Saturday, December 31, 2011

Storytellers Gathered Around a Fire

Reflecting in yesterday's Times Union on the highlights of the local arts scene during the

year past, TU Arts & Entertainment Editor Michael Janairo talked about his experiences as a student in a prose workshop offered by the Writers Institute and taught by Writer-in-Residence Jo Page.

"Our gatherings often called to mind what I think of as an archetypal image: ancient storytellers gathered around a roaring fire, leaning forward with their backs to the cold, dark unknown, and sharing tales of their days and the days of yore."

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gazette's Best Books of 2011

Jack Rightmyer of the Schenectady Gazette posts his top ten book list for 2011.

His choices include Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by Institute Executive Director William Kennedy and recent visitor Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers. Honorable Mention goes to Heaven Up-h'isted-ness!: The History of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers and the High Peaks of the Adirondacks coauthored by Institute Assistant Director Suzanne Lance.

You can access the first page of the Gazette article here, but you need a subscription to access the full article.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Inside Their Personal Libraries

The most recent issue of Atlantic offers a glimpse inside the homes and personal libraries of several of our visiting writers.

Featured authors include Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein, Jonathan Lethem, Claire Messud and James Wood, and Gary Shteyngart.

See the article.

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Books That Authors Love to Give and Receive

The New York Times tells which books a number of authors love to give and receive.

Francine Prose, who visited in February 2010, favors artful objects like Robert Walser's Microscripts and Brassai in America.

Former New York State Poet Billy Collins says, "Because I’m still an only child, I have trouble thinking deeply enough about other people to be any good at figuring out what they would like for a gift." For himself, he likes the Animal Series from Reaktion Books.

Jane Smiley, who visited in 2005, sensibly advises us to get gift certificates for our friends.


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Thursday, December 22, 2011

TU's Top Moments in the Arts

The Times Union's "Top Moments in the Arts" cover story feature (in its Preview entertainment guide) highlights a number of Writers Institute events of the past year.

Among his top five picks, Joseph Dalton selects Bill Kennedy's reading of Chango's Beads on October 3rd. See the YouTube clip.

Amy Griffin's top five include Gary Shteyngart's reading on February 17th. YouTube clip here.

And Michael Janairo's top five include Ken Johnson's November 7th lecture, a cosponsorship with the University Art Museum. UAlbany News Center Page here.

See the Preview section here.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Workshop Spotlight: "Copernicus at Occupy"

Marea Gordett explains that her poem,"Copernicus at Occupy", "stems from the Dava Sobel presentation at the Writers Institute on her book, A More Perfect Heaven. I was very taken by her phrase 'a cascade of diminishments' which I realized is central to her analysis, and I enjoyed working it into my experience at Occupy Albany."


How stark and broad a profile on the screen
among the heavens of eclipse and moon
of the sole man in 1514 who

knew revolution grew inside the brain,
knew we are smaller than we think and struck
“a cascade of diminishments” to earth—

       I ran glissando through the leafy camp,
a part of brave— the park all galaxy
and dressed in tents, blue headlamps lit the way.
Drums glanced around and craved the dancing girls.
Mike check announced the careful tendering
of food and fuel and water
                                                and what else?

“What do you want?” blasted from cops all night.
A call for gathering the truth. Be real!
a masked man said    You know we own the streets.

Gone to the sidewalks all the righteous ones.
Gone to the war on greed. Another revolution of
the mind                              Love lights a fuse—

a need to put frail bodies on the line.

"Copernicus at Occupy" was first written as an assignment for Rebecca Wolff's fall 2011 advanced poetry workshop, asking for fifteen lines of iambic pentameter.  Of the workshop, Marea says, "I loved the invitation to bring in a section of a manuscript for critique...because it forced me to…organize and revise a logical section. I appreciated the discussions, the introduction to published poetry that was new to me, and the generosity of spirit of the class. I especially appreciated Rebecca’s laser-like critique which I completely trusted."

Marea Gordett has taught writing at Tufts University and Boston University, and has published a book of poems, Freeze Tag, with Wesleyan University Press. She is the founder of Big Mind Learning, an educational business in the Capital Region serving students of all ages in many subjects. She is currently enjoying teaching memoir writing classes to senior citizens throughout the region.

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The Story of Albany, The Book

The Times Union's collaborative community history, The Story of Albany, began life as a website hosted by Paul Grondahl.

It is now available in book form. You may purchase copies online, or as a download, or the old-fashioned way: the book will be on sale from noon to 2 p.m. Friday, Dec. 23, in the lobby of the Times Union, 645 Albany Shaker Road.

Times Union Senior Writer Paul Grondahl, who wrote parts of the book and helped lead the project, will be on hand to sign copies.

Among the book's highlights: an account of the filming of Ironweed.

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The New Yorker's Favorite Books of 2011

Writers Insititute visitors who appear on the New Yorker's "Best of" list include Russell Banks, Julian Barnes, Don DeLillo, and Anne Enright.

An author above, plus two others on the New Yorker list will be featured in our upcoming Spring 2012 Visiting Writers Series.... not to be coy, but we can't announce them yet!

Read the list here.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Vaclav Havel (1936-2011)

Grayce Burian, friend of the Writers Institute, reminisced about her friend Vaclav Havel, Nobel Prize-winning playwright and the first President of the Czech Republic (1993-2003), who passed away this past Sunday, December 18th.

Grayce's husband, the late Jarka Burian-- longtime Professor in the the Department of Theatre at UAlbany and America's foremost authority on Czech theatre-- spent a great deal of time with Havel during two extended visits to Czechoslovakia in the 1960s when Havel was a young playwright and Jarka was a visiting scholar.

At SUNY Albany's Arena Summer Theatre, Jarka directed the first American performance of a play by Vaclav Havel, "The Memorandum," in 1966. The play was later performed at the Public Theater in New York City in 1968, where it received widespread international attention.

Grayce and Jarka were invited to meetings of the Czech underground during the Prague Spring prior to the Soviet invasion in 1968. Grayce recalled one meeting in Havel's apartment. In a hushed voice Havel asked Jarka not to speak and had him climb up a ladder to a chandelier where Havel showed him wires and a bugging device. Grayce said he wanted Jarka to know about the device not only for their safety, but also so that Jarka could write about the experience after his return to the United States.

Over the years, the Burians continued to receive letters from Havel thanking Jarka for his scholarly work on the history of the Czech theater. This correspondence is preserved in the Archives of the University at Albany Libraries.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Workshop Spotlight: "Can't sleep for all this sleeping..."

Anne Hohenstein participated in the fall 2010 advanced poetry workshop at the New York State Writers Institute, led by Rebecca Wolff.  Anne lives near the Hudson River, practices law in Albany and has published before, most recently in The Lyon Review

She writes that, "The workshop brought necessary internal and external focus" and offers here "a short poem, a piece well-corrected in the seminar."
            Nights Like This Kill Me 
            Can't sleep for all this sleeping
all this quiet, without evident damage
It isn't possible, or safe
Too many bridges, too many
but never enough to keep me
from jumping
letting my softening body bang
against sandy same-day logs floating with me
poking stubs tangle my dangling arms, my leftover legs
snarl my hair, pointing
to all I've left behind
golden flesh of my children
as yet unaware their mother
went to save a wounded bird
   "Are you a birdy, am I a birdy?"
and saved herself in concrete water
   "Good bye to our never mommy, we will come soon
    leaving our never life"
Whose heart does not crack to contemplate this?   

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Workshop Spotlight: "We must go mining, trolling, netting the debris..."

The Writers Institute just wrapped up its fall Advanced Poetry Community Workshop led by Institute Fellow and Fence editor, poet Rebecca Wolff. Over the course of the next few weeks, we'll be sharing the words of some of the participating poets to highlight the talented and diverse community of writers in the Capital Region with which the Insitute is proud to work.

Today's poet: Kathryn Poppino

 "What I enjoyed about  Rebecca Wolff's poetry workshop was that each of the paricipants was invited to submit several poems in a group for comments and suggestions, instead of just one poem at a time, which helped us each to gain perspective on the direction our work is taking. One of our workshop exercises was to write 15 lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter with variations.  I include mine here, altered somewhat from the original."
A bright and steamy foam covers the lake
that could be deep with refuse after all.
We must go mining, trolling, netting the debris
unless the time is right to let it go
to be aluminum stones, lake things, shipwrecks
of households confused with abundance and grab.
In  years to come wet suits will find
the artifacts of us, trinketed in weeds
and auction relics local to the scene.
"What do you give, give me, give me for this?"
The money gone, the bartering begins.
"My shirt for the relics, my shirt" is cried.
"Sold! On a cold day"  is yelled to man confused
by rustless beauty shining then
by rustless beauty shining then and there.
Kathryn Poppino's work has been seen in Peer Glass Anthology, Chicago Review and Hanging Loose, among others and her chapbook Ferns of Salt, is hand type-set by Swamp Press. She is a member of  the writing group the Stockade Washout Poets and serves on the board of the Hudson Valley Writers Institute. In  her other life she is a play director and a Licensed Massage Therapist.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Defending Independent Bookstores

Richard Russo, friend of the Institute and upstate New York native, contributes a New York Times op-ed about Amazon's price comparison tool and the new assault on independent booksellers.

"I wondered what my writer friends made of all this, so I dashed off an e-mail to Scott Turow, the president of the Authors Guild, and cc’ed Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Andre Dubus III, Anita Shreve, Tom Perrotta and Ann Patchett. "These writers all derive considerable income from Amazon’s book sales. But when the responses to my query started coming in it was clear Amazon’s program would find no defenders in our ranks." More.

Also, Chris Churchill of the Times Union gets a reaction to the new Amazon promotion from Book House and Market Block Books proprietor Susan Novotny.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

"A lonesome jazz riff— raw and tender"

Audiophile, a magazine devoted to audiobooks, has bestowed an Earphones Award on Bill Kennedy's own narration of Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes. Here's the review that will appear in the next issue:

This eighth novel in Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy's Albany Cycle leaves familiar locales for 1957 Cuba. There, freelance journalist Daniel Quinn meets his hero, Ernest Hemingway, and falls in love with a beautiful gunrunner. He's also introduced to the Santeria religion and Chang√≥, a mythic warrior, and finds himself well placed for a world-changing revolution. But it’s not long before we’re back on familiar Albany turf. Kennedy’s own narration is like a lonesome jazz riff—raw and tender. His natural delivery avoids theatrics and proves comforting yet edgy. When he relates significant moments—Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, race riots, Albany politics—we know he’s been there. His representation of Quinn’s aging father, who dominates the second part of the book, is spot-on. A terrific listen! S.J.H. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award © AudioFile 2011, Portland, Maine

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Tell Us Your Favorite Books of 2011

Anything readable "wow" you in 2011? If so, let us know. We're primarily interested in new books in any genre, but if you've rediscovered something that deserves rediscovery, we're interested in that also.

And if you'd like to divide your list into categories, feel free.

Here are some suggested categories:

Best Fiction

Best Nonfiction

Best Science Writing

Best Book of Poetry

Best Holiday Gift

Best Beach Reading

Best New Discovery

Best Rediscovery

And please feel free to come up with your own categories. Enjoy!

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On Hunter Thompson: "I never called him a swine."

Bill Kennedy on the Bat Segundo Show today talks about turning down his friend Hunter S. Thompson for a job at the San Juan Star in 1959 (you may already know the story but fans of both never get tired of it):

Correspondent: [Hunter S. Thompson] said, “He refused to hire me. Called me swine, fool, beatnik. We go way back.” But I also know that he wrote you a quite hubristic letter. How did you two patch things up after this early exchange of invective and all that?

Kennedy: Well, I never called him a swine.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Kennedy: It’s possible in a letter, in later years, I might have called him a swine. But that was his terminology. More.

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Hello Chatter, My Old Friend

Our friend Maureen Dowd invokes Virginia Woolf and philosopher Max Picard in her discussion of the pleasures of silence and her review of the new silent film, The Artist, by French writer and director Michel Hazanavicius.

"As far back as half-a-century ago, the Swiss philosopher Max Picard warned: 'Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence,' once as natural as the sky and air.

As fiendish little gadgets conspire to track our movements and record our activities wherever we go, producing a barrage of pictures of everything we’re doing and saying, our lives will unroll as one long instant replay.

There will be fewer and fewer of what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being,” intense sensations that stand apart from the 'cotton wool of daily life.'"

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pearl Harbor: What Did FDR Know?

Writing in the New York Times in 2004, the Capital Region's own Joe Persico talked about intelligence failures in the FDR administration in advance of the attack on Pearl Harbor, with comparisons to intelligence failures in advance of 9/11.

"THE president was receiving intelligence that an attack might occur imminently, probably not on the United States mainland, but abroad. Intercepted communications pointed to an adversary with a deadly history of surprise attacks. And, it did happen, the most horrific assault ever on American territory, and one that would lead to war. An investigation as to how so large a blow could have gone undetected was begun while the nation was still fighting the war. One objective was to find out what the president knew about the threat, when did he know and what did he do to counter it?

The date in question, Dec. 7, 1941; the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt." More.

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Comedy and Performance Art

Ken Johnson, who visited on November 7, interrogates the term "performance art" with regard to comedy in a piece that appeared last month in the New York Times.

"Comedy must at least be funny, and if it is not, it fails. Must comic performance art be funny? Can it be called art if it aims primarily for laughs? A lot of nonperformance art these days is humorous. Maurizio Cattelan’s work often is, and his retrospective at the Guggenheim, in which almost everything he’s done as an artist is suspended high above the rotunda floor, might be seen as a big joke." More.

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Books as Art Objects

The New York Times has an article about how, in an age of e-books, publishers are attempting to sell physical books as giftable, displayable art objects, much as they were a century ago.

"If e-books are about ease and expedience, the publishers reason, then print books need to be about physical beauty and the pleasures of owning, not just reading." More.

The article also makes mention of the "deep red endpapers" of Dava Sobel's new book on Copernicus, A More Perfect Heaven.

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Wayne Koestenbaum on Alec Baldwin's Humiliation

In an eerie coincidence, Wayne Koestenbaum talked extensively on the Bat Segundo show, Monday Dec. 5, about Alec Baldwin's public humiliations one day before Baldwin was kicked off an American Airlines flight on Tuesday Dec. 6.

Koestenbaum visited the Institute on October 20 to talk about his new book, Humiliation (2011).

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Invasion of New York

Willard Sterne Randall, who visits today, writes of Alexander Hamilton's efforts to defend Manhattan against the British navy in the January 2003 issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

"On August 8, Hamilton tore open orders from Washington: his company was to be on round-the-clock alert against an imminent invasion of Manhattan. “The movements of the enemy and intelligence by deserters give the utmost reason to believe that the great struggle in which we are contending for everything dear to us and our posterity, is near at hand,” Washington wrote.

"But early on the morning of August 27, 1776, Hamilton watched, helpless, as the British ferried 22,000 troops from Staten Island, not to Manhattan at all, but to the village of Brooklyn, on Long Island. Marching quickly inland from a British beachhead that stretched from Flatbush to Gravesend, they met little resistance. Of the 10,000 American troops on Long Island, only 2,750 were in Brooklyn, in four makeshift forts spread over four miles. At Flatbush, on the American east flank, Lord Charles Cornwallis quickly captured a mounted patrol of five young militia officers, including Hamilton’s college roommate, Robert Troup, enabling 10,000 redcoats to march stealthily behind the Americans. Cut off by an 80-yard-wide swamp, 312 Americans died in the ensuing rout; another 1,100 were wounded or captured. By rowboat, barge, sloop, skiff and canoe in a howling northeaster, a regiment of New England fishermen transported the survivors across the East River to Manhattan. More.

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Monday, December 5, 2011

Top Ten Lists of 2011 in the Times

Recent NYS Writers Institute Visiting Author Karen Russell's Swamplandia makes the NY Times Top Ten for 2011 as well as Janet Maslin's personal Top Ten. Other books on Maslin's list include former New York State Author Russell Banks's Lost Memory of Skin, and Walter Isaacson's bio of Steve Jobs (Isaacson visited with a biography of Einstein in 2007).

Michiko Kakutani's personal list includes recent visitor Don Delillo, who has a new book of short stories, The Angel Esmerelda. Dwight Garner's picks include Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III, and a book of essays, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, by former UAlbany Writer-in-Residence Geoff Dyer.

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A Cub Reporter in Albany in 1963

Paul Grondahl talks to two-time Pulitzer-winning biographer Robert Caro, who visits today, about his days as a young reporter covering the New York State Legislature in 1963.

"It was fascinating to see how state government worked," he said. "I learned a lot working under Newsday's chief political reporter, Dick Zander. What I discovered was that Robert Moses, who was not elected, had a tremendous amount of power up in Albany. Nobody really understood where that power came from. That spurred my initial interest in Moses."

"That was the first time I saw how political power works," Caro said. "It was not what you read about in textbooks. The bridge was a destructive idea, and yet I could see that it was moving forward and I had to understand why. I started thinking who is this Moses guy? He's not elected to anything. How'd he get so much power?" More.

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Friday, December 2, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut, And So It Goes

Writing in the New York Times, Janet Maslin reviews a new biography of Kurt Vonnegut who served as New York State Author under the auspices of the Writers Institute from 2001 to 2003, and whose visit to Albany (speaking to a packed Page Hall) was a memorable occasion.

"Mr. Shields is not shy about using the words 'a definitive biography of an extraordinary man' to describe his book. And So It Goes is quick to trumpet its biggest selling points. Mr. Shields means to separate image from perception: He depicts Vonnegut as an essentially conservative Midwesterner, proud of his German heritage and capitalist instincts, who developed an aura of radical chic. He also describes a World War II isolationist who aligned himself with Charles A. Lindbergh yet became an antiwar literary hero. And he finds a life-affirming humanist sensibility in a writer celebrated for black humor. How this man would eventually be recruited to brainstorm with the Jefferson Airplane and be hipper than his own children are among the mysteries on which Mr. Shields casts light." More.

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Courageous Learning: William Patrick

Bill Patrick, director of the NYS Summer Young Writers Institute at Skidmore, has a new book coming out: Courageous Learning: Finding a New Path through Higher Education, an exploration of the brave new world of adult education and online learning. The book was written with Excelsior College President John Ebersole.

A launch party and signing will be held at The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza on Wednesday, December 14 at 7:00 pm. Light refreshments will be served.

"Our nation is facing a great education crisis, and if we fail to respond quickly and seriously, we can expect our economy to grow weaker and our standard of living to decline. Courageous Learning is for those adults who, seeking to face this challenge, are considering returning to school, either to finish an undergraduate degree or to start a graduate one." More on the Excelsior College Press website.

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A Letter from Martha Rozett

UAlbany English Professor Martha Rozett sent us an e-letter about her new book, When People Wrote Letters: A Family Chronicle:

I am writing to tell you about my new book, WHEN PEOPLE WROTE LETTERS: A FAMILY CHRONICLE. If you can, please come to my book signing on December 8th at Book House in Stuyvesant Plaza from 7:00 to 9:00 PM.

Many of you have heard me talk about this project during the past few years. It is a tale told through wonderfully witty and moving letters, photographs, clippings and pamphlets, excerpts from an unpublished autobiography and from family history narratives, along with other saved objects. The main characters are Betty and Edith Stedman, my mother and her aunt, two eloquent and adventurous women whose relationship serves as the book’s central narrative. Their travels, and the travels of other family members, take the reader from 19th and early twentieth century New England, to Key West in the 1830s, to the Minnesota Territories in the 1860s, to France during World War I, to small towns in Texas and to China in the 1920s, to Spain in the 1930s, and across America during World War II.

WHEN PEOPLE WROTE LETTERS is also an account of my great aunt Edith’s extraordinary career during the early years of medical social work, and a love story in which the religious and cultural differences between New England Episcopalians and New York Jews threaten to disrupt my parents’ romance in the 1940s. And finally, it is about how family chronicles emerge in piecemeal fashion from the objects and documents people save and pass on.
My book will be available after December 8th for $19.95 from the Troy Book Makers (, from Book House and other local independent bookstores, and from Amazon and B&N online. It will be available in e-book format in mid to late January. My husband (and very patient tech consultant) John has created a WHEN PEOPLE WROTE LETTERS Facebook page which will tell you more about how I came to write the book. I hope you will join my community of readers and spread the word to others.

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Boozer, brawler, blasphemer, bully

Ethan Allen is an inspirational (if malleable) figure for Vermonters in general, and particularly for self-styled "free thinkers" and individualists across the political spectrum, from tea party activists to "off-the-grid" hippies.

Here's a review of Willard Sterne Randall's new biography of Allen on the Vt Digger blog by John McClaughty, VP of the libertarian thinktank, the Ethan Allen Institute:

"How one views Ethan depends a lot on one’s own preferences. Boozer, brawler, blasphemer, bully. 'Lover of liberty and property.' Bold, brave, hot headed, intemperate, philosopher, pamphleteer, commanding presence. Remarkably self-educated, a friend of scientific inquiry and calumniator of Puritan divines. Military hero, foolish adventurer, scourge of Tories, prisoner of war, author of the second most widely read work of the revolutionary era (after Paine’s Common Sense), “A Narrative of Col. Ethan Allen’s Captivity.” Successful and failed businessman, absentee father, enthusiastic land speculator. Duplicitous negotiator (with the British). Father of independent Vermont."

"Randall’s work gives ample coverage to all these features and more. It portrays Ethan not only as he saw himself — heroic — but as others saw him, ranging from George Washington to the Albany Junto [the landed Dutch gentry] to his British captors in England." More.

Randall visits Tuesday, December 6.

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Ethan Allen Named a "Best Biography" in the WSJ

Carl Rollyson talks up Willard Sterne Randall's Ethan Allen in the Wall Street Journal "Gift Guide: Best of Biography" last month. Randall visits Tuesday, December 6.

"With every publishing season hailing another biography of some already well-documented Founder, it was a pleasure to descend into the trenches of American history with Willard Sterne Randall. His absorbing and comprehensive "Ethan Allen: His Life and Times" (Norton, 617 pages, $35) puts a good deal of flesh on the New England hero who captured the British-held Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775. A spirited man, Allen was, like many of his contemporaries, not averse to profiting from land speculation and accumulating family wealth in ways that allied him as much with the old world as the new. Allen was also notable for his unconventional guerrilla warfare and his searing accounts of his time as a British prisoner of war." WSJ

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Oliver Stone Filming "The Power Broker" for HBO

Oliver Stone is making an HBO film based on Robert Caro's biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses, The Power Broker.

Caro will appear at the Egg on Monday, December 5.

From ArtInfo on the Huffington Post:

"Every robber baron is probably green with envy for the late Robert Moses, a powerful and polarizing force who shaped New York as we now know it, because Oliver Stone just signed on to direct a movie about him...." More.

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