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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KokoCat is a cat book designed to give birds a break

Author Lynda Graham-Barber’s mission is to help stray pets find homes

by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 11-7-2012

BARTON — The PETS of the Kingdom group has a booth in the Village Treasures store.  Author Lynda Graham-Barber of Newport Center has set up the display which will benefit the group’s efforts.

“A lot of stuff here has been donated by people who love animals,” she said.

One of the items for sale is Ms. Barber’s new book, KokoCat, Inside and Out.  It has just won a Moonbeam award, a national award judged on content, originality, and design among other factors, with an emphasis on innovation and social relevance.

PETS of the Kingdom has been running a trap and release program in Orleans County for two and a half years.  One of the colonies they have been trapping is a group of feral cats that live in the neighborhood of the Chronicle office in Barton.  It has been doing the same thing with colonies living at large dairy farms in Derby, Irasburg, and Barton.

The cats are trapped, neutered, vaccinated and released back into the neighborhood.  Food, water, and shelters are continually provided.  Cats that have been trapped have a small notch in an ear so they can be identified by sight if a person can get that close to them.

Ms. Graham-Barber’s interest in animal advocacy started when she was a new bride and moved to Brooklyn, New York, from where she had grown up in a small town in western Pennsylvania.

At home there were no stray pets to speak of — in Brooklyn they seemed to be everywhere.  Ms. Graham-Barber decided she had to try to help these animals.  As she put it in an interview:

“To paraphrase Mother Theresa, if you can’t help a hundred dogs, then just help one.  It matters to that one.”

At that time, Ms. Graham-Barber volunteered with the Humane Society of New York, walking dogs who were up for adoption.  She volunteered for some other groups and then teamed up with a fellow animal lover to informally find places for strays they had found.

One of the dogs she rescued in those years literally looked like a pile of rags on a corner of the subway platform; then the pile moved.  He had sarcoptic mange.  Ms. Graham-Barber applied cream three times a day and the dog grew a crop of hair.  He recovered, and they named him Metro.  She is working on a children’s book about him called Cookie.

Since moving to Vermont, Ms. Graham-Barber has been active with local animal organizations, including the Pope Memorial Frontier Animal Shelter and PETS of the Kingdom, which stands for Promoting Ethical Treatment for Strays.  She is the co-founder of Animal Rescue of the Kingdom (ARK).

In New York she worked as an associate editor for Morrow Junior Books before starting a freelance career.  She wrote for magazines including Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and Travel and Leisure, and she wrote two books about decorating.  But recently she has gone back to where she started and is mainly writing children’s books.

She decided to write KokoCat after a neighbor called her over to help identify a bird.  The bird had been killed by her neighbor’s cat.  It was a chestnut-sided warbler, and Ms. Graham-Barber kept thinking about the journey the bird had made here from its wintering ground in Venezuela or Peru, only to be killed by a well-fed house cat.

Ms. Graham-Barber said it happens so often that the National Aubudon Society has said all over the world, cats may have been involved in the extinction of more bird species than any other cause other than habitat destruction.

Ms. Graham-Barber decided to write KokoCat to send a message to children that keeping a cat indoors saves birds, and the cat is likely to live longer and face less danger.  She realizes this message is a controversial one, but believes cats and birds would both be better off if more cats were kept inside.

KokoCat tells the story of a cat that normally lives indoors getting outside by mistake and finds herself cold, hungry, and alone — until she hears her owners’ voices and finds her way back in.

The last page of the book, written for parents and adults, lists some statistics and reasons to keep a cat indoors.  The book is available at the booth at Village Treasures in Barton or at WoodKnot Bookshop and Wider Than the Sky in Newport, among other bookstores.  It was published by the Gryphon Press, illustrated by Nancy Lane, and is hardcover.

The booth at Village Treasures definitely shows Ms. Graham-Barber’s incredible knack for decorating with odds and ends.  She has a way of taking something that might be thrown away, under other circumstances, and making it into a little inexpensive piece of art.

Some of these pieces she made with the help of her husband, artist David Hunter.  For example, she took an old tray from a trunk and got her husband to make some small metal handles for it.  With the addition of a decoupaged dog, it is a lovely and useful tray.

The booth includes items she and others have made, and things found at yard sales.  An old grain scoop from E.M. Brown and Son has a new life as a candle sconce.  The piece is old enough that the telephone number painted on it is 25.

Ms. Graham-Barber has no fear of running out of things to sell at the booth, as she is always finding and creating more.  The booth with have changing seasonal themes, and many of the pieces are animal-related.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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Hiding in plain sight in pre-Civil War Vermont

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copyright the Chronicle 10-31-12

Reviewed by Tena Starr

The Spare Room, by Jenny Land.  Published by Voyage, St. Johnsbury, Vermont.  Paperback.  211 pages.  $14.95.

Author Jenny Land, a St. Johnsbury Academy English teacher who lives in Peacham, has put a refreshing new twist on the familiar tale of an escaped Southern slave headed north to freedom.  The Spare Room pays scant attention to the Underground Railroad and Vermont’s part in it and tells the story, instead, of what it might have been like to be a black man in northern New England in 1943.

Jacob is, indeed, an escaped slave.  He does spend time in Vermont, although his ultimate goal is Canada.  But he’s not hiding in secret rooms, constantly fearing detection.  He’s not even particularly worried about recapture.  Jacob is in Vermont to work for the narrator’s family.  The neighboring farmer, Mr. MacLeish, has been injured, and both farmers are in bad need of help.

It quite unexpectedly arrives in the form of Jacob, a black man in his thirties, who the town does not know what to make of.  He’s treated with kindness by some, outright hostility by others, and with caution by many.  Mr. MacLeish prohibits his daughter Kate from being around him alone.

The book is written in diary form by narrator Susannah, a girl who comes across as articulate, idealistic, and very real.  She’s a 12-year-old with girlfriend tiffs, awkward romances, and an attraction to adventure.  She’s also a practical farm girl who sighs over the tedium of washing her siblings’ diapers and making tallow candles.  She’s awed when listening to Frederick Douglas make a speech in Montpelier, horrified when anti-abolitionists throw rotten fruit at her and Jacob, and both mystified and angry when her southern teacher gives her a bad grade for arguing against slavery.  He says the logic of the moral rationale is unsound.

Near the end of the story, tragedy results from the town’s ideological and emotional conflicts over race and slavery.  Also, the reader finally understands why Jacob has been lingering in Vermont even though tensions have been running too high for him to continue working, and freedom is not far away on the other side of the border.

This is a story about pre-Civil War Vermont, the role the state played in the abolitionist movement, and the difficulties so many people faced, even within families, sorting out their thoughts and behavior when faced with an actual black person in their midst.

It’s also a very competent record of farm life at that time.  I was initially taken aback when Susannah talked about their Merino sheep rather than their cows.

But of course.  Vermonters were sheep farmers at that time; dairying came along later.  Susannah and her family slaughter animals, weed a huge garden, preserve food, spend hours cooking, chop wood, travel very slowly via horse to wherever they need to go, worry intensely when a child is to be born or gets croup, and don’t read or write much in the evening when it’s finally dark and too late to do more chores because they worry about rapidly using their limited supply of candles.

Ms. Land doesn’t make much fuss about all this; she simply incorporates this fine account of day-to-day farm life into Susannah’s record.  It’s a well-written book, and an interesting one, with a little mystery, realistic characters, a moral core, and a sweet understanding of young people coming of age.

But what I liked best about this story is that it wasn’t the one I thought it was going to be.  Important as the Underground Railroad was, it’s a story that most young people are familiar with.  This one — the story of a man hiding in plain sight — was much more compelling.  Jacob’s presence brings out the best and worst in people, and at the very least forces them to examine their own ideology — and nature.

In an author’s note, Ms. Land says that she earlier had written a more conventional Underground Railroad story about a family taking in an escaped slave and hiding him in a secret room.

“However, when I visited the Rokeby Museum in 2001, I realized that I’d been writing a story that would have been far more likely to have occurred in a state to the south of Vermont, where secrecy played a much more important role in the success of a slave’s quest for freedom,” she writes.  “I learned that by the time a slave reached the remote northern hills of Vermont, as noted by Susannah in her diary, a slave was much less likely to be chased by an overseer or returned to the South.  By the time a slave reached Vermont, like Jacob, he could take a much more active role in his livelihood and transition into a life of freedom.”

The Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh is one of the best-documented Underground Railroad sites in the country and is a National Historic Landmark.

The Spare Room is written for adolescents, but it’s an enlightening and entertaining read for both younger and older.

contact Tena Starr at tena@bartonchronicle.com

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Recipes from a Maple Queen is a beautiful, informative cookbook

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Recipes from a Maple Queen was designed by the author’s son, Jared Lyon. The author, Doreen Lyon, took all the photos.

copyright the Chronicle 9-26-2012

Recipes from a Maple Queen, by Doreen Lyon, hardcover, full-color photographs by Doreen Lyon, design and layout by Jared Lyon, 83 pages, $35. 

Reviewed by Bethany M. Dunbar

Recipes from a Maple Queen is a gorgeous and informative cookbook.  Doreen Lyon put it together herself, with help in the design from her son, Jared.

Doreen Taylor Lyon grew up in a family of maple producers.  At age 16 she decided to enter the Vermont Maple Queen competition, held each year at the Vermont Farm Show at the Barre auditorium.

“We were judged on our knowledge of maple production, oratory skills, and poise.  There were 18 contestants; I didn’t think I had a chance of winning.  So it was a great surprise when I was announced at the new 1970 Vermont Maple Queen.  I can still see the look of pride on my parents’ faces.”

Doreen Lyon was maple queen at age 16 in 1970. Here she hands Governor Deane Davis a can of syrup.

It was the beginning of a year of activity for the teenage maple queen, and photos of some of these activities appear in the book.  One shot shows her with Governor Deane Davis, handing him a can of maple syrup.

One of the prizes was a hand made silver maple leaf pin, made by Luella Schroeder of East Cabot.  A photo of the pin appears on the cover of the book.

This book will be useful for those who don’t know a lot about maple syrup production and how to cook with maple.  It is also going to quickly become a treasure for many of us who have cooked with maple for most of our lives.

I’ve always cooked with maple syrup but never knew how to make granulated maple sugar or maple candy.  Those recipes are in the first chapter:  The Basics.

Later in the book is a recipe for maple cheesecake I think I have been looking for all my adult life.  I’ve tried several maple cheesecake recipes and none were as good as the idea of maple cheesecake.  I’m guessing that the recipe from the maple queen is going to be the one for me from now on.

There are desserts in this cookbook, but as Vermonters already know very well, maple is not just for dessert.  This book includes a chapter of recipes for meat dishes, vegetable dishes, salad dressings and salads with a touch of maple in them.

What a gift Ms. Lyons has made to the world by putting all these family recipes into a book and offering it for sale.  Her photos are lovely, and her son has done a terrific job with the design.

Doreen Lyon took the photos for her book.

Francis Taylor is Ms. Lyon’s sister, and he is selling her book at Taylor’s Automotive in Barton, where you can also get a jug of the family’s syrup.

Here is a sample recipe to get your mouth watering for more:

Spinach salad with hot maple bacon dressing:

Yield: four servings; prep: 25 minutes; cook: ten minutes.

 

 

Ingredients:

One roasted pepper

One pound baby spinach

One red onion, sliced

One-half pound smoked bacon

Six Tablespoons maple syrup

Six Tablespoons rice vinegar

One-half teaspoon salt

One-half teaspoon pepper

One-half cup sliced almonds

 Prepare salad by first roasting red pepper in the oven, on the stove or on the grill, until charred.  Remove from heat, place in a bowl and cover until cool.  Remove skin from roasted pepper and slice.  In a large bowl add spinach, red onion, and roasted pepper.

Cook bacon in cast iron pan over medium heat until crisp.  Drain on paper towels.  Break into medium pieces; save for garnish.  Stir maple syrup into pan used for bacon.  Add vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.

Serve dressing hot over spinach salad.  Garnish with bacon crumbles and sliced almonds.

To learn more or contact Ms. Lyon directly, see her website:  www.recipesfromamaplequeen.com

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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Radiant Hen publishes Higher Ground to benefit flood victims

by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle 9-12-12

Higher Ground, by Kevin Fitton, is a simple little story for children.  Basically, it’s about Tropical Storm Irene and one Vermont farmer’s efforts to keep his family and beloved dairy cows safe in the face of rapidly rising water.

This farm family doesn’t experience the devastation that many Vermont farmers did because of Irene, but it does know loss.  However, their grief and recovery efforts are tendered by the neighborliness, the kindness and generosity that characterized the aftermath of Irene in Vermont.

Although the story itself is pretty basic, this is a gorgeously illustrated little book.  Of course. The illustrations are by Plainfield artist Mary Azarian, who made a name for herself decades ago with her stunning woodcuts.  In 1999, she won the Caldecott Medal for her book Snowflake Bentley, a picture book about the life of Wilson Bentley.  She’s illustrated more than 50 books, and that doesn’t begin to describe her art.

The bigger mission behind the publication of this slim paperback is that 100 percent of the proceeds from its limited edition sale of 1,000 books will go to the Vermont Farm Disaster Relief Fund, which was established with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to help farmers hurt by Irene.

Mr. Fitton of Ferrisburgh is a pastor in South Burlington.  He developed a love for books at an early age and is the author of several short stories.  This is his first published book.

“It’s a lovely story that shows not only how community comes together in times of need, but also how important the farm animals are,” said Tanya Sousa of Radiant Hen Publishing.  “They’re family to the characters in the book — not just moneymakers.”

Mr. Fitton had submitted the manuscript, and “we really liked it,” Ms. Sousa said.  “Since it was about Tropical Storm Irene it crossed my mind that, by some chance, people might want to do it as a fund-raiser.”

Mr. Fitton immediately agreed to the fund-raiser.

Ms. Azarian also donated her time, as did the graphic arts and editing team of Theresa Perron-Janowski and Jeannine B. Young, both of West Glover.  Carl and Susan Taylor of Derby paid for the printing so that all the money from book sales can go to the Vermont Farm Disaster Relief Fund.  “Everyone agreed to do it for nothing,” Ms. Sousa said.

Ms. Sousa of Coventry started the Radiant Hen Publishing company about five years ago.

“My thinking was that, as an author myself, it’s very frustrating to me to be treated sometimes poorly, to sometimes not get paid even when there was a contract,” Ms. Sousa said.  “I saw the need for companies that gave Vermont authors and illustrators a chance to break in in a way that they are treated like somebody, and they get decent royalties.”

People don’t make a lot of money with a book published by Radiant Hen because they don’t sell an awful lot of books, but they do get generous royalties on those they sell, Ms. Sousa said.

She doesn’t recommend either writing or publishing as a path to riches, but personally she doesn’t care.  “We’re doing it for the love of it,” she said.  “For the money to generate money for the next book.”

Radiant Hen’s goal is to publish three books a year, but that number recently slipped to one a year for economic reasons, although Ms. Sousa said business is picking up some again.

Authors submit their work to Radiant Hen and Ms. Sousa, as well as a team of volunteer readers, screen the manuscripts.  To start with, they must meet Radiant Hen’s basic guidelines:  The author must be a Vermonter and the book must be about either an environmental or agricultural subject.

At the moment, picture books likely stand the best chance of publication.  “We’ve decided not to do chapter books,” Ms. Sousa said.  “We did well with them, but they don’t bear the publication costs.”

Nor does Radiant Hen help people self-publish their books, she emphasized.  Prospective authors can’t simply offer to pay the little company to print their book.  “If it gets chosen, it gets chosen because it fits,” Ms. Sousa said.  “We’re not a vanity publisher.”

Authors and illustrators get royalties; Radiant Hen keeps the rest of the money to cover printing and marketing costs, standard practice in the publishing business.  That income usually does no more than pay the bills for printing and marketing.

“I’m not concerned about making money with it,” Ms. Sousa said.  “I’m just concerned with giving people an option.”

She said Radiant Hen receives hundreds of manuscripts, many of them very good and worthy of publication.  She can sometimes recommend another publisher.  “Often we have to say no, but we try to give them a foot up, try to give them any help we can.”

The publishing company’s unlikely name starts with a sad story that ended with what Ms. Sousa views as a bit of a miracle.

She and her husband had a small flock of chickens, but for unavoidable reasons the chicken coop had not been fully tightened up.  One day she walked out to the coop and found the entire flock slaughtered by a raccoon.  There wasn’t a chicken left alive.  In fact, there wasn’t a chicken left whole.

Ms. Sousa said that after she got done crying she went back out to the coop to clean up the mess and was amazed to find one white leghorn hen standing there unharmed.   She had no idea where the hen had been or how it had survived.

“She was my beautiful white radiant hen, and when it came time for the publishing company I wanted a name that boded well for survival.”

Radiant Hen’s mission is to publish books, for both children and adults, that encourage good citizenship, kindness, and environmental awareness and debate, and to raise awareness of Vermont places and people and sustainable agriculture.  Ms. Sousa also hopes to incubate promising authors and artists.

At the moment, Higher Ground is available through Radiant Hen.  It can’t be sold through bookstores unless the store is willing to take no cut from its sales.   The 30-page book is $10.95.  Radiant Hen’s website is:  www.radianthen.com.

contact Tena Starr at tena@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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