Back In The Saddle: Laura Chester Rides Out the Storm of Transition
All photos courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books
By Nichole Dupont
Laura Chester does not like to dwell in the past, especially her own. That’s why the veteran author and horsewoman decided to write a book about it; to get some of that stuff out. But make no mistake, Riding Barranca, Chester’s latest memoir (Trafalgar Square Books, May 2013), is not a melancholy, regrettable foray into a crappy childhood seen through the bitter eyes of a jaded author. It is a journey — both geographical and metaphorical — surveyed through the high-up lens of a wise woman on horseback; one whose greatest solace and joy stem from her daily jaunts through known and unknown territory. Whether it is negotiating the rugged terrain of the Canelo Hills or repairing a broken relationship with her dying mother, Chester chronicles the hurt and healing balm of a whirlwind year all with the help of her larger-than-life equines.
“It’s important not to live your life as a mistreated child,” Chester says in a phone interview from her Patagonia, Arizona, ranch where she rides out the winter months until returning to the family home in Alford, Massachusetts. “You need to retrain yourself from childhood to a certain degree. You work it out. Just like you work out the kinks with a horse. You move on bit by bit.”
Chester will be sharing some of her story on Saturday, June 1, at the Geoffrey Young Gallery at 40 Railroad Street in Great Barrington in conjunction with an exhibit aptly entitled The Goddess. Of course, this story wasn’t the easiest to write.
“I had a totally different manuscript that I gave to my brothers to look at,” she says. “They were pretty angry about it and had a strong, negative reaction. After my dad died he left 83 scrapbooks behind and they were pretty revealing. I decided not to use that information in the final manuscript. It’s not a tell all. That’s not what I wanted to do.”
What Chester did do was intertwine her various riding expeditions, particularly on the back of her favorite Missouri Fox Trotter horse, Barranca, with snippets of memory from her childhood growing up in Wisconsin and her dealings with her late mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. The result is a memoir that spans years and continents, all revealed with a calm rhythm, just as if you were on a trail ride, lost in thought.
“I felt that combining the two was a natural way to integrate the whole story,” she says. “There is this underlying anger that I had to work through. And usually, I work through a lot when I’m riding and away from everything else. I figured it was about time that I came to some peace with my mom.”
That tenuous peace is outlined in the italicized sections of the book, in which Chester dips into past recollections about her father’s careless behavior and her mother’s snake-strike anger. But the author doesn’t reside in these moments for too long. Everything comes back to center when she is with Barranca, whether tackling the Guajolote Flats (in Arizona) where drug smugglers (and rattlesnakes) are known to hide or enjoying the silence of a snow-covered Berkshire forest. There is also a delightful bit of unpretentious name-dropping: Vogue it-girl Arizona Muse; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Phil Caputo; Legends of the Fall author Jim Harrison — all neighbors and longtime riding companions. And travel, too, as she globe trots (literally) to visit her son and grandchildren in Australia, take a family vacation to India, and a ladies’ sojourn to Mexico. At each place, Chester jumps on an equine, testing out cultures by the view from the saddle.
“I’m not pretending to be this magnificent horsewoman,” she says, laughing a little at herself. “There’s always so much to learn. All of my horses have gotten better in time – more settled. Not that different from us. If we’re treated right.”
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The Wondrous Words of Junot Diaz
Novelist Junot Diaz exudes an otherworldly level of awesomeness. The author and 2012 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient is on the phone discussing his third book, the linked short-story collection This Is How You Lose Her, which chronicles the relationship detonations in the life of Yunior, a brainy-yet-emotionally-clueless Dominican immigrant in urban New Jersey. Diaz, who will be reading at Bard’s Olin Hall on Monday, April 1, at 6 p.m., sprinkles his conversation with phantasmagorical words. Explaining how writers are different from the characters they create, he says, “I’m not characterologically composed.” Reflecting on his early life in the Dominican Republic, where he was raised by his mother and grandparents (he emigrated to the U.S. in 1974, when he was 5), he says, “My loyalties to the landscapes of my youth share similar vocabularies to my grandfather’s.” Water and rain are “hydrological concerns.” The five senses are “sensorium.”
Mastery of language, and the ability to constantly surprise (with words like f—-ing) and engage, are the merest of his many, many talents. Diaz’s three books — Drown (1996) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) preceded This Is How You Lose Her — have won just about every award there is, from the Pulitzer Prize to the National Book Critics Circle Award; he’s won the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rome Prize, and teaches at MIT, where a favorite curriculum point is the narrative structure of the Star Wars movies. He’s the kind of guy who writes an essay for The New Yorker about how Obama lets us down, then goes on PBS and talks to Bill Moyers about his essay. And yet This Is How You Lose Her dumps you so firmly in the stinky landfill projects of the Jersey netherlands that you’ll wonder if you’ll ever make it out. Not a page goes by without unforgettable insights tossed off like street-corner lingo. I’m learning Spanish slang: el mujeron is a butch lady, sucio is—well, let’s just call it sugar that’s bad for you. Here’s a bit of cheesy language he’d never stoop to: whatever he says or writes, Diaz dazzles. —Karen Schoemer
Karen Schoemer: Your books are set in rugged immigrant neighborhoods, and you yourself have lived mostly in big cities. Do you have any rural longing?
Junot Diaz: No, I seem to be a permanent urban cosmopolitan. My grandfather was a farmer. He had an evangelical dedication to the land. I was raised by my grandparents — they’re more central to me than to some other folks. Even in those days I spent most of my time in towns, so it was a different world. The way my grandfather thrilled at the land and at animals and at plants and at seasons and at hydrological concerns, I seem to be overwhelmingly directed towards the urban.
KS: In This Is How You Lose Her Yunior lies, cheats, covers up, refuses to own up. You must love him to write so poignantly about him, but are there times when you just hate him?
JD: I have a very, very ambivalent relationship with him. He’s incredibly laconic; he’s not overwhelmingly voluble. Yunior is also not confessional. It’s not as if I can get him to speak directly or comprehensively about his own heart. He’s just difficult, the way that his problems and shortcomings line up. They’re not easy to deal with, even for someone like me, who invented him.
KS: Is it harder to write about him when you don’t like him?
JD: Almost everything I write tends to push me to pull away. That’s my baseline. If I’m not in flight mode from my characters, I don’t think I’m writing.
KS: Yunior is constantly rating the women he’s sexually involved with. There’s a lot of sex, but very little intimacy.
JD: That’s one of the strange contradictions of someone like Yunior. There’s an entire generation who’s grown up with an abundance of sex yet a stunning paucity of intimacy. Yunior longs terribly for intimacy, but he’s pretty much incapable of it for most of the book.
KS: Do you think the women in his life have equal responsibility for the lack of intimacy?
JD: I’m not sure I would say there’s equal responsibility, because we’ll have to talk about the way society’s organized. I don’t think society’s organized in an egalitarian way. Usually someone has more privilege, so that skews the question. I do think that we all play parts in systems. I don’t think Yunior is possible without a certain amount of complicity from the women that he’s messing around with. A better way of saying it is, someone’s f—-ing these guys. The way the system’s organized, there are plenty of women who are happy to reward this lunatic.
KS: I’m overwhelmed by the sadness of the women’s lives—the mother who’s unable to straighten out her husband and sons, the girlfriends who shriek and scream at Yunior in frustration.
JD: Yunior’s a careful and close study of these women’s suffering. The descriptions of women’s hardships and emotional tribulations come directly through Yunior, not through me the writer. Yunior is the one who takes a special note of it. Yunior’s inability to engage and address his own suffering is balanced by his awareness of women’s suffering in the social universe.
KS: Does he develop that awareness over the course of the book?
JD: I think he always has this awareness. I just think he’s not able to act on it. I’ve never seen a male character who more meticulously records sexual and physical and emotional violence towards women. I mean, think about it. Have you met another male character who is so embedded in the system of masculine privilege, yet simultaneously is scrupulous about accounting for how much sexual, physical, emotional, ideological and patriarchal violence women are exposed to?
JD: I’ve read almost everything Rhys has written. She’s a colossal New World feminist voice.
KS: Why do these kinds of breakdowns between men and woman keep happening, if we had people like Jean Rhys trying to illuminate them in the 1930s?
JD: Systems are not changed just because one person bows out. Systems are built to withstand a lot of folks saying, “I’m not going to participate.” The other point is, we’re all invested in these systems. Our identities are caught up in them. We have an attachment at a deep level of our sensorium.
KS: When you do a reading like the one at Bard, what do you hope for? What do you look to get out of it yourself?
JD: Well, I’m a reader, and one of the great things about these moments is that I get to hang out with other readers. Sports fans get together, political wonks get together, folks who are into knitting get together. Almost every group has their occasions where they get together. They have the custom of assembly. This is an opportunity for people who are into reading to get together. It’s our moment of assembly. It’s selfishly a great moment for me, because I get to be around my tribe.
Junot Diaz Reading
Monday, April 1
Bard College, Olin Hall
Time: 6:00 pm
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Brian Selznick: A Head Full of Secrets
(Photo by Jamey Mazzie) Having an imagination is hard work, especially if you’re living inside 46-year-old Brian Selznick‘s head. The author of the Caldecott Award-winning children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (which was adapted for the Oscar-winning 2011 Scorcese film Hugo) spends most of his time contemplating the development of beloved characters and the authenticity of magic. Much like his predecessor and muse — and the nonfictional redeemed hero of the novel — French filmmaker George Méliès, Selznick is obsessive about details because “details make sense. They can make any world, even if it’s a fictional world, feel entirely real.”
The two worlds of film and fiction will collide on Sunday, March 17, at Great Barrington’s Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, where Selznick (who is a distant relation of film maker David O. Selznick), along with his Scholastic editor and longtime friend Tracy Mack (whose home base is in Berkshire County, where she lives with her husband and three children) will follow a screening of Hugo with a discussion and book signing. Of course, some of the world’s toughest critics will be in attendance.
“Kids are a much tougher audience than adults,” Selznick says. “They’re much more direct and honest. And they may not ‘get’ all of the details that I use in my work — actually 97 percent of the audience might not be experts on the details that I use — but for the three percent on the planet who are experts, I want them to know I’ve done my best work.”
It’s hard to imagine that Selznick would do anything but his best work. According to Mack (who hopes there will be other opportunities for reader/author discussions, especially for kids in the Berkshires), the fantastical, obsessively technical writer is always imagining, always creating, and always researching every subject he dares make a foray into.
“Brian is somebody with huge, wide-ranging interests,” Mack says. “He’s an exhaustive researcher. Once we hired him to do little pictures for the opening and closing of chapters for a book, and they were so meticulously done. So when he handed me Hugo Cabret, I totally trusted him.”
Over the course of three years (2004 to 2007) the 30-page, unillustrated manuscript that Selznick gave to Mack slowly morphed into the epic quest of a Parisian orphan and the redemption of a pathmaking, wildly imaginative but failed filmmaker.
“There was a kernel of something really original,” Mack says of the novel. “We were kind of toiling away in secret. It was something the industry had never seen before, and it finally broke open the novel as a form of art. The book as an object. It was an invitation for other artists to try something different.”
Something different may be an understatement as Selznick sought, and ultimately succeeded, to meld the two worlds of Hugo the fictional boy with George Méliès, the real filmmaker. As with all of his stories to date, Selznick used his research — a trip to Paris, long nights sifting through the catacombs of magic, silent film, and the construction of automatons — as a springboard for creating beloved characters and settings.
“The research gives me a framework to hang most of the work that I do,” he says. “It really becomes the stepping stone of the story that is trying to tell itself. I discovered that Méliès’ parents owned a boot factory and Méliès hated the place. And yet, at the end of his career most of his film rolls were melted down and used to make shoe heels. You can’t make up that kind of irony. Hugo is the catalyst for almost everything that really happened to Méliès in the story. It’s real.”
The author, unlike many of his peers, had the opportunity to see his scrupulous imaginings come to life on the set of Hugo, where he spent two weeks watching set designers, lighting technicians, actors, and film professionals build the fantastical, sometimes treacherous world, of the brilliant boy and the ‘cinemagician’ turned train station toy store clerk. (It was also a nice validation, Mack says, that “everyone on the set had a copy of the book, carrying it around like a bible.”) Selznick’s involvement with the film was nothing short of intimate.
“Walking on to the set of the film was as strange as you could imagine it to be, at least for me,” Selznick says. “I got to see, in 3-D, what was in my head. I was able to walk into George Méliès’ glass studio. Sure, it was a set, but it was real glass and I was in it! It was like hanging out with god, they can make anything happen on a studio set.”
And he can make anything happen in a book, it seems. With Hugo and Méliès somewhat behind him, Selznick is on to new adventures (Wonderstruck, another voluminous novel, was released in 2011) in his high-octane mind: always working on a story, always untangling the problems and breakthroughs of each character and plot, much like his own favorite authors Charles Dickens and, surprisingly, for someone who claims Maurice Sendak and Remy Charlip as major influences, Edith Wharton.
“I read her novel Summer and was so taken with it, I had to read everything else,” he says.
Perhaps we should look for regal estate gardens and haunted pet cemeteries in his next book. —Nichole Dupont
Sunday, March 17
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
Screening of Hugo begins at 2 p.m., followed by a discussion and book signing.
14 Castle Street, Great Barrington
General admission is $10.
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Women Writers Unite! (and Chat) at Berkshire Festival
At the risk of sounding like a self-help guru, I’m going to share with you my Moment of Personal Transformation. It happened about four years when I attended my first writing workshop in Hudson, New York. The facilitator was a short, sharp New York City author and teacher who’d come of age with the first wave of feminism in the 1960s. She gathered us around a table in the paint-splattered, brightly-lit back room of a local arts organization and asked us each to write for 40 minutes. When we were done, we went around the table, reading what we’d cooked up.
I felt pretty silly being there. I’d been a professional writer for most of my adult life, writing features and criticism for many national newspapers and magazines, as well as a book, Great Pretenders, about my fascination with ‘50s pop music. But I’d never seriously applied myself to creative writing. My piece was about a woman lying in bed with her estranged husband, thinking back on a drug-addled affair she’d had with a musician when she was younger. When I finished, the sensation I had was that the people around the table had been reduced to pairs of large, staring eyes. Comments began leaking out: “Wow.” “That was great.” “So moving.” After the workshop, the facilitator pulled me aside.
“Where did that come from?” she asked.
I said, “I’ve been throwing writing like that away for my entire life.”
“That has to stop,” she said.
Thanks to the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, March 1 -9, it’s Stop-Throwing-Away-That-Personal-Piece-of-Writing Month. Over the next four weeks, more than 150 writers will participate in 55 workshops, readings, performances, panel discussions and film screenings scattered around Berkshire county. (And there is even an anthology, see below, that includes the work of several local writers.) A few of them are well-known: Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way and many other books, and a legendary self-help guru herself, will give a lecture at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge on March 7, and local luminaries like poet Rebecca Wolff (“The Female Rebel: Women Writers on the Antiheroine in Fiction,” March 27 at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington) and author Melissa Holbrook Pierson (“Orion Magazine Presents: An Orion Reading at the Intersection of Nature and Culture,” March 17 at Simon’s Rock) will be appearing as well. But most of the participants are just regular gals with something to say. There are panels on the immigrant experience (“Coming to America,” March 6 in Williamstown) and aging (“Women, Creativity and Aging,” hosted by octogenarian Sondra Zeidenstein on March 9 in Great Barrington), plus opportunities for students and teens (“Speak out and Speak up! A Spoken Word Poetry Workshop for Young Women,” March 14 in Great Barrington).
Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, a professor at Simon’s Rock and the festival’s founding director, believes that women need an extra nudge when it comes to sharing their work. “Women tend not to want to compete aggressively if there’s a really loud voice in the room,” she says. “I know that myself, because I was that woman who was shy about getting my voice out there, and content to let other people be the dominating voice in the room. I’m coming to realize that’s a real loss for everyone. If women aren’t speaking out and sharing our perspectives, the whole society loses.”
Browdy spent ten years organizing a one-day conference for International Women’s Day (now incorporated into BFWW with a film screening, Sweet Dreams of Women’s Human Rights, on March 10 at Simon’s Rock). “What I started to notice was that the audience really loved lunchtime, when they got to sit with each other and just talk,” she says. “That was part of what led me to this festival idea—realizing that we needed more than a day to focus on creative issues, and that we needed more opportunities for talking with each other. When you go to these events, it’s not chit-chat. Women go deep. They’re willing to share at a deep level and be open about their vulnerabilities.”
Pierson, the author of four non-fiction books, including The Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home and The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing: Long-Distance Motorcycling’s Endless Road, had her own Moment of Personal Transformation. She calls me on the phone from her home near Woodstock, and—true to Browdy’s instinct—our conversation is less like an interview than two writers grasping at a chance to share stories and struggles. “Even as late as getting out of college, I did not give myself permission to be a writer,” she says. “I guess it felt scary. I thought, ‘I can’t be a writer. I’m not a writer. I have to do something in one of the peripheral businesses.’ So I went into publishing, and then I went to grad school and thought I would be a teacher. And it was only when I came out that I finally broke through. I said, You know what? All along I have been a writer. Now I can go out there and be one. God, I feel like Dorothy clicking my heels.” — Karen Schoemer(1) Comments
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Verlyn Klinkenborg Signing and Giveaway
Verlyn Klinkenborg, an award-winning American non-fiction author who lives in the RI region, has been writing literary meditations about the joys, rewards, and tribulations of farm life for years now, most notably as a columnist for The New York Times, where he serves on the editorial board, and as the author of The Rural Life, a collection of his Times columns, among many other books. Recently he has turned to writing about writing, a change reflected in his new book, Several Short Sentences About Writing. This year he is also teaching a “rigorous” upper-level class in nonfiction writing at Bard College.
Oblong Books in Millerton, one of our region’s literary treasure troves, is hosting a reading by Klinkenborg of his new book, September 13 at 6 p.m. In conjunction with that event, Rural Intelligence will be giving away signed copies of The Rural Life (more apropos for us, natch). All you have to do is write several short sentences about what you most appreciate about your rural life in the comment section below, or write a post on the Rural Intelligence Facebook page. The deadline is next Tuesday, September 18. Winners will be chosen at random and announced on Thursday; copies of the book will be mailed out the following week.
Verlyn Klinkenborg at Oblong Books
Reading and Book Signing
Thursday, September 13 @ 6 p.m.
26 Main Street, Millerton
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Interview with John Kelly, author of The Graves Are Walking, on the Irish Famine
After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously remarked, “What’s the point of being Irish if the world doesn’t break your heart?” Central to that tragic view of life was the Irish potato famine of the 1840s that left more than a million people dead and another two million fleeing for their lives, about half of them to the United States.
The famine’s scientific, economic, political, and religious causes are the subject of Berkshire County resident John Kelly’s carefully documented and elegantly written new book, The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People (Holt, $32). The result of six years of historical research and writing, Kelly’s book also speaks to today’s U.S. political debates over immigration, religion in the public square, and the role of government in hard times.
Kelly, in photo above by Richard B. Migot, will be speaking about his book this Saturday, September 1, at noon at the Spencertown Academy Festival of Books, following fast on the heels of his reading and signing at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck on Thursday evening. RI asked Columbia County author Edward Tivnan, who grew up in a family of Irish politicians in Worcester, Massachusetts, to talk to the Boston-born-and-raised Kelly about how the Great Famine changed the history of Ireland – and America.
ET: Your last book, The Great Mortality (Harper Collins, 2005), was about the “Black Death,” the 14th-century plague that wiped out half of Europe’s population. What led you to research another human catastrophe?
JK: Drama is essential to any good story, and catastrophes like famine and pestilence are inherently dramatic. You don’t have to force the material. The subject has another attraction for me. As a writer, one of the things I most enjoy is drawing word pictures of different times and places. The Great Mortality gave me an opportunity to render the medieval world; in The Graves Are Walking my canvas was not just Victorian Britain and Ireland but mid-19th-century Europe. Too often, books on the famine treat the potato failure that reduced the population of Ireland by a third as an exclusively Irish affair. In fact, the 1840s were years of hunger, hardship, and crop failure throughout Western Europe. One of my goals in Graves was to open up the famine story and show how the crop failures in Germany, France, Holland, and Britain impacted events in Ireland.
ET: In the 19th-century, the Irish became known as the “potato people.” How important was the potato in the diet of other countries?
JK: Very important. The potato is cheap to grow, bountiful—you can grow six tons of potatoes on an acre of land—and extremely nutritious. It is one of the few inexpensive foods that contain all the essentials of a healthy diet. These characteristics made the potato an important food for all of 19th-century Europe. The continent was in a period of historic population growth and needed a cheap nutritious food to support not only its rural population but also its expanding cadre of industrial workers.
ET: In 1846, the year 90 percent of the Irish potato crop failed, there were also major crop failures in France, Germany, and Belgium. Why did only Ireland experience mass death?
JK: Irish poverty and backwardness played a role in the famine, which killed over a million people. Ninety percent of the population lived in the countryside, and rural Ireland was devoid of a monetary economy. The Irish peasant bartered his labor in return for an acre or two of land on which to grow potatoes. So when the potato failed, the farmer often had no means of purchasing food. Moreover, since there were very few provision shops in the countryside, even the people who did have money often went hungry. The British also have a lot to answer for. Nineteenth-century Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. In theory, that meant London was obligated to respond to catastrophe in Ireland as energetically as it would to one in Kent or Essex. In practice, however, Ireland was treated as a colony. British assistance was inadequate, often slow in coming. And in the effort to prevent exacerbating an Irish national flaw—“dependency on government”—the Crown required the peasant to purchase his relief food.
ET: Then you agree with the Irish nationalists who charge that the famine was a deliberate act of genocide on the part of the British?
JK: One has to be very careful about the use of that word. Were the British responsible for a needless loss of life? Yes, tens of thousands—probably hundreds of thousands—of lives could have been saved if Britain had responded to the famine more energetically. But Robert Peel and John Russell, the two British Prime Ministers who oversaw famine relief, were not proto-Nazis plotting to exterminate the Irish race. Truly evil men like Hitler or Stalin are relatively rare, thank God. The British officials represent a more pervasive and insidious danger: intelligent, decent, God-fearing men, who, in the thrall of a political or economic ideology, lose their moral bearings and become willing to countenance human suffering in the name of “the greater good.” In the case of the British, the greater good was using the famine to implement in Ireland a program of what today would be called “nation-building.”
London had longed dreamed of modernizing the Irish economy by consolidating the hundreds of thousands of small, uneconomical farms that littered the countryside into large commercial agriculture enterprises, but had hesitated for fear of igniting a rebellion among the displaced peasant farmers. The famine, which weakened the peasantry physically and morally, gave the British government the opportunity it had been seeking, and it used relief measures to advance its program of economic and agricultural change. For example, to get assistance, a small farmer was required to give up his land. Those who accepted the terms got government food; those who did not—and a fair number of men did not—were left to fend for themselves.
ET: Sounds like genocide to me.
JK: My own view is that, while British policy was not deliberately genocidal in the way that Hitler and Stalin’s policies were, the effects of the British actions was.
ET: How did Irish immigration affect America?
JK: Researching those chapters of the book, I was struck by how little has changed. Every nasty, racist thing that was said about the nearly one million famine Irish who arrived in the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s was said about the subsequent waves of Italian, Jewish, Polish, Asian, and Mexican immigrants. The Irish newcomers were charged with undercutting the wages of the American workman, of threatening the Protestant character of the country, of being idle, shiftless, lazy moochers who were a burden on God-fearing, over-taxed Yankees everywhere. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
ET: After years of research into the saga of our tribe, maligned by the Brits and then discriminated against by American nativists and anti-Catholics, can you please explain to me why so many prominent conservative pundits and politicians ranting against taxes, immigration, and dependency on government are Irish-American?
JK: The 19th-century phrenologists who expressed alarm at the pattern of bumps on the Irish skull were not entirely wrong. Just look at Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Paul Ryan, and Kevin McCarthy.Comments
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A Talk with Peter Wheelwright, Architect and Author of As It Is On Earth
Peter Wheelwright, a former dean (now associate professor) in the School of Architecture at Parsons The New School for Design, has just published his first novel, As It Is On Earth. Wheelwright grew up in Lenox, MA., and he and his wife, the photographer Eliza Hicks, have a house in Columbia County. This Saturday, September 1, at 3:30 p.m., as part of the Spencertown Academy Festival of Books, he and publisher Ardal Powell will discuss new directions in publishing. On September 22, 4 - 6 p.m., Wheelwright will read at Johnnycake Books in Salisbury, CT. He talks here with RI co-founder Marilyn Bethany.
RI: As It Is On Earth [Fomite Press, $15.95] opens as the second millennium is winding down. Your protagonist, Taylor Thatcher, a tenure-track what? philosopher? comp-religion prof? a cross between the two? at the University of Hartford, has two immediate concerns: his recent break-up with a pregnant girlfriend who may or may not have gone through with the abortion he’d pushed for; and a report that his younger brother Bingham, who also lives in Hartford, has taken to sleeping outdoors on his fire escape. Three hundred pages and many flashbacks later, it looks as if Bin, the brother, might have merely dozed off while happily stargazing, and the girlfriend may yet be pregnant with Taylor’s baby, though the presumed padre forevermore will be a Mexican anthropologist whom she had thrown over for Taylor some time earlier.
PW: Taylor is a professor without portfolio. He teaches “multi-disciplinary” courses because he can only see the connections between things; for him, any given discipline is always related to another (Emerson’s “excess of awareness”... or, as the Deacon [Taylor’s father] says of him…he is “undisciplined”). As for Bin, no one really knows what he was doing on the fire escape. As Taylor says: “Plots within plots, histories within histories, nested like matryoshka dolls and scaled just beyond recognition. Too small, or too big—atomic or cosmic—no middle ground, where I can see things without optical instruments.”
All of this unfolds as Taylor ponders his history; not just with Bin, but also his more distant forebears, and the land and rivers that set the stage for his life, the geological time that produced these lands and rivers, the stardust from which everything derives. The trope of the ‘river’ is key to everything… not just Taylor’s mother’s death, but the collision between the watersheds of the American continent flowing down into the sea and the Europeans sailing up those watersheds to take over the continent, creating the turbulence that ensnares Taylor and his history. The idea of “chance” or “contingency” is also a big theme. The unpredictability and unreliability of history. I suppose that’s how the academics’ poker playing at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods figures in… ”history is just a pack of different lies, and we each pick the one that suits us best.”
RI: You are an accomplished architect, a successful academic, and, with Laurie Simmons (the artist featured in her daughter Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture), co-designer of The Kaleidoscope House, a dollhouse that is in the collection of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. And now old friends and relations discover that you also write really well. Annoyingly well, some might say. Among those who could be forgiven for seeing it that way would be your uncle, the writer Peter Matthiessen, and your older brother Jeff Wheelwright, a science writer. Why did it take you until now, age 60 plus, to come out as a writer?
PW: I have to say—even though I now give myself permission to call myself a writer—my original motivation was not so much to become a writer as to write this story. It had been with me for quite awhile. Somehow, it felt important. Initially, there was some skepticism. After all, it’s a cliché to hear someone say late in life that they’d like to write a novel. But, after the book was written, both Peter and Jeff read it and became boosters. Peter, who is normally quite nepotism-averse, even recommended me to his agent.
RI: Just how autobiographical is this novel? Your protagonist’s forebears came over on the Mayflower. The family then settled in Maine and have more or less stayed put, “rusted into the state,” as you so deftly put it, for 13 generations. Taylor and Bin’s father is a small-town doctor; Taylor is an academic; his brother is a science buff. To those of us who know you, these details have a familiar ring.
PW: One writes what one knows, and it is true I have drawn quite a bit on my family’s history. The bit about Zerviah Thatcher in the book is actually the story of the Rev. John Wheelwright, who was banished from Boston in 1636 along with his more famous sister-in-law Anne Hutchinson during what was known as the Antinomian Crisis, a dispute with the elders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony over what constituted proper godliness. My forebears lost that battle but went on to win the war for New England. Taylor’s story, in a way, is trying to figure out proper godliness for himself.
RI: Though your extended family is from Maine, you grew up in the Berkshires. Which Norman Rockwell painting was it that you and your father posed for?
PW: My father was a doctor in The Berkshire Medical Group; Norman Rockwell was one of his patients. We posed for a number of Norman’s paintings that were used for The Brown and Bigelow calendars of 1961 and 1962. They were known alternatively as the “The Four Seasons” and “Father and Boy” calendars.
RI: As It Is On Earth is no sissy first novel—a hugely ambitious first stab at fiction. What writers, contemporary and otherwise, have influenced you?
PW: My uncle Peter Matthiessen is a big influence. His interest in and depiction of the natural world, Native Americans, earth time, etc. are also themes in As It Is On Earth. I greatly admire Annie Proulx for her cranky oddball characters. Bellow for his head-scratching but erudite existentialism. But, I think Walker Percy has been the most important fiction writer for me. He captures the humor, pathos, complexity, and meaning of small things better than most. As for non-fiction, the American neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty is my hero, a Walker Percy for academics. In fact, I just named one of our horses Rorty.
RI: Rorty famously views religion as “a conversation stopper.” So what’s Taylor’s problem? Lots of people give it up without a backward glance. Taylor seems inclined to let go, yet he struggles.
PW: Poor Taylor, he’s badly tangled in his religious history, from Zerviah Thatcher to the Deacon and the hometown faithful. He knows better, but he gets his buttons pushed easily. There is a part of him that wants to believe, to have faith, anything that might make the ‘implausible, plausible” and perhaps provide redemption. And forgiveness.
RI: There are several characters who look at things obliquely, as if stealing furtive glances. For unrelated reasons, Bin, Esther, and Angie share this oddity. And, of course, Miryam, the photographer of bridges—not their exhilarating spans, but the literally earthbound places where, on either side of the water, they meet solid ground—her vision is oblique in its way, too. But the Deacon, Bin and Taylor’s father, sees straight and can even grab a glimpse around corners. All these optical quirks; what do they mean?
PW: I was interested in two aspects of seeing: one literal and the other figurative. In the former sense, typified by Miryam’s telescopic lens to see stars and Esther’s microscopic lens to see Angie’s minute red spot, I was thinking of our (humanity’s) inability to literally see big and small things without the aid of instruments and, in the figurative sense, sometimes looking right at things does not necessarily reveal their truth; we have to look to the margins, to look askew, like Angie “as if she sees the slant of things better that way.”
RI: You seem to have internalized the guilt of 13 generations for the harm European settlers did to Native Americans. Indians—so many different tribes, I cannot begin…—figure in the background of your story from first to last. I can’t think of another modern novel that melds the WASP experience with that of the Native American. Where did that come from?
PW: I suspected early on that something was off in all the cowboy and Indian movies and TV I was addicted to as a kid. Peter Matthiessen likely provoked an interest as well. Either way, I don’t think the story of the Pilgrims, or for that matter the European settling of the Western Hemisphere, can be fully understood without a deep understanding of the ‘first’ Americans that were encountered. The interconnectedness and mutual assimilation into each other’s history is indisputable but often overllooked. It’s a timeless lesson in the so-called clash of civilizations.
RI: In the end, isn’t this novel about guilt and its pointlessness? Throughout, Taylor feels guilty about a childhood injury he inflicted on Bin, who, in his cheerful way, deftly overcomes its consequences. No biggy, Taylor!
PW: Yes, personal guilt as well as WASP guilt which is so embedded in this country’s history… as Taylor says, “... backing away with a little theater, hands up and head down. Just don’t blame me for it.”Comments
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Books: Sandisfield Then and Now
Anyone who lives in Sandisfield, the bucolic village at the southern tip of Berkshire County that lays claim to the distinction of being the county’s largest and most sparsely populated town, has likely heard from Ron Bernard. For the past two-and-a-half years, Bernard has been interviewing residents (of which there are approximately 800 full-timers), poring over all-but-forgotten deeds, digging through musty boxes in library basements, and repairing old photos – all to write and publish his definitive book on the history of the town in time for this weekend’s celebration of Sandisfield’s 250th anniversary.
The result, Sandisfield Then and Now, weighing in at 528 pages, is a comprehensive hardcover bursting with images and tales from the town’s history. The celebrated author (and Sandisfield resident) Simon Winchester pitched in by writing the foreword.
Bernard’s book recounts the town’s history by taking an in-depth look at more than 150 of Sandisfield’s farms, businesses, and homes – both past and present. Through these brick-and-mortar structures, Bernard recounts the lives and legends of the people who lived and worked in them, and the trials and triumphs that defined their times and made the community what it is today.
The book is not limited to the town’s 18th-century structures; Bernard also delves into more recent additions to homes, camps from the 1960s, and geodesic domes built in the 1980s. The inclusion of modern history is an indicator of what Bernard sees as his true target audience. “I didn’t write this book for you and me,” he says. “I wrote this book for the people celebrating Sandisfield’s 300th, 350th, or even 400th anniversary.” In another 250 years, that geo-dome might need some explaining and Ron’s book will be there, beautifully written and dutifully fact-checked.
Perhaps the greatest takeaway from Bernard’s book is just how much of the town’s 250-year history lives on in 2012. And it has been completed just in time, as this town’s history comes alive this weekend.
Sandisfield Then and Now will be available for purchase during the town’s 250th anniversary celebration, which takes place this weekend, July 27 – 29. The festivities begin on Friday evening at the Sandisfield Arts Center with a dramatic narrative drawn from the town’s past followed by fireworks, and continue through the weekend with historic hikes, a country fair, BBQ, pie contest, live music, a car show. Colonial re-enactors will set up camp in Carr Field, where, throughout the weekend, they will present a variety of historical demonstrations, including musket firings, weaving, wood-working, traditional cooking, and candle-making. Sunday’s schedule includes a tour of local farms. Those who can’t attend can purchase Sandisfield Then and Now online. —Brian Cruey(0) Comments
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Berkshires as Backdrop: Why Joshua Henkin Set The World Without You in Lenox
Whether or not you think of the Berkshires as New York City’s sixth borough as some wags do, you have no doubt sat next to a family like the fictional Frankels on the lawn at Tanglewood or stood on line with them at Guido’s. In Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You (Pantheon; $25.95), the Frankels are brainy, secular Jews who eschew designer labels and status symbols except when it comes to education—there are pointed references in the novel to Bowdoin, Columbia, Princeton, Wesleyan, and Yale. This well-wrought, carefully detailed saga chronicles a crisis in the lives of Marilyn and David, who have been summering in Lenox for 40 years, and their four adult children as they gather for the 4th of July weekend in 2005. One of the climatic scenes takes place during a James Taylor concert at Tanglewood and, presumably, the cover image is meant to make you think of the fireworks over the Stockbridge Bowl as well as the shock-and-awe bombings in Iraq, where the Frankels’ son, Leo, was killed in 2004. RI‘s Dan Shaw talked to Joshua Henkin (above), who directs the MFA fiction writing program at Brooklyn College, about why he set his novel in Lenox.
The Wall Street Journal recently described your novel as really being about New York, but almost all of it takes place in the Berkshires.
Well, that Wall Street Journal column is about New York so they had to find an angle. But obviously it is very deeply a Berkshire book even though Marilyn and David live on the Upper West Side. There is a line in the book when Marilyn remembers David convincing her to buy the house because it is the Massachusetts outpost of the Upper West Side. If you grew up on the Upper West Side the way I did, then there is a way you feel that the Berkshires is your long lost geographic cousin.
It’s interesting that the memorial service for Leo is held at the Lenox Community Center and not in New York City.
One of the things I was interested in was context. It seemed to me that it would be interesting to set a book in the Berkshires with the war in Iraq as a backdrop because whatever you think of the politics of the Iraq War, what happened in Iraq was horrible. It seems to me the Berkshires is the kind of place that was created to erase all traces of horror. What is it like to be grieving at a geographic and cultural remove? What’s it like to be grieving on July 4th when everyone else is celebrating? The Frankels are a family that doesn’t know anyone else who has lost a child in the war so they have no one to commiserate with. The book is very much not a war novel or a political novel. It’s a family drama.
Did you intentionally choose a WASPy New England milieu for this secular Jewish family with one daughter who has become ultra Orthodox?
When I walk through the streets of Great Barrington in the summer, it doesn’t feel very WASPy.
The story of Leo is eerily similar to the story of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who was executed in Pakistan in 2002. Did you know that Pearl had worked at the Berkshire Eagle?
I did not know until this very second that Daniel Pearl worked for the Berkshire Eagle! My agent said to me about eight months ago, “What are you going to say when people ask you about Daniel Pearl?” and I said, No one is going to ask me. I did not set out consciously to write a roman a clef about Daniel Pearl. I just wrote an essay for The Daily Beast called The Inadvertent Roman A Clef.
So what does it mean to find out that he had lived and worked in the Berkshires?
It feels weird and creepy but so consistent with so many other things. For example, Michael Kelly—who was at The Washington Post, The New Republic and The Atlantic—was the first journalist who was killed in Iraq and someone told me a few months ago that he had three older sisters, just like Leo. I believe in literary prescience: you write something and then it happens.
Why is a country house a good backdrop for a family drama?
I think the setting was important because the house had a history for the family—they had been going there for 40 years, and they had moved around New York and even lived briefly in Westchester before moving back to the city. I was very aware of the idea of confined time and space, and my last novel, Matrimony, took place over 20 years and many locales, and I think of novels like relationships—that one is the rebound for the previous one. If you put people in a country house, there is less escape than if they’re in Manhattan. It needed a kind of claustrophobia to explore the things that I wanted to explore.
I like how you used the geography so precisely, having one sister go Rollerblading down Route 183 and skinny-dipping in the Stockbridge Bowl as well as describing the local landmarks on a drive from Lenox to Great Barrington.
A writer has to get things right. You want details that feel like they are important to the texture of the novel because the book is told from different points of view and you want to feel that it’s filtered through different characters, not just the writer. You want to write in such a way that the place comes to life. I wanted to make sure you knew it was taking place in the Berkshires and not, say, California. But it is tricky, too, because you don’t want your book to feel like it was written by someone who works for Mapquest.
The World Without You by Joshua Henkin.
(Pantheon Books; $25.95)
Click here to order from a local Independent Bookseller.
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Thirty Year Plan: Share Your Thoughts on Saving the World and Win Orion’s New Book
As a way of marking its 30th anniversary, Orion magazine asked 30 writers and environmental leaders to consider what we need to build a better future on our planet. Their answers comprise a new book, Thirty Year Plan, which Orion launched on Sunday, July 8, at Bascom Lodge, atop Mt. Greylock in Adams, Massachusetts.
Two contributors to the book – New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert and Ginger Strand, author of Inventing Niagara – joined Orion editor Jennifer Sahn and environmental activist and Orion contributor Bill McKibben for a panel discussion on the premise of the book. Though the discussion was scheduled to take place inside of Bascom Lodge, an overflow crowd of more than 150 meant the talk was held outdoors in a wildflower meadow, an entirely appropriate change of venue.
It’s clear that finding the answers to this question is not only an engaging mental exercise, but also essential to tackling many of the toughest challenges we collectively face. And so we pose it to you: What one thing do we humans need if we are to find a way to live happily, sustainably, and redeemably on earth for the next 30 years?
To entice you to provide your thoughts, Rural Intelligence will give away two copies of Thirty Year Plan, one each to two respondents chosen at random. Please provide your answer by clicking on the comment section, below, by Wednesday, July 18. We will announce the winners next Thursday, July 19, in our weekly e-newsletter and on the Rural Intelligence facebook page and Twitter feed.Comments
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Word Up! Taylor Mali on Word X Word Festival 2011 and the Lives of the Poets
What’s the word? Find out this week in Pittsfield at the third annual Word X Word Festival from August 13 – 20. This celebration of words written, spoken and sung—created in 2009 by Jim Benson, proprietor of Mission Bar + Tapas—kicks off with its now-legendary rooftop party, one of the hottest events in the region (tickets are nearly sold out). The week-long festival features more than 60 performances of original song, poetry, theater, fiction, and storytelling—most free—at more than 15 venues throughout the city.
Word X Word 2011 has several new elements, such as a block party this Sunday, August 14, from 3 – 8 pm; the first spoken word contest for high school students, the winner of which will perform during the Festival finale at The Colonial Theatre; and the inclusion of narrative fiction with readings by a selection of nationally recognized novelists and short story writers curated by local author Brendan Mathews, whose own work was included in The Best American Short Stories 2010. And in late-breaking news, Benson has announced that Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick has joined the roster to read excerpts from his memoir, A Reason to Believe.
What’s not new is the festival’s focus on a stunning assortment of emerging singer/songwriters and spoken-word superstars, the latter curated by four-time National Poetry Slam champion Taylor Mali, who divides his time between New York, the Berkshires, and the rest of the world, where he leads writing workshops, curates readings, and judges poetry slams. Mali is a New York City native whose family has lived there since the 1600s; his great-great-grandfather and namesake, John Taylor Johnston (in portrait above, with Mali) was the founding president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s also is a former school teacher best known for his poem What Teachers Make and his advocacy for teachers. He and his wife, poet Marie-Elizabeth Mali, have had a home in the Berkshires since 2007 and have been involved with Word X Word since its inception.
Rural Intelligence cultural correspondent Bess J.M. Hochstein met with Taylor Mali at his Housatonic home to get the inside story on the Word X Word Festival and to find out more about the life of the poet.
Bess Hochstein: How and when did you get involved with the Word X Word Festival?
Taylor Mali: I’ve been involved from the beginning. Jim Benson came to one of my shows three years ago and asked me to help curate the poetry side of things. Last year Marie-Elizabeth and I both curated the poetry, and Jim says it was the poets who saved the festival. This year, I called in a lot of favors to get the people we got, particularly Rachel McKibbens, [2009 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, below, who performs on Friday, 8/19] and Buddy Wakefield [two-time World Poetry Slam Champion, performing on Saturday, 8/20].
BH: What do you look for in the artists you enlist for Word X Word?
TM: The ability to connect with an audience or change people’s minds about poetry, perhaps even broaden their definition of what poetry is. I have a love/hate relationship with The New Yorker magazine because the poems they choose to publish, ostensibly some of the BEST CONTEMPORARY POETRY IN THE UNITED STATES, are often only appreciated by people who already know they like poetry. Normal people read those poems and think, “I knew I didn’t like poetry, and this poem proves it.” I’ll never ask a poet like that to perform at Word X Word.
BH: Who are the must-see artists on this year’s Word X Word roster?
TM: They are all amazing. Iyeoka Okaowo [in video, below] performs with me at the opening event on Sunday, 8/14; Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz [three-time National Poetry Slam Champion] is the headline poet on Wednesday, 8/17; Omar Holmon [right] is Thursday, 8/18; Rachel McKibbens on Friday, 8/19; and Buddy Wakefield at the closing show on Saturday, 8/20. If I had to choose two it would be Rachel and Buddy.
BH: Is there a distinction between poets and spoken word artists?
TM: Depends on who you talk to. For me the term poet is a broader term; a spoken-word artist is a type of poet, one who writes poems that will be HEARD before they are read. In fact, a poem by a spoken-word artist may NEVER be read. And that knowledge changes the writing process a little. If you know that your audience will not have the luxury of rereading the poem several times if they don’t understand something, then you tend to write clearer and speak slower. And you choose words that will not obnubilate your message or be received as a vituperative assault on the probity of the reader. (See what I just did?)
BH: How often do you appear in poetry slams?
TM: I don’t actively compete anymore. I’ve won the National Poetry Slam four times so I feel like I’ve pretty much done that. To succeed in a slam, you need to write high-energy poems filled with self-righteous indignation that clock in at about 2:45, and I’m interested in writing different kinds of poems. Longer, shorter, quieter, funnier, more inward looking. That said, if the night is slow or the slam at the Bowery Poetry Club (where I help curate the resident slam series, which is called Urbana) has fewer than eight poets in it, I may well throw my name in the hat to remind the young folks how we used to do it in the old days.
BH: How and when did you become a poet?
TM: I wrote poems as a kid to be like my dad. He used to write rhyming toasts for special occasions: think Dr. Seuss meets Robert Frost. Everyone loved hearing them so I learned early on that poetry was a festive way to entertain people. My mom [Jane L. Mali] was an award-winning children’s book author so I was surrounded with the written word always. That said, the process of becoming a poet is long and unmarked so the more honest answer to your question is “I don’t know. Am I there yet?”
BH: Your family has a long and illustrious history in the city of New York. Any other poets or teachers in the family?
TM: Besides my father, I don’t know of any other poets. And come to think of it, I’m the only teacher in the family that I know of, too. So how “illustrious” can my family be?
BH: You seem to embrace your identity as a WASP in the sometimes gritty realm of slam poetry. How do you make that work for you?
TM: Not very well sometimes. But it’s true, I do embrace my identity as a WASP. Shouldn’t everyone embrace their identity? And it’s true, there aren’t many other WASPs in the spoken-word/poetry slam community. But that makes me a novelty, I think. And my poetry isn’t ABOUT being privileged and coming from old money. It’s informed by that, sure. How could it not be?
BH: Are you still teaching? If so, where?
TM: I haven’t had a full-time teaching job since 2000. That said, yes, I am still teaching. I just do it all over the world now, one day at a time. Sometimes I’m the visiting writer for a week. Rarely is it longer than that, however. I do about 80 gigs a year, which doesn’t quite mean I’m on the road 160 days of the year, but sometimes it feels like that.
BH: In the year 2000, you set a goal to inspire 1000 people to become teachers. How is that going?
TM: Slowly but surely. I’m almost up to 800! If you think my work has helped you decide to become a teacher, please go here to add your name to the list.
BH: So, what’s a poet make?
TM: I make people think, and laugh. I make people furious. I make people change their minds about poetry! But seriously, the travesty is that I earn considerably more as a poet than I ever did as a teacher. In fact, I probably make more than ANY high school teacher makes today, even [those] with a PhD and 40 years of experience in the richest suburb in the country.
Word X Word Festival 2011
August 13 - 20
Downtown Pittsfield, MA
Block Party Sunday, August 14 @ 3-8 p.m., Palace Park, North Street. Free
Kick-Off Show Sunday, August 14 @ 8 p.m., CompuWorks Loft, 1 Fenn Street. $30
World premiere staged reading of Mrs. Lincoln’s Séance, a new play by Mark St. Germain, Monday, August 15 @ 7 p.m., Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union Street. Free
Reading & exhibition by artist, critic, and former slam poet Carol Diehl, Thursday, August 18 @ 7 p.m., Berkshire Museum, 39 South Street. Free
Beauty in Decay DISH + DINE dinner and discussion about contemporary photography, Friday, August 19 @ 6:30 p.m., Ferrin Gallery, 433 North Street. $100
Poetry Slam Finals, Saturday, August 20 @ 6 p.m., Shawn’s Barber Shop, 442 North Street. Free
Festival Finale, Saturday, August 20 @ The Colonial Theatre, 111 South Street. $15 - $30
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The Millbrook Book Festival
The Millbrook Free Library
One of the defining characteristics of the small towns in the Rural Intelligence region is the pride of place that public libraries and independent bookstores have in our communities. When the independent Merritt Bookstore and the Millbrook Free Library join forces, you get a literary tour de force like the 4th annual Millbrook Book Festival that takes place on Saturday, May 14. “We work hard to have a variety of authors so there is something for everyone,” says Alexas Orcutt, one of the organizers. “Whatever you like to read—history, local interest, fiction—there will be authors you will want to meet.”
Literary locavores won’t want to miss the panel called “River of Words: Portraits of Hudson Valley Writers” (10:30 - 11:45 a.m.). Nina Shengold hosts fellow local authors to read from their work and talk about the Hudson Valley literary community. Akiko Busch (Patience), Susan Richards (Saddled), John Darnton (Almost a Family), Marilyn Johnson (This Book is Overdue), Gwendolyn Bounds (Little Chapel on the River). At noon, Millbrook resident Micahel Korda will discuss his latest book. Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. There should be many laughs at the panel discussion organized by Thelma Adams, the film critic and author of the novel Playdate. Called “She’s A Serious Writer Listen to Your Mother,” the panel features New York Post columnist Tina Traster (Burb Appeal), New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly (When Do They Serve the Wine?), Nina Shengold (River of Words), Jenny Nelson (Georgia’s Kitchen), Daphne Uviler (Hotel No Tell) and Carole Maso (The Art Lover).
The free one-day festival includes two book sales—a tent on the library lawn featuring books by every author participating in the festival and the Friends of Millbrook Library used book, CD and DVD sale where every item is pay what you want. “We’re also closing down a side street as book alley,” says Orcutt. “It’s supposed to be a day of fun that promotes literacy. It doesn’t matter what you read—as long as you do read.”
Millbrook Book Festival
Saturday, May 14; 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
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A Happening Reading Relaunches the Basilica
A reading of renowned novelist and screenwriter, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1984 novel Slow Fade by singer-songwriter, folk-music legend Will Oldham (below), who has played with the band Palace Brothers as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. The evening celebrates the release of Slow Fade, the first in a new line of alternative audio books by Chicago’s seminal independent record label, Drag City. Oldham’s voice is on the audio book, but on Thursday night both Wurlitzer and Oldham will participate, accompanied by guitar player Ben Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance) and with photographic projections by acclaimed photographer Lynn Davis. Connecticut-based artist Elisa Ambrogio, of noise rock band Magik Markers, will open the evening with her own reading.
The evening also marks the reopening of the Basilica, the 19th-century-factory-building-turned-performance-and-events-space across from the railway station in Hudson whose former owner, Patrick Doyle, had dubbed it Basilica Industria. Rechristened Basilica Hudson, it’s new owners, the filmmaker Tony Stone and his wife, the singer/songwriter/bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, hope to someday turn the building into a green production facility for film, photo, and music. Meanwhile, they are hosting events, such as Thursday night’s reading, and, on Saturday, Hudson’s First Annual Ramp Festival.
Slow Fade is a portrait of Wesley Hardin, a film director whose life has been devoted to the manipulation of images—on screen and at the conference table, with actors and technicians, even (and especially) with those closest to him. In his 71st year, he tries to divest himself of illusions, to make peace with his demons and his past. Slow Fade is by turns spare and eloquent, dryly humorous and darkly savage, a deeply informed novel about the unshakably transient worlds of the movies and rock-and-roll, as well as a rowdy account of the cultural and generational pas de deux that occurred throughout the 1970s—a dance that inevitably recurs to some degree as each subsequent generation has passed the torch to the next.
Rudolph Wurlitzer is the author of five novels, Nog, Flats, Quake, Slow Fade, and most recently The Drop Edge of Yonder. He is also a screenwriter, responsible for the groundbreaking scripts for Two-Lane Blacktop, as well as Glen and Randa, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Walker, and Candy Mountain. In 1991, he published the travel diary/memoir, Hard Travel to Sacred Places. He lives in Hudson with his wife, the photographer Lynn Davis.
Across from the railway station.
Thursday, April 28; 6 p.m. - midnight
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Video Intelligence: The RI Interview with “Hero” Author Michael Korda
Michael Korda at home on his farm in Dutchess County.
Apple-cheeked and clutching a steaming cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, the best-selling author Michael Korda doesn’t look tired when he strides from the stables at his Stone Gate Farm in Pleasant Valley, NY, on a recent Sunday morning to greet a video crew from Rural Intelligence. “It is already so cold!” he exclaims, fresh from his morning ride, a ritual he has followed most every day of his life whether in New York’s Central Park or here in the heart of the Hudson Valley. “Let’s get inside so we can talk.”
Korda is eager to discuss his new book, Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, and he lead us to his office in the historic white farmhouse that he and his wife have owned for over three decades,. The antique colonial farmhouse, built in 1765, is thought to be the oldest home in the town of Pleasant Valley, and was a central character in Korda’s Country Matters: The Pleasures and Tribulations of Moving from a Big City to an Old Country Farmhouse. (Harper Collins, 2001). The house was initially a weekend retreat and is now their full-time home.
The editor-in-chief emeritus of Simon & Schuster in New York City, Korda has set aside time to talk with Rural Intelligence about Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia , his new biography of T.E. Lawrence, the British military legend. With this latest book launch in full swing, Korda has been hustling to media interviews and book readings throughout New York City and across the Hudson Valley with recent appearances at Merritt Books in Millbrook , Vassar College, and Marist College. He will reading at Rhinebeck’s Oblong Books on Saturday, Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m. RI wanted to ask Korda about the book, and naturally, about his life in Pleasant Valley on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the publication of Country Matters. The interview follows in three acts.
Act I: Why Lawrence of Arabia?
Act II: On Lawrence as Media Celebrity
Act III: On Country Life in Dutchess County
DailyBeast: “The Last Hero”(1) Comments
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Michael Korda on His T.E. Lawrence Bio
December 3, @ 5 p.m.; December 4 @ 5 p.m.
According to Michael Korda’s new biography of the British soldier and adventurer T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia; 1888 – 1935), George Bernard Shaw once scolded his friend, who had just published a biography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “Confound you and the book: you are no more to be trusted with a pen than a child with a torpedo.” Nonetheless, Shaw used Lawrence as his model for Saint Joan.
A former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster and the author of many books, Michael Korda, who lives in Pleasant Valley (Dutchess County), will read from and discuss his latest, Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, as part of the Vassar College Bookstore Author Series on Friday. He will do likewise at Merritt Books on Saturday and at Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck on December 11 (for details on this last and a video interview with Korda see Rural Intelligence next week).
Vassar College Bookstore
Poughkeepsie, NY; Friday, 5 p.m.
Millbrook, NY; Saturday, 5 p.m.
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Molly O’Neill of “One Big Table” at Oblong
December 4 @ 4 - 6 p.m.
To celebrate the spirit of the season, Oblong Books is hosting a community cookie swap with Molly O’Neill, author of the delectable new cookbook, One Big Table. Oblong has invited local home cooks and professional bakers to rustle up a batch and bring them along with a copy of the recipe to a book-signing/cookie-swap. The most original recipes will appear on O’Neill’s website, One Big Table.com and become part of the One Big Table archive, a treasure trove of American cooking.
Ever since she left The New York Times, where she had been a food columnist for the Sunday magazine, O’Neill has been working on the One Big Table concept, both on-line and on the road through a series of events that “celebrate American home cooking, support local agriculture, and prove that community begins when people gather around a table to eat, drink, talk, laugh, and dream.” Her premise: to investigate the disturbing allegation that Americans no longer cook. What she discovered: Since they really don’t have to, many do not. “Those who choose to cook are throwbacks,” O’Neill says, “who refuse to eat like everybody else.” Among those throwbacks: Andy Rooney, 60 Minutes’ resident curmudgeon, who bakes bread.
Now O’Neill has turned a dozen years of research into one big book—1,000 pages, 600 recipes gathered from home cooks, farmers, fishermen,pit masters, and chefs, illustrated with 800 photographs by Rebecca Busselle, who lives in our region.
Oblong Books & Music
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Simon Winchester on “Atlantic” at the Cary
Thursday, December 2 @ 7 p.m.
Acclaimed author (and Sandisfield resident) Simon Winchester (The Professor and the Madman) will discuss his new book, Atlantic, which he bills as a “biography of the Atlantic Ocean.” His research took him to weird and wonderful parts of the globe, and he has the pictures to prove it, which he will also share.
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Mann and Davis’ “Sacred Landscapes”
Saturday, November 27 @ 6 - 8 p.m.
Generally, the bigger the book, the slighter its content, but this rule of thumb is turned on its head by A.T. Mann and Lynn Davis’s Sacred Landscapes: The Threshold Between Worlds (Sterling Publishers, $35). Yes, it is a big, lushly illustrated “coffee table book,” but it is the rare one that is about something profound—the constructs of man and the accidents of nature that transcend the bounds of earth and reach toward the divine.
Mann argues that magnificent landscapes and the myths they inspired in our forebears permitted them a more profound connection with the physical world. Davis’ haunting images from fifty-seven sacred sites in thirty countries are a powerful reminder of all that is at stake in a world beset by climate change and economic upheaval, where the spokesmen for religion and science strive to invalidate each other. The author suggests that, to restore reason, we must first reawaken our ancient connection to these sacred landscapes, as they are perhaps the only eternal verités we have.
Both A.T. Mann and Lynn Davis are longtime Hudson residents. Davis, whose work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others, will be signing books at a reception at Rural Residence on Saturday evening. A silver gelatin print of one of her photographs, Iceberg 1, Disko Bay, Greenland, 1988, will also be on sale.
316 Warren Street, Hudson
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Paul DeAngelis’ Dear Mrs. Kennedy
By Kathryn Matthews
Saying “I’m sorry for your loss…” is never easy. Especially to the grieving widow of President John F. Kennedy.
On a recent Saturday evening at Oblong Books and Music in Rhinebeck, author Paul De Angelis swallowed hard after reading a letter sent by a Navy chaplain to the newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy, one of many such condolence letters compiled and annotated by De Angelis in his just-published Dear Mrs. Kennedy (St. Martin’s Press, $19.99). He took a moment. With misty eyes, he looked up at the gathered crowd and said: “That letter gets me every time.”
DeAngelis, who lives in West Cornwall, Connecticut, is the co-publisher and editorial director of About Town, a quarterly community guide covering northern Dutchess and southern Columbia Counties, which he founded with Gail Jaffe-Benneck in 1997. Dear Mrs. Kennedy, is the first byline-authored book for DeAngelis, a veteran writer and editorial director at such publishing companies as St. Martin’s Press, E.P. Dutton and Kodansha America. Until this, he had declined the author spotlight, choosing instead to ghostwrite books.
Two subjects DeAngelis frequently writes about—American culture and politics—converge in Dear Mrs. Kennedy, illuminating a period of history that he remembers well.
DeAngelis was a ninth grader at Leland Jr. High School in Chevy Chase, Maryland on November 22, 1963, when the school made a shocking announcement: the President had been shot. More news: he was seriously wounded. Then, abruptly: President John F. Kennedy was dead.
“The school dismissed us. We walked home, and all the mothers in my neighborhood were waiting in their yards for their kids. We were just shocked and heartbroken,” he recalled.
In the dark days that followed, Americans—the famous, the infamous and ordinary citizens—channeled their collective grief into condolence letters to the President’s widow. They expressed their deep sympathy for her loss and admiration for her deportment, while sharing their own emotions about the tragedy.
Who wrote to Mrs. Kennedy? Everyone. Winston Churchill. Lauren Bacall. Noel Coward. Martin Luther King, Jr. Chiang Kai-shek. Nikita Khruschev. Josephine Baker. Children. Priests. Soldiers. Prison inmates.
All told, well over a million condolence letters from the U.S. and around the world poured into the White House. Nancy Tuckerman, Jackie’s social secretary, undertook the mammoth task of sorting through the mail—with the help of 300 volunteers, many of them women in the First Lady’s social circle. A gracious Jackie pledged that these letters would be displayed at the future John F. Kennedy Library for all to see.
She meant every word in the moment.
A month before he was assassinated, Kennedy had picked out the site for the JFK Library in Boston. Fifteen years passed. By the time the Kennedy Library finally opened in 1979, part of the collection had suffered water damage while in storage. In 1983, the archival staff applied “scientific sampling” (e.g., keeping every seventh letter) to further cull the remaining (undamaged) correspondence. The final collection—some 204,000 letters—continued to reside at the Library in relative obscurity.
Enter Jay Mulvaney. He had become familiar with this collection of condolence mail while writing several books about the Kennedy family. Mulvaney proposed another Kennedy-themed book—based on the letters—to St. Martin’s Press, who green-lighted the project. In 2007, several months later—after copying nearly a thousand letters—Mulvaney abruptly died of a heart attack.
The project found its way to DeAngelis, whose suburban Washington D.C. upbringing and enduring interest in American politics and culture seemingly came full-circle.
DeAngelis (above) grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, spending some of his childhood abroad—in Greece (where he was born) and in Bologna, Italy (where he went to fourth and fifth grades)—before attending prep school in Andover, Massachusetts, then college at Harvard. After graduating, DeAngelis spent over two decades in Manhattan, where he worked in book publishing before moving full-time to Tivoli in Dutchess County, then, to West Cornwall in Litchfield County with his wife Elisabeth Kaestner and their daughter Addie.
DeAngelis described his parents as “FDR Liberals who were pro-JFK.” During the Kennedy administration, his father, who had worked for the Bureau of the Budget in Washington, then USAID, had run into the President on several occasions. In their Chevy Chase neighborhood, Roger Hilsman, the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern Affairs, and his family lived on one side of the DeAngelis’; on the other side, two doors down, was Betty Smith, Caroline Kennedy’s dance teacher.
“If we were not exactly rubbing shoulders with Camelot, we felt that we were rubbing shoulders with those who were,” said DeAngelis with a chuckle.
For the few hundred letters featured in the book, DeAngelis sifted through 10,000-15,000 pieces of condolence mail. Most striking, he noted, was how people reacted to the tragedy in so many different ways. Some voiced their suspicion about conspiracies. Others reacted religiously, asking Jackie to “trust in God”. Some shared their dreams in which the President had appeared to them. Still others re-dedicated themselves to living up to JFK’s ideals. A few who expressed sympathy also had personal agendas, like the mother of a Texas country music singer who asked the First Lady to help arrange a recording for a song that her son had written about the President’s assassination.
“This is a very sociologically and anthropologically significant collection,” said DeAngelis, whose deftly written and eloquent narrative lends historic context, illuminating the national mood and mindset of the time
His biggest challenge was locating the original authors for permissions to include their letters in the book. Luckily, DeAngelis had help, including his wife Elisabeth Kaestner and two colleagues. There were also some regrets. The Kennedy estate did not consent to having Jackie’s letters published. And tracking down government officials outside the US sometimes proved a Kafka-esque exercise in futility. “I had really wanted to include Indira Ghandi’s letter, but never received official permission to do so,” he said.
Tuckerman had supervised the sorting of some 1.25 million pieces of condolence mail, separating those that came from personal friends and VIPs and those from citizens and organizations. The process took over a year.
Old school to the core, Jackie felt compelled to respond. On St. Patrick’s Day, 1964, Tuckerman and her crew obliged her request, sending out nearly 750,000 acknowledgement cards from Mrs. Kennedy. “These notes are now highly prized objects,” said DeAngelis.
A close friend and classmate of Jackie Kennedy at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, CT, Tuckerman was chosen by the First Lady to be her social secretary. She now lives near DeAngelis in Salisbury, Connecticut. And, in neighborly fashion, she participated in DeAngelis’ October 30th reading of Dear Mrs. Kennedy at Cornwall Library. (Her niece, Phyllis Palmer, attended the Oblong-Rhinebeck reading.)
Forty-seven years have passed since JFK’s assassination. Camelot was not as it had appeared. Nor is Kennedy’s reputation, which as DeAngelis delicately pointed out, “has gone through many evolutions”.
The letters, however, remain vivid, offering an authentic window to the past. For young people, such as his 23-year-old daughter, the takeaway of the book, said DeAngelis, is a vital sense of an event that forever shaped their parents’ lives.
Paul DeAngelis will be reading at the Hunt Library, Falls Village, CT; December 4, 4 p.m.
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The Frankies’ Spuntino Kitchen Companion
November 6 @ 3 – 6 p.m.
Let’s start by parsing the title. The Frankies are two chefs, both named Frank, who knew each other as kids, then went on to do a lot of swell chef-ing here and abroad before deciding (long before it became a trend—2004) that they’d had enough of the big time and just wanted to open a nice little restaurant that served the kind of food they both loved—let’s call it (since they do) Grandma’s Italian. That’s the story of Spuntino, Brooklyn, which was such a hit, the Frankies soon followed it with another Spuntino in Manhattan, then a third place, Prime Meats, on the Lower East Side, then a catering company, and, after that, a couple of cafes. So much for keeping it simple.
Recently, the Frankies Industry expanded again, into publishing. Their cookbook is rife with shortcuts and insider tricks gleaned from years of working in topnotch kitchens, tutorials on everything from making fresh pasta to tying braciola, even an amusing discourse on Brooklyn-style Sunday “sauce” (ragu). But the big pay-off: Frank Castronovo (near right) and Frank Falcinelli share every single recipe—from small bites such as Cremini Mushroom and Truffle Oil Crostini, to hearty main dishes, including homemade Cavatelli with Hot Sausage & Browned Butter— that made Spuntino, in the words of The New York Times’ Frank Bruni, “completely satisfying”, adapted here for the home cook. (They got help with the book from former Timesman, the food writer Peter Meehan.) This Saturday, both Franks will be in Rhinebeck to talk about and sign copies of their book.
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