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

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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

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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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

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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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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Death by Tartar Sauce tackles the gooey subject of travel writing

Cover design by Anastasia Shepherd

Death by Tartar Sauce:  A Travel Writer Encounters Gargantuan Gators, Irksome Offspring, Murderous Mayonnaise, & True Love;  by Jules Older, published by Older Unlimited, 146 pages (estimated); e-book available at Amazon.com for a Kindle for $3.47, or directly from the author at http://julesolder.com

Reviewed by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle, September 12, 2012

Finally, it’s here:  the travel writing book all writers have been waiting to read.

Death by Tartar Sauce is a collection of funny stories of things gone wrong, the kind of stories no travel writer is supposed to ever publish.  Either Jules Older has decided he’s established enough as a travel writer that his potential clients won’t mind this book, or he himself just doesn’t care and just had to do it.

Whatever his motivation, I will tell you right now it’s worth the $3.47 that you will need to spend to download it to your Kindle.  If you don’t have a Kindle, you can get it electronically from some other website (maybe your favorite local book store) or contact Mr. Older directly through his site.  This book is not available on paper, unless you want to supply the paper yourself.

Many of you already know Mr. Older.  He lived in Albany for a long time and married an Albany farmer’s daughter.  Their daughters, Willow and Amber, grew up here.  He and his wife, Effin, have traveled the world writing about cool places to go for travel magazines, airlines, and so on.  Often these gigs get you fancy accommodations and free trips, with the understanding that you will write something good that will make other people want to travel to Scotland for skiing, for example.

I don’t know what Mr. Older wrote for a magazine immediately after his trip skiing in Scotland, but the real story is in this book, and it’s one of the best chapters.  It’s just plain hilarious.

The first hint of what skiing in Scotland is like comes in the brochure:

“If the centre has to close due to adverse weather conditions, a siren will sound and the lifts will stop.  Please return to your cars and await instructions from the police…”

This is no ordinary wind.  In the book he mentions 85-knot winds, which are 98 miles an hour.  These winds make the biting winds on a winter day on the Flyer at Jay Peak (we all fondly call it the Freezer) sound downright balmy.

Sometimes Vermont conditions can be a little icy compared to the western U.S. powder.  Still we usually have snow of some sort in the winter.  Scotland does not necessarily have any snow.  Yet people still go there to ski, or attempt to ski.  The ski areas build snow fences in an attempt to catch the small amount of snow that is blowing around so it will pile up on the one trail that might be open.

Undaunted, Mr. Older travels from ski area to ski area in Scotland trying to find one that actually has some snow and where the winds are less than 98 miles per hour.  Along the way he meets with lovely PR ladies, all of whom are headed out for vacation to ski in Switzerland.

He finds one ski area where the only way to reach the trail is by dangling in the air in a gondola.  He asks the PR lady why that is set up that way, since high winds are often a problem, and she explains that heavy rains can be a worse problem and you need the gondola to get up above the flooded ground.

Despite the horrible conditions, he needs to at least try to ski, so he joins the locals who have decided they are so determined to get up to the T-bar lift (closer to the ground, less vulnerable to wind) that they are basically climbing up there on foot:

I joined several hundred Scottish skiers executing Plan B — climbing to the T-bar.  The Great Climb began with a slog through mud so deep and black as to put Vermont’s mud season to shame.  Then, as the wind increased, the mud gave way to heather-covered arctic tundra. Pushing on through a gale now laced with driving rain and dense fog, we met a covey of instructors skiing down the vegetation. I turned to Colin, a young Scot who had been trudging along beside me. “What do you call that?” I panted.

“Heather hopping.”

 He remarks to one of the Scots that it seems pretty crazy to ski in these conditions, and the fellow grins and says hey it builds character.  Plus, he points out, Mr. Older came from Vermont in order to do this, and he’s calling THEM crazy?  (Good point.)

Other chapters include one about Mr. Older’s penchant to kill off airlines.  It seems to be a common occurrence that he sells a story to an airline magazine right before that airline goes belly up.

The Older have explored caves in Puerto Rico, kayaked with whales, enjoyed the Tennessee Williams festival in New Orleans and a “gloriously musical Winter Festival in Newfoundland.”  They have met fascinating people, including a Tokyo woman who makes her entire living curling eyelashes.

Mr. Older has eaten all kinds of horrible food and came to the conclusion that basic American foods are really pretty good, including a pot roast if it’s not overdone, or even breakfast at McDonalds.

Mr. Older is a food writer — these days based in San Francisco — who hates trendy food.  He has discovered some Vermont restaurants following some of these trends and wishes they would not:

Raspberries — whole, sliced or in vinaigrette — are among the gastronomic clichés of our time.  Just as llamas are yuppie Holsteins, raspberries are yuppie ketchup.  No New Age dinner is complete without raspberry in some form or other making an appearance before dessert.

So I say, Chefs of Vermont, lighten up.  Climb down.  Re-enter.  Take deep breaths of Earth’s atmosphere.  You needn’t go back to overdone pot roast, but at least have the decency not to mix it with arugula, radicchio and raspberry-balsam vinaigrette.

Mr. Older enjoys travel writing partly because he gets to meet some really interesting people.  But it must be said (in this book at least, if not everywhere) that sometimes you run into some real plain old jerks.

The Olders met one such lady on a bicycle trip in Vermont:

On this tour, Effin and I — good ol’ country folk — are surrounded by a group of citified pedalers, the most citified of whom is a medical specialist from New York.  Were this a movie, the very words “medical specialist from New York” would guarantee that in Scene Two, Three at the latest, said medical specialist would fall face-first into a prominently placed water trough.  Especially if she is forever saying things like, “Oh, he seems so smart for a Vermonter” and “This is just such an adorable state” and “What do you do for friends up here?  Isn’t everyone kind of, you know, boring?”

Anyway, our 30-something, female, citified cyclist is riding up Route 100 when a little bitty Datsun pickup drives past with a big sign behind the cab.  The sign, which is surrounded with flashing lights, contains a three-word message:  DANGER.  WIDE LOAD.

“Isn’t that cute?” she says.  “That tiny truck with the big sign — did you see that, Jules and Effin?  Jules?  Effin?  Where are you?”

We did, indeed, see the sign.  That’s why we did, indeed, race our bikes  off the roadway — way off the roadway — and are now cowering behind a very large maple tree.  We would have advised our city mouse to follow suit, except for the fact that:

A. She was a little too far ahead of us.

B. Neither of us liked that “adorable” remark, and

C. She is, after all, a medical specialist from New York.

Thirty seconds later, a mega tow truck hauling a triple-wide trailer comes roaring by, the exhaust spewing from its vertical exhaust stacks creating whirlwinds of leaves and dust and road schmutz.  As this Monster-Truck-In-Training passes the city doctor, the driver blows its gas-fired, nuclear-powered, mega-strength air-horn, leaving her gasping for breath and weaving around Route 100 like she’s in a bicycle ballet.

Still short of breath, she somehow manages to bring her bike to a wobbly stop.

Peggy, our tour leader, sees how shaken our city mouse is by this unexpected event and calls for an instant rest stop.  We pull up beside a pasture in which stand the dual symbols of all that is peaceful, serene and bucolic — a mare and her foal.  Once our New Yorker stops gasping and resumes normal breathing, she takes in the sight.

Now recovered, she says the customary, “Awwwww,” pulls a bunch of long grass and offers it to the foal.  As she does, she reaches out to steady herself on the fence.

The wire fence.

The electrified wire fence.

What should we do?  On the one hand, it seems downright cruel to let her grab something that experience has long ago taught us is about to administer an unasked-for lesson in the power of watts, amps and volts.  On the other, well, it would add some excitement to our, uh, boring bucolic lives.

And we are just country bumpkins.

Aw, the heck with it.  “I wouldn’t touch that if I were you,” I advise her.

“And why not?” she sneers, still reaching for the wire.  “Do you think that just because I’m from New York, I’m afraid of a horse?”

I smile and give her the country answer. “Nope.”

Chronicle publisher Chris Braithwaite gets a mention in a chapter called “Catamounted,” about skiing part of the Catamount Trail, which goes the length of Vermont.  Not quite as extreme as Scotland, but still quite difficult mountaintop cross-country skiing to say the least.  Mr. Older gets a call from Rolf asking him why doesn’t he join them:

Why don’t I come? Because I’m afraid, that’s why.  Because Chris Braithwaite, editor of the Barton Chronicle, wrote of his Catamount experience, “It was all I could do to get out of bed the next day.  I was lucky (if not exactly grateful) to be alive.”

With that in mind, I said, “Look, Rolf, I’d love to come, but —”

 “Great. See you Sunday.  Bye.”

Lucky for us readers, Mr. Older survives the experience with just a few impressive spills.  The next morning — you guessed it — it was all he could do to get out of bed.  He felt lucky, if not exactly grateful, to be alive.

The Olders live in California these days.  Mr. Older writes medical articles, kids books, travel and humor stores and about San Francisco restaurants and life in New Zealand.  His videos can be seen on www.YouTube.com/julesolder.

Jules Older, formerly of Albany, lives in California these days.

 

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Vermont’s history of women, Native Americans, and African Americans revisited

Reviewed by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle 8-29-2012

Vermont Women, Native Americans & African Americans, Out of the Shadows of History, by Cynthia D. Bittiinger.  Paperback.  158 pages.  Published by the History Press.  $19.99.

It generally wasn’t until the 1960s that Vermont history books were written to acknowledge the fact that Europeans were not the first to inhabit this ground, Cynthia Bittinger says in this slender book.  The man who finally assembled a convincing body of research on the early presence of the Abenaki, the man who finally managed to get historical mention of a people who’d been here for something like 11,000 years before Europeans were, was from Albany.

Historians generally credit Gordon M. Day with being the person who unearthed New England’s native past, Ms. Bittinger says.  Mr. Day was born in Orleans County in 1911 and, as a child, played with children who were part Abenaki.  He also knew the area as a place for natives to hunt and trap.

“In his adult years, he initially set out to study forest ecology, but after serving in World War II, he decided to devote himself entirely to saving Abenaki culture from oblivion,” Ms. Bittinger writes.

Mr. Day used French records (apparently more accurate — and more friendly — than British records) and Indian tradition in his research, discovering that, until the end of the eighteenth century, the village of Missisquoi, near present day Swanton, was a political hub for Western Abenaki.

Since he knew the Abenaki language, he was able to avail himself of natives’ oral tradition to reconstruct a narrative for a people who had either died wholesale, largely from European diseases they had no immunity to, or willfully vanished, either literally or figuratively, in order to avoid persecution, destitution, or sterilization.

What, Ms. Bittinger wonders, allowed for misinformation so grave that an entire people was excluded from the history books?  Ethnocentricism?  Lack of imagination?  Lack of sources?  The willingness of the Abenaki themselves to disappear?

Whatever the cause, Ms. Bittinger has done her part to remedy the omission and devotes the initial part of this book to the eastern Indian tribes.

The American Revolution seemed to spell the end of the Abenaki as a visible presence, she says.  Although many pulled back into Canada, some lingered in northern Vermont.

However, the Abenaki did little to reclaim their own history, possibly because of fear of retaliation for taking captives or attacking settlers, Ms. Bittinger speculates.

Later, in the twentieth century, Abenakis would be likely to hide their ancestry if possible because revealing it could lead to involuntary sterilization through the eugenics movement, which was not only aimed at Indians, but also at the poor and the less intelligent.

Ms. Bittinger has packed an awful lot of information into this little book.  Any one of the subjects she tackles here could have been a book in itself.  However, the section on the natives of Vermont is the most tantalizing and left this reader, at least, yearning for more.

Ms. Bittinger is a history professor as well as a commentator and lecturer, and this book reads more like a text than a narrative, with brief, sometimes very brief, descriptions on significant events, people, and historical information.  Each section ends with a “conclusion,” summing up the information that precedes it, much in the way one might write a scholarly paper.

What Ms. Bittinger set out to do, though, is admirable.  “Women and people of color have been denied a usable history,” she writes in her introduction.  “With a focus on landscape, military battles and government, natives, blacks and women are usually not included unless they participated in a battle or ran for office.”

But people have a need to know where they fit into the American story, she says.  “I am offering this history to change the narrative of Vermont’s past, present and future.”

She says she has tried to focus on the positive, on those who worked to improve the lives of others.

Vermont has often been ahead of the curve in its efforts to afford equal rights to its people, but it’s far from perfect.  For instance, passage of an Equal Rights Amendment for women failed as late as 1986.

In the nineteenth century, often women who died were not even remembered by their names on gravestones.  Widows were referred to as “relicts.”  Ms. Bittinger offers this example:  “Experience.  Relict of Samuel Wellington.  Died Dec. 17, 1838. Age 69.  Her first husband was Elias Bemis.”

The fact that maiden names were sometimes not included on headstones, can make tracing geneologies tough.

She moves rapidly from the grimness of that time for women, recording gains and the stories of some of the remarkable women who helped achieve them.

Ms. Bittinger’s credentials are long and illustrious.  She teaches Vermont history for Community College, she’s a lecturer, she’s a founding member of the Vermont Women’s History Project at the Vermont Historical Society, a commentator on Vermont history for Vermont Public Radio, and was the executive director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation in Plymouth for 18 years, and her commentaries on Grace Coolidge won the Edward R. Morrow Award.

If you’re looking for a captivating read, this isn’t the book, but it does impart some very useful information about Vermont history and some remarkable people who risked their lives, or at least security and prosperity, to make this state be the leader it remains in civil rights.

Ms. Bittinger has done her homework, and produced an edifying volume of work that outlines not only many of the brave and ethical people who helped push this state forward in its fight for decency and fairness, but also honestly discusses where it’s gone wrong.

contact Tena Starr at tena@bartonchronicle.com

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Anna Baker was a brilliant artist with a comic touch

copyright the Chronicle, August 8, 2012

World of Fantasy, The Life and Art of Anna P. Baker, by Beryl Hutchinson and Roz Hermant.  Self-published.  185 pages in paperback.  $59.95.

Reviewed by Chris Braithwaite

I need to begin this review by confessing my bias.  Anna P. Baker, the subject of this richly illustrated work, was both a close friend and an important contributor in the Chronicle’s early years, when it remained to be seen whether it would sink or swim as a community newspaper.

That it swam, I believe, was due in large measure to one of the most unlikely duos to ever put ink to paper.  Loudon Young was a dairy farmer all his life, and his role in my life as friend, neighbor and mentor in the ways of rural Vermont predated the first Chronicle by four years.  When I asked him if he thought a weekly newspaper in Barton would have a chance of survival he said he didn’t think so.  Given his preference for color in language, he more likely said that such an enterprise would have a snowball’s chance in hell.

So it was a considerable surprise when he volunteered a column for the first issue, and a greater surprise to discover that this highly accomplished talker could also write, and that his writing was very funny, indeed.  His back-page column immediately became a weekly feature in the paper.

We didn’t make Anna Baker’s acquaintance until we were moving the office from a farmhouse in East Albany to an old barbershop on Barton’s Upper Main Street, and she wandered in to find out what the devil her new next-door neighbors were up to.

She found us amusing.  But then Anna found most things in life amusing.  That knack, along with the most exquisite good manners I have encountered in another human being, were pretty much what got Anna through an otherwise challenging life.

Anna told us she was an artist.  But I don’t think she mentioned that she was also a cartoonist.  She was a good enough cartoonist that, as a 16-year-old art student at a London, Ontario, technical school, she was interviewed for a possible career in animation with the Disney Studios.

I didn’t know that last detail until I read this book.  At any rate, it wasn’t long before Anna brought in a cartoon she thought we might like to publish.  Her chosen subject?  None other than the above-mentioned Loudon Young.  Loudon’s profile — a sharp chin often decorated with a bit of a beard, a sharp and substantial nose — was a cartoonist’s dream.  But it was Loudon’s humor that captured Anna, because his ear for what was funny about the most ordinary, everyday situations so exactly matched her eye.

Both of them thought there was something fundamentally funny about the common cow.  Loudon wrote about them constantly.  In her book, Beryl Hutchinson reproduces the first Baker painting she acquired.  Called Pent House Farm, it was executed at that same technical school, which Anna attended in 1944-45.  It’s a whimsical, wonderfully busy urban landscape with people farming on the rooftops of a couple of apartment buildings.  Ms. Hutchinson is careful to point out that it includes, atop one roof, Anna Baker’s first cow, a Holstein.

Anna’s renderings of Loudon and his cows appeared in many Chronicles over the years that followed.  They accompanied the best of Loudon’s columns in the Chronicle’s first book, Off Main Street, West Glover, Vermont, and the dairyman and his Holsteins were featured in a series of calendars she drew for the paper.

A generous selection of these cartoons is included in World of Fantasy.  But there are also many of her “serious” works — whimsical, intensely detailed, richly colored paintings that will delight the fans who have an Anna Baker hanging on the living room wall, and surprise those who know her work only through the Chronicle.

As we grew to know Anna, it became obvious that we were in the presence of an artist of great talent and considerable reputation.  Her works caught the eye of critics and connoisseurs wherever they were displayed.  That her reputation didn’t reach further was to some degree her own fault.  She volunteered once that a friend, a sophisticate in the business of art, had told her she couldn’t find success as an artist if she insisted on living in a backwater like Barton, Vermont.  She needed to be in New York City.  Anna acknowledged the advice as sound, and chose not to take it.  Whatever glue held her to the Northeast Kingdom, we are all the richer for it.

Beryl Hutchinson enjoyed a friendship with Anna Baker that went back to high school.  Her book includes a photo of a schoolgirl softball team named the Eagles with Anna in the front row, Beryl in the back.

Thus Ms. Hutchinson was the ideal person to stitch together this fully illustrated biography of the artist.  She opens with a surprising revelation about Anna’s origins — a surprise best left to her readers — and takes us through the artist’s school days, her formal education at the Art Institute of Chicago, which she entered in 1951, and the early teaching career that led to her friendship with Bunny Hastings, daughter of a prominent Barton physician.  That friendship brought Anna to Barton, and lasted the rest of Bunny’s life.

Anna beat cancer once, but lost the second round and died in 1985, at just 56.

To all of those who still miss her kindness, her wit, and her great talent, this book will serve as long-awaited consolation.

To buy World of Fantasy, go to “contacts” at  www.annabaker.net, or see www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/3334768.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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Freeman short stories tell small town tales

copyright the chronicle July 25, 2012

Round Mountain, by Castle Freeman Jr. Published by Concord Free Press, Concord, Massachusetts, 2012; 182 pages, softbound.

Reviewed by Joseph Gresser

Castle Freeman is an economical writer. His characters are stingy with their words and his descriptive passages are spare.

Economical readers, too, will be delighted with Round Mountain, a collection of 12 short stories set in Vermont, not just because it is beautifully written, but because it has an appealing price — free.

Actually, free doesn’t tell the entire story. Although the Concord Free Press does not charge for the book, the reader must promise to donate to a charity and to pass the book on to another reader with the same obligation.

Round Mountain is a book that a reader might well want to share. The stories center on Homer Patch, an unexcitable man of a distinctly practical bent.

The tales give glimpses of Homer’s life and the life of his community. They cover different periods of his life, from boyhood to early middle age.

In Round Mountain, though, the stories are not arranged chronologically. The reader has to reconstruct the sequence of events that, for instance, led to Homer’s complicated marriage to the much-younger Angela.

The couple has a son, Quentin, who, for unknown reasons, does not speak. The boy, who is not obviously disabled, wanders off in the title story. Townspeople join together in a search effort that, in a burst of magic realism, reveals to Homer his town’s real place in the world.

During the course of several stories, Homer serves his town as constable. Like the lawmen in Mr. Freeman’s other recent books Go With Me and All That I Have, Homer is not a by-the-book officer. He is the kind of person others call on when they need help solving a problem.

In “The Women At Holiday’s,” a call to expel a trespasser from a summer person’s shed is handled effectively, but in a way that satisfies neither the property owner nor Homer’s boss.

A more serious problem, in the person of a threatening stranger, appears in “The Montreal Express.” Homer’s instinct, as always, is for inaction and the apparent danger goes as mysteriously as it appeared.

For Northeast Kingdom readers, Mr. Freeman’s Vermont will have a real resonance. Although the stories are apparently set farther south, the community he creates is more typical these days of Orleans or Essex counties.

As in the Kingdom’s small towns, everyone gathers a history that is quietly registered in his neighbors’ memories.

Certainly, people talk about Homer, but also about Makepeace, a city lawyer who finds a place in the community — not without making some hard discoveries along the way.

Two people who find no welcome in Homer’s town are a retired police officer, whose burglary prevention efforts prove too effective, and one of the thieves who see them as a challenge. By the end of “Bandit Poker,” both men have found leaving the area to be the wisest course of action.

In addition to being a cat-and-mouse story, “Bandit Poker,” is a gritty meditation on how society deals with young men whose level of energy far outstrips their judgment.

Round Mountain is worthwhile both as a work of literature and an effort to inspire generosity. Those who wish to participate in both aspects of this project can do so by going to the Concord Free Press’ website at www.concordfreepress.com/roundmountain.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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Magalis novel is first of whodunit series

Cover art for The Body in the Butter Churn was done by Lila Winstead of Glover.

copyright the Chronicle, July 15, 2012

The Body in the Butter Churn:  a Green Mountain Whodunit, by Elaine Magalis, self-published, softcover, 280 pages, $11.95, available online at www.createspace.com/3715414 or www.amazon.com

Reviewed by Bethany M. Dunbar

Anyone looking for a summer mystery to read should take a look at Elaine Magalis’ new book, The Body in the Butter Churn:  a Green Mountain Whodunit.

As you might discern from the title, the opening scene is pretty grim when a group of people find an old lady’s very recently murdered remains crammed into a butter churn.  The butter churn is in a museum patterned after the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, where Ms. Magalis used to work.  In fact the book is dedicated to “The Old Stone House and all who have loved her.”

No murder ever took place there so far as I know; in fact, not even a crime of any note.  Nevertheless, the kids I worked with knew the place was not quite right:  they caught sight of ghosts walking in the hallway; they knew the past was more alive there than the present.

These days the present is more alive than it probably was then — still there is no doubt the old building has an aura of mystery about it.  Who knows what might have happened there over all the years?

Ms. Magalis created two memorable characters in The Body in the Butter Churn.  They are 12-year-old Alex Churchill and Tasha Mulholland, an older woman, who pair up to solve the crime.  Alex is a bit of a nerd who helps with odd jobs at the museum, and Tasha Mulholland is the elderly caretaker who plays the cello to relax and teaches Alex a vocabulary word each day.

Mrs. Mulholland’s son is a police officer.  He doesn’t recruit the duo to help on purpose, but they start to think about the circumstances and the people involved, get curious about certain aspects of the situation, and before you know it they are a team of amateur detectives, flying under the radar which turns out to be a good place to be to find out certain details.  It’s the old Columbo phenomenon.  The television detective’s signature style was a ruffled up raincoat and shabby haircut, which belied a brilliant mind who shuffled his way into solving case after case, accompanied by a pet cockatoo.  Most murderers would not suspect an elderly lady and boy on a bicycle of being a threat — and therein lays the pair’s chief strength.

Although this is her first murder mystery, Ms. Magalis is not a new writer.  In 1973 she wrote a book called Conduct Becoming to a Woman:  Bolted Doors and Burgeoning Missions, published by the United Methodist Church — a history of women in missions in that church.  That book was republished in 2003.  She is the author of a blog about art and writing at an older age called Late Fruit, which people can read at latefruit.wordpress.com.

Her self-published book is graced with cover art by local artist Lila Winstead, and professionally edited and proofread by some of her friends including the Chronicle’s own Jeannine Young.

Ms. Magalis’ writing is vivid but clean, simple and satisfying.  Here is her description of the daughter of the murder victim:

Ms. Mulholland knocked and Mrs. Hamilton’s daughter swung the door open and stared down at Alex.  Dressed in a not-quite-shocking purple kimono, with red hair to her waist and a big chin like Jay Leno, she reminded him of the redheaded witch in a book about English werewolves he’d found in the library.  She didn’t look like Mrs. Hamilton at all.  Just as well.

Later, in a conversation about the eBay bids for what turns out to be a painting with some critical clues to the crime, one of the characters mentions that the bids have gone quite high.  The man turns to his wife and asks for her confirmation:

“Aren’t they, my dear?”

“They are high,” Abigail managed to say, her thin frame wavering like a shallow planting by the car.

Ms. Magalis’ debut mystery — in what is going to become a series — is well worth picking up.  A good opportunity for it is coming up — she will do a reading at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick on Thursday, July 19 at 6 p.m.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

For more book reviews, visit the Reviews page.

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