What I’ve Been Reading This Summer

Dear Friends Who Read and Readers Who Are Friends,

DSC_3278I’ve been asked a lot this summer what I’m reading, especially from readers who are either devastated that Lin-Manuel Miranda has left “Hamilton” or devastated that he has left “Hamilton” and chosen not to run for political office – any office.

I feel their pain. I really do.

In any case, these are some of the books that I have absolutely loved so far this year. In no particular order:

* Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. A private plane crashes and two people survive, only to confront the inevitable media madness. Hawley is the brilliant mind behind the “Fargo” TV series on FX, and he is one heck of a novelist, too.

* Eligible by Curtis Sittenfield. A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in Cincinnati. Jane Austen would be pleased with the sly humor and deep characterizations that mark every page.

* Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. A magisterial three-century epic about Ghana and America. This is a debut novel with sentences so luminous and perfect I would read them aloud.

* Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben. Another smart, gripping page-turner. This one has already been snapped up by Julia Roberts for the movie.

* The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Four siblings await their share of the family fortune. Their behavior ranges from horrible to hilarious, but it always rings true.

* City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin. The third and final volume of Cronin’s masterful, often terrifying vampire trilogy.

* The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close. An often laugh-out-loud novel of ambition and marriage and politics – and whether one young couple’s marriage can survive both the nation’s capital and Texas.

* The Girls by Emma Cline. It’s 1969 and Evie, a California teen, is attracted to a cult reminiscent of Charlie Manson’s. It’s a gripping coming-of-age novel.

* Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola. This is a memoir about drinking and recovering from drinking, and page 214 is so exquisitely beautiful that it will break your heart.

And here are three novels arriving this autumn and winter that I am looking forward to immensely:

* The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. A pair of slaves head north from Georgia on the Underground Railroad in antebellum America. Moving and thoughtful and magnificent.

* Little Deaths by Emma Flint. It’s 1965 in Queens, New York. Did Ruth Malone really murder her two adorable children? A lush, moody, film noir of a novel.

* Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. White supremacists, a heroic nurse, and a courtroom drama: a gripping exploration of race and class and justice in contemporary America.

Of course, you can always see exactly what I am reading right here on Goodreads. (I’m sometimes asked why I give every book I list on Goodreads a five-star rating. The answer is simple. I know a lot of writers, so I only list the books that I enjoyed on Goodreads.)

You may have seen on the social networks that I have been riding my beloved bike a lot this summer. I also have been writing. They’re connected: I do a lot of my best work on two wheels. So, you’ll see a brand new novel soon. Stay tuned for details.

Happy reading. Fingers crossed my work never disappoints you.

All the best,

Chris B.

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The forgotten hero who killed the Armenian Genocide’s mastermind

SoghomonTehlirianLast Friday morning, Rep. Jim Costa placed a wreath in Fresno, California’s Masis Ararat Cemetery at the grave of an Armenian who died peacefully in San Francisco 56 years ago.

Most Americans are more familiar with the Peloponnesian War than they are with the fellow Costa remembered. Even in the San Joaquin Valley, home to roughly 50,000 Armenian-Americans, most Californians would be hard-pressed to pronounce the man’s name correctly.

And yet for Armenians around the world, Soghomon Tehlirian’s name inspires pride and awe in equal measure. On a March morning in 1921, in broad daylight and on a main street in Berlin, he shot and killed Mehmed Talat Pasha, one of the three rulers of the Ottoman Empire during World War I and the architect of the Armenian genocide. That year he would be tried for murder and the German jury would find him innocent. The New York Times would announce the verdict with the headline, “They had to let him go!”

This Sunday, April 24, marks the 101st anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide. It was on that night in 1915 that the Armenian intellectuals, professionals, editors and religious leaders in Constantinople were rounded up by the Ottoman authorities, and almost all of them were executed. In the years that followed, three out of four Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were systematically annihilated by their own government: 1.5 million people. The majority of Armenians alive today are descendants of those few who survived.

I knew bits and pieces of the Tehlirian story growing up, but it wasn’t until last year when Eric Bogosian published “Operation Nemesis” that I understood what a remarkable and complex tale it really is.

Bogosian, an award-winning actor, playwright and novelist, did monumental research to piece together how a reserved, young Armenian from a village in what is today northeastern Turkey would become a central figure in the plot to exact revenge on the masterminds of the slaughter.

Bogosian’s story is as riveting as any spy thriller, and all the more remarkable because it’s true. (In two photos of Tehlirian taken in the 1920s, the nattily dressed assassin looks more like a silent film star than a man who had grown politicized in 1915 while rounding up the orphans of butchered Armenians and trying desperately to get them help.)

As the individual chosen to execute Talat Pasha – a man the first postwar Turkish government had sentenced to death in absentia for his monumental crimes, and was hiding in Berlin under an assumed name – Tehlirian no doubt hoped he would be acquitted of the crime, but knew also that he was risking his own life and freedom.

Obviously Talat Pasha’s death could not bring back the dead or return the Armenian homeland. If you want to see the definition of ethnic cleansing, visit the eastern half of Turkey where the Armenians once lived. Today there are remnants of Armenian churches and monasteries and unmarked mass graves, but you will find no living Armenian communities.

But Tehlirian took the risk and he succeeded. With a single bullet, he had done what the victorious allied nations had failed to do: punished a war criminal. David had slain Goliath.

After the trial, Tehlirian would move to Serbia and, later, San Francisco, where he would die in 1960. (He is buried in Fresno because at the time Masis Ararat Cemetery was the only Armenian cemetery in America.) He understood he was viewed as a hero by his people, but he and his wife lived without ostentation. Nevertheless, his grave in Fresno is magnificent, a monument befitting a war hero: a 22-foot-high obelisk with an eagle on top and a pair of cypress trees behind it.

Invariably, the 101st anniversary of any event is a shadow of the centennial. That’s especially true when it is the anniversary of an occasion as solemn as the commencement of a genocide.

But there are links between the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Cambodian killing fields, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, and the violence that ISIS has unleashed on the Armenians and Yazidis in Syria.

The last stage in a genocide is often the first stage of the next one. Moreover, Turkey still refuses to acknowledge the crimes of the Ottoman Empire, leveraging its geographic and geopolitical clout to bully its allies – including the United States – into euphemism or silence. The fact is, the Armenian nation is statistically a diaspora nation, with seven of every 10 Armenians in this world living outside the nation state.

Consequently, the genocide is, as Pope Francis eloquently described it last year, an open wound for Armenians. We all know what happened to our ancestors – our own parents, grandparents or great-grandparents.

And so while we are now at the centennial plus one, remembering the Armenian genocide is as important as ever. Friday’s wreath-laying and remarks at the Tehlirian grave were especially meaningful. It may not have marked the first time that a U.S. congressional representative had visited the monument, but it seems to be the first time in memory. Speaking and standing beside Costa was Raffi Hamparian, chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America.

Whenever we speak of genocide, we begin first with the numbers. The 6 million. The 1.5 million. But it is not merely the souls that are lost; it is the stories. It is the sense of self. It is the dignity that comes with being human.

There was a good crowd on Friday. Tehlirian, after all, is the closest thing the Armenians have to an avenging angel. Tehlirian gave something to the Armenian people that was taken from even the survivors: a small taste of the pride that walks hand in hand with justice.

(This essay originally ran in the Fresno Bee on April 21, 2016. Chris’s most recent novel is “The Guest Room.”)

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For the Love of Writing: The Journey from Process to Product

1839_10153808015502118_9007550041074621381_nJohn Gardner was thrown from his motorcycle and died the year before his book, The Art of Fiction, was published in 1983. Consequently, he never saw the influence that his short, smart guide to good writing would have on so many aspiring writers – including me.

In the last thirty years, I’ve thought often of a point he makes in the preface: “Though the ability to write well is partly a gift – like the ability to play basketball well, or to outguess the stock market – writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing.” I never took a creative writing class, so his book was my Bread Loaf, that almost mythic writing conference in Vermont’s Green Mountains where (among other places) Gardner taught.

Just for the record, I did try once to take a creative writing course. I was a sophomore in college and the writer in residence read a sample of my work to see whether I was worth her time. She summoned me to her office and said, “I have three words advice for you.” I could tell this wasn’t going to be good. “Be a banker.”

My sense is that by a “deep-down love of writing,” Gardner meant an appreciation for the way that we string words together: the finished product. But I like to believe he might also have been considering the process of putting words down on paper. Writing, in this case, would be both a noun and a verb.

The reality is that not all writers enjoy the process of sitting down and writing. Dorothy Parker once confessed with her usual cleverness, “I hate writing, I love having written.”

But most of us do enjoy it. We have a deep-down love for the process. Even Hemingway, whose letters and interviews are rich with melodrama about the pain and hard work of being a writer, on occasion would confess to Max Perkins (and others) how much he loved it.

Certainly I do. I write every day. I’m at my desk with an eight-point-four-ounce can of Sugar Free Red Bull (the first of two I will finish by lunch) by six AM. The goal each day is to produce a thousand words. Yes, like Hemingway, I count them – or to be precise, Microsoft Word for Apple counts them. But even when I was a young man writing with blue, fine-point Bic pens on yellow legal pads before going to work at an ad agency, I counted the words. I don’t always reach a thousand, but the point is to get something down on paper I can work with. As novelist Jodi Picoult has observed – a remark that captures both her wisdom and humor – “You can edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

And the reality is that a lot of those words will wind up on the cutting room floor. The first draft of my novel Before You Know Kindness was 185,000 words. The final draft was 135,000. In between, I did not merely cut 50,000 words; I probably cut 85,000 and wrote 35,000 that were new.

I depend upon two techniques that Hemingway championed. First, I always begin by rewriting the last 200 or 300 words I wrote the day before. This reacquaints me with the material and gives me momentum: Think of a plane gaining velocity and then rising as it hurtles down a runway. I am also, of course, editing the text. Improving it. Second, I always knock off around lunchtime. This way I always have a little gas in the tank for the next morning.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I spend my life working only half-days. The afternoons are filled with research: interviews with people who know more about a subject than I do (heart surgery, human trafficking, why planes crash). But the afternoons are often filled with biking, too, at least for the seven months a year when it’s pleasurable to ride here in Vermont. I am an avid bicyclist, and the riding helps my writing. Someone – I don’t recall who – once observed that the most important tool a writer can have is a walk. For me, it’s a ride. When I am alone on my bike somewhere between the Lake Champlain Bridge and the top of the Lincoln Gap, I am invariably thinking about whatever book I am writing.

There are a couple of reasons why I have found my bicycle such an important tool. One is the shower principle – a term I learned from the fictional Jack Donaghy on “30 Rock.” It has less to do with sweat than it does with clearing one’s mind. “The shower principle is a term scientists use to describe moments of inspiration that occur when the brain is distracted from the problem at hand – for example, when you’re showering,” Donaghy explains. I have no idea if this is a real term that any scientist outside of TV Land has ever used, but we all know there’s a certain truth to it. On my bike I have figured out how books will end and determined whether characters will live or die. My 2007 novel, The Double Bind, was born on a bike.

And over the last few years, I have grown more likely to stop and pull my iPhone from my cycling jersey, and write entire scenes on the device. The moment in Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands when narrator Emily Shepard retreats into a shopping mall bathroom with her cutting kit was written on my iPhone while sitting beside a gazebo in New Haven, Vermont.

Finally, it is worth noting that as much as I love writing (the verb), I probably love writing (the noun) even more. I doubt anyone becomes a serious novelist who doesn’t love reading: savoring paragraphs that precisely capture longing or dread or desire. Being riveted by a plot twist that is utterly surprising but, you realize, perfect, because it was inevitable.

I don’t play basketball well and heaven knows I have never guessed right on the stock market. But I can’t imagine a gift for either would have made me any happier in this life than writing.

* * *

This essay appeared originally on Signature on January 5, 2016. Chris’s new novel, “The Guest Room,” was just published.

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1968: The Year Christmas Eve Meant the Moon

IMG_5300Forty-seven years ago tonight, December 24th, the three astronauts from the Apollo 8 mission to the moon were approaching the lunar sunrise.

Yes, it was Christmas Eve.

In the United States, it was nighttime.

It was 1968.

Cue the space music.

My family and I were living in a Connecticut suburb of New York City, and we were spending that Christmas Eve with family friends who lived nearby, Bob and Mary George. I was a little boy whose biggest concern as the evening dragged on was that we were going to leave so late at night – so deep into the early morning – that we would get home precisely when Santa Claus coasted to a stop on either our roof or our long, straight, invariably iced-over driveway. Imagine a patch of airport runway made of black ice.

Somehow, of course, Santa and his reindeer always landed safely. Sure, my mother and father would annually take off a side mirror as they careened to a stop in the red Falcon or the white Impala, or skid at least once each into the garage door. But Santa Claus? As far as I knew, he had always nailed the landing. Think an Olympic gymnast’s ten-point-oh dismount.

At the same time, we couldn’t possibly risk arriving home while Santa was at our house: I understood well the rules. You leave out the cookies and milk for the big guy, but you don’t try and catch him. You leave out the carrots for the giant sleigh’s engine room, but you don’t stay up and expect Rudolph to eat from your hand. There are. . .consequences. By remaining at Bob and Mary George’s, my family was not merely playing with fire: we were risking the very cosmological foundations of Christmas – because wasn’t Christmas all about. . .Santa Claus?

The Georges meant a great deal to my parents and (yes) to me, which was why we often spent Christmas Eve with them. But their children were a lot older than I was. Their daughter was actually old enough to have been my older brother’s babysitter and was now a grownup herself: She was married to a soldier who was spending that Christmas across the globe in Vietnam.

That’s how different the world was forty-seven years ago: As a nation we were fighting in Southeast Asia and as a species we had yet to walk on the moon. Easily half of you reading this essay this evening were yet to be born.

But, oh, that night long ago my concern wasn’t for the safety of my brother’s babysitter’s husband in a rice patty on the other side of the globe or for the three astronauts in a spacecraft roughly a quarter of a million miles away. I was focused only on the five adults — my parents, their friends, and their friend’s daughter — drinking scotch in the living room by the fireplace.

I was watching the clock and I was fretting about the time. I was worried about whether our car would be able to navigate the Georges’ driveway, which was the exact opposite of our own: Their house was nestled like the base lodge for a ski resort at the bottom of a steep and wooded hill. The driveway was a black diamond trail with a garage at the end. It wasn’t snowing that night, but it had the day before and when we had arrived at the Georges’ on Christmas Eve, our car had slid down that driveway as if we were riding a barely controlled toboggan.

Now, hours later, I was reaching that moment when the little boy mind moves from mild to meltdown. I was desperate to leave.

The reality is that like most children, I had never been especially patient as Christmas neared. I always had advent calendars – and I always had opened all twenty-five doors by the third of December. (And I was always somewhere between disappointed and miffed by what I found behind them: A drawing of an apple? A painting of an elf puppet? Seriously? Behind those doors I hoped to find terrifying robots and plastic models of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. That’s what I wanted from an Advent Calendar.)

My family always had two Christmas trees those years in Connecticut, one that my father, my older brother, and I were allowed to trim, and one that my mother alone would decorate. Why? Hers were themed – white Christmas, Victorian Christmas, green and gold Christmas, and (one year), napkin rings, nothing but napkin rings – and she spent serious amounts of time on those trees. The males’ tree? I recall one year my father, my brother, and I trimmed the whole thing during a football game halftime.

In any case, I know I was not unique: what little boy or girl actually wants to wait for Christmas?

So, Christmas Eve 1968.

The Georges’.

The adults.

The scotch.

I was at my wit’s end when abruptly Mr. George rose from his living room chair and went to the radio. In my memory, the radio is the size of a cement block and covered in gold-colored fabric. The dial was the diameter of the palm of my hand. He was smoking a cigarette — all of the adults but my father were smoking cigarettes — and with great excitement he spun the dial until he found the station he was looking for. He insisted I sit down on the ottoman before the fireplace and listen.

I did and that instant would become for me a moment of revelation that I can liken without hyperbole to Charlie Brown watching Linus stand center stage in the school auditorium and explain the meaning of Christmas by reciting the second chapter of Luke. Mr. George wanted us all to hear a transmission from outer space — from astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders. We were listening to men almost (but not quite) on the moon.

Anders began by sharing how they were flying over one of the future landing sites, the poetically christened Sea of Tranquility, watching the “long shadows of the lunar sunrise” on the ground. Then, after a pause, he said that the crew had a message for the people back on earth:

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” Anders said. For the next few minutes, the astronauts read from the first chapter of Genesis. There was light. Firmament. Water. Land.

There was Earth.

The transmission was scratchy and occasionally hard to understand, but that only added to what a marvel it was. There were atheists then who questioned the decision, but has the poetry of Genesis ever been more rich than when read by three men in a cramped space capsule, orbiting the moon for the first time in human history? This was the mission when Anders took that now classic photograph, “Earthrise,” a color image of our spinning blue marble from the lunar orbit. The idea of reading from Genesis? Poignant and powerful, the intersection of aspiration and awe. Of hope. This was one of those rare instances when the world together could exhale in wonder at the miracle that is mankind at its best. My father sat perfectly and uncharacteristically still. My mother’s eyes, I saw, were damp.

Even though I was at an age when I still waited desperately for Santa Claus, I understood that 1968 had been a terrible year. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Of Robert Kennedy. The cities in flames.

And, of course, Vietnam – and Bob and Mary George’s son-in-law, a soldier in harm’s way on the other side of the globe.

When the transmission was over, no one moved for a long moment. Then my mother motioned me over: she wanted me – she needed me – to sit in her lap.

Make no mistake, I was probably as greedy a child after that reading from space as I was before it. I would love here to offer alliteration and call it a sermon from space, but that would in some way diminish its magic, and I believe it would misrepresent the three astronauts’ intent. It wasn’t a sermon; it was – by its simple existence – a testimony to what remarkable beings we are, and what a gift it is to breathe. To stretch. To not merely gape at the moon, but ascend to it.

And yet if I remained as acquisitive a little boy on December 26th as I had been on December 23rd, I was reminded of something I had managed to miss in Sunday School, obvious as it was: the foundation of Christmas begins in a crèche – not a sleigh. (Yes, it’s a different testament – but you know what I mean.)

Our car would make its way up that black diamond of a driveway and then coast to a stop without incident in our own. We would be home before Santa.

The historical record shows that Borman concluded the reading by telling his listeners, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.”

Indeed. Merry Christmas. May our world somehow find peace in 2016.

Chris Bohjalian’s new novel, “The Guest Room,” will be published January 5, 2016.



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“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.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter

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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.)

Guest Room 2_10_2

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