckx says of the job he fell into almost by accident after receiving an MFA. “You get to see the worst and best of humanity.”
Amelinckx will be featured at book reading and signing events to celebrate the release of Gilded Age Murder and Mayhem in the Berkshires. The next will be at Magpie Bookshop in his hometown of Catskill, N.Y. on Saturday, Oct. 31 at 5 p.m.
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Spencertown Festival Of Books Turns The Page On Ten Years
David Highfill, Kimberly Rawson and Academy Board President Nick van Alstine at last year’s preview party.
By Amy Krzanik
Not just another used book sale, the Spencertown Festival of Books spans four days (September 4-7) and features award-winning and bestselling authors of fiction, history, memoir, food tomes, and young adult novels. It’s also a fine way to meet your neighbors – many of the featured speakers live right here in our area.
The festival, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, began as a way to raise funds for the Spencertown Academy Arts Center’s community arts programs but has grown into a hotly anticipated event for all ages.
Those who want first dibs on the selection of more than 10,000 books will want to attend the Preview Party on Friday night from 6-8 p.m. On Saturday, younger children can visit with Corduroy Bear and teenagers will want to catch the award ceremony for the Festival’s first-ever teen short story contest. The three prize winners, all local, will be chosen at 11:45 a.m. and get a chance to read their stories for an audience.
David Highfill, an Academy board member and vice president and executive editor at publishing house William Morrow & Co., is co-chair of this year’s Festival. For the past five years he’s been involved in everything from the Festival’s programming to the sorting of its book donations. “It’s a bit like channeling your inner librarian,” he says about organizing the titles.
Highfill is especially excited about Sunday’s event, “My Search Through History,” a discussion between bestselling author Simon Winchester and WAMC’s Alan Chartock. Although he’s a Sandisfield, Mass. resident, Winchester (The Professor and the Madman; Krakatoa; The Men Who United the States) is a popular speaker and this will be the first time he’s available to participate in the Festival. “I’m thrilled that he’s so excited to do it because I think he’s one of the great historians working today,” says Highfill. “He and Alan are friends, so it will be interesting to hear them in conversation.”
RI readers will recognize another familiar face when food writer extraordinaire Ruth Reichl and Luke Barr discuss “The Reinvention of American Taste” on Saturday. Reichl is revered by foodies, and Barr is the great nephew of M.F.K. Fisher and author of Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, so there’s sure to be a lot to chew on in this conversation.
Also on Saturday, historian and Williamstown, Mass. resident Alex Kershaw will join historical novelists David R. Gillham (City of Women) and moderator Daphne Kalotay (Russian Winter; Sight Reading) to discuss “Heroes and Spies, Real and Imagined.” The three will explore the role of resisters during the WWII and share themes of courage and moral choices in occupied Paris and in Berlin.
Alex Kershaw, photo by Michael Carroll.
In Kershaw’s latest book, Avenue of Spies, the author delves into a story that proves that truth really is stranger than fiction. The work focuses on American physician Sumner Jackson and his wife and son, who, during WWII, lived in France on a street surrounded by some of the most evil figures of the day. Drawn into the resistance movement, Jackson smuggled fallen Allied fighter pilots safely out of France, right under the nose of his neighbors: a Nazi “mad sadist,” spy hunters, secret police and the Gestapo headquarters.
“The son is still alive, so I spent time with him and it became personal for me,” Kershaw says. “The family was amazingly courageous and they paid a very high price for it.”
Kershaw explains his participation in the Festival — and sums up how many book lovers feel — by saying, “A festival that brings a bunch of readers together is a good and rare thing, and I’ll do anything to help people enjoy books.”
10th Annual Festival of Books
Friday, September 4 - Monday, September 7
Spencertown Academy Arts Center
790 Route 203, Spencertown, NY
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Q & A With Author And Activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin
“Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate” is the latest work by feminist icon Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Set in 1980s New York City, the novel focuses on Zach Levy, son of Holocaust survivors, who promises his mother on her deathbed that he will marry within the tribe. Conflict ensues when he falls in love with Cleo Scott, an African American activist who could be his soul mate. In telling the story, Pogrebin probes weighty issues including self identity, inherited pain and the legacy of trauma. RI’s Lisa Green met up with Pogrebin, a part-time resident of the Berkshires, who will be speaking about the novel and signing copies at the Lenox Library on Friday, July 24 at 6:30 p.m.
RI: You delve into so many profound issues in this book, but the overriding one seems to be the question whether or not Zach — a stand-in for many of us — is obligated to choose guilt over love. Do you think non-Jews feel that to the extent that Jews do?
LCP: I often wonder if there’s any equivalent to the way Jews feel responsible for the diminishing numbers of us. I don’t know if any other people have a sense of how they could disappear. I did want to really describe what that feels like.
RI: Zach makes a promise to his mother, even though he doesn’t practice Judaism in any traditional way — he doesn’t keep kosher, doesn’t attend synagogue except maybe once a year. Yet, as you write, “The essence of his Jewish identity was his obsession with his Jewish identity.”
LCP: We struggle. We have so many gradations along the spectrum. You can be a once-a-year Jew in synagogue terms, yet very Jewish…whether it’s a few rituals that are family oriented or identifying with our heroes, that kind of Jewishness. An Orthodox Jewish person wouldn’t say we’re Jewish, but we are, we feel it.
RI: Zach was so stuck on finding his bashert — his soul mate — he couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
LCP: When you have a filter that all the prospective dates in your life have to fall through, you close down so many options, and religion is a big one. The question for me in this book is, do you give up love for a kind of macro responsibility to your faith/tradition? What does continuity mean? What are you going to practice? You start slicing it very thin. It’s a conversation that’s very real and self defining. It forces you to distill meaning, instead of saying, I’ve got to marry a Jew, I’ve got to have Jewish children. What constitutes raising a child Jewish?
RI: How much of the writing was a way to sort out your own feelings?
LCP: All the things we’re talking about are things that obsess me. That’s my Jewish identity: obsessing over my Jewish identity. I feel like I am a transitional generation. My mother was born in Hungary and came here when she was 9. My father was born on the boat over, so his was an immigrant family. One third of each of their families perished in the Holocaust. We were very aware in the war that people weren’t answering their letters; care packages came back. Even though I was a tiny kid, you don’t miss that. My kids have grown up with none of that — the sense that if we lose this war we’ll be dead, too. The Holocaust is a historical event for them, but to me it feels like something I lived through. That’s why I have Zach saying, How can you have a flashback on something you didn’t experience? But you can — you fill in all the blanks.
For me to write about this displaces it onto some other characters but feels exactly what I feel, think about, worry about. The issue of race relations, especially black and Jewish, matters a lot to me. I was in a black-Jewish dialogue group for ten years, which is the only way I could feel entitled to write about Cleo. So black-Jewish relations, Jewish identity, the power of inherited trauma, the question of desire versus obligation — those are big things for me. But I didn’t end the book anywhere dispositive.
RI: A book reviewer said that you posed enormous questions without suggesting answers or even that they exist, that the search is the thing.
LCP: We’re much too focused on 10 tips for your garden, the recipe for happiness…it flattens the complexity of life, sands down all the rough edges. That’s not how life is. Between Zach and Cleo you have worlds in their past and their hearts. To wrap it all up neatly would be a disservice to all those worlds that are whirling around inside of those characters.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Friday, July 24, 6:30 p.m.
The Lenox Library
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Readers: Enjoy A Day Of Books And Authors At ‘Off The Page’
By Paige Darrah
New York City residents might be familiar with “Open House,” in which publishing giant Random House invites readers to its offices to spend a day with A-list authors. In the wake of those successful events, Random House will take authors “Off the Page” and into Upstate’s Basilica Hudson on Saturday, July 11. The first event of its kind in the Hudson Valley will feature keynote speakers Ruth Reichl, former Gourmet editor and New York Times food critic, and Gretchen Rubin, New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project.
“The main goal of our special events program is to connect readers with authors and readers with readers – a model that has proven very successful,” says Theresa Zoro, Random House’s director of publicity and communications. “The spirit of the Hudson Valley cultural scene perfectly embodies our vision for a day of literary inspiration.” It doesn’t hurt, she adds, that a number of the authors and speakers participating in the program have homes in this “culturally engaged community.”
It’s also an opportunity for the area to shine. Random House is partnering with local businesses like Gracie’s (one of the several food trucks that’ll be parked at Basilica throughout the day); Hudson-Chatham Winery (they’re doing tastings); and an Etsy pop-up shop featuring local Hudson Valley artisans.
The day begins with Reichl, who will be discussing her forthcoming Hudson Valley-centered cookbook (her first in 40 years), My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Changed My Life. The book’s gritty photographs — Gourmet-magazine-era prop food stylists are notably absent — span farmers market, forests and all four seasons, capturing the region via an inquisitive culinary lens.
“I think that this is one of the best places in the world to live… especially if you’re a cook,” Reichl says during a phone interview from her home in Columbia County. “I was in such a bad place [following Condé Nast’s abrupt shuttering of Gourmet in 2009]. Being up here really grounded me. My whole attitude about life changed in that year. I was able to find moments of joy in the kitchen and pay attention to pleasure again.”
Gretchen Rubin will give the afternoon keynote speech focusing on habits and happiness, the subject of her latest book, Better Than Before: Mastering The Habits of Our Everyday Lives. “Many of us have a draining habit that crowds out healthier, more productive activities,” Rubin says. She’ll offer some habit-changing strategies that will help you live your best life — a recurring theme of the event.
There will be a variety of talks and book-inspired workshops throughout the day: mix-and-match sessions — dealing with “stuff,” standout travel destinations, meditation exercises, book club advice and more — plus time to meet and greet the authors and editors. And who doesn’t love a nice tote bag filled with summer reads and other goodies?
The event will be capped with a wine tasting featuring selections from local wineries; a special al fresco dinner is an add on.
Books, authors, food and wine — what could be better? Only, maybe, that it’s happening right in the Rural Intelligence region.
Off The Page at Basilica Hudson
Saturday, July 11, 9 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.
110 South Front Street, Hudson, NY
Tickets: $100 (tote bag included)
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Author/Pilot Mark Vanhoenacker Captures the Magic of Flight
By Nichole Dupont
Last year, on a flight from JFK to San Juan, my 11-year-old son was only concerned with two things. One, was I sure the hotel had a pool? And two, did I book him a window seat on the flight? Yes, and yes. I looked over his shoulder as we said goodbye to rainy New York in April, and again as we descended over the blue waters of the Caribbean. I wondered how many people had enjoyed this view before me. But air travel is something we too often take for granted, or even loathe, and author Mark Vanhoenacker says we shouldn’t. The 747 pilot has just published his first book, Skyfaring (Knopf 2015), which is part metaphysical contemplation, part memoir, and part intro to aviation engineering. It encourages readers to sit back and truly enjoy the modern magic that is flying.
“On a simple level, I wrote the book to show what my job is like,” says Vanhoenacker via phone from New York. He’s taking a little bit of time off from flying to promote the book stateside (it was released in the U.K. in April). “Some people, actually a lot of people, don’t like to fly. I’m hoping that those people will read the book and think it’s a pretty cool thing to do sometimes. C’mon — you’re looking DOWN at the clouds!”
Vanhoenacker will be on the ground on Friday, June 19 at The Bookstore in Lenox to read and sign his book on, as it turns out, his native soil. The well-traveled pilot, who began flying commercially when he was 29 years old, grew up in the rolling Berkshire hills and returns to the area regularly to be with friends and family. This place, he says, even after long jaunts to Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Sao Paulo and nearly every other major city in the world, will always be home to him.
“A lot of the world is kind of hot and crowded. I’m actually glad to come from a place that has seasons, even winters — I know, I know,” he laughs. “Because I fly a 747, we usually only go to the biggest cities and my first inclination when we land is to leave it and find the hiking trails.”
Not an easy feat when one is in, say, Hong Kong for the day. But Vanhoenacker has done it, and insists that there is “tons of open space” on the islands that surround one of Asia’s most crowded epicenters. In the book, he describes a hike with other flight personnel in a park in South Africa, where it is “hot and dusty” and the “soil gusts up in crimson clouds with each step” while back in London, where they departed, it’s freezing. This constant flux of climate and geography and light, all within the span of just a few hours, and the sense of shock that comes with such adjustment, is what he and others in the field refer to as ‘place lag.’ According to Vanhoenacker, place lag doesn’t fade away, no matter how veteran the traveler. It’s non-combative, and also part of what makes his job so enjoyable. In this state of lag, making connections — human, geographic, ethereal, metaphysical — becomes both a science and an art.
“It’s amazing and interesting work. The plane is making connections between very different places,” he says. “There’s a social shake-up that happens with the crew, as well. I don’t have a fixed set of colleagues. I may never see some of these people again. It’s the same with the passengers. It’s so interesting to see new people and learn the kinds of jobs people have. Some are on the trip of a lifetime that they’ve saved their whole lives for.”
Off the ground, Vanhoenecker allows readers a mystical-toned glimpse into the world of flight. He writes about sky regions, a “new world, high above the old one, that is not yet fully charted,” the intricate and somehow beautiful guts of passenger planes, and the vastness of water and night. A whole world familiar yet unfamiliar, and at times incredibly solitary. But he is able to balance the solitude, and has found little pockets of acclimation — a bookstore in Beijing, sunset in Scandinavia, a shrine in Japan — that seem always to bring him back to the landing strip.
“I’m at home, standing sleepily by the sink,” he writes. “The water runs over the soles of my trainers, sweeping the African dust brightly over the stainless steel. I try hard to remember that this is an unusual experience of the world — to have stood on the earth there…then suddenly to find myself alone on an ordinary afternoon quietly washing it from my shoes.”
Mark Vanhoenacker reading and booksigning
Friday, June 19, 7 p.m.
11 Housatonic Street, Lenox, MA
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
WCMA Launches A First: ‘Warhol By The Book’
Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol’s Index (Book), 1967 (pre-publication mock-up designer’s copy). Williams College Museum of Art, Gift of Richard F. Holmes, Class of 1946. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
By Lisa Green
Even now, 28 years after his death, Andy Warhol is an artist who keeps on giving. Just this week, in preparation for the “Warhol by the Book” exhibit at the Williams College Museum of Art, curator Kathryn Price and Matt Wrbican, chief archivist of The Andy Warhol Museum, made a discovery about the artist’s Index, a popup book complete with sound recordings, balloons, fold-outs, holograms, even a do-it-yourself nose job.
On Friday, March 6, that book, called a “children’s book for hipsters,” along with around 500 other Warhol book-related projects, will be on view at the opening of the first U.S. exhibition to concentrate on Warhol’s book work. Organized out of the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the exhibit makes WCMA its first stop, thanks in part to the College’s own collection of Warhol’s book-related works, many of which were given by Richard F. Holmes, Class of ’46. The fact that Williams is in the middle of a year-long, campus-wide Books Unbound initiative made this setting particularly relevant.
“We’re so happy to be partnering with the Warhol Museum,” says Kathryn Price, curator of collections at WCMA. Inspired by the Williams Warhol collection, she first proposed doing such a show four years ago. “Our venue will be the largest one dedicated to this exhibit.”
Andy Warhol, 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy, 1954, (Printed by Semour Berlin, written by Charles Lisanby), bound artist’s book, litho-offset prints on paper with hand coloring. Williams College Museum of Art, Gift of Richard F. Holmes, Class of 1946. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
The exhibition showcases a range of material from Warhol’s practice including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and artist’s books, all of which demonstrate Warhol’s experimentation with form and content. Included in the exhibition are never-before-shown paste-up layouts for two books of photos, a to-scale model of a book made from his Marilyn Monroe prints (it unfolds to almost 30 feet), and preliminary mockups that show how the Index changed from inception to its final state (and therein lies that most recent discovery).
Book lovers who are surreptitious snoopers of other people’s bookshelves will especially appreciate the gallery that recreates Warhol’s eclectic personal library. Among his collection: the first edition of the Atkins Diet and a book on poodles.
At the opening, Price and Wrbican will present the first in a series of conversations devoted to Warhol’s contributions to the field of publishing, with drinks and mingling to follow. The exhibit will be on view through August 16 and will then travel to the Warhol Museum.
“Warhol by the Book”
Williams College Museum of Art
15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown
Warhol & the Stuff of Books
Friday, March 6, 6 p.m.
Warhol & Cookbooks
Tuesday, April 7, 6 p.m.
Warhol & Infiltrated Publishing
Tuesday, April 28, 6 p.m.
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Author Megan Bergman Brings ‘Almost Famous Women’ To Oblong Books
By Nichole Dupont
There is almost no drawl left in Megan Bergman’s voice. The North Carolina native has become almost completely northernized thanks to life on her Vermont farm which she shares with her veterinarian husband, their two young daughters, and a slew of feathered and four-legged critters. Maybe it was those long New England winters that prompted Bergman, who penned “Birds of a Lesser Paradise” a starkly rich collection of short stories that received almost instant accolades, to delve deep for her latest, arguably darker ensemble. “Almost Famous Women,” (Scribner, Jan. 2015) was released this month and is Bergman’s first foray into historical fiction. But it doesn’t feel like fiction at all.
“I’ve been reading this stuff for ten years as an academic and a writer. If it’s out of print and obscure, I’ll read it,” says Bergman in a phone interview from her home state, where her book tour has begun with balmy 40 degree days. “The research really lights up my brain in response. The hardest thing was that I had to give myself permission to write historical fiction. There was so much missing anyway that the imagination takes over.”
Bergman will be at the Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck on Sunday to answer any questions — if she can — about the women she has chosen for the collection. And what women they are. The book opens with Violet and Daisy Hilton, conjoined twins well into the twilight years of a life once-filled with Vaudevillian potential. The story is told by Daisy, who implores the reader to “Imagine: you could say nothing, do nothing, eat nothing, touch nothing, love nothing, without the other knowing.”
The book’s title hints at the quiet devastation of bad choices, hard times and plain old flawed characteristics that shape and shatter or let go to ground the lives of Dolly Wilde, Tiny Davis, Beryl Markham, Butterfly McQueen, Norma Millay and the others, named and unnamed. None of us are immune, it seems, least of all the talented.
“The ‘almost’ is a qualifier from the beginning. It’s a longing, coming up short. We’re fascinated by characters, even people, who really want something. But it was important to me that this wasn’t ‘Almost Famous White Women’ or ‘Almost Famous Straight Women.’ The fact that they still read as challenging stereotypes in a contemporary setting is significant.”
The stories, which are largely set in the 1920s through the 1940s, flow in a cacophonous timeline of war, solitude, poverty and decrepitude, and are not limited to one continent. From heiress turned boat racer “Joe” Carstairs’ Caribbean paradise to a convent in Northeast Italy where the bastard daughter of Lord Byron is hidden from the world to Steepletop, home of the venerable Edna St. Vincent Millay (and her oddly obsessive sister, Norma), it seems as if no geographical stone is left unturned as these women refuse to bend into the mold that is laid out for them. For all of us, really.
“All of these women are taking risks,” Bergman says. “They are all navigating that strange line between self-actualization and self-sacrifice. Life can be very messy and there’s so many ways to sail this ship of being a woman. I didn’t want to cultivate the pity of the readers. These characters are definitely more interesting than likeable.”
In fact, some of the characters are, at first glance, detestable. What remains of artist Romaine Brooks is presented to us at the very last stages of her physical and mental disintegration. She wants to die. We kind of want her to die, too.
“…Romaine cracks one of her ancient teeth on biscotti. The misery in this world is constant, Romaine says, one liver-spotted hand to her temple.”
But before she dies, before any of them sound off or disappear for good, there is so much to uncover, and so many questions about unconventional lovers, about deciding not to raise their children, about divorce, about cheating death on a motorcycle, about the origins of their madness. In some instances, Bergman gives us that; she gives us the finality we need to move on to the next tale, but not always.
“I’m really interested in these moments that are distilled,” says Bergman. “It’s flash fiction. Some people really get it, others don’t like it. But it’s the idea that there are these moments that can define a character’s whole life.”
Megan Mayhew Bergman Presentation, Q&A and Book Signing
Sunday, January 25 at 4 p.m.
Oblong Books, Rhinebeck, NY
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
For The Love Of Lit: Lenox Celebrates Edith Wharton’s Birthday And More
By Amy Krzanik
The Mount in Lenox has been hitting it out of the park, or in its case, hitting it out of the garden, with an eclectic and thought-provoking lineup of year-round interactive literature events celebrating former inhabitant Edith Wharton and the written and spoken word in general.
This year, Wharton’s birthday celebration – held at the mansion every January 24 – falls on what is the first-ever National Readathon Day. Created by Penguin Random House, the websites GoodReads and Mashable, and the National Book Foundation, the event strives to raise funds and awareness to fight illiteracy and to create and sustain a love of reading in those of all ages.
The Mount strives to give Wharton’s birthday celebration a different flavor each year, says Kelsey Mullen, the Mount’s Director of Public Programs and Education. “In the past, we’ve had a lecture series, readings, open houses and other events.” By partnering with the National Readathon, this year’s event has a strong literary theme, but one thing is the same every year. “Our goal is to generate public awareness and to invite the public to join us in celebrating,” Mullen says.
Not only the Mount, but the entire town of Lenox will be involved in this year’s day-long celebration of literature. Beginning at 10 a.m. at Wharton’s former home, book lovers are invited to gather and discuss their favorite works over breakfast provided by Bagel & Brew and Patisserie Lenox. At 11 a.m., professional actors will perform a reading of Dennis Krausnik’s adaptation of “Xingu,” Wharton’s comedic tale about a pretentious book club. The morning concludes with the requisite champagne toast to the birthday girl. Before you leave, be sure to visit Pins & Pegs, the Mount’s on-site bookshop, and snag a 10-percent-off coupon for The Bookstore in Lenox.
From 12:30 – 4 p.m., the Lenox Library will present a short reading from Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, this year’s Lenox Reads choice. Everyone is invited to curl up with a book and a borrowed blanket from Lenox’s MacKimmie Co. and get reading! The funds from a raffle featuring gift certificates to local businesses will go to The National Book Foundation to benefit early literacy programs.
The third and final stop on the event schedule is The Bookstore in Lenox, which will offer a live reading of poems hand picked by owner Matt Tannenbaum on the topics of – what else – reading, books and bookstores. Enjoy snacks and drinks at the bookstore’s Get Lit Wine Bar, and don’t forget to use your discount. The fun begins at 4:30 p.m.
On the following day, January 25 at 2 p.m., the Mount turns Wharton’s 153rd birthday into a weekend event with a staged reading of The Edith Wharton Project, Part 1: Leisure, inspired by Wharton’s life, secret love affair and writing style. The first in a three-part play cycle written by Sara Farrington and directed by Marina McClure, the piece tackles issues of sexual politics, high society and the treatment of mental illness in 1907 New York. Farrington, McClure, and the cast and crew will participate in a talk-back following the performance.
Lenox Celebrates Edith Wharton’s Birthday
Saturday, January 24
10 a.m. – 12 p.m. The Mount hosts a bookish breakfast and reading of “Xingu.”
12:30 – 4 p.m. The Lenox Library offers a short reading from Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver and a cozy place to read.
4:30 p.m. The Bookstore presents a book-themed poetry reading, snacks and wine until late.
Sunday, January 25
The Edith Wharton Project, Part I: Leisure
The Mount welcomes playwright Sara Farrington, director Marina McClure and cast and crew for a staged performance, followed by a talk-back with the audience. 2 p.m.
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Acclaimed Photographer Stephen Shore Celebrates Retrospective
Stephen Shore: Survey (Aperture, 2014)
By Robert Burke Warren
If you want to know what chutzpah looks like, you should be at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck this Sunday. Acclaimed photographer and longtime Bard faculty member Stephen Shore, celebrating the publication of photo book Stephen Shore: Survey, will talk about his remarkable career, give a presentation, conduct a Q & A and sign books.
His story begins with an audacity only a teenager could pull off. In 1962, at the age of 14, after teaching himself to shoot a 35 mm camera and develop film, he cold-called Edward Steichen, the curator of the Museum of Modern Art, and asked for an appointment. Amazingly, he got one. Still more astounding: Steichen purchased three of the bold teen’s photographs. The next year, MOMA purchased a couple more. With that as his entrée to the art world, he became the boy photographer of Andy Warhol’s factory, assisting on Warhol’s films, documenting the seismic scene, and capturing in gorgeous black and white the highly influential rock band The Velvet Underground. In 1971, at just 24, he enjoyed the honor of being the second living artist to have a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Over the ensuing years, Shore has made good on that initial promise, creating a vast body of distinctive photographic work in both black and white and color, receiving numerous grants, and showing solo from Manhattan to Rome to Vienna to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and beyond, influencing two generations of photographers along the way. He is renowned for elevating otherwise “mundane” subjects to a level of fascination and artistic beauty, and for pioneering the use of color film. Prior to Shore’s groundbreaking early 70s work “American Surfaces,” many had thought color was suited only to advertising. Shore knew better. He captured the charged atmosphere of ordinary moments, and presented his vision in defiantly exuberant hues. Countless acolytes followed suit.
Stephen Shore, July 22nd, 1969, from Stephen Shore: Survey (Aperture, 2014) © Stephen Shore, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York
Stephen Shore: A Survey is a 250-image companion to the first museum retrospective of Shore’s work, currently showing at Fundación MAPFRE in Madrid. (Aperture and Fundación MAPFRE published the book.) At Oblong, Shore will give what he calls a 30-minute PowerPoint “preface” to the Q & A session. This must-see presentation will cover his history as well as a selection of the work in the book, which ranges from 1960, when he was 12, through conceptual work in the late 60s and early 70s, to recent work heretofore unpublished. “It’s not going to cover my whole life,” he says, laughing. “I’ve only got 30 minutes.”
Indeed, Shore’s life and career have been deep, varied and rich, and Survey reflects it all, with panoramas of New York alongside landscapes of the Arizona desert, Walker Evans-inspired portraits of humble country folk, archeological photos, and tableaux of our own Hudson Valley, to name but a few subjects. (Shore, who has directed Bard’s photography program since 1982, lives in Tivoli.)
Although the book and show are a retrospective culled from over a half-century of work, Shore isn’t slowing down. Declining to choose a particular subject that stands out from his impressively broad oeuvre, he says, “Artists always like to talk about what they’re working on at the moment. I’ve been shooting in Ukraine, and it is the most moving place I’ve ever been. The land is resonant with emotion; the people, the buildings, everything.”
In other words, more stunning photos to come, in which Stephen Shore will bring to life sights not yet seen, and seen through his own distinctive lens.
Stephen Shore, Photographer
Presentation, Q & A, and Book Signing
Sunday, December 7, 2014 at 6 p.m.
Oblong Books & Music
6422 Montgomery St., Rhinebeck
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
From China To Chatham: The Marvelous Mystique Of Mah Jongg
By Lisa Green
Not long ago, I was asked 1) if I wanted to join a Hadassah group, and 2) would I like to play Mah Jongg with a group of ladies. Right there, right then, I knew I’d passed some sort of demographic milestone. Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago these same ladies were wanting to fix me up with their grandsons?
I politely declined, but now I’m reconsidering the Mah Jongg offer, thanks to Mah Jongg: The Art of the Game, an elegant new coffee table book written and photographed by three people with Columbia County connections. For many players, there’s a social ritual to the whole game experience. For the authors and photographer of the book, however, it’s so much more. It’s about the art of the Mah Jongg tiles and sets: their histories, their design, the materials used, the varied symbols and scenes depicted on the tiles.
“A group of us took lessons four years ago, and started playing every Wednesday. We call ourselves the Mahjettes. Whoever is hosting prepares lunch and we have a great time,” she says.
Beyond the social aspect, however, the game “hit me like a thunderbolt,” she continues. “I’ve always been interested in art and art history. I look at this as a brilliant art form. The carvers were such artisans — unnamed heroes, really.”
Co-author Gregg Swain, one of the original Mahjettes, continues the story. “Ann got a vintage set, and then I got one. We discovered that although there are how-to books for Mah Jongg, nothing had been written on the art of the tiles, so we came up with the idea of putting a book together.” A few more Columbia County part-timers boarded the Mah Jongg train. Israel called on her longtime friend, East Chatham photographer Michel Arnaud (he’s worked for Vogue, House & Garden, and Architectural Digest, among many other publications, and has photographed lifestyle and design books) who agreed to participate. His literary-agent wife, Jane Creech, found a publisher for the book. Gregg Swain’s husband, Woody Swain, art directed.
By this time, both authors were heavily invested in acquiring antique sets, and knew who the great collectors and historians were. The first shoot — photographing Israel’s and Swain’s collection, of course — took place at Arnaud’s East Chatham studio, but then Arnaud traveled across North American and Europe to photograph other collectors’ sets. Prepping the tiles for their closeups was a challenge.
“I had to work out a technique,” Arnaud says. “As soon as you touch one, every tile moves. But all of the tiles have stories, and come in amazing boxes.”
The tiles, boxes, and their stories are comprehensively covered in the book, which chronicles the early beginnings of the game. But chiefly, the book showcases the beauty and artistic nature of the different kinds of tiles. The photos are sumptuous and remind me of how I used to love the slippery smoothness of the tiles in my mother’s set.
I hadn’t heard much about Mah Jongg after my mother stopped playing, aside from my invitation to join a group. But Mah Jongg is alive and well. Both authors now blog about the subject, Israel at mahjonggandme, and Swain at majhongtreasures. The Chatham Library hosts players on Mondays and Wednesdays. Google Mah Jongg and you’ll find a whole world devoted to the game.
In advance of the official book release on November 18, Ann Israel and Michel Arnaud will be signing books at The Chatham Bookstore on November 15 at 5 p.m. Israel has invited local residents to give a Mah Jongg demonstration, and refreshments for this event — essential for any Mah Jongg gathering — will be provided by the Old Chatham Country Store.
“We’re trying to celebrate the craftsmanship and art form that’s been completely overlooked, and hoping people will take out their grandmothers’ sets,” says Swain. “Those tiles should get restored and into the light.”
Guess it’s time to dust off my mother’s set.
Mah Jongg: The Art of the Game
A Collector’s Guide to Mah Jongg Tiles and Sets (Tuttle Publishing)
Booksigning and demonstration Saturday, November 15, 5 p.m.
The Chatham Bookstore
27 Main Street, Chatham, NY 127 Main Street, Chatham, NY 12037
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
To Tell The Truth: Speak Up Storytelling Comes To The Mount
By Amy Krzanik
“My friends have always said that I’ve lived one of the most unfortunate lives (including surviving homelessness and an armed robbery), so I’ve got a lot of material for stories,” says Matthew Dicks [left] who will be at The Mount in Lenox with his Hartford-based storytelling group Speak Up on Saturday, October 18 and Sunday, October 19. Saturday night’s show will feature true stories based around the theme of “Love and Marriage” and told by five performers including Dicks and NPR’s Ophira Eisenberg. The Speak Up competition is similar to the Moth’s StorySLAM (which Dicks has won a whopping 14 times). On Sunday, Dicks will lead an intro-to-storytelling workshop for folks looking to perfect their gift of gab.
After the success of last fall’s Literary Death Match, The Mount’s Communications Director, Rebecka McDougall, knew there was a hunger for this type of event in the region that wasn’t being met. “It’s an accessible way to bring the written word to audiences. Storytelling and the oral tradition have an even longer history that text does. Plus audiences really enjoy the interactions and being a part of the event.”
Kelsey Mullen, Director of Public Programs and Education at The Mount, agrees. “Audiences want to engage with the authors and vice versa. When you attend an event like this, you never know what will happen; it’s spontaneous and dynamic. You go home and talk about it with friends, so the conversation continues after the show is over.” The appeal of a storytelling event is widespread, as speakers don’t have to be published authors to participate. “Everybody has a story and storytelling is an important skill,” she says.
In Hartford, Dicks and his wife Elysha [right] co-produce a Speak Up show every other month that features both beginners and seasoned locals, along with NYC StorySLAM veterans. “We like to bring in one or two professionals from the city for every show since there are a lot of first timers who come to the events and I want them to be able to experience great storytelling,” he says.
The combination must be working because the group sells out every show. Dicks says a lot of the credit for that goes to Elysha, whom he calls “the perfect host, because she knows everyone and everyone loves her.” The Monterey, Mass. native emcees each show and tells a story of her own. “She’s really the face of Speak Up!” says Dicks. “I’ll see people on the street and they’ll say ‘you’re married to the Speak Up girl’ and I’m like hey, I’m a part of this, too!”
The couple chooses a theme for each show and coaches participants before the big night. Dicks is uniquely qualified to train budding storytellers, as he’s been in 26 SLAMs and won more than half of them. “I won the first storySLAM I entered, in 2011, and figured I got lucky and found something I was good at. But my wife said ‘you’re such an idiot; you’ve been DJing for 17 years, speaking in front of 200 people at a time.’ I also teach my students through stories, so really I’ve been in training for 20 years.”
Besides running Speak Up and raising two children with his wife, Dicks teaches fifth grade and has penned three novels and two musicals. Does he ever sleep? “Not much, about five hours a night,” he says. “Most of my stories are from my childhood, ages 0 to 28, but I also do an exercise every night where I say to myself, ‘if you had to write a story about something that happened today, what would you pick?’’
Dicks figures he has around 172 stories stored away. “I always think I’m going to die, so I’m constantly afraid at all times, and I want to use every second possible,” he laughs.
Love and Marriage: Storytelling at the Mount
October 18, 2014 @ 8 p.m.; $15
Speaking Your Mind: An Introduction to Storytelling
October 19, 2014 @ 9 a.m.; $25
The Mount, 2 Plunkett Street, Lenox, MA
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Chef Michael Ballon: 25 Years Of A Chef’s Life In The Berkshires
By Lisa Green
When Chef Michael Ballon, a regional pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, first opened the Castle Street Café in Great Barrington 25 years ago, he had to import goat cheese from California. But he soon learned that excellent versions of it were being produced in our area, and over the years, the creamy, tangy cheese has appeared prominently on Castle Street’s menu.
It’s kind of him to keep it there; in his new memoir, A Chef’s Life: Farm-to Table Cooking in the Berkshires, he admits he pretty much can’t stand the stuff.
But, Ballon says, “I wouldn’t deprive my diners of the opportunity to eat it, and I recognize that many others enjoy it. It’s all in a chef’s work.”
Ballon, one of the Berkshires’ most beloved chefs and author of The Castle Street Café Cookbook published in 2010, is commemorating his quarter-century of pleasing palates with the new book, a series of essays (many with his favorite recipes) about being a chef, food trends, running a restaurant, and profiles of the farmers who have supplied the restaurant with food over all these years.
Filled with confessions (see: goat cheese, above) , memories (pianist Emanual Ax practicing at the café’s piano as astonished diners ate their meals) and quiet criticism of certain food trends (“Run fast when you see the word deconstruction applied to food”). A Chef’s Life lets us in on the why’s and wherefore’s behind his menus and management. As the book’s subtitle suggests, there is his take on the locavore revolution, which, for him, developed in part simply by virtue of being a chef in the country.
“You get to know the farms here,” he says. “We’re just buying from local farms and purveyors to provide ingredients that make great food.” The restaurant’s first menu, from the spring of 1989, is reproduced in the book. One side listed the items, the other listed the local suppliers — pretty rad back then. (The menu has entertainment value just from the prices alone; remember when an espresso cost $1.50?)
Aside from enjoying the contact with farmers, Ballon clearly cares about his customers, even going as far as calling a loyal customer in concern when didn’t show up on his regular night. “I always wanted to make Castle Street an accessible, affordable place that people feel comfortable in. Restaurants have an obligation to give back to the community.”
The community will have a chance to thank Ballon for his community involvement and 25 years at the helm of Castle Street at a special book launch event (including a food demonstration) at the Café on Saturday, September 13 at 3 p.m.
Twenty-five years is a good run for any business, but for a restaurant, it’s particularly impressive.
“Eighty percent of all restaurants fail within 5 years,” Ballon says. “This has proved to be a fertile place for chefs to ply their wares.”
A Chef’s Life: Farm-to-Table Cooking in the Berkshires
By Michael Ballon
Book launch at Castle Street Café on Saturday, September 13 at 3 p.m.
Reading and signing at The Bookstore in Lenox on Sunday, September 21 at 4 p.m. and at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Stockbridge on Sunday, September 28 at 4 p.m.
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Q&A With Author Courtney Maum
Author photo by Colin Lane.
By Amy Krzanik
Berkshire County resident Courtney Maum is a corporate namer, celebrity book reviewer, advice columnist for Tin House and now a first-time author. After showing up on countless “best summer reads” lists (Oprah, People, Glamour and Vogue just for starters) her debut novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, will have a proper RI region book launch at No. Six Depot in West Stockbridge on Sunday, July 13. The book, set in Paris in 2002 at the very beginning of the U.S. and England’s involvement in the Iraq War, follows British expatriate Richard Haddon as he wittingly destroys his marriage by cheating on his (much) better half. His attempt to win back his French wife, and simultaneously regain his reputation as a cutting-edge, politically minded artist, is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. On Sunday, Maum will be “live interviewing” two local couples (including Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year) with a question that is posed in the book. We recently caught up with Maum to ask her some interview questions of our own.
Rural Intelligence: I read that you live part time in France and NYC, so what lead you to buy a home in the Berkshires?
Courtney Maum: I lived in Paris for five years in my early twenties. Three years in, I met my husband, a French film director named Diego Ongaro. He’d never lived anywhere other than Paris, and I’d started to miss my friends and family back home, so we moved to Brooklyn, thinking we’d do the glamorous “struggling artist” thing. Except that it was all struggle, and no glamour. We worked from home as freelancers, and we were too broke to take advantage of all that New York has to offer in terms of culture. Heck, we were too broke to even join our friends for drinks! So much of our creative energy was being spent in negative ways—we were both feeling inadequate, cynical, envious, depressed. So we got the heck out of dodge. We figured that if we were working from home we might as well be doing so in an inspiring place. We didn’t have any friends or family in the Berkshires, but we fell in love with a fixer-upper and the landscape of the region. It’s been almost eight years and we haven’t looked back!
RI: You’re a corporate namer. What does that entail?
CM: I work for several different branding agencies, mostly in New York—and when a company wants to launch a new product, a new company division, or re-brand their corporate image, we’ll generate hundreds of names in order to present a client with twenty or so names that are legally viable for their new product. It’s a fantastic job—naming helps keep my mind sharp, and I like working outside of academia because I think the writer’s world can be a little claustrophobic at times.
RI: You write in a wide variety of voices – John Mayer, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Joan Didion just for starters—and your novel is told in the first person by a British man. How do you prepare yourself to write in another’s voice? And has anyone you’ve imitated contacted you?
CM: For my “Celebrity Book Review” column in the literary magazine, Electric Literature, (for which I review a newly released book from the point of view of a celebrity), I watch videos and read essays and interviews of the person I’m trying to imitate in order to get their voice and cadence down. And then I’ll do research about their life and career to find common points of interest that will tie into the book I’m going to review. For example, when I wrote a review of Steve Jobs’ biography from Michael Dell’s point of view, I read Michael Dell’s autobiography after Jobs’, watched some of his industry speeches, and looked at Dell’s advertising to see how they were keeping up with Apple’s. I was proud of that review—I was contacted by some higher-ups at Dell who said I’d gotten Michael’s voice right. But often the people that contact me—or my editor at Electric Literature, rather—are people who are angry, either with the celebrity in question (and they think they’re writing that person), or because they’re angry to find out that the point of view was faked. I had one really fanatic Sinead O’Connor fan who was positively irate to hear that the piece wasn’t written by Sinead. She went all over the Internet trying to apprise people to that fact. And for my most recent review, I impersonated Hillary Rodham Clinton, and we’ve got quite a few emails from people angry at her for one thing or another—none of these emails, of course, have anything to do with the book that was reviewed!
RI: You seem like an avid reader—is that true and how do you find the time? Do you prefer books or an eReader?
CM: I read at night, mostly, before I go to bed. This has been an ongoing ritual for me since I was a little girl. I struggle with insomnia and reading helps calm me down. I’m a book girl through and through, though—I’ve never read an ebook in my life. Of course, I understand and respect their popularity, but I’m a bit of a luddite myself—I like to turn the pages, feel the pages, smell them. And there is nothing better than curling up in a hammock during the summer with a fresh, hardcover book!
RI: It seems that in some European countries (France in particular in your novel) the people have a more “laissez-faire” view of adultery than do Americans. If true, to what do you attribute that?
CM: I can only speak about France, because I lived there—but one major difference is that there are far less marriages to begin with than we have in the United States. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but most of my French friends are in serious relationships, they have children with their partners, but no plans to marry. My own husband’s parents were never married either. There’s just more legal protection in France for common law marriages than here. So it’s possible that because marriage isn’t a given for some French people that they’re approaching the idea of what it means to be in a relationship with more flexibility. In America, in terms of matrimony, I feel like we set ourselves up to fail. When I was engaged, for example, a lot of my American friends asked, “What does it feel like to think you’ll only sleep with one man for the rest of your life?!” That’s a terrible mindset going into a marriage! Marriage is so much more than monogamy, you know? Obviously, you want to aim for monogamy—it’s a goal, but I do think that French people are a little bit more realistic and forgiving about the fact that mistakes might happen. That if you’re going to spend the next fifty years with someone, yes, there might come a moment when you get bored, restless, where you might make a mistake. But that that doesn’t mean that you don’t love them anymore.
Courtney Maum @ No. Six Depot
Sunday, July 13 from 1-3 p.m.
6 Depot Street, West Stockbridge, MA
Courtney Maum @ Spotty Dog Books & Ale
Saturday, July 19 at 7 p.m.
440 Warren Street, Hudson, NY
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
‘The Race Underground’ Surfaces At Ventfort Hall
Doug Most, a deputy managing editor at The Boston Globe, is the author of The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Build America’s First Subway, published in February by St. Martin’s Press. Named one of the “18 Books to Read in 2014” by This Week magazine, the book traces the development of the Boston and New York subway systems, a complicated, terrifying journey filled with thrilling breakthroughs and horrific tragedies.“It’s full of American history, a little death and destruction, and a lot of drama,” says Most, who will be presenting an illustrated lecture, “New York & Boston: The Whitney Race Underground” as part of Ventfort Hall’s Tea & Talk series on July 8. In anticipation of his appearance, we asked Most about his inspiration and thoughts on writing the book.
Rural Intelligence: What inspired you to tackle this topic?
Doug Most: I love a good story and I love exploring how we got to where we are today. We take so much of our history for granted, and the subway is a perfect example. We go underground now and think nothing of it. We’re not nervous, or scared, or hesitant. But as I learned, that was not always the case. Centuries ago man was terrified of the underground. Overcoming that fear, embracing the underground, and then constructing incredible tunnels, was a huge achievement for society. I was excited to tell the story of the people who did it.
RI: Your book promos emphasize the story of the two brothers each racing to build a subway in their respective cities (NY and Boston), but the cast of characters that were involved is enormous, all the way from public figures to the immigrant workers who risked their lives to work on the projects. Was there a character that most intrigued you?
DM: There were so many. The Whitney brothers you mention, from Conway, MA, were fascinating. William Whitney could have been president if he wanted. And Henry Whitney was Boston’s most powerful businessman. My favorite surprising characters are both in New York. William Steinway, the man who gave us the beautiful piano we know today, was a key figure in New York’s subway. And the amazing story of Alfred Beach building a secret subway right under the nose of Boss Tweed and the citizens of Gotham was a fun tale.
RI: With all the descriptions of the smells, sounds, dangers and fears of the time, The Race Underground does a great job of transporting the reader back to the late 19th century. While you were writing, did you ever feel like you had one foot in the past and one foot in the present?
DM: I tried to do that, for myself and my readers. I very much wanted to take people back to that era, so they could understand that the reason the horse-pulled carriage needed to be replaced was it was slow, dirty and smelly! I wanted people to feel like they could see, hear and smell those horses. No matter how badly they smelled!
RI: It almost strains credulity that the subways were built by men using pickaxes and shovels. The Boston subway was built in two years. How long did the Big Dig take — 15 years? Discuss!
DM: Not only did the Boston subway, the first leg anyway, take 2.5 years, it was finished under budget. Just like the Big Dig, right? Okay, never mind. Yes, costs were contained more carefully then, but workers also earned only $1.20 a day. Imagine that?!
RI: You’ve said that holding the actual letters written between Thomas Edison and Frank Sprague was an emotional experience. Were there any other research “moments” like that?
DM: That was my favorite, probably. But visiting a distant relative of Henry Whitney in Connecticut and seeing her pictures of her great grandfather was cool. So was digging through the private papers and letters of William Whitney at the Library of Congress. The reporting and research was great fun. My favorite “find” was a book from 1938 of stories of people who survived the Blizzard of 1888. It was an incredible collection and I never expected to track it down, but I did and when it arrived in the mail it was like a gift from the heavens. That book alone almost single handedly wrote that entire chapter!
RI: How did Boston and New York differ in their approach to and acceptance of the subways? Did they mirror the personalities of the two cities?
DM: Boston was definitely more reluctant embracing it. But that’s also because Boston was first in America. By the time New York opened 7 years later, people understood the subway could be safe and reliable and helpful to a city. The biggest difference came on their opening days. Boston was very subdued, quiet, no big celebration. New York pulled out all the stops, a huge party, befitting New York!
RI: Your book is meticulously researched and told in a chronological manner, but you probably didn’t uncover your research in chronological order. How did you organize your massive amounts of material?
DM: One word: Timeline. I created an Excel spreadsheet and every time I found a date, I entered it there. That gave me a timeline of more than 2000 entries, and it was hugely helpful. A writer friend of mine suggested that and it was a great tip.
RI: There are characters with quite a few ties to the Rural Intelligence region. The Whitney brothers — William and Henry — were born in Conway, MA, just outside the RI region; Frank Sprague went to Drury High School in North Adams and his son Robert Sprague founded Sprague Electric of North Adams. Have you been able to find out much about William Whitney’s history with Ventfort Hall?
DM: I only learned about it after they invited me, so I am now trying to dig up more. I have an old biography on Whitney and hope to see what it says. I was thrilled by the invitation, can’t wait to come.
RI: How has writing this book changed your experience of riding on the subways in either city?
DM: I just appreciate the subways more. I ride them and stare at the tunnels, at the walls, the tracks, the stations and think about the work that went into building them. I hope other people take that away from my book, a special appreciation for the workers who gave us marvels of engineering like subways and bridges.
RI: This story could actually make a pretty compelling movie. Any interest — by you or anyone else?
DM: One can only hope!
Tea & Talk: “New York & Boston: The Whitney Race Underground”
Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum
104 Walker Street, Lenox, MA
$20 advance registration, $25 at the door
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
In Bette Isacoff’s Memoir ‘Star Crossed,’ An Unlikely Pair Beats The Odds
By Lisa Green
In 1968, when Bette Francesconi met Richard Isacoff, she was a 21-year-old Catholic, a senior in college doing her practice teaching assignment. He was a 17-year-old Jewish student, a senior at the school where she was teaching. Seven weeks later they were engaged. There were, not surprisingly, objections to their engagement, from incredulous (hers) and disapproving (his) parents, uncooperative clergy, and the complications inherent in an interfaith marriage.
As Ladies’ Home Journal would ask, Can this marriage be saved?
Sorry, LHJ. You would never have heard from this couple. Despite the challenges they faced from the beginning, Bette and Richard Isacoff, who live in Cheshire (he’s an attorney in Pittsfield), have had an extraordinary marriage that’s still going strong after 44 years. It’s a love story Bette relates in her memoir, Star Crossed, published by Headwinds Publishing. Isacoff will be reading from the book and followed by a Q&A session at the Mason Library in Great Barrington on Saturday, May 17, with a chocolate tasting supplied by Chocolate Springs.
Star Crossed focuses on the couple’s first weeks of courtship, their engagement, and the obstacles leading up to their wedding, detailing the objections they encountered and roadblocks they had to overcome. The interfaith aspect was the most troubling to others, but there were also the age difference and education levels that seemed to concern everyone else. Still, they weren’t so blinded by love that they couldn’t see what they were up against. They began to work it out. When they were dating, Bette went to Friday night synagogue services with Richard; he went to Sunday mass with her. His family never accepted her; hers grew to love him like the son they never had.
Isacoff’s enthusiasm bubbles out as she talks about her many accomplishments — teacher, writer, registered nurse, former dog obedience trainer, breeder and show dog competitor, multiple academic degrees (she went back for a master’s degree in creative writing at age 64), Iditarod volunteer. And yet, she says, all that really matters in the end is the love between herself and Richard.
“I knew when I met him he had something that was magical and unique,” she says. And perhaps she didn’t realize how exceptional their marriage was until, recovering after a surgery in 2000, she tuned into Dr. Phil and Oprah, and found herself aghast at all the “my man cheated on me” dramas bleeding all over the afternoon programs on TV.
“I thought, is this the message we’re giving young women about marriage?” Bette says. “It became important to me to show people what a marriage filled with love, devotion and respect can be.” Such was the inspiration for her memoir.
At the reading, Bette (and Richard — they’re rarely apart) will reflect upon their 44-year marriage and delve into deeper questions: How do you blend your religions, and combine your families to create one of your own in faith? What makes a successful marriage, interfaith or otherwise?
The book’s excellent reviews (not to mention an endorsement by Patricia McLachlan, Newbery Medal award winner for Sarah, Plain and Tall) have been gratifying. “You put a book out there and never know what the response is going to be,” Isacoff says. But love against the odds is a story that’s pretty irresistible, and Isacoff’s evident passion for her husband is charming, if not enviable. It’s no surprise that the comment she hears most of all is “I wish I had a husband like that.”
Star Crossed Author Talk and Chocolate Tasting
Saturday, May 17, 1 p.m.
231 Main Street, Great Barrington
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Author Rachel Urquhart Brings Local History To Life In ‘The Visionist’
By Amy Krzanik
Photo by Sarah Shatz.
Rachel Urquhart, part-time Tyringham resident and frequent contributor to Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and many other well-respected publications, recently published her debut novel, The Visionist, which tells the story of a transformative friendship between two teenaged girls carrying two very different types of burdens. The novel, set in an early 1840s Massachusetts Shaker community, explores the roles that charity and devotion play in lightening the loads and lifting the spirits of ourselves and others. In anticipation of her local appearance on March 30 as part of the Stockbridge Library’s “Sunday Speaker Series,” we asked Urquhart about the inspiration behind her new book.
Rural Intelligence: Since the novel takes place in this general area, did you do a lot of your research and writing here?
Rachel Urquhart: I did most of my research and writing here. I spent at least three summers at Hancock Shaker Village, where at first, I just walked through the buildings over and over, telling myself my story and trying to imagine what my characters would have seen and done and felt as they went about their lives in similar surroundings. When I saw a bedroom, I tried to hear how the beds would have sounded as the girls tossed and turned at night. When I saw medicine jars lined up on shelves in the healing room, I imagined how my characters might have troubled themselves forever putting things in order. When I saw the single remaining open fireplace in the kitchen, I thought about the danger of skirt fires. That sort of thing. I also spent time in the archives, which yielded up some amazing artifacts. My favorite was a handwritten journal of medicinal “receipts” (an old word for “recipes”) that dates back to the early 1800s. Between the gorgeous names of the herbs — coltsfoot, fleabane, meadow rue — and the way the receipts were worded, many of the entries read like poetry. Finally, when it came to actual writing, I spent day after day at Lenox Coffee and in the library at Simon’s Rock while my sons were in camp. And whenever the conversations taking place around me became too interesting, I’d just put on my headphones, listen to Thelonious Monk, and keep on typing.
RI: Did the idea for the novel come to you fully formed, or were you inspired by a certain part of the story, whether it be the Shakers, the friendship between the girls, or of something else?
RU: Weirdly enough, the idea did come to me fully formed, though only after I’d read about the Visionists, whom I’d never heard of. Very quickly after that initial plot download, I began to hear the voices of the girls, and to think about the profound friendship they shared — what it meant to each of them, how it would change them. It took forever for me to figure out the voice of the detective — Simon Pryor — but when I finally got it, I had fun galloping through the action with him.
RI: Was there a reason you chose a friendship versus a romantic relationship, seeing as how both types of intense feeling were frowned upon by the Shaker community?
RU: I chose to focus on the intimacy of friendship rather than romance because I felt that a story of full-on forbidden love in a Shaker enclave would be a pretty cheesy cliché. It’s true that while the Shakers approved of a general sense of affection amongst the believers, they felt that anything more exclusive would throw “union” out of balance in the community. So the close friendship between the two girls in my novel is a form of forbidden love. It’s just not one that involves the passionate flinging of bonnets and ripping of petticoats. It is much more about intimacy, which, especially when expressed in a restrained manner, is infinitely subtler and more revealing than sex.
RI: Because Shakers were so strict, were you nervous about depicting them in a negative light? How do you feel about the religion now that you know more about it? Are you religious yourself?
RU: At a certain point, I simply had to write a story I felt was true, even if at times it might make people see the Shakers in a dark and possibly negative light. I trusted that the years of research I did would help me paint an accurate if more complicated and interesting portrait of the group than the bland and saintly one I was accustomed to. They were real people, after all—people who brought a lot of personal baggage on their journey “into the light.” As far as my own feelings about the sect go, I’ve always been pretty nervous around organized religion of any kind. So setting my first novel in the most rule-bound religious community imaginable must have been some kind of attempt on my part to understand that way of thinking. I’m not sure that I will ever be able to grasp what it means to completely give oneself over to one’s faith, but something that was clarified for me in a very satisfying way was the difference between the formal aspects of Shaker life and worship, and the wildly expressive spirituality that animates them. I would say that I am, in my own peculiar way, quite a spiritual person, and by immersing myself so deeply in imagining what it might have felt like to be a Shaker, I grew more so. The fact that such a practical people could embrace their inability to explain so much about the world appeals to me. They rejoiced in wonder, and I think that was sort contagious for me.
RI: Was it difficult writing from more than one perspective, and writing from the point of view of people “from the past”?
RU: The idea of staying inside the head of a single narrator terrifies me, so in choosing three, I think I picked the simpler route. That said, having to puzzle together multiple separate but simultaneous plotlines nearly split my head open on more than one occasion. I felt like a plate-spinner with far too much twirling to attend to. As far as writing in the voices of people from the past goes, it was difficult, yes, but it was also something I never could have imagined doing differently. I think that the novel has a certain strangeness to it — I think of it as New England magic realism — and so I feel that the language needs to be old-fashioned, contemporary, expansive, blunt and other-worldly all at the same time.
RI: What was the most interesting thing you learned about the Shakers while researching the book? Perhaps something you found out that didn’t make it into the book?
RU: Well, of course, this is all over the book, but I never really knew about the Shaker attitude towards family before — the fact that they demanded the dissolution of all “blood ties” as a condition of signing their covenant. That was really fascinating to me. But on a smaller level, there was so much that didn’t make it into the novel — and I’m still coming across amazing tidbits. Last week, I was looking something up in a really great book called One Shaker Life (by the local Shaker scholar and writer, Glendyne Wergland), and I came across the mention of three Shaker girls being punished for watching flies mate. Granted, it was 1793 and the religion was in its wild and wooly early days, but you can’t make up stuff like that.
RI: Since Rural Intelligence focuses mainly on this region of the country, what are the things you enjoy doing when you’re here?
RU: I’ve lived in the Berkshires during summers and weekends for my entire life, so my favorite things are a hodge-podge of nostalgia and discovery. I have adored the Tyringham Steak Roast ever since I was a child, when it was known as “The Block Dance.” I love hiking the section of the Appalachian Trail from Fernside Road in Tyringham uphill into Beartown Mountain State Park. It took me until last summer to discover the walks on Mt. Greylock. I have celebrated my birthday every year for the past two decades at the Inn on the Green in New Marlborough and, more recently, have become addicted to the margaritas at the Southfield General Store. I enjoy listening to jazz at Mission in Pittsfield—especially when the incredible and gracious 13-year-old guitar phenom Nico Wohl is playing. It’s kind of obvious, but every time I go to MASS MoCA, I come away amazed by at least one thing I’ve seen — and there’s a great gift shop to boot! Finally, I find the events and lectures sponsored by the Bidwell House in Monterey to be fascinating and fun. My favorite event? The contest for best pie at the museum’s annual summer fair!
Rachel Urquhart will discuss and read from The Visionist at the Stockbridge Library on Sunday, March 30 at 4 p.m.
Enjoy this post? Share it with others.
Little Failure, Big Success: Gary Shteyngart At Vassar
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
By Robert Burke Warren
When bestselling author Gary Shteyngart delivers the Alex Krieger Memorial Lecture at Vassar on March 27, attendees will get more than a talk; Shteyngart is a performer, an avid YouTuber and Twitter maven. He’ll be reading from his recent memoir, Little Failure, which is actually a big success, due in part to his relentless promo action, including an online book trailer featuring James Franco, Rashida Jones and NYC literati interacting with a madcap Shteyngart. (Franco plays Shteyngart’s husband.)
Shteyngart spent his first seven years in Leningrad, immigrating to Queens with his parents in 1979. Since his 2002 debut, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, he’s earned a reputation as a deft satirist, using his hardscrabble Russian background as fodder for his books, all bestsellers. Shteyngart promotes his efforts with a theatrical persona, a darkly witty, self-deprecating jester, hamming it up in print and onscreen. In addition to the Little Failure video, he and his publisher, Random House, produced a trailer (also featuring Franco) and a short film for his last novel, Super Sad True Love Story (currently in development as an HBO series). The film, Super Sad True Book Club, features award-winning actor Paul Giamatti as Shteyngart’s hapless roommate.
“Hooray for book trailers,” Shteyngart says. “I teach at Columbia, and my students are very passionate about literature. But in the country as a whole, literature has been increasingly marginalized. Fewer people read, and books just aren’t as central to our culture as they used to be. So you gotta do trailers with movie stars now. Otherwise, who’s gonna buy your book?”
Little Failure is a bit of a departure for Shteyngart. While his previous book output falls under “thinly veiled fiction,” his memoir delves deep into his own story, a tale rife with pain and anxiety, not to mention real people, including his parents. Shteyngart had been circling around it for a while. “I’ve always written [autobiographical] essays for the New Yorker and other publications,” he says, “so that helped stir the pot. It took about two years to fill in the connective tissue between all the essays and the new stuff, which accounted for about 80 percent of the book.”
Shteyngart and his wife (his real wife, not James Franco) have houses in Germantown and Red Hook, NY, and while much of Little Failure takes place in Queens and Manhattan, he did most of the work on the memoir in the country. “It was nice to write most of this book upstate, where I spend half the year,” he says. “The distance from New York made the city come alive more for me. There’s nothing like distance.” How does writing memoir compare to fiction? “In a weird way, there’s more research,” Shteyngart says. “You’re always checking your memories against the facts. Close to a dozen friends and family members were interviewed for this thing. The transcripts alone would take up several volumes.”
Little Failure evokes quite a lot. Shteyngart makes his story both distinctive and universal; with exquisite narrative grace, he paints the tribulations of a troubled, asthmatic Russian Jewish immigrant with cruel parents (“Little Failure” was his mother’s nickname for him), while also breathing life into the New York City of the 80s, a bygone time of synth pop and big hair. “It’s nice to stir people’s memories of time and place,” he says. “People will come up and talk to me about their SANYO cassette players with anti-rolling mechanism. Whatever the heck that was.”
This annual lecture series is given in memory of Vassar student Alex Krieger, who was killed in an automobile accident during the spring of his freshman year. One of Krieger’s keenest interests was distinguished American writing that incorporates humor as a primary element. In consultation with his family, Vassar has invited outstanding American writers and humorists to deliver the annual speech, including Tom Wolfe, Wendy Wasserstein, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Ira Glass and Mo Rocca.
Gary Shteyngart, Alex Krieger ’95 Memorial Lecture
Thursday, March 27, at 8 p.m.
Vassar College Students’ Building
This is a free event.