Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Burlington Book Festival

We just got back from a few days in Vermont -- mostly at the Burlington Book Festival in the town of that name on the shores of Lake Champlain. Jeannine had been invited to take part in "Youthaplooza!", which was the part of the festival devoted to children's books.

     On the drive up to Vermont, we stopped in my home town of North Adams for a lunch break, and walked over to Mass MoCA, the huge modern art museum in the old Sprague Electric factory complex, to see if their cafe might serve that purpose. The menu didn't thrill me, so we decided to seek nourishment elsewhere, but there was something pretty nifty in the courtyard outside the main entrance to the museum -- an abstract sculpture made up of what must have been thousands of small, shiny spheres made of black plastic.

    The plaque on one corner of the sculpture's base identified it...

... but regardless of what obscure name was given to it by the artist, the sculpture was very impressive as a presence. And I have this personal predilection for things made up of many smaller things, so I found this very appealing.

    Here's a panoramic view of the entire piece, with Jeannine giving it the once-over.

Although we did not eat at Mass MoCA's cafe, we did find a nice place across the street. It was called "Brew Ha Ha", and they had very good sandwiches, salads, and coffee. I tried to convince Jeannine to buy one or more of their delicious-looking muffins, but she declined. What willpower!

Our original plan was to just spend two nights in Burlington, but as it worked out, we were able to squeeze in another night in Manchester, VT -- just about halfway to Burlington, and site of one of our favorite bookstores, the Northshire. I found us an inn just a quarter-mile up the street from the Northshire, so we were able to walk there with ease. Except for a little bit of rain on that first day, the weather was pretty nice for the whole trip.

When we left Manchester to head on up to Burlington, we took Route 30 instead of Route 7, which turned out to be not only more scenic but took us past the old marble quarry I'd stumbled upon during our last visit to the area. I thought Jeannine might like to see it, and she did. Here's a shot of Jeannine posing with one of the several piles of huge marble blocks.

Traveling through this area of Vermont gave us a small hint of the damage wreaked by Hurricane Irene, although we did not run into any closed roads. Impressively, repairs seem to have progressed at a pretty rapid clip -- it was clear that some of the roads we drove on HAD been closed until just recently, where normally placid brooks and streams had earlier turned into devouring torrents and torn through earth and pavement alike. Virtually every glimpse I got of river banks along the way showed gouged-out banks and large, tangled piles of debris, mostly trees and branches.

We stopped in MIddlebury and found a nice deli with outdoor seating for lunch, then pressed on to Burlington. There was one more stop, though, in Shelburne -- Elizabeth Bluemle, a friend of Jeannine's and a fellow writer, as well as proprietor of a very cool bookstore in Shelburne called "The Flying Pig", had expressed interest in trying out my Elliptigo (the stand up, elliptical machine-like bicycle I bought last year), so I had put it in the back of the truck along with our two bicycles (which I hoped we would use on the bike path along the lake in Burlington). 

Elizabeth got a kick out of trying the Elliptigo, but I think she was somewhat more smitten with the RANS Fusion "crank forward" bicycle. She found it comfortable and easy to ride, and said she suspected it would be more practical than the Elliptigo… and I concurred. (I think she may be ordering one right about now.)

Here's a slightly silly "mash up" photograph I created in Photoshop from two shots of Elizabeth with the bikes, the RANS Fusion on the left and the Elliptigo on the right. Thanks for posing, Elizabeth!  (And for letting me put this on my blog...!)

While in Shelburne, I thought I would see if the shop just around the corner from "The Flying Pig" might still have some of the cool bamboo salad bowls like the one I bought for Jeannine there last year… and they did! So now I have my own beautiful bamboo bowl from which to dine on salad. (And I did just that tonight.)

Our hotel room in the Hilton in Burlington had a great view of the lake... 

... and turned out to be just across the street from the Main Street Landing building where Jeannine was going to be appearing in the three events she was scheduled for.

But the first night in Burlington featured a dinner at a noisy restaurant called the Farmhouse Tap and Grill (with good food, I have to add), with five other writers and one other tagalong husband (like me) named Scott, who is married to author Kara LaReau, who sat across from Jeannine. He and I were the only guys in the group, and sat opposite each other. We had an interesting conversation (when we could hear each other over the din), and he turned out to be a really nice guy, a former car racer and a Mac user, among other things. 

Jeannine didn't have to do anything at the Festival until well after breakfast the next day, so we took our time getting up and walking over to a breakfast place called Magnolias, which I'd found on a tourist map. Jeannine had found another breakfast place called August First, so we figuratively flipped a coin and decided to go to Magnolia's on Sunday, then August First on Monday.
      Magnolia's turned out to be a somewhat funky place in a basement, but with good food. I wish I'd ordered something different, though… I was taken in by this intriguing-sounding item on the specials menu: "Carrot Cake Bread French Toast". I'd never heard of such a thing, and I spent the next few minutes trying to figure out how they had managed to combine carrot cake and bread.
Well, it turned out they really hadn't… and what I got was a HUGE pile of what was, essentially, crumbly carrot cake fried up French Toast-style. It was okay, but way too much for me to eat, and to be honest a little disappointing. I should have gotten the traditional eggs and homefries.
     (We did end up going to August First the following morning, and found it somewhat less satisfying than we thought it would be, given what we'd read about it online. I had a decent "breakfast sandwich" (eggs, cheese, bacon), but Jeannine's order of peanut butter on toast was a big let-down -- given the kind of home-made, earthy vibe the place had, she expected some kind of robust, fresh-ground peanut butter with an interesting texture... and what she got looked (and tasted) suspiciously like Skippy peanut butter out of a jar from the supermarket.)

While Jeannine headed off to the Book Festival for her first appearance (during which she read one of her picture books), I got my bike out of the truck and pedaled across the street to see what the bike path by the lake was like. It had turned out to be a beautiful day, and there were some views along the path of the lake and the mountains beyond which were quite spectacular. But other than that, it was your basic paved rail trail, with some slightly sketchy sections. Still, it was nice to be out and bicycling, seeing a few new sights. I did stop at a few places to take some photos, including one on a little beach. I liked the look of this gnarly little tree against the expanse of water.

I made it back in time to catch the last part of Jeannine's first panel discussion, which was about teen literature. Here's a shot of the three panelists -- Jo Knowles, Tanya Lee Stone, and Jeannine -- during that discussion.

That was pretty interesting, as was the next event she was part of, the "Super Panel" featuring about ten children's book writers.

Probably the most interesting (to me, anyway) question asked during that panel was something like this: "How long was it between the time you realized you wanted to write children's books and the time you actually sold one?" The answers ranged from a few months to a decade -- a good illustration of the vicissitudes of publishing, and also how timing and luck are almost as important as talent in this field. Come to think of it, in a LOT of fields.

After that panel, Jeannine signed a bunch of her books which were on sale in the lobby, and mingled with other authors and readers for a while. 

     We had discussed going for a bike ride together after her part in  the Book Festival was over -- Jeannine was curious about the bike path -- but we ended up just taking a walk uptown, to Church Street. 

Church Street is one of the neatest things about downtown Burlington -- a stretch of about four or five blocks on one avenue which have been closed off to car traffic and converted into a pedestrian mall, with lots of shops and eateries along the way. We happened upon a restaurant with some outdoor seating and took a chance on it for dinner… and it turned out to have really good food. I cannot, at this time, remember then name of the place, sadly.

We followed that up with a nice stroll back down Church Street and down the hill to the lake, where we discovered that the little ice cream and frozen treat shack near the aquarium was still open, and treated ourselves to a couple of small soft-serve cones before heading back to our hotel room to enjoy a sunset lake view.

On the drive back home the next day, we couldn't help but stop at the Northshire in Manchester again, this time so Jeannine could get in some of her morning writing time while enjoying a latte and one of the Northshire's cafe's baked goods. While she was doing that, I went off on a mission to find more Abe Lincoln stovepipe hats.

Let me back up for a minute -- the previous year, we had visited the Hildene estate, the former home of President Abraham Lincoln's son Robert Todd Lincoln, which is not far from the center of Manchester. It's a very cool place, and in the gift shop there, Jeannine found something she'd been looking for -- an inexpensive version of Lincoln's famed stovepipe hat. She has since used it as a prop when she does talks about her book "Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon", about the young girl in Lyme Regis, England, who discovered some of the earliest and best specimens of prehistoric ocean life… and while prospecting for these fossils in and around the cliffs of Lyme Regis, would wear a stovepipe hat to protect her head from falling rocks.

The hat Jeannine got last year has held up well, but she has been concerned that it might suffer some kind of damage or get lost, and she has not seen these types of props for sale anywhere else. So I figured, why not look where she'd found the first one?

So, while Jeannine was writing, I did… and sure enough, they had five of the hats in the gift shop at Hildene. Success! I ended up buying all of them… and some maple-flavored popcorn for the rest of the ride home, as well. -- PL

Friday, September 9, 2011

More underwater images

I got another chance this past weekend to play with my underwater digital camera, and I think I am learning a bit more about how to use it. I'm still not completely on top of all its bells and whistles, but one thing I did learn was that I have to be extra careful about holding the camera steady as I am taking the shot. It seems that the "mode" setting for taking photos underwater is more sensitive to movement that the regular "Best Picture" setting.

In any event, it's still a lot of fun, and there is something slightly "otherworldly" about the colors and lighting in these photos -- even the ones of common seaweed and rocks and snails -- that really appeals to me. Here's a sampling:

I was excited to find a small living starfish in one tidal pool, though I couldn't quite get the shots of it I wanted. I do like the texture of the starfish's "arm" as seen in this one, however.

There is something cool about getting in the water and pointing the camera slightly up so as to capture the underwater reflection of the water's surface.

I even used that technique to take this "self portrait" shot -- not too exciting, but it's kind of neat to see those few random bubbles floating mysteriously across what might seem like an ordinary photo.

While we were at the ocean, Jeannine braved the cold water and repeatedly dove into the waves, doing the body-surfing thing. I like this image I caught just as a big wave broke over her.

It was pretty nifty to be able to stand in the ocean up to my stomach, with a camera in the pocket of my swim trunks that I could pull out at any moment to take a shot. Thank you to the clever camera engineers who made such a thing possible! -- PL

P.S. For anyone interested in knowing more about the camera with which I took these photos, here's the link to the amazon.com page for it:


and a photo of the camera itself:

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Wooden birds

Last week, on the spur of the moment, Jeannine and I -- along with our friends Dan and Jess Berger -- took a trip down to the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, CT. Jeannine and I had been to this museum once before, to see a show of M. C. Escher's work, but Dan and Jess had not been to it... nor had they eaten at Arugula in West Hartford (our dinner destination after checking out the museum). There were a couple of new exhibits, one featuring a realist painter named Sarah Lamb and another titled "One Man’s Passion: The Art of Carved Birds" which included over sixty objects from the collection of J. Kemler “Kem” Appell, one of the leading collectors of miniature decorative bird carvings.

I expected to be more interested in the former, and the paintings were very nice (especially the still life with olives), but I was blown away by the exhibit of bird carvings. 

The sculpting -- and painting -- talent displayed in these pieces was just astonishing. Not only were the birds accurately rendered in form and color, but the bits of environment in which they were displayed as well. 

And although many of the carved birds appeared to be perched on real branches, those perches were actually carved and painted to APPEAR to be real branches.

But the thing that really impressed me the most was this display.

When I first saw it, I thought it was interesting that the sculptor had found some common objects on which to pose the carved birds. However, when I looked closer and read the display card, I was flabbergasted to find out that ALL of these objects were carved and painted to look like the real things. And they surely did! Check out this detail from the above photo to see what I mean:

After wandering around the museum for a while more, we headed off to Arugula, the Mediterranean restaurant in West Hartford, where Jeannine once again got one of their amazing flatbread "pizzas", this time featuring asparagus and sun-dried tomatoes. 

And yes, it was as yummy as it looked! -- PL