“The Guest Room” arrives in 45 days, but there is a Goodreads contest right now

Bookplate TGR FB pst - Version 3Dear Friends who Read and Readers who are Friends,

I haven’t posted here since I stopping penning Idyll Banter on a weekly basis. I miss the column some days more than others, but I never wanted to impose on your goodwill by phoning it in.

But make no mistake: Its absence has meant I have missed hearing from so many of you.

And in case you missed the news flash, I have a new novel arriving in 45 days from Doubleday Books. It’s called “The Guest Room,” and right now there is a Goodreads Giveaway going on. Please enter!

Among the early reviews?
“A good man’s momentary moral lapse plunges his happy, prosperous life into a nightmare of murderous gangsters and remorseless sex traffickers. Bohjalian’s deftness as a story teller is on full display here, as he couples the urgency of a compulsively readable crime thriller with a quiet meditation on the meaning of family and relationships; the painstaking, quotidian, essential business of how we win love, and how swiftly we can lose it.”
– Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize winning author of March

“The Guest Room pulses quick as a page-turner, but its concerns run deep into the moral consequences following an eruption of violence in ordinary lives.”
– Charles Frazier, National Book Award winning author of Cold Mountain

“Gripping. . .Venturing into crime-thriller-territory familiar to fans of Harlan Coben, Bohjalian’s page-turner about an average Joe caught up in sordid events beyond his control resonates with chilling plausibility.”
– Carol Haggas, Booklist

“Bohjalian catches a key social moment with a book that’s fresh and different. . .a tale of scandal, shame, and escalating suspense.”
– Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

“It reads like a thriller…I did not see the end coming. Chris does a terrific job of exploring the very dark side of trafficking and the women who are preyed on…Lots to discuss, and book clubs should take note.”
– Carol Fitzgerald, The Book Reporter
And I will be on tour from January 4 – January 22: 20 cities in 19 days.

I will post the full schedule in a few days.

Thank you again for your faith in my work. Fingers crossed my books never disappoint you.

In the meantime? Please stay in touch.

All the best,

Chris B.
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Goodbye. Godspeed. Farewell. At least for now.

_MG_1420_2Vermont has never been spared the yin and yang of the world. We were certainly reminded this summer that we are not exempt from violence and death in Berlin and Barre and Greensboro, as well as on our interstates and usually quiet country roads.

Most of us, however, simply went about our lives. We swam in Lake Champlain and the New Haven River. We climbed Camel’s Hump. We drank any one of the seven million Vermont microbrews. We gardened.

I mention this because my work over the last quarter century has reflected the shadows and light that mark our state. On the one hand, I wrote novels set in the Green Mountains that focused on domestic violence, racism, and our discomfort with the transgendered. In one novel, I put a Vermont midwife on trial for manslaughter. In another, I had a beautiful young social worker savagely attacked while riding her bike not far from Burlington. Most recently, I wrote about a homeless girl trying to ride out the winter on the Lake Champlain waterfront in an igloo made of black plastic trash bags filled with wet, frozen leaves.

But this column, Idyll Banter? It was always about that other side of our little world. It was, I hoped, about the phantasmagoric beauty of our autumns and the cerulean skies of our summers. On a weekly basis I tried to celebrate the eccentricities of my neighbors and the kindness of strangers. I wrote about the joys of being a husband, a father, and (yes) a son. I wrote (perhaps too often) about my cats and their epic turd hockey matches. I was never shy about my colossal ineptitude as a homeowner and the reality that – once upon a time – I was a young man and an idiot flatlander who needed all the help he could get. (I am no longer the former; I will, I imagine, always be the latter.)

Capen House538Since the first Sunday of February 1992, I have filed a column every single Sunday but three. The final total is, I believe, 1,225 columns and roughly 827,000 words. That’s the equivalent of eight novels. When I started in 1992, I hoped I could find the wherewithal and the spark to write 52. One year. That was the goal.

This column has been among the great blessings of my professional life and I loved writing it. It was both a memoir and performance art. I hope I entertained all of you, because heaven knows I entertained myself – even, yes, as I eulogized my mother, my father, my mother-in-law and far too many friends and neighbors and cats. (There is that yin and yang again, the shadow that comes with the light.)

And so I want to thank Candace Page, the first editor at the “Free Press” who ever let me file a column. It was actually in the business section and it was way back in February 1988. I want to thank Steve Mease, who as features editor published my first lifestyle essay in 1989. I want to thank Ron Thornburg, who took a chance on me and this weekly enterprise in the first weeks of 1992.

Others at the newspaper over the years to whom I will always be grateful include Jennifer Carroll, Joe Cutts, Geoffrey Gevalt, Mickey Hirten, Becky Holt, Stephen Kiernan, Ryan Mercer, Julie Metzger, Melissa Pasanen, Julie Pidgeon, Sally Pollak, Dennis Redmond, Brad Robertson, Adam Silverman, Aki Soga, Philip Tortora, Mike Townsend, Clover Whitham, and Jym Wilson.

I have to give a shout-out as well to Rita Markley with the Committee on Temporary Shelter and Mark Redmond with Spectrum Youth and Family Services. It’s not merely that you both do the work of the angels day-in and day-out; you both shared with me dozens of stories over the years that gave this column gravitas and heft.

I am indebted to the people of Lincoln (and Bristol) whose stories brought Idyll Banter to life, particularly families with the last names of Brown, Goodyear, Cram, and Wood. I want to thank the church, the school, the preschool, the Lincoln Volunteer Fire Company, and the general store. You gave me material – and you gave me perspective.

My lovely bride, Victoria, and our daughter, the always amazing Grace Experience, allowed me to exploit them shamelessly and share with the world how very much I love them.

And, of course, I have to thank all of you: my readers. You opened the paper and gave me the great gift of your time. You brought me into your homes. As I wrote at the beginning of the summer when I announced the formal end to Idyll Banter, I will pop in to the “Free Press” periodically in the coming years. Old habits are hard to break. But in the meantime? Please know that I will miss you. I will miss you more than you know.

Goodbye. Godspeed. Farewell.

At least for now. . .

(You may still see Chris riding his bike this autumn around Vermont. You can also visit him on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, or Instagram.)

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A great teacher sees the promise of September


The back-to-school sales fliers started arriving in our mailboxes back around the 4th of July, the scariest mail of the summer for students and teachers alike. And now the moment has arrived: for much of the world, classes have resumed. At the 116-student elementary school here in Lincoln, Vermont the new year commenced last Wednesday.

It was 17 years ago that my daughter started kindergarten there, but I still have precise, vivid memories of her mother and me waiting with her for the school bus at the end of our driveway. Rather tenderly she reassured her mother that she’d be fine, telling her not to cry, and then took one of the biggest steps of her life (and I mean that quite literally): she stepped up onto the bus.

Our daughter started at the school about the same time that Anna Howell arrived in Lincoln. Anna, 42, wound up here in 1998 because she was looking for a cheap house to rent where the owner wouldn’t mind the fact that she would be moving in with her dog. She was an aspiring schoolteacher, and soon would start work at the Lincoln Community School, teaching the combined third and fourth grade class there.

First, however, she volunteered at the Lincoln Library — or, to be precise, the remnants of the Lincoln Library. In June 1998, after four weeks of rain and four inches in an hour, the usually lazy New Haven River overflowed its banks and flooded the library, destroying eighty percent of the collection and leaving all of us in the community a little unmoored. But the library reopened and newcomer Anna was there to help. Among her first friends? Four-year-old Lydia Stearns, whose grandmother Linda Norton was the librarian and whose mother Vaneasa Stearns owned the general store across the street.

“Lydia kept talking about her new friend, Anna, and wanting me to schedule a play date with Anna,” Vaneasa recalled. “So, I brought some snacks across the street for the girls, assuming that Anna was four years old, too.”

Nope. But it was an indication of how generous with her time Anna would be as a teacher. She was certainly among my daughter’s favorite teachers there (and anywhere), and still teaches the same grades in the same school. This past week she welcomed 15 students to her classroom.

“August is one long Sunday afternoon,” she told me when I asked her what this time of the year feels like to her. “There’s a sense of foreboding. It’s bittersweet. But it’s also exciting. I see the kids and they’re ready to be with their buddies. There’s the novelty of packing their backpacks and getting back on the bus.”

She volunteered that she particularly enjoys working with third and fourth graders: “I love that 8 and 9-year-olds have a totally unreasonable, wonderful sense of their abilities. They go grab paper for a story and grab a hundred sheets because they plan to write a novel. When we come up with plans for public service, they intend to save the world.”

Of course, that also means, “Invariably they bite off more than they can chew, and so it’s a fragile place, too. They come up against their limits.”

One of the reasons why I appreciate living in Lincoln is that little school. It was such a gift as a parent to know my daughter was there, learning from teachers like Anna: educators who are not merely creative and fun, but seem always to have their students’ backs.

A few years after Anna met Lydia Stearns at the library, she had the girl’s older sister Alyssa in her class. Alyssa would be hospitalized for three months that year and endure five separate surgeries — one at Boston Children’s Hospital. Her mother recalls everyone’s fear that Alyssa had missed so much school that she would have to repeat the grade. “But Anna said, ‘No way. Alyssa is staying with her class,’” Vaneasa told me. “Anna would come by our house after school, put on her surgical mask, and work with her for hours.” And, indeed, Alyssa did just fine and moved on to fifth grade with her peers.

Yes, the start of the school year can make us a little wistful. But when our children are in the care of a really good teacher, we feel a bit like those 9-year-olds, and we see only promise and potential. The days may be growing short, but the vista is limitless.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 30, 2015. There is now one Idyll Banter column remaining. After 23 and a half years, Chris will be filing his last column next Sunday. His new novel, “The Guest Room,” arrives on January 5, 2016.)

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A Ferris wheel is still food for the soul

(photo by Victoria Blewer)

(photo by Victoria Blewer)

A couple of years ago, Chris Ashby, director of operations at the Champlain Valley Exposition, saw three boys peering longingly through a fence at the Champlain Valley Fair. He guessed the kids were 8 or 9 years old. On the other side of fence was the fair’s tractor pull, and Ashby could hear the indefatigable growl of the engines. He gave the kids tickets so they could watch the competition properly. “They didn’t walk into the venue and they didn’t run into the venue,” he recalled. “They bounced.”

That’s what the fair is all about, Ashby told me, adding, “You see an inherent delight on all the kids’ faces when you walk around.”

The fair opens in five days, a 10-day bacchanal to commemorate the end of summer. For some people, the fair is a celebration of agrarian Vermont, with majestic Morgans and Belgians, Holsteins with “good dairy strength,” and pumpkins the size of Mini Coopers. For others, it’s the midway, with rides called Zyklon, Zipper, and Fireball that are designed to terrify us — yet with the presumption that we are nonetheless perfectly safe. And for still others, it’s the food: the fried dough, the maple creemees, and (yes) the pork boners.

I have gone annually since I was a young man, watching my daughter and her friends grow from savoring the classic carousel to standing in line for the centrifugal (and myriad) vomitrons. My wife and I met the Batman there. We watched the dogs that dive and the pigs that race. Every year I consume a bloomin’ onion on my own; she eats all things maple.

And while so much of the fair is predictable by design — we want there to be blue ribbons for tomatoes and cukes, we want carnies assuring us that it’s easy to win a stuffed Pink Panther as tall as a toddler — there are always moments of re-invention. This year there is a home brew contest, with the Best in Show beer getting to brew a “pilot batch” at the 14th Star Brewery in St. Albans. Chefs from the Essex Resort and Spa will be giving cooking demonstrations (although rumor has it they will not be whipping up pork boners). There will even be vegan smoothies.

There is another reason, however, that we gravitate to the Champlain Valley Fair. There is a reason that we love all the fairs that pepper Vermont in August and September. “There’s a certain amount of melancholy because it’s the end of summer,” Ashby said. “The kids are going back to school. We’re all about to change into a whole different set of clothes. Everything changes after the fair.”

In other words, this is summer’s last hurrah. We are not precisely fiddling as the season burns, but we are all cognizant that the days are growing short, there is a chill in the night air, and our tomato plants look like the tentacles from dying man o’ war jellyfish. The fair is the ritualistic point of demarcation our souls crave. We will see people there we may see once a year, returning like barn swallows to that nest they built in the rafters twelve months earlier, drawn inexorably (and magically) back. And we will connect.

Yes, much of what we will eat at the fair is empty calories. I get it. Most of the games we will play at the midway are bait-and-switch. And the rides are never as long as we’d like.

But we all also know this: there is a phosphorescent beauty in a Ferris wheel at night. There is charisma in a miniature horse. There is confidence attached to those 4-H ribbons our children earn.

And there is the bounce in all of our steps when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, someone gives us tickets to the tractor pull.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 23, 2015. There are now two Idyll Banter columns remaining. After 23 and a half years, Chris will be filing his last column on Sept. 6. Chris’s new novel, “The Guest Room,” arrives on January 5, 2016.)

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A little too much like life: Aging and the approaching end to Idyll Banter


photoIn one of the last weeks of my father’s life — though we had no idea at the time that he would be leaving us shortly as a result of a burst blood vessel in his brain — he asked me to intervene with the caregivers at his assisted living facility who felt he was too frail to shower without their help. At the time, this was only the latest indignity that he was shouldering. My negotiations with the nurses were complex and fraught, but eventually we worked out a compromise that (mostly) satisfied all parties. Nevertheless, the experience reminded me of what Philip Roth wrote in his novel, “Everyman:”

“Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.”

My father has been gone years now, and my mother died decades ago. Rarely (and only rarely) do I gaze at my phone on a Sunday afternoon and think, “Oh, I should tell Dad this,” before remembering that’s not quite possible. And never does that notion cross my mind about my mother. I didn’t even own a cell phone when she died.

As Idyll Banter winds down this summer after nearly a quarter century, I’ve looked back at many of the columns and I think some of my favorite stories were about my father and his friends as they fought that good fight against aging and death. As a culture, we’re not especially comfortable with old age. Occasionally there will be movies about the degradations that accompany the far side of 60 or 70 that will touch a nerve. “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and its sequel come to mind. So do novels such as Rachel Joyce’s “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.” But they’re rare.

And while much of our cultural ageism focuses on physical infirmities and the body’s inevitable decline, my sense is that increasingly it is triggered as well by technology. Yes, technology prolongs our lives. But it now moves so quickly and changes so fast that my father and his friends felt humiliated and shamed by new “gadgets” as often as they were awed by them. My father never did understand the difference between a DVD player and a laptop computer. My mother-in-law, who was considerably more tech savvy than my father, had a dial-up Internet connection until the day she died in 2011.

Let’s face it: it must have been a heck of a lot easier to earn respect as a dowager countess in “Downton Abbey” when you and the young folks spoke the same language, and no one was tweeting and texting when you were trying to carry the banner against vulgarity. (In all fairness, of course, even “Downton Abbey’s” Countess Violet Grantham had to cope with a device called a telephone.)

Consequently, it crossed my mind that perhaps I should consider writing this column as I aged, and use it to chronicle my own advancing decrepitude. I started writing Idyll Banter as a young man 23 years ago; why not write it another 23 (assuming I live anywhere near that long)? Why not record my own battles with the nurses who felt I was too old to shower alone, or my failures to grasp the grandson of the Apple Watch? After all, I was never shy when it came to celebrating my non-age-related ineptitude.

But, in the end, I feared that weekly forays into this sort of wistfulness would do me in. In the past, chronicling my father’s — and, yes, my mother-in-law’s — trials could always be interspersed with accounts of my cats’ epic turd hockey skirmishes, my daughter’s preschool (and, later, high school) adventures, or the quirkiness of our beloved Vermont.

So, when I pop back into this newspaper in the coming years with an occasional Idyll Banter column, expect it to be about the wonders of aging and not my inexorable diminishment. In the years to come, I would rather be writing about wisdom or books or (someday) my daughter’s marriage than all the things that — suddenly, inexorably — I am too old for.

In some ways, the last 815,000 words in this column were easy. The next 815,000 would have been much harder. They would, alas, have been just a little too much like life.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 16, 2015. There are now three Idyll Banter columns remaining. After 23 and a half years, Chris will be filing his last column on Sept. 6. His new novel, “The Guest Room,” arrives on January 5, 2016. You can preorder it wherever books are sold.)

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To understand Vermont, look to Georgia. . .the dog.


If you really want to understand Vermont, spend a little time with Georgia. Georgia is a 65-pound pit bull and chocolate Lab mix — a classic rescue mutt — with a wattle under her neck that could double as a change purse, but makes her no less endearing. Earlier this week, she spent two hours in the driver’s seat of one of the bulldozers constructing a new bridge here in Lincoln. The smart money said she was there hiding from the thunder that had rolled in late that morning, but her owner remains convinced she was working on her CDL: her commercial driver’s license.

Georgia’s owner is my friend and neighbor Nancy Stevens. Nancy has been in this column a lot over the past quarter century. She is the state’s first female private detective, was at different times my daughter’s preschool and Sunday School teacher, and has served the town as a selectperson, delinquent tax collector, town meeting moderator, and justice of the peace. She also, once upon a time, had llamas, which were only a problem when the mother needed to be milked because her baby insisted on trying to nurse from a barn beam. (Nancy eventually did break the baby’s addiction to pumpkin pine — with the help of another neighbor who happened to have a thousand-pound Scottish Highlander Hereford Cross beef cow as a pet, and was able to milk the mama llama until Barn Baby was willing to enjoy his llama manna straight from the source.)

In any case, Georgia is now the official mascot for Nancy’s Sunday School class at the church here in Lincoln, but she is also one of the unofficial animal ambassadors for the whole town. How well is she recognized? One of our mail carriers, Stan Bigelow, will give her a ride when he is delivering mail, bringing her three miles from the Stevens home to her pal Bella the Dog’s house in the center of town. Local builder Averi Smith has also served as an informal canine cab for Georgia, again carting her to her buddy, Bella.

And, of course, last week, she wound up in that bulldozer, and for a day became the mascot for the J. A. McDonald construction team building the new bridge across the New Haven River. “This one guy said to me that it was the funniest thing you ever saw,” Nancy told me. “Georgia jumped right into the bulldozer like it was her own vehicle.” The next day, Nancy baked the crew M&M cookies to thank them for dog-sitting Georgia through the thunderstorm.

My sense is that Lincoln is not unique. There are perhaps dozens of villages like it in Vermont, places still small enough that the people facilitate play dates between dogs, and don’t mind when one wants to help construct a new bridge.

But it runs deeper here. Much deeper. Nancy may have given a lot to this town, but she feels the town has given her far more in return. During her second bout with cancer in the early 1990s, while one of her children was a toddler and one was in preschool, five nights a week for six months people brought her family dinner. “We called it the chemo casserole parade,” she recalls. Two years ago when those children, now grown, were both going to be away for Christmas, she returned home after the Christmas Eve service at the church to her quiet, empty house, and found a massive Christmas stocking hanging beside her fireplace filled with dozens of “wild, wacky gifts.” (It took a little gumshoe work on her part to find out who the elves were, but eventually she did.)

“The town has changed in the last 30 years, but the spirit of community here hasn’t,” Nancy said. “Lincoln is not a drive-through town. If you’re coming through Lincoln, you’re coming to Lincoln. You get a flat tire here, and four people will drive by and offer to help.”

Indeed. It’s probably why Nancy and Georgia feel right at home in these hills.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 9, 2015. There are now four Idyll Banter columns remaining. After 23 and a half years, Chris will be filing his last column on Sept. 6. The paperback of his most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published this summer.)

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Let’s hope Cecil the lion was not slaughtered for naught

B9318299662Z.1_20150801191002_000_GGCBGEU0U.7-0It was well over 200 years ago now that Jeremy Bentham asked about animals, “The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?’” It was a rhetorical question even then. Obviously animals can suffer; obviously animals feel pain.

Last week the Internet, the news media, and Minnesotans publicly shamed a Bloomington dentist who shot a lion in Zimbabwe in July. The animal’s name was Cecil — yes, he was given a name — and he lived in Hwange National Park. The lion was lured from the safety of the park by hunters with food. The American dentist, a big game hunter, shot Cecil first with a bow and arrow. That didn’t kill him. The dentist tracked him for two days before finally finishing him off with a rifle.

Much of the world has been justifiably appalled.

I’ve been a vegetarian most of my adult life. My wife is, too. So is our daughter.

Often when it comes up in conversation that I’m a vegetarian, people ask whether I eat chicken or fish. My answer? “No. I don’t eat anything that had a parent.” I could say, “I don’t eat anything that feels pain,” because — recall that classic Bentham quote — that is the real reason. But I don’t want to sound sanctimonious or self-righteous. (Alas, I probably sound a little of both this morning. Forgive me.)

There are issues here that demand books to explore. Vegetarianism is merely one point along the lengthy spectrum of animal rights. In other words, millions of people around the world who eat meat mourned the death of Cecil the Lion. I imagine a great many Vermont deer hunters were disgusted. And yet, somehow, it seems to take more imagination for humans to identify with animal suffering and (for instance) the staggering cruelty of the meat industry than it does for us to conceive of cloning or space flight or nuclear fusion.

But make no mistake, it hurts a deer every bit as much as it hurts a human being to be shot. Likewise, a mother pig is no happier living her life in a cramped metal crate than any other mammal. Even the lobster — an animal I have christened an earwig on steroids — most likely feels pain. (In other words, that’s not just a reflex you are witnessing when you drop one into a pot of boiling water.)

I can’t say if we would behave better as people if we did not eat meat, but the world itself would most certainly be a better place. According to a 2006 study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, our demand for meat causes more greenhouse gases than either industry or transportation. The report found that meat production results in somewhere between 14 and 22 percent of the greenhouse gases we create every year: producing an eight ounce hamburger results in roughly as much greenhouse gas as driving a car ten miles.

My sense is that so many of us were outraged by Cecil’s murder (I have chosen that noun with care) because the animal had a name, was known in its community, and was a big furry lion. We like big. We like lions. We like animals we have named. Also, the fact that Cecil was murdered by a dentist is an irony that has to be factored into our thinking, since a lot of people like lions considerably more than they like dentists — though I happen to like my dentist a lot. Moreover, we hate poachers.

In other words, we were more upset by the death of this one lion than we are by the death of the 110 million pigs killed every year for food.

But as a vegetarian, I see promise in the indignation and sorrow people were experiencing. Cecil’s death was not the Disney Circle of Life ending we expect for creatures this majestic and regal. (Of course, Disney also gave us Bambi; I’m not going there.)

Nevertheless, I have a feeling that Cecil the Lion was not slaughtered for naught. Let’s see.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on August 2, 2015. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published this summer.)

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