Chef Michael Ballon: 25 Years Of A Chef’s Life In The Berkshires
By Lisa Green
When Chef Michael Ballon, a regional pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, first opened the Castle Street Café in Great Barrington 25 years ago, he had to import goat cheese from California. But he soon learned that excellent versions of it were being produced in our area, and over the years, the creamy, tangy cheese has appeared prominently on Castle Street’s menu.
It’s kind of him to keep it there; in his new memoir, A Chef’s Life: Farm-to Table Cooking in the Berkshires, he admits he pretty much can’t stand the stuff.
But, Ballon says, “I wouldn’t deprive my diners of the opportunity to eat it, and I recognize that many others enjoy it. It’s all in a chef’s work.”
Ballon, one of the Berkshires’ most beloved chefs and author of The Castle Street Café Cookbook published in 2010, is commemorating his quarter-century of pleasing palates with the new book, a series of essays (many with his favorite recipes) about being a chef, food trends, running a restaurant, and profiles of the farmers who have supplied the restaurant with food over all these years.
Filled with confessions (see: goat cheese, above) , memories (pianist Emanual Ax practicing at the café’s piano as astonished diners ate their meals) and quiet criticism of certain food trends (“Run fast when you see the word deconstruction applied to food”). A Chef’s Life lets us in on the why’s and wherefore’s behind his menus and management. As the book’s subtitle suggests, there is his take on the locavore revolution, which, for him, developed in part simply by virtue of being a chef in the country.
“You get to know the farms here,” he says. “We’re just buying from local farms and purveyors to provide ingredients that make great food.” The restaurant’s first menu, from the spring of 1989, is reproduced in the book. One side listed the items, the other listed the local suppliers — pretty rad back then. (The menu has entertainment value just from the prices alone; remember when an espresso cost $1.50?)
Aside from enjoying the contact with farmers, Ballon clearly cares about his customers, even going as far as calling a loyal customer in concern when didn’t show up on his regular night. “I always wanted to make Castle Street an accessible, affordable place that people feel comfortable in. Restaurants have an obligation to give back to the community.”
The community will have a chance to thank Ballon for his community involvement and 25 years at the helm of Castle Street at a special book launch event (including a food demonstration) at the Café on Saturday, September 13 at 3 p.m.
Twenty-five years is a good run for any business, but for a restaurant, it’s particularly impressive.
“Eighty percent of all restaurants fail within 5 years,” Ballon says. “This has proved to be a fertile place for chefs to ply their wares.”
A Chef’s Life: Farm-to-Table Cooking in the Berkshires
By Michael Ballon
Book launch at Castle Street Café on Saturday, September 13 at 3 p.m.
Reading and signing at The Bookstore in Lenox on Sunday, September 21 at 4 p.m. and at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Stockbridge on Sunday, September 28 at 4 p.m.
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Q&A With Author Courtney Maum
Author photo by Colin Lane.
Berkshire County resident Courtney Maum is a corporate namer, celebrity book reviewer, advice columnist for Tin House and now a first-time author. After showing up on countless “best summer reads” lists (Oprah, People, Glamour and Vogue just for starters) her debut novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, will have a proper RI region book launch at No. Six Depot in West Stockbridge on Sunday, July 13. The book, set in Paris in 2002 at the very beginning of the U.S. and England’s involvement in the Iraq War, follows British expatriate Richard Haddon as he wittingly destroys his marriage by cheating on his (much) better half. His attempt to win back his French wife, and simultaneously regain his reputation as a cutting-edge, politically minded artist, is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. On Sunday, Maum will be “live interviewing” two local couples (including Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year) with a question that is posed in the book. We recently caught up with Maum to ask her some interview questions of our own.
Rural Intelligence: I read that you live part time in France and NYC, so what lead you to buy a home in the Berkshires?
Courtney Maum: I lived in Paris for five years in my early twenties. Three years in, I met my husband, a French film director named Diego Ongaro. He’d never lived anywhere other than Paris, and I’d started to miss my friends and family back home, so we moved to Brooklyn, thinking we’d do the glamorous “struggling artist” thing. Except that it was all struggle, and no glamour. We worked from home as freelancers, and we were too broke to take advantage of all that New York has to offer in terms of culture. Heck, we were too broke to even join our friends for drinks! So much of our creative energy was being spent in negative ways—we were both feeling inadequate, cynical, envious, depressed. So we got the heck out of dodge. We figured that if we were working from home we might as well be doing so in an inspiring place. We didn’t have any friends or family in the Berkshires, but we fell in love with a fixer-upper and the landscape of the region. It’s been almost eight years and we haven’t looked back!
RI: You’re a corporate namer. What does that entail?
CM: I work for several different branding agencies, mostly in New York—and when a company wants to launch a new product, a new company division, or re-brand their corporate image, we’ll generate hundreds of names in order to present a client with twenty or so names that are legally viable for their new product. It’s a fantastic job—naming helps keep my mind sharp, and I like working outside of academia because I think the writer’s world can be a little claustrophobic at times.
RI: You write in a wide variety of voices – John Mayer, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Joan Didion just for starters—and your novel is told in the first person by a British man. How do you prepare yourself to write in another’s voice? And has anyone you’ve imitated contacted you?
CM: For my “Celebrity Book Review” column in the literary magazine, Electric Literature, (for which I review a newly released book from the point of view of a celebrity), I watch videos and read essays and interviews of the person I’m trying to imitate in order to get their voice and cadence down. And then I’ll do research about their life and career to find common points of interest that will tie into the book I’m going to review. For example, when I wrote a review of Steve Jobs’ biography from Michael Dell’s point of view, I read Michael Dell’s autobiography after Jobs’, watched some of his industry speeches, and looked at Dell’s advertising to see how they were keeping up with Apple’s. I was proud of that review—I was contacted by some higher-ups at Dell who said I’d gotten Michael’s voice right. But often the people that contact me—or my editor at Electric Literature, rather—are people who are angry, either with the celebrity in question (and they think they’re writing that person), or because they’re angry to find out that the point of view was faked. I had one really fanatic Sinead O’Connor fan who was positively irate to hear that the piece wasn’t written by Sinead. She went all over the Internet trying to apprise people to that fact. And for my most recent review, I impersonated Hillary Rodham Clinton, and we’ve got quite a few emails from people angry at her for one thing or another—none of these emails, of course, have anything to do with the book that was reviewed!
RI: You seem like an avid reader—is that true and how do you find the time? Do you prefer books or an eReader?
CM: I read at night, mostly, before I go to bed. This has been an ongoing ritual for me since I was a little girl. I struggle with insomnia and reading helps calm me down. I’m a book girl through and through, though—I’ve never read an ebook in my life. Of course, I understand and respect their popularity, but I’m a bit of a luddite myself—I like to turn the pages, feel the pages, smell them. And there is nothing better than curling up in a hammock during the summer with a fresh, hardcover book!
RI: It seems that in some European countries (France in particular in your novel) the people have a more “laissez-faire” view of adultery than do Americans. If true, to what do you attribute that?
CM: I can only speak about France, because I lived there—but one major difference is that there are far less marriages to begin with than we have in the United States. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but most of my French friends are in serious relationships, they have children with their partners, but no plans to marry. My own husband’s parents were never married either. There’s just more legal protection in France for common law marriages than here. So it’s possible that because marriage isn’t a given for some French people that they’re approaching the idea of what it means to be in a relationship with more flexibility. In America, in terms of matrimony, I feel like we set ourselves up to fail. When I was engaged, for example, a lot of my American friends asked, “What does it feel like to think you’ll only sleep with one man for the rest of your life?!” That’s a terrible mindset going into a marriage! Marriage is so much more than monogamy, you know? Obviously, you want to aim for monogamy—it’s a goal, but I do think that French people are a little bit more realistic and forgiving about the fact that mistakes might happen. That if you’re going to spend the next fifty years with someone, yes, there might come a moment when you get bored, restless, where you might make a mistake. But that that doesn’t mean that you don’t love them anymore.
Courtney Maum @ No. Six Depot
Sunday, July 13 from 1-3 p.m.
6 Depot Street, West Stockbridge, MA
Courtney Maum @ Spotty Dog Books & Ale
Saturday, July 19 at 7 p.m.
440 Warren Street, Hudson, NY
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‘The Race Underground’ Surfaces At Ventfort Hall
Doug Most, a deputy managing editor at The Boston Globe, is the author of The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Build America’s First Subway, published in February by St. Martin’s Press. Named one of the “18 Books to Read in 2014” by This Week magazine, the book traces the development of the Boston and New York subway systems, a complicated, terrifying journey filled with thrilling breakthroughs and horrific tragedies.“It’s full of American history, a little death and destruction, and a lot of drama,” says Most, who will be presenting an illustrated lecture, “New York & Boston: The Whitney Race Underground” as part of Ventfort Hall’s Tea & Talk series on July 8. In anticipation of his appearance, we asked Most about his inspiration and thoughts on writing the book.
Rural Intelligence: What inspired you to tackle this topic?
Doug Most: I love a good story and I love exploring how we got to where we are today. We take so much of our history for granted, and the subway is a perfect example. We go underground now and think nothing of it. We’re not nervous, or scared, or hesitant. But as I learned, that was not always the case. Centuries ago man was terrified of the underground. Overcoming that fear, embracing the underground, and then constructing incredible tunnels, was a huge achievement for society. I was excited to tell the story of the people who did it.
RI: Your book promos emphasize the story of the two brothers each racing to build a subway in their respective cities (NY and Boston), but the cast of characters that were involved is enormous, all the way from public figures to the immigrant workers who risked their lives to work on the projects. Was there a character that most intrigued you?
DM: There were so many. The Whitney brothers you mention, from Conway, MA, were fascinating. William Whitney could have been president if he wanted. And Henry Whitney was Boston’s most powerful businessman. My favorite surprising characters are both in New York. William Steinway, the man who gave us the beautiful piano we know today, was a key figure in New York’s subway. And the amazing story of Alfred Beach building a secret subway right under the nose of Boss Tweed and the citizens of Gotham was a fun tale.
RI: With all the descriptions of the smells, sounds, dangers and fears of the time, The Race Underground does a great job of transporting the reader back to the late 19th century. While you were writing, did you ever feel like you had one foot in the past and one foot in the present?
DM: I tried to do that, for myself and my readers. I very much wanted to take people back to that era, so they could understand that the reason the horse-pulled carriage needed to be replaced was it was slow, dirty and smelly! I wanted people to feel like they could see, hear and smell those horses. No matter how badly they smelled!
RI: It almost strains credulity that the subways were built by men using pickaxes and shovels. The Boston subway was built in two years. How long did the Big Dig take — 15 years? Discuss!
DM: Not only did the Boston subway, the first leg anyway, take 2.5 years, it was finished under budget. Just like the Big Dig, right? Okay, never mind. Yes, costs were contained more carefully then, but workers also earned only $1.20 a day. Imagine that?!
RI: You’ve said that holding the actual letters written between Thomas Edison and Frank Sprague was an emotional experience. Were there any other research “moments” like that?
DM: That was my favorite, probably. But visiting a distant relative of Henry Whitney in Connecticut and seeing her pictures of her great grandfather was cool. So was digging through the private papers and letters of William Whitney at the Library of Congress. The reporting and research was great fun. My favorite “find” was a book from 1938 of stories of people who survived the Blizzard of 1888. It was an incredible collection and I never expected to track it down, but I did and when it arrived in the mail it was like a gift from the heavens. That book alone almost single handedly wrote that entire chapter!
RI: How did Boston and New York differ in their approach to and acceptance of the subways? Did they mirror the personalities of the two cities?
DM: Boston was definitely more reluctant embracing it. But that’s also because Boston was first in America. By the time New York opened 7 years later, people understood the subway could be safe and reliable and helpful to a city. The biggest difference came on their opening days. Boston was very subdued, quiet, no big celebration. New York pulled out all the stops, a huge party, befitting New York!
RI: Your book is meticulously researched and told in a chronological manner, but you probably didn’t uncover your research in chronological order. How did you organize your massive amounts of material?
DM: One word: Timeline. I created an Excel spreadsheet and every time I found a date, I entered it there. That gave me a timeline of more than 2000 entries, and it was hugely helpful. A writer friend of mine suggested that and it was a great tip.
RI: There are characters with quite a few ties to the Rural Intelligence region. The Whitney brothers — William and Henry — were born in Conway, MA, just outside the RI region; Frank Sprague went to Drury High School in North Adams and his son Robert Sprague founded Sprague Electric of North Adams. Have you been able to find out much about William Whitney’s history with Ventfort Hall?
DM: I only learned about it after they invited me, so I am now trying to dig up more. I have an old biography on Whitney and hope to see what it says. I was thrilled by the invitation, can’t wait to come.
RI: How has writing this book changed your experience of riding on the subways in either city?
DM: I just appreciate the subways more. I ride them and stare at the tunnels, at the walls, the tracks, the stations and think about the work that went into building them. I hope other people take that away from my book, a special appreciation for the workers who gave us marvels of engineering like subways and bridges.
RI: This story could actually make a pretty compelling movie. Any interest — by you or anyone else?
DM: One can only hope!
Tea & Talk: “New York & Boston: The Whitney Race Underground”
Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum
104 Walker Street, Lenox, MA
$20 advance registration, $25 at the door
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In Bette Isacoff’s Memoir ‘Star Crossed,’ An Unlikely Pair Beats The Odds
By Lisa Green
In 1968, when Bette Francesconi met Richard Isacoff, she was a 21-year-old Catholic, a senior in college doing her practice teaching assignment. He was a 17-year-old Jewish student, a senior at the school where she was teaching. Seven weeks later they were engaged. There were, not surprisingly, objections to their engagement, from incredulous (hers) and disapproving (his) parents, uncooperative clergy, and the complications inherent in an interfaith marriage.
As Ladies’ Home Journal would ask, Can this marriage be saved?
Sorry, LHJ. You would never have heard from this couple. Despite the challenges they faced from the beginning, Bette and Richard Isacoff, who live in Cheshire (he’s an attorney in Pittsfield), have had an extraordinary marriage that’s still going strong after 44 years. It’s a love story Bette relates in her memoir, Star Crossed, published by Headwinds Publishing. Isacoff will be reading from the book and followed by a Q&A session at the Mason Library in Great Barrington on Saturday, May 17, with a chocolate tasting supplied by Chocolate Springs.
Star Crossed focuses on the couple’s first weeks of courtship, their engagement, and the obstacles leading up to their wedding, detailing the objections they encountered and roadblocks they had to overcome. The interfaith aspect was the most troubling to others, but there were also the age difference and education levels that seemed to concern everyone else. Still, they weren’t so blinded by love that they couldn’t see what they were up against. They began to work it out. When they were dating, Bette went to Friday night synagogue services with Richard; he went to Sunday mass with her. His family never accepted her; hers grew to love him like the son they never had.
Isacoff’s enthusiasm bubbles out as she talks about her many accomplishments — teacher, writer, registered nurse, former dog obedience trainer, breeder and show dog competitor, multiple academic degrees (she went back for a master’s degree in creative writing at age 64), Iditarod volunteer. And yet, she says, all that really matters in the end is the love between herself and Richard.
“I knew when I met him he had something that was magical and unique,” she says. And perhaps she didn’t realize how exceptional their marriage was until, recovering after a surgery in 2000, she tuned into Dr. Phil and Oprah, and found herself aghast at all the “my man cheated on me” dramas bleeding all over the afternoon programs on TV.
“I thought, is this the message we’re giving young women about marriage?” Bette says. “It became important to me to show people what a marriage filled with love, devotion and respect can be.” Such was the inspiration for her memoir.
At the reading, Bette (and Richard — they’re rarely apart) will reflect upon their 44-year marriage and delve into deeper questions: How do you blend your religions, and combine your families to create one of your own in faith? What makes a successful marriage, interfaith or otherwise?
The book’s excellent reviews (not to mention an endorsement by Patricia McLachlan, Newbery Medal award winner for Sarah, Plain and Tall) have been gratifying. “You put a book out there and never know what the response is going to be,” Isacoff says. But love against the odds is a story that’s pretty irresistible, and Isacoff’s evident passion for her husband is charming, if not enviable. It’s no surprise that the comment she hears most of all is “I wish I had a husband like that.”
Star Crossed Author Talk and Chocolate Tasting
Saturday, May 17, 1 p.m.
231 Main Street, Great Barrington
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Author Rachel Urquhart Brings Local History To Life In ‘The Visionist’
By Amy Krzanik
Photo by Sarah Shatz.
Rachel Urquhart, part-time Tyringham resident and frequent contributor to Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and many other well-respected publications, recently published her debut novel, The Visionist, which tells the story of a transformative friendship between two teenaged girls carrying two very different types of burdens. The novel, set in an early 1840s Massachusetts Shaker community, explores the roles that charity and devotion play in lightening the loads and lifting the spirits of ourselves and others. In anticipation of her local appearance on March 30 as part of the Stockbridge Library’s “Sunday Speaker Series,” we asked Urquhart about the inspiration behind her new book.
Rural Intelligence: Since the novel takes place in this general area, did you do a lot of your research and writing here?
Rachel Urquhart: I did most of my research and writing here. I spent at least three summers at Hancock Shaker Village, where at first, I just walked through the buildings over and over, telling myself my story and trying to imagine what my characters would have seen and done and felt as they went about their lives in similar surroundings. When I saw a bedroom, I tried to hear how the beds would have sounded as the girls tossed and turned at night. When I saw medicine jars lined up on shelves in the healing room, I imagined how my characters might have troubled themselves forever putting things in order. When I saw the single remaining open fireplace in the kitchen, I thought about the danger of skirt fires. That sort of thing. I also spent time in the archives, which yielded up some amazing artifacts. My favorite was a handwritten journal of medicinal “receipts” (an old word for “recipes”) that dates back to the early 1800s. Between the gorgeous names of the herbs — coltsfoot, fleabane, meadow rue — and the way the receipts were worded, many of the entries read like poetry. Finally, when it came to actual writing, I spent day after day at Lenox Coffee and in the library at Simon’s Rock while my sons were in camp. And whenever the conversations taking place around me became too interesting, I’d just put on my headphones, listen to Thelonious Monk, and keep on typing.
RI: Did the idea for the novel come to you fully formed, or were you inspired by a certain part of the story, whether it be the Shakers, the friendship between the girls, or of something else?
RU: Weirdly enough, the idea did come to me fully formed, though only after I’d read about the Visionists, whom I’d never heard of. Very quickly after that initial plot download, I began to hear the voices of the girls, and to think about the profound friendship they shared — what it meant to each of them, how it would change them. It took forever for me to figure out the voice of the detective — Simon Pryor — but when I finally got it, I had fun galloping through the action with him.
RI: Was there a reason you chose a friendship versus a romantic relationship, seeing as how both types of intense feeling were frowned upon by the Shaker community?
RU: I chose to focus on the intimacy of friendship rather than romance because I felt that a story of full-on forbidden love in a Shaker enclave would be a pretty cheesy cliché. It’s true that while the Shakers approved of a general sense of affection amongst the believers, they felt that anything more exclusive would throw “union” out of balance in the community. So the close friendship between the two girls in my novel is a form of forbidden love. It’s just not one that involves the passionate flinging of bonnets and ripping of petticoats. It is much more about intimacy, which, especially when expressed in a restrained manner, is infinitely subtler and more revealing than sex.
RI: Because Shakers were so strict, were you nervous about depicting them in a negative light? How do you feel about the religion now that you know more about it? Are you religious yourself?
RU: At a certain point, I simply had to write a story I felt was true, even if at times it might make people see the Shakers in a dark and possibly negative light. I trusted that the years of research I did would help me paint an accurate if more complicated and interesting portrait of the group than the bland and saintly one I was accustomed to. They were real people, after all—people who brought a lot of personal baggage on their journey “into the light.” As far as my own feelings about the sect go, I’ve always been pretty nervous around organized religion of any kind. So setting my first novel in the most rule-bound religious community imaginable must have been some kind of attempt on my part to understand that way of thinking. I’m not sure that I will ever be able to grasp what it means to completely give oneself over to one’s faith, but something that was clarified for me in a very satisfying way was the difference between the formal aspects of Shaker life and worship, and the wildly expressive spirituality that animates them. I would say that I am, in my own peculiar way, quite a spiritual person, and by immersing myself so deeply in imagining what it might have felt like to be a Shaker, I grew more so. The fact that such a practical people could embrace their inability to explain so much about the world appeals to me. They rejoiced in wonder, and I think that was sort contagious for me.
RI: Was it difficult writing from more than one perspective, and writing from the point of view of people “from the past”?
RU: The idea of staying inside the head of a single narrator terrifies me, so in choosing three, I think I picked the simpler route. That said, having to puzzle together multiple separate but simultaneous plotlines nearly split my head open on more than one occasion. I felt like a plate-spinner with far too much twirling to attend to. As far as writing in the voices of people from the past goes, it was difficult, yes, but it was also something I never could have imagined doing differently. I think that the novel has a certain strangeness to it — I think of it as New England magic realism — and so I feel that the language needs to be old-fashioned, contemporary, expansive, blunt and other-worldly all at the same time.
RI: What was the most interesting thing you learned about the Shakers while researching the book? Perhaps something you found out that didn’t make it into the book?
RU: Well, of course, this is all over the book, but I never really knew about the Shaker attitude towards family before — the fact that they demanded the dissolution of all “blood ties” as a condition of signing their covenant. That was really fascinating to me. But on a smaller level, there was so much that didn’t make it into the novel — and I’m still coming across amazing tidbits. Last week, I was looking something up in a really great book called One Shaker Life (by the local Shaker scholar and writer, Glendyne Wergland), and I came across the mention of three Shaker girls being punished for watching flies mate. Granted, it was 1793 and the religion was in its wild and wooly early days, but you can’t make up stuff like that.
RI: Since Rural Intelligence focuses mainly on this region of the country, what are the things you enjoy doing when you’re here?
RU: I’ve lived in the Berkshires during summers and weekends for my entire life, so my favorite things are a hodge-podge of nostalgia and discovery. I have adored the Tyringham Steak Roast ever since I was a child, when it was known as “The Block Dance.” I love hiking the section of the Appalachian Trail from Fernside Road in Tyringham uphill into Beartown Mountain State Park. It took me until last summer to discover the walks on Mt. Greylock. I have celebrated my birthday every year for the past two decades at the Inn on the Green in New Marlborough and, more recently, have become addicted to the margaritas at the Southfield General Store. I enjoy listening to jazz at Mission in Pittsfield—especially when the incredible and gracious 13-year-old guitar phenom Nico Wohl is playing. It’s kind of obvious, but every time I go to MASS MoCA, I come away amazed by at least one thing I’ve seen — and there’s a great gift shop to boot! Finally, I find the events and lectures sponsored by the Bidwell House in Monterey to be fascinating and fun. My favorite event? The contest for best pie at the museum’s annual summer fair!
Rachel Urquhart will discuss and read from The Visionist at the Stockbridge Library on Sunday, March 30 at 4 p.m.
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Little Failure, Big Success: Gary Shteyngart At Vassar
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
By Robert Burke Warren
When bestselling author Gary Shteyngart delivers the Alex Krieger Memorial Lecture at Vassar on March 27, attendees will get more than a talk; Shteyngart is a performer, an avid YouTuber and Twitter maven. He’ll be reading from his recent memoir, Little Failure, which is actually a big success, due in part to his relentless promo action, including an online book trailer featuring James Franco, Rashida Jones and NYC literati interacting with a madcap Shteyngart. (Franco plays Shteyngart’s husband.)
Shteyngart spent his first seven years in Leningrad, immigrating to Queens with his parents in 1979. Since his 2002 debut, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, he’s earned a reputation as a deft satirist, using his hardscrabble Russian background as fodder for his books, all bestsellers. Shteyngart promotes his efforts with a theatrical persona, a darkly witty, self-deprecating jester, hamming it up in print and onscreen. In addition to the Little Failure video, he and his publisher, Random House, produced a trailer (also featuring Franco) and a short film for his last novel, Super Sad True Love Story (currently in development as an HBO series). The film, Super Sad True Book Club, features award-winning actor Paul Giamatti as Shteyngart’s hapless roommate.
“Hooray for book trailers,” Shteyngart says. “I teach at Columbia, and my students are very passionate about literature. But in the country as a whole, literature has been increasingly marginalized. Fewer people read, and books just aren’t as central to our culture as they used to be. So you gotta do trailers with movie stars now. Otherwise, who’s gonna buy your book?”
Little Failure is a bit of a departure for Shteyngart. While his previous book output falls under “thinly veiled fiction,” his memoir delves deep into his own story, a tale rife with pain and anxiety, not to mention real people, including his parents. Shteyngart had been circling around it for a while. “I’ve always written [autobiographical] essays for the New Yorker and other publications,” he says, “so that helped stir the pot. It took about two years to fill in the connective tissue between all the essays and the new stuff, which accounted for about 80 percent of the book.”
Shteyngart and his wife (his real wife, not James Franco) have houses in Germantown and Red Hook, NY, and while much of Little Failure takes place in Queens and Manhattan, he did most of the work on the memoir in the country. “It was nice to write most of this book upstate, where I spend half the year,” he says. “The distance from New York made the city come alive more for me. There’s nothing like distance.” How does writing memoir compare to fiction? “In a weird way, there’s more research,” Shteyngart says. “You’re always checking your memories against the facts. Close to a dozen friends and family members were interviewed for this thing. The transcripts alone would take up several volumes.”
Little Failure evokes quite a lot. Shteyngart makes his story both distinctive and universal; with exquisite narrative grace, he paints the tribulations of a troubled, asthmatic Russian Jewish immigrant with cruel parents (“Little Failure” was his mother’s nickname for him), while also breathing life into the New York City of the 80s, a bygone time of synth pop and big hair. “It’s nice to stir people’s memories of time and place,” he says. “People will come up and talk to me about their SANYO cassette players with anti-rolling mechanism. Whatever the heck that was.”
This annual lecture series is given in memory of Vassar student Alex Krieger, who was killed in an automobile accident during the spring of his freshman year. One of Krieger’s keenest interests was distinguished American writing that incorporates humor as a primary element. In consultation with his family, Vassar has invited outstanding American writers and humorists to deliver the annual speech, including Tom Wolfe, Wendy Wasserstein, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Ira Glass and Mo Rocca.
Gary Shteyngart, Alex Krieger ’95 Memorial Lecture
Thursday, March 27, at 8 p.m.
Vassar College Students’ Building
This is a free event.
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A Portion of Thyself: Barbara Bonner Is Inspiring Generosity with Her First Book
By Nichole Dupont
“Giving away an old coat you wouldn’t be caught dead in isn’t exactly generous,” says philanthropy consultant Barbara Bonner, glancing over the top of her red-framed glasses. “It doesn’t have meaning. True generosity is giving away something that has meaning to you. It’s a gift. Generosity is a gift.”
Bonner, who is a veteran board member and fundraising and management consultant for nonprofits – Kripalu, The Museum of the City of New York, Bennington College – is offering up her own gift to the world. Inspiring Generosity (Wisdom Publications, Feb. 2014) is a book that she hopes people will buy and “then give it as a gift to someone else.” The book is a compilation of Bonner’s own lyric and simple observations that are intertwined with hundreds of quotes (from Euripides to Mother Teresa to FDR) and true – sometimes famous – stories of modern-day generosity at play in the lives of ordinary people. The official book launch is slated for Sunday, March 2, at 2 p.m. at The Mount in Lenox as part of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.
“When I tell people about the book, readers anticipate feeling guilty. They say right off the bat ‘I should do more.’ People feel guilty somehow,” Bonner says. “They have to deal with the issue of privilege.”
Paying the message forward has been a long time coming for the Columbus, Ohio native who, by her own account “grew up in a world of economic privilege” in the 1960s, in a society that was “by and large quite oblivious to a larger world of human need.” And while Bonner never doubted that her parents and surrounding neighbors were kind people, they were not truly generous, she says. But then again, that’s a subjective term, too.
“The way generosity is crafted in our culture…it’s limited to the giving of any material goods. There’s a big distinction that needs to be made between philanthropy and generosity. Philanthropy has become a business,” Bonner says. “It’s a relationship of exchange. In many cases it’s giving for fame. But what motivates people to give? I’m most interested in what it means to live a generous life; to have generosity as your compass.”
According to several reports and studies on charity, those who have the least tend to give the most. For instance, the Philanthropy Roundtable reports that of the $300 billion that is donated to charity every year in this country, 15 percent comes from foundation grants, 6 percent from corporations, and the rest, individual donations from people living in the most modest income bracket. While the origin of that impulse remains somewhat elusive, Bonner surmises that those who have experienced need have the empathy and the wherewithal to give, regardless of their own financial status.
“To feel real need makes you want to be generous. You are grateful to be in the position that you are the one giving,” she says. “I hear about these Lebanese families living in these incredibly poor border villages, and they give everything they have to the Syrian refugees who are crossing over. They are making sure that these people are being taken care of despite their own poverty. I feel really lucky that these stories exist. Sure, they’re not on the front page, but I’m ‘tuned in’ to them.”
Through her eyes, the stories are abundant and they are everywhere. Inspiring Generosity provides a glimpse of that truth in the short three-page tales of giving; an Indian all-star chef ditches his career to deliver food and haircuts to the most impoverished citizens of Madurai, a Staten Island medical technician devotes her life to helping war torn children receive prosthetic surgery and a new lease on life. Even locally in the Berkshires, Bonner finds ultimate generosity in the life of State Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli, who, with the help of local contractors and friends, was able to rebuild Ninth Ward resident Stanley Stewart’s house after it had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Yet, despite making nine trips to New Orleans over the course of nine months, Pignatelli considers his efforts as an unavoidable human duty.
“I am honored and extremely humbled to be included with all these extraordinary people whose riveting stories of unselfishness and innovation have changed lives and inspire us to be better people,” he says. “We all have the generosity inside of us that it takes to make a difference in us and in others!”
Tapping into that generosity may be a challenge, but Bonner is confident that it can happen…every day. As for the most generous thing a person can do, well, she says, that’s easy.
“Give people the benefit of the doubt. The act of forgiveness is a generous act. That’s when we start to move forward.”
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A Winter Warm-up: Berkshire Festival of Women Writers Prepares For March With A Week Of Workshops
By Amy Krzanik
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”—Alice Walker.
As this quote flashes on the screen, so begins Miss Representation, the 2011 documentary that shines a harsh light on how the American media portray woman—as bodies used to sell goods—and how they don’t—as powerful and influential three-dimensional human beings.
The topic of the film is something that Dr. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez [top photo, top right], Chairwoman of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and longtime professor of writing and gender studies, knows all too well. She began the Festival in 2011 as a way to “create encouraging, supportive platforms where women and girls can share their ideas and perspectives in the public sphere.” The reason creative outlets and a community in which to share them are so important, especially to girls and young women, is because, as Marie Wilson, Founder of The White House Project, states in the film, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
“Men’s voices still dominate in the public sphere, whether in politics, media or the arts,” Browdy says. “The Festival aims to counter that trend, and I am hoping, with the new Writing Workshops for Women, to give more women the tools and encouragement they need to begin to take their own ideas seriously, and step out into the world with them.”
Known for its month-long festival every March during women’s history month, the BFWW now has branched out to serve the area’s creative community year round, with a new monthly Lean-In group that includes upcoming themed workshops for Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, and now a week of creative writing workshops scheduled for January 13-17.
The four six-hour writing workshops (each broken up over a two-day period) will be offered at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington. Open to women of all ages and at any stage in their writing careers, the workshops culminate on Friday with a public reading by participants that is open to the public (yes, including men).
In her workshop, Suzi Banks Baum, creator of BFWW’s “Out of the Mouths of Babes: An Evening of Mothers Reading to Others” and publisher of An Anthology of Babes: 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice, will coach participants on how to use online sites and apps like Twitter, Facebook, and their own blogs to their advantage in an age when artists of all kinds are expected to be expert self-promoters.
“Writing The New Nature Poem” with Hannah Fries, associate editor and poetry editor of Orion Magazine, will show writers how to link their personal experiences to the natural world in order to create more forceful work about the earth and their place on it.
The award-winning author of two YA/Adult crossover novels, Jana Laiz, will host a class on how writers with a love of young adult literature can attract both teens and adults to their work, taking advantage of the success of series like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.
“What’s Your Story?” with local author and jazz singer Lara Tupper will help writers work past the false, embedded ideas of themselves that are holding them back from telling the “true” tales they long to express.
Proceeds from this week of reasonably priced workshops go toward funding BFWW’s month-long festival in March, in which almost all of the 58 events are free of charge, including a talk by Gloria Steinem [top photo, bottom left] on March 4 at MCLA in North Adams as part of that college’s Public Policy Lecture Series, a special lecture-in-song about the women in traditional and contemporary folksongs given by Peggy Seeger [top photo, top left] at the Guthrie Center on March 18, and a performance of an expanded version of ENUF!, a musical featuring the stories and talents of 12 young African American women from Pittsfield on March 30. On March 9, International Women’s Day, BFWW will hold a program featuring three generations of artistic and socially active women from an Argentinian Jewish family—Raquel Partnoy, Alicia Partnoy and Ruth Irupe Sanabria [top photo, bottom right]. This is only a sampling of the performances, events, and author panels that will be part of this year’s festival.
“My not-so-secret ambition with all of this is to change the world for the better,” Browdy says. “If more women’s perspectives were being heard, the discourse would be more about nurturing and less about violence; more about collaboration, less about competition. I’m old-fashioned enough, as a feminist, to be able to say such a thing and mean it.”
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Novelist Glenda Ruby Conjures Up A “Death at Olana”
By Marilyn Bethany
The fictional character of Lindsey Brooks, an expert on antiques, fell into sleuthing early in her career at the behest of an acquaintance in law enforcement who understood what convenient containers antiques can be for smuggling contraband. In addition to running an international auction house, Miss Brooks has, over the years, occasionally partnered with the authorities, sharing her insider’s instinct for suspicious deals, as well as for spotting false bottoms, hidden drawers, and hollow legs. Now retired to a riverfront house in the Hudson Valley, she finds herself re-enlisted by the local sheriff to help solve a crime that was committed perilously close to home.
Thus begins Death at Olana, a novel by Glenda Ruby (below), a New York marketing executive. Ruby and her partner Ros Daly have lived part time for the past 30 years in a riverfront house that is a veritable stone’s throw from Olana, the c.1870 quasi-Persian pile built by Hudson River School painter Frederic Church.
RI: Death at Olana is your first published novel. What compelled you to start a new career writing fiction just when so many of your contemporaries are happily kicking back?
GR: I’ve always written fiction… short stories or casuals, mostly. Also poetry, back in the days when men were men and tables were round. But it’s the classic mysteries of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, and Ruth Rendell that have captured my imagination since childhood. Not just the meticulously planned plots, the cleverly placed clues, but the wit and irony we find in Poirot, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Tommy and Tuppence, Adam Dalgliesh, and Inspector Wexford. Even Kate Atkinson, who also writes brilliant, serious fiction, is unable to resist creating a hapless detective, Jackson Brodie. All of these characters exist in and grapple with the human condition. That is what I am writing about, really. I have always wanted to try my hand at mystery writing, and I find it is great fun.
RI: It shows in the work! Your book is filled with amusing insights into a familiar social dynamic hereabouts: the inevitable tensions that arise between administrators, staff, board members, and donors at not-for-profits. Have you personal experience sitting on such boards?
GR: Years ago, when we first moved here, I had no time to devote to boards, and I suspect the moment has passed. We have always, of course, supported fund-raising by attending galas, dinners, fetes, parties, etc. I have offered my marketing expertise on a pro bono basis several times but have no takers, as yet. I had a great idea to change the name of the Thomas Cole House to the Thomas Cool House, but that seemed not to fly…
RI: Every sleuth needs a Watson and yours is, to my mind, a paragon: Bennett, Lindsey’s post-modern butler, combines the usual duties of driving, mixology, etc. with stepping in as madam’s date for cocktail and dinner parties, as well her companion at table when she’s dining in alone. Not quite a husband (Bennett keeps his place), he’s no forelock-tugging Carson or Jeeves either. What a dreamboat! How did you come up with the divine Bennett?
GR: Who among us has not wanted a handsome butler even if he isn’t named Rhett?!??!
RI: Your novel is more Agatha Christie than John le Carré. Can you tell us a little about how these genres are faring in the fraught publishing industry right now?
GR: It’s complicated. Publishers seem to feel The Thriller is the genre of the moment. It is very important to have a high body count in the first few pages, blow ‘em up, slash ‘em, etc. Gore is good, dismemberment gets remembered, but keep the writing simple. Without naming names, most best-sellers today are written at a 6th-grade level. Christie and the others I mentioned are not interested in lurid writing. John le Carré, whose niche is espionage, sells well but not as well as, say, David Baldacci; that is because le Carré’s books are, in fact, literature, and fewer people are comfortable reading literature. Christie is the largest selling author after Shakespeare and still sells 5 million books each year. In 2002, her publisher did a relaunch and books first published 50 years ago went back on the best-seller lists. She, of course, has been criticized for not writing particularly well; she has a very straightforward style—this is offset, however, by the intricacy of her plots and the psychology of the characters.
RI: In addition to its mordant humor, your novel delights with its erudition, not just about Frederic Church and art history in general, but about the region. The travelogue you provide of the Amtrak route between Hudson and Penn Station—one of the best train rides of all time—is priceless. Is it incumbent on authors of this type of mystery to keep us engaged above and beyond the central question of who-done-it?
GR: I think the mise en scene is important in any genre. Christie and Sayers write about an England that probably never existed but that one nonetheless likes to remember fondly. The rich history of our Valley is fascinating. And there is always more to know. We who live here are thrilled to learn about the area because we love it so. And you must admit the inhabitants—past and present—are colorful, to say the very least.
RI: (At left, the porch where plots thicken for both the author and her protagonist.) I understand you are working on a second novel. Please say it’s about another historic house in the region. Murder at Hyde Park, perhaps? The private life of the Roosevelts (that mother! that marriage!) is such a rich vein.
GR: A Murderous Summer at Bard. So far, three people have died but I’m only half-way through. Things may get worse. The third novel, busily gestating, involves pirates and buried treasure, always a crowd-pleaser.
Death at Olana, by Glenda Ruby, published by Greendale Books, is available at Olana; Thomas Cole National Historic Site; The Hudson Train station; Spotty Dog, Hudson; Oblong Books, Rhinebeck and Millerton; Rural Residence, Hudson, and online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Paperback, $20; Kindle edition, $9.95
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Books: “Private Gardens of the Hudson Valley” A Vicarious Pleasure
By Dan Shaw
The imaginary line that divides Connecticut’s Litchfield County from New York’s Columbia, Dutchess and Putnam Counties became very real to Jane Garmey as she researched and wrote her beautiful new coffee table book, Private Gardens of the Hudson Valley. “When I began work on the book, I did not know how intensely rural this part of New York still was,” says Garmey, who published the stunning Private Gardens of Connecticut three years ago. “I was also unprepared for the grandeur of the landscape. The sweeping valleys and large open tracts of land are remarkably different from the gentler, more protected countryside of Connecticut. Inevitably, terrain plays a role in making a garden, and dealing with the transitions between a cultivated garden and its natural surroundings is a problem that had to be confronted and solved in nearly every one of the gardens profiled here.”
If you are looking to this book for inspiration and feel daunted by the gardens’ scope and ambition, Garmey wants you to know that these are the creations of enlightened amateurs. “Few of these garden makers were in any way knowledgeable when they started out,” says Garmey, who was a novice gardener herself thirty years ago when she started spending weekends in northwestern Connecticut. “Most admit that at first they were entirely focused on their houses and gave little or no thought to the surrounding land and its suitability, or lack thereof, as a gardening habitat.”
The twenty-six gardens photographed by Garmey’s collaborator, John Hall, are the creations of passionate, if not obsessive, gardeners. There are great estates like Edgewater, which is owned by the renowned American furniture collector Richard Jenrette, who purchased the property that juts into the Hudson River from the writer Gore Vidal in 1969; he has created a refined, majestic landscape suitable for his Federal house built in the 1820s by the Livingston family. Amy Goldman‘s estate is more of a well-groomed laboratory where the Ph.D in pyschology cultivates melons and tomatoes, winning 38 blue ribbons in a single year at the Dutchess County Fair. Her books on the subject have become classics (and Martha Stewart asks her for advice.)
Garmey even found an urban garden in the city of Hudson. Richard Eagan’s backyard was originally a “big long dreary space,” but now it is an enchanted jungle full of thistles, verbascum and milkweed. There is a pond surrounded by gravel and a narrow entry path so visitors must walk through single file. “Different in every season, this garden is all about looking through, looking over, looking under, and all the other ways of looking,” says Garmey, whose book is truly an eye-opener.
While most of the gardens were photographed in spring and summer, there are gorgeous autumn shots of Frederic Rich’s riverfront property in Philipstown, where he boldly sited a Zen garden in the woods. Inspired by the rock gardens of Japan, Rich designed the Zen garden as a calculated abstraction. “The placement of the rocks and gravel in this garden appear completely natural but, in fact, nothing is left to chance,” says Garmey. “Each rock in the tableau sits on part of a grid and even the direction the rocks are leaning has been carefully worked out.”
One of Garmey’s criteria for choosing gardens was that the owners had a hands-on involvement in designing and maintaining their properties (which doesn’t mean they don’t have hired help to assist with weeding and mowing.) Since the book has only a couple of photographs of snow-covered landscapes, one wonders what these gardeners do from November to March when the ground is frozen. “I’d love to know!” says Garmey. “Some move into their greenhouses and others, like Richard Eagan, shut down their garden and take off for warmer climates.” And for those of us who are wintering in the Hudson Valley, the Berkshires or Litchfield Hills, Garmey’s book allows us to dream lavishly about the spring and summer to come.
Private Gardens of the Hudson Valley
New York City Book Party hosted by Bunny Williams
Tuesday, October 22 from 6-8 p.m.
418 East 75th Street
Columbia County Book Party
Hudson Opera House
Saturday, November 23 from 5 - 7 p.m.
327 Warren St.
Hudson, NY 12534
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“Love Where You Live” - Hammertown’s Mantra Is Now A Book, Too
By Dan Shaw
If grown-up life is really high school all over again and again, then the Rural Intelligence region finally has a yearbook thanks to Joan Osofsky of Hammertown: Love Where You Live: At Home in the Country, a coffee-table design tome published by Rizzoli that features 18 country houses in Berkshire, Columbia, Dutchess and Litchfield counties. You won’t find any manicured estates or McMansions in Love Where You Live, but you will probably see the houses of at least a few people you know from our neck of the woods including Bobby Houston & Eric Shamie of Alford, MA; Diane Love & Bob Frye of Millerton, NY; Rob Bristow & Pillar Proffitt of Lakeville, CT; Susan Orlean & John Gillespie of Gallatin, NY; Miles & Lillian Cahn, who founded Coach Leatherware and created Coach Farm in Pine Plains, NY, which is renowned for its exquisite goat cheese.
While many of the featured homes are furnished with upholstery, rugs, and lighting from one of the three Hammertown stores—in Great Barrington, Pine Plains and Rhinebeck—they are also full of items from beloved local resources with national reputations such as Michael Trapp Antiques and Ian Ingersoll Cabinetmakers in West Cornwall, CT; Copake Auction in Copake, NY; Hunter Bee in Millerton, NY; Pergola Home and Privet House of New Preston, CT; Rural Residence and Stair Galleries in Hudson, NY.
Osofsky and her collaborators—writer Abby Adans of Ancram, NY, and John Gruen of Lakeville, CT—understand and appreciate the nuances of rural living and they’ve assembled a book that celebrates and deconstructs modern country style. “What all of these homes have in common is their respect for the landscape,” observes Osofsky, a former school teacher and farmer’s wife, who’s been a retailer in our region for nearly 30 years. “Everybody decorates with an eye to the outdoors.”
Unlike standard contemporary design books that are chockablock with houses decorated soup-to-nuts by brand-name interior designers, the aptly titled Love Where You Live features houses that are clearly reflections of their owners sensibilities, and most are filled with with books, crafts and paintings by local artists. “They have a collected look,” says Osofsky. “They have been put together over time. When people come to Hammertown to shop, we never try to sell them everything they need because their homes will end up looking like a store! We encourage them to explore all of the other wonderful retailers and dealers in our area, too.”
Every savvy real-estate agent in our area should give this book to their potential clients so they will understand our region’s soul. The houses are not “aspirational” in the Architectural Digest or Elle Decor sense. You would never mistake them for houses in Greenwich or the Hamptons. But they are exactly what thoughtful, sensitive people aspire to: homes where dogs jump on the furniture, wood fires burn in the hearth, and guests are not required to remove their shoes before entering the living room.
The book’s inclusive spirit is a reflection of Osofsky’s commitment to giving back to the community. Its launch party at the Pine Plains store on Saturday, Sepetember 21, coincides with an annual fundraiser for the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation. The Rhinebeck store will have a book signing on Friday, September 20, and the Berkshires book signing on Sunday, September 29, will be at Chesterwood, the historic home Daniel Chester French, where Hammertown decorated the guest cottage last year. As much as the book has its roots in our region, the philosophy behind it has a universal message. “Everybody,” says Osofsky, “should love where they live.”
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All’s Welles That Ends Welles: A New Book From Chatham Film Festival’s Peter Biskind
By Sam Pratt
One afternoon in Los Angeles in 1983, Richard Burton cautiously approached Orson Welles’ usual table at Ma Maison, to ask if he could bring Liz Taylor over to meet him. Welles rudely shooed both away. Now, with the publication of Vanity Fair critic and Chatham Film Festival honcho Peter Biskind‘s newest book “My Lunches with Orson,” anyone can have a chance once denied even to Hollywood royalty: to sit on Welles’ left at Wolfgang Puck’s exclusive restaurant, where actor-director Henry Jaglom discreetly taped their weekly luncheons. Following swiftly on the heels of his January book, Down and Dirty Pictures, Biskind — a renowned film critic and Hollywood historian — has selected the choicest cuts from those meals during the last three years of Welles’ life. Rural Intelligence attended a recent book party held for Biskind in Spencertown at the home of his neighbors Ruth Reichl and Michael Singer, and later chatted with him about the genius behind Citizen Kane, and many other achievements, gifts, and letdowns.
SP: Orson Welles comes across here as the ultimate dinner party guest — full of juicy anecdotes, piercing insights, and score-settling jabs at his famous friends, from Kenneth Tynan to Greta Garbo. Are these stories he had told countless times before, or is he opening up to Jaglom?
PB: Welles felt quite relaxed with Jaglom, so his stories about people like Chaplin and Bogart arise naturally from the conversation. But that doesn’t preclude the fact that he probably told these stories a millon times. For Welles it wasn’t possible to be totally spontaneous. But here he’s much looser than in his ‘official’ interviews. For example, he feels relaxed enough to tell plenty of politically incorrect jokes — sexist, racist, homophobic jokes which are in pretty poor taste. Yet he does it in sort of a lovely way, so in spite of it all I wasn’t offended. Maybe if he had been telling anti-Semitic jokes I would have felt differently.
So a lot of the material in this book he may have said many times in private, but had never appeared before in print. I think that’s what he had in mind with Jaglom: Having the last words on himself.
SP: These conversations serve almost as a substitute autobiography for Welles, at a time in the ’80s when various competing biographies were buffeting or burnishing his reputation. To what extent can readers assume he is a reliable narrator? Or does it matter?
PB: Welles always made a point of mythologizing himself. But he is also very self-deprecating, and it is charming. If you were Orson Welles, it would be hard not to realize that you peaked with your first movie, and it’s been downhill ever since. That was especially hard for someone as smart as Welles. He always felt that he was the smartest guy in the room, and usually he was. But he hadn’t made a film in years.
He still had the breadth of experience and intelligence and story-telling skills, but he was deteriorating. He imagined a point when he wouldn’t even be able to physically make a film, even if he found the money. There also was a whole anti-Welles faction he wanted to combat, such as [New Yorker film critic] Pauline Kael, whose [since debunked] argument that [Herman] Mankiewicz co-wrote Citizen Kane really galled him.
SP: Welles is revealed here as remarkably erudite. He reads Montaigne, cites Heidegger, discuses Sartre, explains Austro-Hungarian cultural history, renders verdicts on Napoleon and LBJ. He seems omniverous in his interests and opinions, passing judgment on everyone from James Joyce to Joan Rivers.
PB: Welles’ conversation is like a cultural roller-coaster; he could speak intelligently on such a huge spectrum of subjects. It’s sort of breathtaking, even if you don’t agree with him. Jaglom would challenge him on something that seemed nutty, and he would always come back with a brilliant explanation. His opinions were so original, and he would never back down.
SP: Jaglom has his moments, but comes across as mostly a sounding board—like Wallace Shawn humoring André Gregory. Was he mainly trying to draw his friend out for posterity, or was it just that Welles dominated every conversation?
PB: That was just the nature of their relationship. Welles was a very dynamic figure, and a lot times he was talking about things Jaglom didn’t know anything about, such as his relationships with much older actors. At one point he gives an amazing explanation of the history of clowns, and how Chaplin’s genius was to meld two different traditions of clowning.
Welles was not just a sponge, regurgitating stories. He was a very reflective, thoughtful, original guy. Imagine if he had taken a different path — he could have had the career of Elia Kazan or John Huston, of whom he was jealous. There were so many roads he didn’t take. He talks about how he turned down directing Tennessee Williams. He even talks about running for Senator in California. Imagine him instead of Alan Cranston! In a way it was a shame he ever went to Hollywood .
SP: Welles talks wistfully about wanting “a Verdi ending,” a burst of productivity and genius late in life. But at other times he appears to work against himself, as in one disastrous pitch to an HBO producer which was recorded at Ma Maison. Did he fear actually securing funding for another project, due to the wildly high expectations any new Welles production would face?
PB: [Easy Rider producer] Bert Schneider said that Welles was just ‘frozen.’ He didn’t think Welles could make another movie. Schneider claims he offered to back Welles in the late ’60s or early ’70s, but Welles wouldn’t commit.
I got the feeling that he overthought everything. He always had an excuse for not going ahead. When a producer came to him with The Cradle Will Rock [about Welles’ theater company resisting pressure from the House Committee on Un-American Activities], he suddenly had reservations about “cannibalizing” himself in his first return to directing. Right off the bat, he hesitates, and reasons against himself.
The later years were a perfect storm of Welles being both his own worst enemy, and also really being in difficult circumstances. It wasn’t solely that he defeated himself.
SP: Welles keeps demanding perfection, at the same time that he’s very willing to experiment. At one point he spends a lot of time strategizing about how to trick some French backers into thinking he’d shoot in 35mm, when he really wanted to use a crude 16mm camera for some aesthetic reason.
PB: That’s part of what makes Welles seem so contemporary now. He was struggling to make another movie, so he would choose techniques and fundraising strategies that we now associate with today’s independent filmmakers. He would have liked to make more “essay films” like F For Fake. But it was too clever for his audience, too far ahead of his time.
SP: Welles’ conversation sometimes has this sublime-yet-ridiculous quality… He’s hyper-conscious of his accomplishments, and eager to demonstrate his continued command of all his artistic powers, at the same time that he’s totally besieged by banal problems: Tax collectors hound him; flaky directors dangle offers at him, then reneg; waiters bring the wrong dishes; his arm falls asleep under his ex-wife; toward the end, even his knee brace betrays him. Yet he’s still the great Orson Welles. Should readers read the book as pathos, or vindication, or both?
PB (pictured at right): All of the above. If I had to reach for an overarching metaphor, Welles reminds me of Gulliver’s Travels in Lilliputia. He’s a giant talent tied down by pettiness — incapacitated by tiny little people. It’s not a very flattering image, but to some degree it rings true.
SP: As a film critic, editor, and Hollywood historian, probably you were less surprised by his stories than most. But were there any parts that really floored you — took you by surprise?
PB: I didn’t quite realize the breadth of Welles’ political involvement. The book includes his comments about France during World War II, and his changed attitude toward Nazi collaborators. He decided that people like Maurice Chevalier weren’t as culpable as he had once felt. He came to see that sitting next to a Hollywood swimming pool was not the place for criticizing people’s choices of being killed or not killed. Then in other cases he can’t put politics aside, for example with On the Waterfront. [ED.’S NOTE: Director Elia Kazan provided names of alleged Communists during the McCarthy hearings in the ’50s, and Welles felt that Kazan used the film to justify that betrayal.]
SP: There’s a mixed current of pride, humor, and frustration running through the conversations. Welles sends up his own vanity one moment, then the next brags that “I do not have on my record a single clear-cut artistic failure.” Do you agree with his self-assessment?
PB: Outside of his one unalloyed work of genius [Kane], it’s kind of a mixed bag. I recently re-watched Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil, and both have problems. There’s brilliant stuff in them — Welles’ own performance in Touch of Evil is one of the greats, especially when he’s onscreen with Marlene Dietrich. But then there are the ridiculous performances by Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh. You start rooting for the leather-jacketed druggie delinquents to toss her in the river.
SP: Are you planning to show anything at the Chatham Film Festival this fall which you’d characterize as Wellesian? Will you do anything related to the book?
PB: I haven’t even begun choosing the films yet! I don’t start until the New York Film Festival makes its selections… Last year I had hopes for Cloud Atlas, but I didn’t think it worked very well.
Anyway, I don’t want to use the Festival to promote my own work. Maybe I’ll show Citizen Kane just for the hell of it, so people can see it on a big screen. The intelligence behind his films, and the technical things he accomplishes, are one of a kind. It’s a tour de force, technically, and acting-wise, and script-wise. There aren’t many people with his kind of boldness.
SP: I gather you’re working on another book already.
PB: I’ve finished the first chapter, a bit of cultural criticism called Adventures in Extreme Culture. I’m arguing that various movies and TV shows that once would have been marginalized are now mainstream. For example, Avatar. American soldiers are the villains, and the aliens are victims or heros. It turns the whole War of the Worlds paradigm inside out. That was the biggest grossing film of all time, which shows how far we are from 1954.
My Lunches With Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles
Edited by Peter Biskind (Metropolitan Books, 320 pages, 2013)
Read an excerpt of My Lunches With Orson here.
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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
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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.
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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.”
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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