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
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For The Love Of Lit: Lenox Celebrates Edith Wharton’s Birthday And More
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.
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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
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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