Hoagland novel tells tales of human courage

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hoagland review-1Children are Diamonds, by Edward Hoagland.  Published by Arcade Publishing, New York, New York, 2013.  213 pages. $23.95.

Reviewed by Paul Lefebvre 

What to think of a 30-something-year-old schoolteacher who got fired from his job in New Hampshire, absconded from a sinking ship with his company’s money, and went on the lam into central Africa, where he became a jack-of-all-trades, bringing food and medicine into a ravaged war zone where boy soldiers cut the intestines out of their dead victims and wear them around their necks like a necklace?

Or a woman in her early fifties, a relief worker with Protestants Against Famine, manning an outpost in the bush overrun by refugees speaking many tribal tongues, where she mothers orphans, treats diseases, war wounds, and all the myriad health complications that go with malnutrition and starvation without cutting any slack for herself?

“You have to believe in heaven, and I don’t know if I do,” she says at one point.

Ruth and Hickey are the two riveting characters in Edward Hoagland’s admirable novel, Children are Diamonds.  Each is flawed in ways both morally and spiritually, and each bring to Africa a different kind of American than we are used to seeing, either in other works of fiction or in the history of Western imperialism or colonization.

When it comes to novels set in faraway places few can match what Hoagland achieves in a story that unflinchingly comes to grips with the courage it takes to be human in the face of a time when there is so little to gain.  That it’s a story set in what was once called the “Dark Continent” makes it all the more daunting.

The Africa that Hoagland sets his novel in is the Africa where war and hunger have become the norm of daily life.  It’s the Africa of Idi Amin, whose brutal rule of Uganda has been replaced by tribal warlords who run outfits like the Lord’s Resistance Army, which kidnaps children during village raids and turns them into soldiers by a gruesome ritual that forces them to eat the organs of their murdered parents.  It’s an Africa where the people have been uprooted and displaced, strafed by Russian MiGs in service to the same Arabs who hire blacks from Darfur to do their fighting in the bush.  And it’s an Africa where there are no second chances.

“In Africa, everything is an emergency,” Hoagland writes in the first line of the novel.  “Your radiator blows out and as you solder a repair job, Lango kids emerge from the bush, belonging to a village that you’ll never see, reachable by a path you hadn’t noticed.”

Although one is armed with a Kalashnikov, they are not depicted as threatening, only hungry.  Survival for a white man like Hickey depends on his ability to keep a balance between “friendliness and mystery.”

As a writer, Hoagland cut his teeth on essays and travel pieces, with a novel tossed in every now and then, like the fisherman who fishes in streams for brook trout and occasionally tries his hand spin-casting for bass in still waters, using what he has learned about fish and his own ability to catch them.  In Children are Diamonds, Hoagland combines the wisdom of a seasoned traveler with a novelist’s imagination in writing a book that takes us through a country few of us have seen, through emotions we have seldom if ever felt, and delivers us into a troubled land where unspeakable atrocities suddenly explode.

What better setting could there be for a rolling stone character like Hickey, who moves back and forth between guiding tourists and bedding airplane stewardesses to trucking food into relief camps, “pussyfooting slowly through Lord’s Resistance Army rebel territory in northern Uganda?”  Hickey may be a likeable survivor — the kind you might enjoy talking to over a beer in a bar — but he becomes endearingly heroic when he throws caution to the wind for a woman, a hard-nosed relief worker, who could be his older sister.

Courage is often what we think of when someone risks life and limb for some greater good or noble purpose.  Hoagland tell us that you don’t have to be a doctor to hand out aspirin or Kaopectate, and that it takes very little to be human or brave in the eyes of those looking for a shred of hope.

“The old stone-and-concrete ruins of a Catholic chapel that had been forgotten since the colonial powers had left could be reoccupied, if you chased the leopards and the cobras out and joy, I think, is, like photosynthesis for plants, an evidence of God,” he writes.

Against his belief that the laws of survival are poised to turn against him, Hickey goes into the bush where doom is about to descent on Ruth and her outpost.  A temporary truce in the fighting has ended.  Two white Norwegian doctors and a nurse already have been killed, and everyone who can flee — from aid workers to refugees — is fleeing, except Ruth.

She is the novel’s Mother Courage.  “She shouldn’t be stranded,” says an accomplice of Hickey, who may or may not be a CIA spook.  In one of their early encounters, Hickey watches her as she mixes powdered milk while a toddler clings to her — a malnourished toddler with a “head disproportionately large because skulls can’t shrink.”  Leo, named after a missionary priest, becomes her African diamond.

So into the fray Hickey goes.  The fact that he and Ruth are both white may or may not be a plus.  There is the spearman who warns the fleeing whites of mines in the road, but refuses to guide them.

“He’s telling you you people have the atom bomb so what do you need him for?” says one of the African assistants who, though loyal to Ruth, has no love for the West.

As the opposing armies close on one another, those in the know seek a solitary escape route as “they slid into the forest like fish wiggling into a reef.”  But for Hickey and Ruth there is no looking out for themselves first.  Their jeep is loaded with crippled passengers, and leading the way are the healthy children ready to warn any guerrillas waiting in ambush that the vehicle behind them contains white people who are “not to be casually shot.”

In the end there may be no possibility of escape for Ruth and Hickey who defined themselves by “where we were.”  And they are in Africa, where “everything is an emergency,” which is something each appears to desire and need.

Aside from being a novel about courage and morality, Children are Diamonds is a novel about landscape — a landscape of rivers and their feeder streams, of mountains and valleys that Hoagland renders with the deft touch of a cartographer and the imagination of an artist.  If you want to visit Africa close and up front and don’t have the wherewithal to get there, reading this novel may be your best option.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

For an interview with Mr. Hoagland, click here.

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Book review: A requiem for Rocky

review crossing webReviewed by Garret Keizer

Crossing Jack Brook:  Love and Death in the Woods, by Paul Lefebvre.  Published by Beck Pond Books.  169 pages.   Paperback.  $20.

Your odds of finding a four-leaf clover on your first try are roughly on a par with those of being injured by a toilet seat, about one in 10,000.  You have at least a seven times better chance of becoming President of the United States than winning at Powerball with your first ticket, though in the former case multiple variables come into play, such as whether and where you went to college and in which rest room, ladies’ or gents’, you’re entitled to test your luck with a toilet seat.

However you choose to place your bets, few factors reliably alter the odds of surviving the love of your life.  No matter where you live, how many minutes a day you exercise, or whether your beloved is a Methodist, a lesbian, or a canary, those odds are essentially the same.  One in two.

For that reason, books about grieving a dear companion’s death — Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and, closer to home, Edie Clark’s The Place He Made and Donald Hall’s Without — are among the most useful on the shelves.  That doesn’t mean they’re always the most readable or will all deserve to be called beautiful.  Chronicle reporter and columnist Paul Lefebvre’s Crossing Jack Brook is both.

It’s also three captivating stories for the price of one.  The most prominent is about the sickness and death of the artist Elin K. Paulson, Lefebvre’s long-time partner, which he tells without a trace of morbidity.  Nicknamed “Rocky” for her passion for collecting rocks, Paulson comes across as a fascinatingly complex character:  “a bohemian woman” who did not like to be called a hippie, a nature-lover who did not care to grow a garden, a pacifist who loved John Brown.  We can wonder about all of that, but we never wonder why Lefebvre loved Paulson.  After only a few pages, we’re pretty fond of her too.

In the symbolism of their love affair, Lefebvre fleshes out his second big story:  the initial clash and ultimate fusion of two tribes that occurred when the migratory counterculture of the 1960s met the indigenous counterculture of the Northeast Kingdom.  Lefebvre and Paulson come across as representative, if highly individualized, members of their respective tribes:

he an Island Pond native of French Canadian extraction with railway men and loggers in his family and roots in the Kingdom that go back as far as 1799; she the down-country daughter of a Catholic-Worker couple, artisans and homesteaders devoted to a movement that was talking about peace, love, and communal living before there were television sets and atom bombs.

Mixing these diverse elements, Lefebvre gives us a darker, more viscous narrative than that fancy-grade syrup that often gets poured over things “Vermont.”  He also introduces us to a motley cast of characters:  the Count and the Commissioner, “the girls of Lost Nation,” and the denizens of Mad Brook Farm, will-o’-the-wisp hermits and stoned entrepreneurs, gun-packing truckers and the activist priest Bob Castle, aka “Reverend Slick.”  At Lefebvre’s hunting camp we hear “anthems to those who have prepared liver and onions on a cookstove, brought bottles of whiskey to Thanksgiving Day dinner, and left the air charged with the pungent odor of Hoppes #9 oil from cleaning their guns at the kitchen table.”  Well, many of us have been to a hunting camp, but few of us could describe it like Lefebvre.

So we are not surprised that the third main story of Crossing Jack Brook is about becoming a writer, not only as a way of making a living but also as a way of fighting for one’s life.  The theme is clear from his first paragraph:

“When the woman I lived with became ill with cancer in 2005, I began writing about it in a column I had been writing for a weekly newspaper in northern Vermont.  When she died about nine months later, I continued to write about her because it was the only thing I could do.  I am not a religious man or a deeply spiritual one, but for years I have earned a living as a reporter and have come to rely on the power of words.”

Lefebvre’s columns about Paulson, their adventures together, and other features of their shared life in the Kingdom are interspersed throughout the book, dated and titled as they were when they debuted in the Chronicle.  Some readers might wish that Lefebvre had taken apart these pieces and reworked the material into one seamless whole.  I happen not to be one of them.  The juxtaposition of what Lefebvre wrote in his columns and what he writes in Crossing Jack Brook adds much to the texture — and pleasure — of his narrative.  In a book that is nothing if not a memoir, the technique works like memory itself, moving us backwards and forward in time.

We move easily because he keeps things clear.  Lefebvre is an unpretentious stylist, a straight shooter, never sentimental but unafraid of revealing his heart.  Like the best prose writers in what William Carlos Williams called “the American grain,” he knows about real stuff:  how to pitch a tent, fell a tree, build a deck.  He also knows the stuff of history:  You will learn about how ice used to be harvested on Island Pond and the etiquette of old logging camps.  You will even learn a thing or two about the Civil War.

And you will hear some funny stories.  Perhaps my favorite has to do with a chimney fire that erupts at the ramshackle house of one of the author’s drinking buddies just as they’re about to leave for a night at the bar.  “The fire will either burn out or the place will burn down,” his friend says.  “We’ll find out later.”  So off they go.

The result of Lefebvre’s use of lore and laughter is that we experience none of the claustrophobia that we’d expect from a book informed by a terminal illness.  (Nor, I’m relieved to say, is Lefebvre the type of eulogist who uses humor in an attempt to make mortality sound cute.)  Much of this expansiveness is achieved through the deft characterization of Paulson herself.  She is never less than a lively presence.  The writer Dorothy Parker’s famous retort to the news that Calvin Coolidge had died — “How can they tell?” — could never apply to Elin Paulson.

I never knew her, by the way, and except for reading some of Lefebvre’s columns and buying fresh fish from him in Newport many years ago (only lately did I realize that the wordsmith and the fishmonger were the same guy), I don’t know him either.  But his account of their life together reminds me of men and women I met when I first arrived in the Kingdom — too late, I’m afraid, and too conventional to know their world well, but impressed by it from a distance and, more lately, saddened by a sense of  its passing.  For Lefebvre that sense is even stronger.

“[H]ome for the past year was beginning to resemble more and more a place where my friends were dying.  More and more a place I feared I no longer knew.  The Kingdom I knew was shrinking.  Land on both sides of the road to my house had been posted against trespassing.  A chain had been strung and locked across the road to hunting camp.”  It’s much to the author’s credit that he is able to convey a profound sense of loss even as he restores our awareness of what hasn’t yet and needn’t ever be lost completely.

The artwork accompanying Lefebvre’s text lends a hand in this.  The striking cover image of  Elizabeth Nelson’s painting of a rutted Kingdom road in early spring opens onto a gallery of color photographs, some of Lefebvre’s and Paulson’s family and friends, many of her magical paintings and picture poems (reminiscent of Kenneth Patchen and Paul Klee), a closing shot of her decorated grave.  Stained glass by Paulson’s father, Carl, and portraits of her by the painter Peter Miles (along with a photo of Miles himself) make for a fitting artist’s memorial.  This is not a coffee table book by any stretch, but for a while after I’d finished reading it, I kept it close to where I drink my coffee, because I liked waking up with the pictures.

Needless to say (at least for anyone who knows Lefebvre or his previous writings), Crossing Jack Brook is not a how-to manual about surviving grief.  When I called it useful before, I didn’t mean that it aimed to be.  It aims to be true, nothing less or more, and we trust it because the truth it discovers is complicated.  At one point during his bereavement, the gregarious Lefebvre exhorts himself to greater self-reliance:

“Usually I go to town on Sunday mornings, get coffee and a doughnut, pick up a paper, and begin a round of visiting friends.  Some Sundays we take rides through the woods or to camp or sometimes we do nothing at all except sit around, drink beer and talk.  It is nearly always enjoyable and it fills in the time.  But this morning I pulled up short.  Look to yourself for a change, I said.  Stop running away.”

Yet, in looking to himself “for a change,” he also finds a deeper sense of human solidarity and purpose, including the courage to call wisdom by its rightful name.

“Thankfully, not all wisdom comes with great loss — who could endure it if it were so? — yet there is a wisdom that death demands as its own.  And while grief may fling us into loneliness, it seems equally true that it welds us to a common lot.  Time is short, I tell myself.  Honor the dead by the life you lead.”

In Lefebvre’s case, “the life you lead” includes the words you write.  In a column he wrote in 2007, and includes near the end of Crossing Jack Brook, he says, “For the first few months, I carried Rocky’s death with me at nearly every step.  Anything short of that raised the fear I might lose her.  Now nearly 18 months later, I know she will never be lost to me.  I know where she resides.”

Thanks to Lefebvre’s stirring tribute, she also resides a little in us, and the odds of our forgetting her are close to none.

Garret Keizer’s most recent book is Privacy (2012).

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Reviews pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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Book review: A showcase for Vermont food and farmers

vermont farm table cookbookReviewed by Tena Starr

The Vermont Farm Table Cookbook, 150 Home-Grown Recipes from the Green Mountain State, by Tracey Medeiros.  Photographs by Oliver Parini.  254 pages.  Paperback.  Published by the Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vermont.  $19.95.

This is a cookbook that was just waiting to be written.  Given Vermont’s attention to local food, diversified agriculture, and family farms, the only wonder is that someone didn’t write it earlier.

The Vermont Farm Table combines recipes with short profiles of the farms, breweries, farmers markets, and restaurants the recipes, and many of their ingredients, come from.  It’s also a picture book.  Lots of cookbooks include photographs of food that make your mouth water.  This one does, too, but in addition, it’s a Vermont Life-style photo show of forests, fields, gardens, and farmers.

Predictably, there’s a lot of “brand” ingredients involved here.  For instance, it’s likely possible to make a fine New York strip steak without WhistlePig whiskey, but if it doesn’t turn out to be quite the dish you’d envisioned, you can probably blame the cheap brand of whiskey you used instead of WhistlePig.

It’s about time to say here that I have theories about cookbooks, the main one being that the best cookbooks — the most worn ones on my shelves — tell you how to put together ingredients you’re likely to already have in tasty ways you haven’t thought of before.

To a large extent, this book does that.  The maple-glazed sweet potatoes with walnuts and cumin that we made Thursday night were terrific, easy to prepare and didn’t even require a trip to the store.  The recipe comes from Square Deal Farm in Walden, owned by Sarah Lyons and Ray Lewis, sugarmakers who also raise Pinzgauer cattle and pasture fed pigs.

There are lots of recipes in this book that are as simple and inexpensive:  for instance, asparagus and brown rice from Pomykala Farm; Full Moon Farm’s hearty toasted sandwiches with heirloom tomatoes; Kimball Brook Farm’s hefty corn chowder; Butterworks Farm’s maple cornbread; Longview Farm’s leg of lamb; or the amber ale-braised highland beef chuck roast from Shat Acres in Greensboro Bend.

But be prepared to shop as well as cook if you plan to use this book, which may be part of its purpose.

It also helps to be a gardener.  Some of the simplest recipes rely on ingredients you’ll find at a farmers market, or in your own garden, but probably not at Price Chopper.

For instance, there’s no way that Full Moon Farm’s hearty toasted sandwiches are going to be as tasty without Brandywine tomatoes, which you’re highly unlikely to find in a grocery store, given their relatively short shelf life, odd color, and lumpy shape.  Grocery stores, and the growers who supply them, long ago traded in flavor for longevity and appearance.

But I think it would be fair to assume that a major purpose of this particular cookbook is to introduce local ingredients, as well as their sources, the idea being to reconnect people to good food and where it comes from.

Author Tracey Medeiros is marketing Vermont and its farmers here, but also providing Vermonters themselves with information about where to find fresh, local meat, produce, cheese, fruit, and maple products — and what to do with them.

Not surprisingly, the weakest section of the book is that which deals with seafood, Vermont not being known for its fresh scallops and shrimp.  But the main reason I say that is because the recipes tend to come from restaurants rather than from farmers, and are thus more complicated.

Yes, I would love to make butter poached halibut with forbidden black rice, beet dashi, and fennel salad, but I have no idea where I’d get two fennel bulbs, stalks removed, bulbs trimmed, and a cup of dried shitake mushrooms, as well as two star anise pods.

That recipe comes from a Burlington restaurant, rather than a farmer — a restaurant that’s committed to fresh, local food, but the recipe does not suggest where the ingredients might be found.  Most cooks, outside of chefs, aren’t likely to traverse the state in order to locate what they need for dinner.

Some of the ingredients called for in this book include vanilla bean paste, root of celeriac, hulled hemp seed (isn’t that illegal?), arrowroot, fennel bulbs, and pomegranate molasses.

Like I said, you might have to shop in order to use this cookbook.

As a book about Vermont farmers, it succeeds admirably.  The brief profiles are of people who grow, raise, or prepare Vermont food in all its fresh diversity.  We all know that superior maple products, great apples, a variety of cheeses, and grass fed beef and free range poultry are grown here.  But cranberries?  Rabbit?  Flowers?

As a cookbook, for the most part, it approaches cooking with solid but creative ideas about how to use the wealth of local products that Vermont has to offer.  The Vermont Farm Table is better than many I own and seldom open unless I have a rare day to spend hours in the kitchen.

I can’t wait until the squash crop comes in and we get to prepare grilled coconut delicata squash, or roasted root crops, or winter squash with roasted garlic.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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A look at Vermont’s environmental movement

GrenningVTCoverGreening Vermont, The Search for a Sustainable State, by Elizabeth Courtney and Eric Zencey.  Paperback. 173 pages.  Published by Thistle Hill Publications, North Pomfret, Vermont, and the Vermont Natural Resources Council, Montpelier, Vermont.  $35.00

Reviewed by Tena Starr

A book whose main characters are, arguably, Act 250 and I91 might not strike a potential reader as having much promise in the way of being riveting, but Greening Vermont is actually a highly readable book with much insight into what makes Vermont be Vermont.  It’s the story of environmentalism in the Green Mountain State — its successes, its failures, its current goals, its conflicts, and its evolution in the face of shifting challenges.

It’s also, almost accidentally, a modern history of the state, evidence of just how thoroughly Vermont’s character has become entwined with, and often defined by, how its farms, forests and waterways are used and how its towns and cities look and function.

In order to understand environmentalism in Vermont, it’s necessary to go back 150 years to a boy named George Perkins Marsh, who grew up on a farm outside Woodstock and, through his father, began to grasp the relationship between man and nature.  Among other things, he learned about natural watersheds and soil erosion, about their effects as well as their causes.

So says Tom Slayton, former editor of Vermont Life magazine, and author of the forward to Greening Vermont.  Mr. Slayton says that Mr. Marsh went on to be the first to argue that human actions could seriously damage natural systems, and in 1864 he wrote Man and Nature, a tome that warned about the havoc humans could wreak on nature.

Jump ahead to 1958.  It was a chilly Saturday morning in November and a few hundred citizens and officials gathered near Guilford on the Vermont-Massachusetts border.  In the book, grainy black and white photos show a collection of people in overcoats, men in fedoras, waiting to cut the white ribbon stretched across the new, and at the time remarkable, highway.  It’s a scene from another era, in so many ways.

“They were there to mark an important moment in the state’s environmental history — though it’s doubtful that any of the participants would have described what they were doing in those terms,” Ms. Courtney and Mr. Zencey write.  “They had gathered to listen to speeches, witness a bit of ceremony, and then climb in their cars to take an inaugural drive on Vermont’s first stretch of Interstate highway.”

It took just minutes to travel that first small stretch of Interstate.  However, Ms. Courtney and Mr. Zencey suggest the new road was the catalyst that led to rapid change in Vermont, and the need for environmental regulations to protect what isolated Vermonters had come to treasure, if also take for granted.

“The opening of those first few miles of modern roadway signaled the opening, also, of an era of rapid and far-reaching change for the state of Vermont, which had been until then a lightly populated, rural mountain fastness,” the authors say.  “Many of the hallmarks of modern life — television, telephones, even electricity — were not yet fully present in the state.  The engines of twentieth-century progress had largely passed the state by.  It was too remote, its population too sparse, its towns and villages too small to draw much attention.  With the arrival of the Interstate that was about to change very quickly, for the world that held Vermont in a remote and distant corner had suddenly become much smaller.  As one state official put it years later, the highway ‘took us out of the sticks and put us within a day’s drive of eight million people.”

In 1960 Vermont’s population was 389,881 with nearly 77 percent born in the state.  There were 9,400 farms and 258,000 cows.  About 2,624,370 acres were being farmed.  That was the first year that people outnumbered cows in Vermont.

Twenty years later, by 1980, the population was 511,456, with 64 percent born in Vermont.  The number of farms had dropped by nearly half, to 5,890 with 1,537,751 acres in farming.  There were 186,000 cows.

When that first stretch of Interstate was built, “growth and expansion — the easily foreseeable result of the Interstate — were widely embraced,” Ms. Courtney and Mr. Zencey write.  “If change meant jobs, a path out of rural poverty, and lives like those whose images had begun to flicker in (some) Vermont homes through the wonder of television, then change was good.  What wasn’t so easily foreseen was how thoroughly those changes would shape the state, testing its ability to preserve its landscape, its communities, and its character.”

Not everyone welcomed change then, as not everyone does today.  Former Associated Press reporter Chris Graff has told the story of an Ascutney farmer who refused to leave his land to make way for the Interstate.

“Eventually a sheriff arrived with a court order and a cohort of deputies, who set to work dispossessing the old man from the family farm,” Ms. Courtney and Mr. Zencey write, recounting the story.  “They moved tools and harnesses from the outbuildings, working until sunset, intending to return the next morning to finish.  They never got the chance.  That night Tenney’s house and buildings burned to the ground, with him inside.”

Romaine Tenney had said, “I was born here and I’ll die here.”  He was a man of his word.

And then came skiing.

With the introduction of rope tows and lifts in the 1930s, skiing was no longer limited to the hardiest of mountain climbers.  Once skiers had a ride uphill, the sport’s popularity was immense, and the owners of ski areas ceased to be content with what existed.  They used heavy equipment and dynamite to create new trails and reshape mountain slopes to make them more attractive to devotees of this newly mainstream sport.

Opponents of industrial wind on Vermont’s ridgelines will relate to this scenario.  Blasting mountaintops is not so much new as a revisitation of what happened 60 years ago on an even larger scale.   Then, as now, there was debate — roughly framed in the terms of conservationist versus preservationist.

It’s a conversation that would be familiar to anyone who has participated — either pro or con — in the controversy over commercial wind power.  At the time, as today, the mountaintop debate split environmentalists, with conservationists operating under the belief that using resources for the greatest good for the greatest number over the greatest period of time was the wisest use.  That view was at odds with “preservationism,” which held that nature should simply be left to its own devices for all to enjoy.

Ski areas created jobs but also pulled in a flood of newcomers, increasing property values, advanced commercialism, and burdened municipal services.  And at the time, there was no means to deal with the influx, with the billboards, the development, the seasonal homeowners — and the cultural, as well as environmental, changes that resulted.  Vermont went from a “handshake” culture to one that was forced to rely more on law and formally structured exchanges, the book asserts.

“The social cost of that change is difficult to calculate, but a direct measure of its scale can be made in dollars,” the authors write.  “In the late 1940s, skiers spent about five million annually in the state.  By the early 1960s, that figure had risen to well over thirty million, a sixfold increase in a decade and a half.”

Thomas Watson Jr., an avid skier himself, decided in 1957 to locate IBM in Chittenden County to be near his beloved ski areas.  IBM remains the state’s biggest employer.

Vermont’s organized environmental movement was likely established at Goddard College in Plainfield in 1963 where a two-day conference called Natural Resources in Transition was held and the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) was formed, an all volunteer organization at the time with the goal of shaping public policy through education and “to promote wise use and preservation of natural resources to the benefit of Vermont citizens….”

It was not VNRC, however, that waged war against Vermont’s billboards.  It was a character named Ted Riehle.  This book is populated by many characters Vermonters will admire for their courage, their quirkiness, their bullheadedness, or their idealism.

Mr. Riehle is one of them.  “A lifelong Republican, a fan of both Barry Goldwater and the Grateful Dead, he was a well-connected politico who much preferred the solitude he got as the owner-operator-designer of an off-the-grid sheep farm on an island in Lake Champlain,” the book says.  His son called him “Jimmy Stewart meets John Wayne.”

In 1968, Mr. Riehle somehow convinced his fellow Republicans to support a total ban on roadside commercial advertising.  He also managed to persuade business owners that the ban would be in their long-term best interests — that individual self-interest would bring about loss for all.

That ban is one of Vermont’s hallmarks, as is Act 250, the environmental law that set out to regulate how the state would be developed — not haphazardly, not simply for short-term profit, but with a vision in mind of what Vermont would like to be and look like.

Act 250 has been a heavy lifter toward that end, but nearly 40 years later, even it remains subject to criticism and steady calls for alteration.

It’s 2013 now, and many battles have been fought, Vermont has, for the most part, resisted rampant sprawl.  But challenges continue, in many forms.

“Vermont is not now a sustainable state, but in the effort to achieve that goal, it has a head start,” the authors of this book write.  “How this came to be is the story we have aimed to tell in this book.”

It’s a story they’ve told well, a bit idealistically perhaps, but it’s one that acknowledges many factions in the great and ongoing debate about what Vermont is and will be.

“And what exactly is a sustainable state?” the authors write.  “As with any longed-for object, distance and anticipation shape our expectation, making the destination seem a completely marvelous place.  We’ll recognize the sustainable state as a place where economic and environmental interests are identical, because we’ve shaped the economy to the limits that the planet gives to us and learned our hard lessons about what is and isn’t possible.”

The old challenges are not conquered, and new ones have arisen — climate change, for instance, and commercial wind.  There is no final solution, only a continuing and ever shifting challenge.

This book tells the story of how we got to where we are today, where we’d like to be tomorrow, and offers a bit of advice on how to get there.  Along the way, it recounts conversations with some of the people who have been instrumental in many of those endeavors, tells a remarkable history, and provides some vision for the future.

Elizabeth Courtney served on Vermont’s Environmental Board for a decade, and she was executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council for 14 years.  She was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University and is now an environmental consultant.

Eric Zencey is a Fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont and has held fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller-Bellagio Foundations.  He writes regularly for the Daly News, a publication of the Center for the Advancement of the steady State Economy.  He is the author of three previous books.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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Tea Leaves explores the mother-daughter relationship

tea leavesby Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 5-15-2013

Tea Leaves; a memoir of mothers and daughters, by Janet Mason, published by Bella Books, Tallahassee, Florida, 2012, paperback, 202 pages, $15.95.

I celebrated Mother’s Day pretty quietly this year.  My own mother died a little more than a year ago, so it was a time to think of her, which I always do anyway.  My thoughtful adult son came to see me with a basket of flowers.  My thoughtful boyfriend took me out and gave me flowers.  I had spent the week before with my thoughtful adult daughter in California seeing some great new music, some killer whales, and trying — completely unsuccessfully — not to freak out over traffic in Los Angeles.

To pass the time while waiting for airplanes on my way out and back, I brought with me a small paperback I thought might be good to read at this time.  It came to me last fall, when the author gave a talk at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick.  Since the death of my own mom was so recent, I had to set this book aside.  A book about a daughter my age taking care of her dying mother was a bit too much for me right then.

Yet, I was intrigued by the parts I’d read.  And I was glad to have it with me on this trip some months later.  Now I’m glad to recommend it as the kind of book that makes you think about your own life.  What’s right with your relationships with your mother and your daughter?  What’s wrong and why?  What doesn’t really matter?  Sometimes reading other people’s experiences puts your own into perspective.

Janet Mason is a talented and honest writer.  Her relationship with her own mother was not perfect, which of course is what makes the book interesting.  More interesting is the fact she is willing to explore the imperfections without dwelling on them and becoming one of those victim writers whose memoirs I can never quite stand to read.

Life is hard.  Being a mother is hard.  Nobody’s really ready for it when she gets the job, no matter how much you might have read or planned.  It’s just not like anything else, and you can’t really prepare.

But somehow the species keeps managing to perpetuate.  Somehow some of us seem willing to take that plunge and become parents.  We do our best, whatever that is.

Ms. Mason was an only child.  Her grandmother and mother were factory workers.  She was the first generation to go to college, and that in itself puts a certain amount of pressure on.  The politics are not the same through the generations, and neither is the sexual orientation.  Ms. Mason is a lesbian, and while that might have put a strain on some mother-daughter relationships it wasn’t a big issue for her mom, who was open-minded in this respect.  The family supports and loves Ms. Mason’s partner, their “unexpected daughter-in-law.”

Ms. Mason’s mother was, herself, a bit of a rabble-rouser and one to question authority or the status quo in general:

When I was old enough, she sometimes took me with her, the two of us marching and attending rallies, waving our matching mother/daughter coat hangers at pro-choice events.  I was the less adventurous one — hanging back and watching with something bordering on amazement as my mother heckled the hecklers and squeezed the balloon testicles of a Ronald Reagan cardboard cutout.

Ms. Mason’s grandmother was a lifelong Republican and Episcopalian, yet she, in her own way, questioned the status quo by getting a divorce in the 1920s and raising her children herself in a time when many other single mothers were forced to give theirs up.

Ms. Mason’s mother developed cancer, which was misdiagnosed at first.  By the time she found out what it was, the disease had spread too far and the diagnosis was terminal.  From then on Ms. Mason spends much of her time with her mother and father.

At first it’s hard for Ms. Mason to understand and accept that her mother is dying:

The next day we had an appointment to see the oncologist whose office complex was next to a shopping mall.  As I sat in the backseat of my parents’ car, I felt lost in long loops, off-and-on-ramps that seemed to go nowhere.  I was subsumed in a hard glittering sense of doom — deep in a nightmare that would not let me wake.

A theme of the book is a mother’s hopes for her daughter — hopes that she will do better, or accomplish more, or accomplish something the mother was not able to do.  Ms. Mason’s mother had very strong feelings about this, and sometimes Ms. Mason feels she has not lived up to her mother’s dreams for her.  Meanwhile Ms. Mason’s mother was a woman of artistic talent and interest, but who needed to work at a basic job to support her family.  Ms. Mason finds a portfolio stashed away with no artwork in it, which leads to feelings of guilt — did she get in the way of what could have been her mother’s success as an artist?

She finds something else to hold on to in these final months — and for long after her mother is gone.  It’s a “School Years” book with report cards and pictures from each grade:

She always asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I wrote it down each year.  It didn’t matter how ridiculous or remote the possibility was.  In first grade I wanted to be a fireman, later a violinist, a gypsy, a scientist, a comedienne, an oceanographer, a guitar player in a jazz band.

My mother let my dreams be dreams.  She did not expect consistency or demand a discipline that would eclipse my childhood.  No one ever asked my mother what she wanted to be when she grew up.  But she asked me every year and wrote down my answers.  As I watched my mother slipping away from me — as painful as it was, day after day — the thought of this book, filled with my earliest dreams and aspirations, was something for me to hold onto.

A simple thing that meant so much.  Tea Leaves is a simple book with a lot to offer.  It’s about figuring out your future, your past and your present.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com.

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The Sandcastle Girls is a tale of love and genocide

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Reviewed by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 4-3-2013

sandcastle girls

Covert art for The Sandcastle Girls is by Debra Lill.

The Sandcastle Girls, by Chris Bohjalian, published in the United States by Doubleday, 2012, hardcover, 293 pages, $25.95.

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian is a beautiful story of love and war and genocide.

First published last year, the book is about to come out in paperback just as Armenians will mark the ninety-eighth anniversary of April 24, Genocide Memorial Day.  On that date 98 years ago, Armenian intellectuals, community leaders, and the editors and staff of the leading Armenian newspaper were rounded up, arrested and imprisoned — to be killed a few months later.

My own awareness of the systematic killing of 1.5-million Armenians at the hands of the Turkish army came about not from history classes in high school or college, but from an annual letter to the editor the Chronicle used to receive this time of year.  Written by Tom Azarian, who used to live in Calais, the letter was sent to recognize the horrors of these events.  We always published it.

The Sandcastle Girls is called Mr. Bohjalian’s most personal novel because his own heritage is Armenian.  This is his fourteenth novel, and his name is often found on the New York Times bestseller list.  He lives in Vermont and writes a column for the Burlington Free Press called Idyll Banter that is often funny and always interesting.

His novels are usually gripping, with strong characters and plots and often a mystery or surprising twist.

The Sandcastle Girls definitely fits that description.

In the book’s prologue, an ordinary working suburban New York woman, a writer named Laura Petrosian, recalls her childhood visits with her grandparents, who had exotic hookah pipes and liked to eat lamb and Cocoa Puffs.

As was so common for that generation, sadness of the past was never discussed.  Their life seems to be a happy one.  The children sing; the protagonist’s grandmother even belly dances:

Regardless, the belly dancing — as well as my grandfather’s affection for his chubby grandchildren — does suggest that their house existed beneath a canopy of playfulness and good cheer.  Sometimes it did.  But equally often there was an aura of sadness, secrets, and wistfulness.  Even as a child I detected the subterranean currents of loss when I would visit.

From there, the book travels in time back to the grandmother’s mission to Aleppo, Syria, where skeletal Armenians had been marched through the desert and were being kept until they died on their own, or taken away.

She meets the handsome young soldier, Armen.

In the middle of the horrors of this war, there are good people, people who want to help the victims and those who want to get the word out about what is being done.

Photos are taken.  Miraculously, some glass plates — images of the horrors of the genocide — are not destroyed.  Huge risks allow these images to be kept and to get out for the world to see.

One of these images becomes a key for Laura Petrosian so many years later as she tries to decipher her family’s history.  She finds it and some of her grandmother’s letters in a museum exhibit.

The Sandcastle Girls is not an easy or comfortable book to read.  When Laura’s grandmother, Elizabeth Endicott, first arrives in Aleppo as a young missionary to help Armenian refugees, she is not prepared for what she will see:

Approaching from down the street is a staggering column of old women, and she is surprised to observe they are African.  She stares, transfixed.  She thinks of the paintings and drawing she has seen of American slave markets in the south from the 1840s and 1850s, though weren’t those women and men always clothed — if only in rags?  These women are completely naked, bare from their feet to the long drapes of matted black hair.  And it is the hair, long and straight though filthy and impossibly tangled, that causes her to understand that these women are white — at least they were once — and they are, in fact, not old at all.  Many might be her age or even a little younger.  All are beyond modesty, beyond caring.  Their skin has been seared black by the sun or stained by the soil in which they have slept or, in some cases, by great yawning scabs and wounds that are open and festering and, even at this distance, malodorous.  The women look like dying wild animals as they lurch forward, some holding on to the walls of the stone houses to remain erect.  She has never in her life seen people so thin and wonders how in the name of God their bony legs can support them.  Their breasts are lost to their ribs.  The bones of their hips protrude like baskets.

“Elizabeth, you don’t need to watch,” her father is saying, but she does.  She does.

How do we learn about our ancestors’ past?  We might ask our grandparents, read their letters, read history books, or pick up a novel.  While the characters and plot examples of a novel might not be “true” in the surface sense of the word, it could still provide the truest account of what that time and place felt like.

With The Sandcastle Girls, Chris Bohjalian has written a haunting, gorgeous, story — as true as it can be.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Reviews pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

 

 

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Guzman experiences homelessness to highlight the issue

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copyright the Chronicle 3-27-2013

Luis Guzman introduces his movie about homelessness, The Nimby Project.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Luis Guzman introduces his movie about homelessness, The Nimby Project. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar

JAY — When Luis Guzman was growing up in the Lower East Side of New York City, his mother always made too much supper for the family.

Every night, she packed up the leftovers and gave them to her son to take under the bridge to homeless people.

“That’s how my mom raised me,” he told people who came out to see his new movie at the Foeger Ballroom at Jay Peak Friday night.

Called The Nimby Project, it’s a documentary showing Mr. Guzman’s three days living in disguise as a homeless person in the city where he grew up and worked as a social worker before going into acting.

The idea for the film was born one evening in the city, when Mr. Guzman — who lives part of the time in Sutton — was hanging out with an old friend who grew up here, Tim Kavanagh.  The two came up with the idea, and as Mr. Kavanagh put it, “It just flowered from there.”

The movie was made by Pick it up! Pictures.  Jacquelyn Aluotto is the producer and director and chief executive officer of the company, whose mission is to address homelessness, domestic violence, and associated social issues through film.

Ms. Aluotto’s touch has made The Nimby Project more than a straight documentary.  The film is informative, but it’s also quite beautiful — it shifts from color to black and white, shows grainy dark images at times and intricate details at other times.  Blues guitar music is in the background.

Statistics and quotes are shown in between scenes of Mr. Guzman’s efforts to find a place to sleep, some food, and to get people walking by to notice his cardboard signs.  “Love is your Legacy” says one.

Mr. Guzman discussed the project before the premiere showing Friday, answered all questions afterwards, and hung out to just chat with the people who came out.  Proceeds from the premiere event went to Northeast Kingdom Youth Services, which helps youth in transition.  Last year the service helped 34 homeless youth, said Marion Stuart, the executive director.

Lexie Shaw, a teen Miss America contest winner from Chittenden County, read a poem she wrote about homelessness.

The Nimby Project film will be a headliner at the Soho International Film Festival in New York on April 6.

Mr. Guzman said that once he had decided to go homeless for a couple of days, he began to think about how to prepare for that experience.  First of all, his producers talked him into making it three days instead of two.  He would wear a microphone, and there would be security within view but not immediately close to him.

He thought to himself, maybe I should eat less, sleep less, stop shaving, keep socks on for a week, sleep on the floor.

He finally ended up deciding it wasn’t something he could really prepare for.  “I just kind of dove into it.”

He got some hair and makeup work done so people would not recognize him.  He wore a wool cap and thick glasses, a ripped shirt, and he carried a backpack.  He said he got into an argument with his producers, who wanted him to engage with the actual homeless people and get their stories.  Instead, he wanted to just experience it himself.  Also, he said, a lot of homeless people are extremely territorial.

“You just can’t go into their space,” he said.

One of his first stops was a food pantry, where he was given a bag of food, including raw broccoli and other vegetables.

“Eggplant I would not recommend eating raw,” he said.  But the broccoli was good to have.

After that, he headed out onto the streets.  Very quickly, he began to realize that people do not look at a homeless person or acknowledge his or her existence, for the most part.

“You’re a nobody.  Dogs notice me more than people,” he said.

Out of 1,000 people who walked by, one or two would say hello, and a couple of people handed him some money, although he did not ask for it.

The first night he had to find a place to try to sleep.  He found some shelter in a nook near a bus stop, but real sleep was not possible.  Even though he knew he had security around, the city noises and the hard ground kept him awake.

The second and third days of his adventure, sleep deprivation was a big factor.

“What you end up with basically is a broken kind of sleep,” he said.  On one of the nights, he slept in a church,

“Today feels like a very weird day,” he said into the microphone on the second day.  “It’s like I just don’t even exist today.”

Walking by the United Nations, he considered going inside and making a statement:  “I am a citizen of the world, and I would like to address the assembly.”

He decided against it.

“I often think of what kind of world we’re leaving our children, and it sucks right now,” he said into the microphone.

One the second or third day, he made a cardboard sign that said, “I See you.  See me?”

He sat on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum and finally, what he was waiting for:  a woman came up to him and said, “I see you.”

After the film he said that was the highlight of his three-day experience.  The worst part — a bad hot dog given to him by a street vendor when he didn’t have quite enough money to pay for one.  The hot dog was not cooked or went bad somehow, and it made him sick.

Mr. Guzman said he walked about 30 miles in three days because, for the most part, he just felt like the best thing to do was to keep moving.

One man said he looked familiar, and another actually recognized him.  A young man came up to him and said, “You look like Luis Guzman.”  Mr. Guzman told the young man he WAS Luis Guzman and they were working on a documentary about homelessness.

After the film, Mr. Guzman was asked why he told the man the truth.  He said he decided he wanted to be honest, and by then he had been out on the streets ignored for a long enough time that it felt really good to be recognized.

“I needed to acknowledge the fact that somebody recognized me,” he said.

Mr. Guzman said he learned a lot from the experience, and he hopes it will help draw attention to the problem.  He met people who were homeless even though they had nine-to-five jobs.

“Not every homeless person is a nut job,” he said, asking those in the audience to consider how easy it would be to become homeless.  For some, it’s a matter of losing a job, a spouse, or a parent.

Mr. Guzman said making this movie was “the most amazing thing outside of being a dad that I’ve ever done.”

In his mother’s tradition, Mr. Guzman takes his four adopted children and one birth child to volunteer at soup kitchens on Thanksgiving Day.

He said he knows that people can’t give every homeless person they walk by a dollar, but sometimes a simple acknowledgement of their existence could be a bright spot in that person’s day.  If you don’t have money, you can volunteer or bring clean, folded clothing you don’t need to a homeless shelter.

Mr. Guzman has appeared in more than 60 movies, including Crocodile Dundee 2, Carlito’s Way, Traffic, Anger Management, Fast Food Nation, and Disappearances based on Howard Mosher’s book.  He’s also been in advertisements for “naturally aged cheddar hunks” for Cabot Creamery.

He told the audience at Jay that he’s been in Vermont for 20 years so he is no longer a flatlander.  The Northeast Kingdom is a “beautiful, wonderful place for children to grow up,” he said.

“When I first moved to Vermont, everybody thought I was crazy ’cause I was a New York City boy.”

But he loved it here, especially after learning how to build a fire and some things about predicting the weather.  He said he tried and tried to build a fire and when he finally could do it, he was so excited.

“I was down to my last match that day,” he said.

He came to Vermont first to Goddard College and decided he really liked the people, who he said are cool and laid back.

He said he learned that when the cows lie down or the tree branches’ bottoms show, it’s going to rain.  He told his city friends, who laughed at him until they found out he was right.

Some statistics from The Nimby Project:

Three million Americans are homeless.  One thousand soup kitchens turn away 2,500 people every day.  One million, four hundred thousand people in New York City rely on foodshelves.  The average age of death for a homeless person is 47 for men, 43 for women.  Every 53 minutes a child dies from poverty.

Also from the movie, a quote from Mother Theresa:

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”

Mr. Guzman said he was humbled by his three-day homeless experience, and grateful for his own real life and his family.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

 

 

 

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Book review: A practitioner looks at puppet theater

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bell bookAmerican Puppet Modernism: Essays on the Material World in Performance, by John Bell.  Published by Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2013; 280 pages, softbound, $28.00.

Reviewed by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle 1-29-2013

When most people think of puppets the image of Jim Henson’s Muppets probably springs to mind, followed, if they live in northern Vermont, by the creations of Bread and Puppet Theater’s Peter Schumann.

Puppeteer and scholar John Bell wouldn’t disagree with those thoughts, but in American Puppet Modernism, first published in 2008 but just reissued in a softbound edition, he argues for a much broader view of the field.  For Mr. Bell, puppets are a particular example of “object performance,” and his fascinating collection of essays examines the implications of the theater of things.

Object performance, Mr. Bell explains, encompasses all manner of familiar and unfamiliar theater, from masked performances to the balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and beyond.

The book starts with a description of a traveling show in the late nineteenth century that, by means of illuminated paintings and a spoken narrative, told the story of a conflict between native Americans and European settlers in Minnesota.  As one might expect, the story reflects the view of the settlers, depicting Indians as savages.

That view is slightly modified when early ethnographers visit the Zuni Indians in the southwest several years later.  There two observers record religious rites involving giant Shaklo figures, tall rod puppets who mediate between the human and spirit worlds.

Mr. Bell shows how the views of the two observers are to varied degrees clouded by the assumption that the Zuni people are barbarians, midway on the journey from being savages to being completely civilized.

Literary critic Edmund Wilson, seeing the same ceremonies a few decades after the ethnographers, though, is able to see the force of the puppets’ performance and its position as the glue that holds Zuni society together.

Mr. Bell argues that American society is bound together in a similar, if less pure, fashion by performing objects.  The puppets that performed on a stage modeled after a giant medicine cabinet at the 1939 World’s Fair were there to tout the advantages of modern pharmaceuticals, and similar performances sought to persuade consumers that the world of the future would be one dominated by automobiles.

That future has come to be, and Mr. Bell takes a close look at how people use automobiles as performing objects.  His chapter about hot rod culture casts a new light on the idea of performance cars, by showing how customizing an automobile to increase its speed and to give it a distinctive appearance makes the vehicle a player in the driver’s self-presentation.

In addition to exploring the byways of object theater, Mr. Bell gives a straightforward history of how puppets became a prominent feature of modern theater.  From its introduction as part of the Little Theater movement in the Midwest, and eventually around the country, he traces outbreaks of puppetry in opera, theater and, eventually television.

In Europe, puppetry was seen as a less than respectable form of theater, Mr. Bell says.  Puppeteers were able to satirize rulers and other important figures, often escaping punishment by insisting that it was the puppet, not the person, doing the mocking.  That idea of object theater being a somewhat lower-status form was one that was carried over in puppetry’s journey to the United States.

The very word puppeteer was invented around 1917 by theater pioneer Ellen van Volkenberg.  The term was modeled on the word muleteer, a very appropriate choice considering that puppets can be notoriously recalcitrant.

Although the Little Theater movement died out, a number of the puppeteers who got started in its productions went on to become major forces in theater and the commercial world.

The inflatable balloons in the early Macy’s parades were created by puppeteers who were always willing to investigate new materials for their creations.  (One of the wonderful facts Mr. Bell drops into his story is that in the first years of the Macy parades, the puppets were released as part of the festivities, to the consternation of airplane pilots.)

Mr. Bell includes in his survey of object theater the cinematic puppetry that brought King Kong to life.  Film, he argues, is analogous to shadow puppetry as practiced by Indonesian and Chinese artists.  The technology of computer graphics and motion capture technology that is essential to the effects that animate films today is a further extension of puppetry, Mr. Bell argues.

He gives a list of the biggest moneymakers in film history, all of which include computer generated creatures.  His book was written before the film Avatar broke box office records, but it would have taken his point further in that the human hero could himself be seen as a puppeteer, bringing an alien character to life in order to fit into a nonhuman civilization.

As a former member of the Bread and Puppet Theater, Mr. Bell speaks of Peter Schumann’s work with insight and sympathy.  Oddly enough, he chooses as an example a show in which I performed in 1995.  Mr. Bell’s clear description was particularly interesting to me because, working behind large pieces of cardboard throughout the evening, I never could see even an approximation of what the audience witnessed.

Mr. Bell contrasts Mr. Schumann and Jim Henson, who once shared studio space in New York City.  Mr. Schumann has sought freedom for his artistic and political vision by pursuing the least expensive means to create a spectacle.

Mr. Henson, whose vision of the world Mr. Bell suggests was sunnier than that of Mr. Schumann, was willing to accommodate himself to a commercial system in order to get his message across.

In his book Mr. Bell makes clear how this dichotomy has inhabited object theater over the past century or so, and how the practitioners of the art of puppetry have tried to overcome the physical and societal limitations to pursue their vision.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Reviews pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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An unlikely team solves another mystery

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The Organist Who Wore Gloves

The Organist Who Wore Gloves, by Elaine Magalis.  Paperback. 289 pages.  $13.95.

Reviewed by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle 12-5-2012

Alex is 12, soon-to-be-13, an interesting age if there is one.  Tasha Mulholland, his unlikely best friend, is of grandmother age.  Together, they fancy themselves sleuths, and they happen to be rather good at it with the use of Google, common sense, and observation, not to mention intuition and their mutual perceptiveness.

In The Organist Who Wore Gloves, the pair sets out to solve interlocked mysteries.  Who is playing the antique reed organ in the middle of the night in the Old Shrubsbury School Museum?  Who is the stranger who turned up dead in the museum’s pond?  Who shot him and why?  And what is the answer to — and significance of — the musical riddle that is perplexing Tasha Mulholland and Alex, and reminding Ms. Mulholland of events she might have preferred to keep stored in the recesses of memory?

This is the second in Elaine Magalis’ series of whodunits based in Orleans County and, loosely, at the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington.  The West Glover author’s first novel featuring Alex and Tasha was called The Body in the Butter Churn, another murder mystery.

The Organist Who Wore Gloves serves up an interesting and complex collection of characters, but also a collection of bad behaviors that may not be entirely appropriate for younger readers.  They include embezzlement and adultery, an odd ménage a trois, in fact, that successfully muddies any idea the reader may have about the culprit.

But let me not give too much away.

Ms. Magalis’ mysteries remind me of a game of Clue.  The cast of characters is all there, and every one of them is a reasonable suspect with a plausible motive to commit the crime.

However, the murderers in these mysteries are not the most obvious suspects.  And The Organist Who Wore Gloves has a couple of pleasant surprises for its readers, although maybe not for Tasha Mulholland.   The book has twists towards its end, ones that take its characters — as well as readers — aback.

There are a few legal matters Ms. Magalis might want to check up on for the sake of plausibility.  For instance, contrary to common belief, a person might well end up with criminal charges whether the victim wishes them pressed or not.  In Vermont, the state presses charges, not the victim, so it is not always possible to keep a “family matter” within the family and outside the law, as this book suggests.

But that is not the sort of thing that would trouble most readers.

An interesting aside is the use of music in this story to illustrate part of the mystery.  Classical and jazz unite to offer clues about the midnight musician and the riddle someone has left to be solved.  It’s a nice touch, as are the sections of the book that deal with the history and function of organs and the magnificence a good organ can lend to a piece of music.

The book touches on the supernatural.  (Are we talking about a real man or a ghost?)  It also explores the changing, hormone-ridden body and emotions of an adolescent boy, as well as his relationship with Ms. Mulholland, who is grandmother surrogate, fellow risk-taker, and true friend.

The Organist Who Wore Gloves is available through Amazon and at local bookstores.

Contact Tena Starr at tena@bartonchronicle.com

 

 

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Second book in mystery series does not disappoint

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Art for the cover of this book was done by Stephanie Coolidge Perkins.

The Mystery of the Brick Kingdom, by Raymond C. Perkins Jr. of Derby Line, self-published, 140 pages, $4.99 for an e-book or $7.95 for a hard copy.  Half of the proceeds will be donated to the American Association for Cancer Research.

Reviewed by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 11-14-2012

The Mystery of the Brick Kingdom is the second in a series of mysteries starring two young boys with a knack for investigating.

This one is set so close to home I can look out the window of the Chronicle office and see the setting.  The Brick Kingdom is a small historical park where people can take a short path through the woods to see the ruins of Barton’s booming industrial past, which was mostly run by water wheels spun by the water coming from Crystal Lake.

At the top of the hill sits E. M. Brown and Son, where people can buy lumber, paint, grain for their animals, clothing and hardware.  The huge old seven-story landmark building plays a big role in the newest mystery written by Mr. Perkins.

Some of the names have been changed here, slightly, to protect the innocent, we must assume.  But the changes are so slight that anyone who lives in the area will understand that the town of Burton is definitely based on the town of Barton.

Other names are completely intact, including Vermont Beef Jerky which is a company started by other Perkins family members.

The second book in the series will not disappoint fans of the first one, called The Mystery of the Silver Statue.

The Mystery of the Brick Kingdom is lively, with a good plot, and fun to read.  It’s full of suspense and action, chutes and ropes and intrigue.  The characters are solid young people, not at all one-dimensional.  They are drawn from Mr. Perkins’ experience as a father and a teacher.

B.T. is short for Benjamin Thomas Stevens.  Jimmy is his best friend, Jimmy Martin.

After their success finding a long-lost silver statue in the last case, the two have become local heroes and opened an office for their budding security business, checking on summer properties when homeowners are gone.  As the second book opens, the pair, just graduated from middle school, are equipped with a microscope, finger printing kit, pre-paid cell phones and information gleaned from an online investigator’s course.

The two are opposites physically.  Jimmy is tall and athletic.  B.T. is small and has health problems, some of them stemming from a cancerous brain tumor removed surgically when he was only five years old.

Armed with cans of wasp spray and tae kwon do skills achieved at Dunlavey’s Black Belt Academy, the two decide to meet someone who has written them an anonymous note — the person wants to meet them in the Brick Kingdom at midnight.

Without giving away too much here, it turns out that the mystery involves a will left by one of the founding fathers of the town, and family members’ struggles over the estate.

Important documents have been stashed away, and it’s up to the two young detectives to help find them.

As the story unfolds, our heroes get involved with two young ladies about their age who have an interest in finding the truth.  Some chemistry seems to be starting, a sign that the young detectives are growing up a little with each book:

“At that moment, it dawned on B.T. that Patti had asked for his help and his help alone, with no mention of Jimmy or their security business; just him, B.T. Stevens.  A massive knot formed in his throat and his heart skipped a beat as he gazed adoringly at Patti’s plain-featured natural beauty.”

A moment later he tells himself he must keep his focus.

“‘A good detective doesn’t get involved personally in his cases.  Rule #5,’ he silently mumbled to himself sadly.  ‘Try to remember that, Lover Boy.’”

Rule number 5 is quoted from the online detective course he took.

The mystery turns out to be much more than child’s play as unfriendly adult relatives who are also seeking the documents related to the family fortune enter the picture.  Let’s just say the wasp spray comes in handy.

Situations in the book challenge B.T. physically, intellectually, and emotionally, and he rises to each challenge.  This series will prove inspiring to young adults who haven’t always had it easy in life.  The main hero is not James Bond; he’s a boy with some disabilities who has been raised to always try his best.

The Mystery of the Brick Kingdom hints that the boys might be headed next to the Haskell Opera House, which would no doubt provide another good setting for a mystery adventure for the intrepid pair of B.T. and Jimmy.

This book is available at E.M. Brown’s in Barton, the Woodknot Bookshop in Newport, at the Evansville Trading Post or online at http://mystery4me.wix.com/btandjimmy#!home/

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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