The gifts of the autumnal equinox

IMG_0784Tomorrow night, around 10:29 p.m. in the Eastern Time zone, the autumnal equinox arrives. We all know what that means. Beginning this week, the nights will be longer than the days. There will be a decided chill in the air. And my vegetable garden will look like it belongs in the backyard of a haunted house. The tomato plants, long dead, will be drooping from their metal cages like the dying, tentacled aliens from “The War of the Worlds.”

I’m not good at autumn chores. (Oh, who am I kidding? I’m not good at spring chores, either.) But throughout September, I delude myself into believing that summer still has a little heat left. A little juice. That means the Adirondack chairs will sit on the lawn until I have to scrape the snow off them before carting them into the barn. The attic windows will remain open so long that people will think I must own stock in the LP gas company that fills the tank in my backyard. And I will resist putting the gardens to bed as long as I possibly can.

I’m not alone. Far from it.

Most of us have very mixed feelings about the autumnal equinox. We all understand the way it can (quite literally) darken one’s spirits. That’s especially true in a place like Vermont, where summers are breathtakingly beautiful and dispiritingly short. Everywhere, however, the autumnal equinox reminds us that another summer has past, the natural world is growing quiescent (or dying), and we are older. There is less sunlight. Less warmth. No blueberries.

Soon that ultimate bacchanal of death will be here, Halloween.photo

And what follows Halloween? The gray morass we call November. That’s usually the month when I finally get around to raking the trillions of leaves that have swooned (starving) to their death in my yard. Some are still phantasmagorically beautiful. All are annoying when they stick to the tines of my rake.

For the next three months, the days will continue to shrink and the nights will grow very, very long. There will be days in the not too distant future when it will feel here in Lincoln that the sun is falling behind the ridgeline to the west a little after lunch.

Have I depressed you enough?

But here’s the strange and wonderful reality that marks this time of the year: It actually feeds the soul’s need to cocoon. To nest. To hunker down after the zeal and sheer busyness of summer. I love those first fires I build in the woodstove – the aroma, the warmth, the luminescent little blaze through the palladian glass windows. I love collapsing on the floor in the den in the waning light of a Sunday afternoon and reading – often with a cat on my back. (Occasionally, as a matter of fact, with a 17-pound cat on my back.) I love the permission that short days and long nights give me to watch DVDs of two-decade old episodes of Seinfeld.

1456739_10151993860972118_1056085797_nThat’s the gift of autumn. Because we are human, we can’t hibernate and we can’t fall dormant. (Okay, we can fall dormant. But it isn’t pretty. Think grungy gray sweatpants and not bothering to shave. Envision Cheez Doodles debris on your teeth.) But we can allow ourselves a small retreat. Sure, some of us will be hunting in November and some of us will be skiing in December. Likewise, there remains an outside world in need of tending. Nevertheless, we slow down.

And that’s healthy.

The truth is, I really don’t mind the autumn. For the first time in months, we can savor the sluggishness that all of us, once in a while, crave. After all, in a mere 90 days – 13 weeks – the days once more will begin growing longer.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on September 21, 2014. Chris’s most recent novels are “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” and “The Light in the Ruins.”)

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The idiot box has gotten smart

Breaking-Bad-Season-51            I didn’t watch “Breaking Bad” when AMC was airing an episode a week between 2008 and 2013. Instead, my wife and I binge-watched two and three episodes at a time via Netflix, watching the entire series in about five and a half months – instead of five and a half years.

But I have been watching “Mad Men” an episode at a time since 2007. When the show returns next spring, once again I will be in front of my television at ten p.m. every Sunday night, following the rise and fall (and, perhaps, rise) of Don Draper. I will then watch that very episode a second time the following evening, savoring it with my wife who is never going to watch TV at ten p.m. on a Sunday night, because she is at the gym around five a.m. every Monday morning.

These days, many of us have a series we binge-watch. (Last month, AMC had a “Breaking Bad” marathon, adding the hashtag “BreakingBadBinge” to the screen.) Some TV shows, such as “House of Cards,” even release an entire season at once so a person can hole up for a day or two with a vat of guacamole and a few bags of chips and watch every single episode.

This is just one of the ways that TV has changed since I was a boy in the Mesozoic era. There are shows I watch for hours at a time and there are shows I watch twice. And among the unexpected casualties of my new TV habits has been the time I spend reading. It’s less. Not kidding. Yup, I write novels for a living, and when I look at my private reading journal – far more inclusive than my public feed on Goodreads – I can see that the number of books I read each year has declined steadily since 2010. I still read a lot and the decline has not been cataclysmic. But in 2010 I read 41 books. In 2013 I read 37. This year I expect to read between 34 and 36.

My friends in publishing tell me that book sales were soft this summer and they attribute that in part to great TV. Movie ticket sales were soft as well – it was the worst summer since 1997 – and pundits attribute that simply to terrible movies. But movies, too, could have been affected by the reality that TV has gotten really good. Really. Good.

When I was discussing this trend with another novelist, Stephen Kiernan, he observed that the strength of these dramas is often that they are, in fact, novelistic: They have deeper characters. The subplots take time (think chapters) to resolve.

So far, my addiction to “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” has not had a direct effect on my writing – except for that teeny-tiny detail that I am reading less. In other words, I have no plans to up the stakes in the sorts of novels I write by adding meth cooks and serial philanderers. Moreover, literary fiction still has a far more rigorous standard for plausibility and authenticity than even the best dramas on TV. Discerning readers would challenge half the plot machinations of “Breaking Bad” if they were coming across them in a novel.

But I do find myself increasingly drawn to clips from these two shows for inspiration and tone before I start work in the morning. Years ago, I would read some poetry before I would begin to craft a scene. Now, I go online and watch Walter White tell his wife Skyler that he is not in danger – he is the danger. He is the one who knocks. I watch Don Draper show his children the whorehouse in which he grew up.

This is not a seismic change, but it may be the first tremor: The first indication that greater changes are looming. We’ll see. I have no desire to write teleplays. It has taken me years to become an adequate novelist; I shudder to think how long it would take me to learn to write an adequate TV script. These are two very different talents, and I can count on one hand my friends who are novelists who are also capable of writing TV (and movie) scripts.

And yet I know what excites me and I know where I am spending my leisure time. And, much to my surprise, these days it seems to be in front of what we once dismissed as the idiot box.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press. Chris’s most recent novels are “The Light in the Ruins” and “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.”)

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Sometimes at 35,000 feet, it’s coffee, tea, or tears

Midway through the 2013 Ben Stiller remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Kristen Wiig walks across a Newfoundland dock singing the David Bowie classic, “Space Oddity,” while strumming a guitar. Stiller, as the milquetoast Walter Mitty, is showing uncharacteristic dash by jumping aboard a helicopter captained by a drunk, depressed karaoke singer. Wiig is a part of his daydream, and it’s his vision of her that is spurring him on. The moment is meant to be gently comic.

And yet when I watched the scene last month – a plot twist I knew was coming because I had seen the movie in a theater last December – I felt a very definite wet salty discharge emanating from my eyes. Good Lord, it was worse than watching Tom Hanks lose Wilson, his beloved volleyball, in “Castaway.” Why did I have this reaction to Stiller and Wiig and a guitar? Because I was watching the scene on an airplane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.

I’ve known for most of my adult life that I am particularly susceptible to mawkish sentimentality when I’m hurtling 35,000 feet above the earth. But it was only in 2011 that I learned I was not alone in this regard. In one of the best “This American Life” stories of all time, Brett Martin confessed how even a terrible movie such as “Sweet Home Alabama” could leave him an emotional basket case if he was watching it on an airplane. With great honesty and deadpan humor, Martin shared the connection between weeping and flying.

And, trust me, that connection is real.

I certainly loved my parents, but I didn’t cry when I eulogized my mother years and years ago, and I didn’t shed a tear at the hospital when my father died in 2011. I am one of those seriously uptight males who gets very uncomfortable when I see a man crying. (I’m not proud of that.) The two times I can recall crying in the last seven years when I had my feet on the ground were when my wife and I returned home after dropping our then 14-year-old daughter off at boarding school – here it was, the empty nest – and when I was in Armenia and saw the summit of Mount Ararat for the first time. But I have been precariously close to needing a handkerchief on airplanes as I have read novels that should never have been published and watched movies that should never have been made.

I’ve read articles about why we are emotionally fragile on airplanes, including a particularly brilliant one by Elijah Wolfson in “The Atlantic.” Wolfson examines, among things, the science of crying in terms of moments of stress and subsequent moments of calm. Other stories cite a lack of control. A subconscious (or, in my wife’s case, very conscious) fear of flying. Loneliness. The reality that flights are often about beginnings and endings.

But when I try to understand this phenomenon, I always go back to the day my father died – and the day after. My father died mid-afternoon in a Ft. Lauderdale hospital. I was there, as was his girlfriend and his best friend. He’d had a cerebral aneurysm the night before and had been, more or less, brain-dead, for twelve hours. When he was gone, I went to the P.F. Chang’s just off Ft. Lauderdale beach with a book I was reading. It was about (not kidding) a sexually voracious werewolf. I ate dinner alone at the bar and downed a couple of Tsingtao beers.

At one point the bartender asked, “What brings you to town?”

“Visiting my dad,” I said.

“Nice. Good trip?”

“I’ve had better ones,” I said.

He nodded. “Yup. It’s hard to watch our parents age.”

I raised my Tsingtao in agreement.

Then the next day I flew home. About fifteen minutes after takeoff, I pulled my werewolf novel from my bag and started to read. When (spoiler alert) the werewolf was killed, I put the book down and found myself. . .unmoored. Considerably more unmoored than I had been at any point in the preceding 36 hours.

Wow, I recall thinking, you kept it together when your dad died, but now you’re losing it over a fictional dead werewolf? Seriously? I considered whether I was emotionally stunted – which, for a variety of reasons, I might be. But the truth is also that David Bowie and Major Tom were on to something: When we’re floating round our tin cans, far above the world, we’re all a little blue.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on September 7, 2014. Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published in July.)

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Near a Turkish school, 10,000 dead Armenians are still ignored

Photo by George Aghjayan

Photo by George Aghjayan

The three-story Yenikoy elementary school rises from a plateau like a mesa in south-central Turkey. It is the only building for miles, its exterior walls a pale yellow reminiscent of sweet corn. But the playground swings and slides beside it are a full-on rainbow of crayons: The bright blue of a cerulean sky. The crisp red of a fire engine. The orange of a traffic cone.

Surrounding the playground, however, is a black wrought-iron safety fence. Why? Because the school and playground sit at the edge of a ravine that is easily a hundred feet deep. At the bottom of the ravine is the Dudan Crevasse, a vertigo-inducing gash that plummets at least another 350 feet.

I have visited the area twice in the past two years. In May 2013, the first time I went, the school did not exist. By this August, it had sprouted from the earth like a dandelion.

When I returned to the ravine and saw the school, I was enraged. My anger was not driven by the idea that adults had built a playground beside a dangerous ravine or by the fact that the building despoils an otherwise pristine natural landscape — though both are true.

I was furious because that ravine is the final resting place for an estimated 10,000 of my ancestors, the Armenians of Chunkush, which is the village beside Yenikoy. In the summer of 1915, Turkish gendarmes and a Kurdish killing party marched virtually all of the Armenians who lived in the area to the ravine. There they shot or bayoneted them and tossed the corpses into the crevasse.

Eventually, three out of every four Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were systematically annihilated by their own government during the First World War: 1.5 million people.

Turkey has a long history of denying the Armenian genocide. But the figures don’t lie. Outside of Istanbul, the nation was ethnically cleansed of its Armenian Christian minority. In 1914, according to Armenian Patriarchy census figures, there were 124,000 Armenians in the Diyarbakir province, which includes Yenikoy and Chunkush; by 1922, there were 3,000. Today there are but a handful, all descendants of the survivors who were raised as Muslims and sometimes referred to as “hidden.”

There are no markers or memorials in Turkey that commemorate the myriad sites of the slaughter. (There are in Syria, then the edge of the empire, where many of the Armenians were killed.) Imagine Auschwitz without even a signpost; imagine Buchenwald without a plaque. It isn’t easy for diasporan Armenians such as myself to find the sites in what once was our homeland.

But we do. There are plenty of eyewitness accounts; there are plenty of memoirs.

Some of us make pilgrimages to such places as the Dudan Crevasse to pay our respects to the dead. We visit the remnants and rubble of the churches that as recently as 99 years ago were active, vital and vibrant congregations. We bow our heads. We say a prayer. We gather the garbage that grows like moss beside the altars.

When my friends and I have asked the Kurdish villagers what they believe happened once upon a time at the Dudan Crevasse, usually their answers suggest a near-century of denial and obfuscation. Sometimes they tell you some people died there, but they don’t know who or why. Sometimes they insist they know nothing. And once a pair of middle-school-age girls told a friend of mine, “Some Armenians fell in there.”

There is the stone skeleton of a massive Armenian church in the village and the shell of an Armenian monastery on the outskirts. If you ask the locals where the 10,000 Armenians of Chunkush went, some will tell you with a straight face that they moved to the United States.

I do not know the thinking behind the placement of the Yenikoy elementary school. But I have my suspicions. I would not be surprised if next year when I visit, the crevasse has been filled in: the evidence of a crime of seismic magnitude forever buried.

The irony, however, is this: It will no longer take complex directions or GPS coordinates to find the 10,000 dead at Dudan. All you will need to tell someone is to visit the Yenikoy elementary school. Go stand by the playground. The dead are right there.

(This column appeared originally in the Washington Post on September 7, 2014. Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published this summer.)

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A Friendship that Transcends Language

Zulkuf knows perhaps a dozen words in English, which is roughly 11 more words than I can speak in Kurdish. Sipas means thank you, and that’s the extent of my Kurdish vocabulary. He is a 41-year-old Kurd from south-central Turkey. But, like me, he is adept at communicating with hand signals and smiles. Or frowns. Or, occasionally, gently bringing his fingertips to his heart. His dark hair is so thick that Alec Baldwin would be jealous. The two times I have visited his corner of the world with other Armenian-Americans to explore the remains of Armenian civilization, he has been our driver. Last week when we were there, he proved that on top of everything else, he is a great friend.

(Khatchig  Mouradian, Zulkuf, and Bohjalian near the western base of Mount Ararat. Photo by Victoria Blewer)

(Khatchig Mouradian, Zulkuf, and Bohjalian near the western base of Mount Ararat. Photo by Victoria Blewer)

Our group this summer included my wife and my daughter. Visiting medieval (and older) Armenian ruins in the desert in scorching August heat probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to a family vacation, but it was important to us because my daughter and I are part-Armenian and descendants of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, and my blond wife is seriously Armo by Choice.

By the last day of the journey, our group – at one point as large as 16 – had dwindled to five: my wife and me, our daughter, our great friend Khatchig Mouradian who voluntarily leads these trips, and Zulkuf. Everyone else had returned home, because they were only planning on doing select parts of the expedition. We were now in northeastern Turkey and had spent the day before at the haunting medieval ruins of the Armenian city of Ani. We decided to conclude our trip by venturing to a small town called Digor to see St. Sargis, one of five ancient Armenian churches that Turkey blew up there in the 1950s, and the only one that partially survived the demolition.

We knew it was going to be a long walk to the ravine where the five churches had once stood. Moreover, my family and Zulkuf were recovering from a bout with a plague that, according to one local official, had sickened lots of the local children that summer. But as weak as we were, we gamely soldiered over some gently rolling hills, conserving our water, and eventually we reached the precipice. When we looked down we were utterly awed. Several hundred feet below us stood the battered but proud remains of the thirteenth-century structure, including the iconic dome that marks an Armenian church.10605993_10152612724332118_3723945636889520228_n_2

We were well aware of how privileged we were to see it; relatively few westerners have. We also knew that fewer still had climbed down into the ravine to walk inside it and savor its beauty up close. And so despite the fact that we were exhausted from nine days on the road and the hike to the edge of the cliff, we started down.

We took a circuitous path down the mountain, but it was still rocky and steep and there were vertigo-inducing moments when we looked over the edge and pined for a guardrail. Or the common sense to turn around. My wife fell and cut her arm, but gamely soldiered on.

When we got there, we were even more moved than when we had stared down at St. Sargis from the top of the cliff. It was among the highlights of the trip.

But then, of course, we had to climb back up – which brings me back to Zulkuf. My wife is in great physical shape. But she had been hit hard by the plague that week, and was still weak. She had also taken that tumble on the way down. We agreed that Zulkuf would always be in front of her as we ascended and I would always be behind her. Just in case. About a third of the way up the cliff, I started falling behind. Why? Because Zulkuf was quite literally pulling my wife up the mountain, not for one moment letting go of her hand. When we all reached the top, he just shrugged as if what he had done was nothing.

But that’s Zulkuf. Back in 2013, after we met the last survivor of the Armenian Genocide in Chungush, Turkey, most of our group was crying or on the verge of crying when we returned to the van. Zulkuf put his hand on one fellow’s shoulder and said, “In my country, we often don’t even cry when we lose a loved one. You people are so big-hearted you cry for people you never knew.”

Maybe. But Zulkuf, my friend? Your heart is plenty big, too. Sipas.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 31. Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published this summer.)

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A Little Hope amidst the Monastery Debris

The other day I watched an eight-year-old boy named Ulash (pronounced Oo-lush) spontaneously take a white plastic grocery bag and fill it with potato chip wrappers, cigarette butts, and crushed plastic water bottles.

This was newsworthy not simply because small boys are not known for their fastidiousness or their desire to make the world a cleaner place.

This moment mattered to me because the boy was Kurdish and he was cleaning the litter from the rubble of an ancient Armenian monastery in south-central Turkey.

(photo by Victoria Blewer)

(photo by Victoria Blewer)

Most Armenian church ruins in Turkey are littered with garbage. The monasteries often have fire pits, where people have smoked or kept warm while drinking. Sometimes the floors have been sledgehammered and the ground dug up in search of gold.

One time, Khatchig Mouradian, for years the editor of the Armenian Weekly and now a professor at Rutgers, and George Aghjayan, a frequent contributor to the Weekly, found a human skull—a monk most likely—that had been exhumed from a crypt and left on the floor like a soccer ball.

Invariably there is toxic graffiti on the medieval walls.

But then there is a boy like Ulash and the sort of moment that can give us all a little reason to smile.

It was another scorching hot August morning and a group of eight of us had just arrived in Chunkush, a town on the road between Kharpert and Diyarbakir that once had 10,000 Armenians and now has but one: 99-year-old Asiya, a hidden Armenian I wrote about last year for the Washington Post. Asiya’s mother had been present at the Dudan crevasse when almost all of the Armenians had been slaughtered by Turkish gendarmes and a Kurdish killing party in 1915. One of the Kurds pulled Asiya’s mother from the line at the edge of the ravine because he thought she was pretty, and decided he’d marry her. And so she was spared—one of the very few Armenians who were saved that cataclysmic summer day 99 years ago.

This morning we were back in Chunkush to visit Asiya. Four of us in the group had met her in 2013 and four had not.

Prior to dropping by, however, we went to see the ruins of a medieval Armenian monastery on the edge of the town. There we were greeted by Asiya’s son-in-law, Recai, who had first insisted we meet his remarkable mother-in-law in 2013 and now was coordinating our second visit.

All of us stood inside the sanctuary watching the light pour in through the gaping holes in the walls. We surveyed the columns, looked at the compasses on our cell phones to find east and confirm where the altar had once stood, and tried not to step in the garbage that covered the dirt and stones like fallen leaves in September.

I’m honestly not sure who first reached down with his or her bare hands and picked up a piece of garbage. But the first person I noticed was Recai: He was plucking a once-white cigarette pack, now the color of dirty snow, from the floor and looking around for a place to put it.

Soon all of us were picking at the debris, doing what we could to return a measure of dignity to this once majestic monastery.

And that’s when Ulash appeared with the plastic grocery bag—what, a moment earlier, had merely been more litter. He opened it for Recai. Then he started gathering more trash, working with the relentless energy of any eight-year-old child.

(Photo by Victoria Blewer)

(Photo by Victoria Blewer)

That boy, of course, was Recai’s son, which was why my soul exhaled for a moment and let in a little sunlight. He was Asiya’s grandson.

We will never know precisely what role that boy’s very direct ancestors may have played in the execution of the Armenians at the Dudan crevasse, but we know that the Kurd who pulled Asiya’s mother from the edge of the ravine and then raised Asiya as his daughter obviously was there.

And so the fact that Recai and his son cleaned the monastery with us that day was one of those unexpected moments that provide a measure of healing. A dram of hope. A reminder that wonder is still possible.

* * *

This column appeared originally in the Armenian Weekly.  Bohjalian’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published in July.

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The big scary doll I pushed down the stairs

Recently I came across a photo of my mother introducing me to a doll about an inch or two taller than I am. It is Christmas morning and I am three years old. The doll is called Peter Playpal and it is – literally and metaphorically – that year’s big present from Santa Claus. My mother is doing her best Betty Draper imitation in the image: honey blond hair perfectly coiffed, skirt pressed, impeccably straight legs. She has dressed me to look like the doll: a red blazer, short pants, and red socks. In the photo, I seem bewildered.image-9

I have no memories of playing with the doll, but I have found TV ads for the girl’s version of the toy on YouTube. That doll is named Patti Playpal and based on the 60-second black and white commercial she is utterly terrifying. We’re talking horror movie scary – the sort of doll that replaces you. Or carves you into kebobs. Or chases you into the basement with a meat cleaver. At the very least, the doll is going to wear your clothes (and your shoes) and replace you. In the TV commercial, Patti’s eyes never blink, although I know for a fact that Peter’s eyelids fell whenever he bowed his head. After all, I still have the doll.

I also own Patti, which was never mine when I was a child, but my mother bought years later at a yard sale and thought would work well with her annual Victorian Christmas tableaus. When my parents moved to Florida, they gave my wife and me both Peter and Patti, and the pair have been part of our Halloween tableaus here in Vermont ever since. That means I have cut off and reattached their heads numerous times, drowned them in tubes of Halloween vampire blood, impaled them, hanged them, mummified them, and stuck them with dozens of syringes.

According to family lore, my mother got me the Peter Playpal doll because I used to talk to the mannequins at a department store, now long gone, called Wannamaker’s. (Founder John Wanamaker is famous for saying, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”) Given the amount of time my mother spent clothes shopping, the fact I talked to mannequins should have surprised no one.

Also according to family lore, the only time I ever played with it was when I packed Peter into one of those toy pedal-powered fire engines meant for small children, and pushed him down the long flight of stairs in our house. Clearly I was trying to kill him before he came to life and killed me. (In my early-twenties, I did in fact write a short story called “Dolls don’t die.” It was, like all of my short stories from that period, a train wreck.)

Years later, one Christmas Eve when my wife and I were newlyweds and spending Christmas with my parents, the two of us – aided and abetted by my older brother – took both Peter and Patti Playpal from my mother’s annual Christmas scene in the living room, undressed them, and left them beside the tree as if they were porn stars. My mother was so proud of us when she found them on Christmas morning.

In any case, after coming across that old photo of Peter and me, I ventured up to the attic to take a look at the dolls. Usually I only visit them the day before Halloween, and it is always in the context of how my wife and I can use them to create something diabolic in our front yard. This time I wanted to see something else: Were there other childhood memories they might trigger? I wasn’t expecting to exhume something tragic; I wasn’t anticipating a wonderful revelation. It was just a little intellectual curiosity.

Instead, however, I got the idea for a book. A novel. I honestly don’t know whether it was the photo or the dolls themselves. And I assure you, there won’t be any dolls coming to life.

But there just might be one in a toy fire truck, barreling one day down a long flight of stairs. This is how memories work and how books are born. Stay tuned.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 24, 2014. Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published last month.)

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