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
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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
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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.
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Q&A With Author Courtney Maum
Author photo by Colin Lane.
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
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‘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