Wednesday, March 24, 2010

House Rules by Jodi Picoult

Emotionally powerful from beginning to end, 'House Rules, looks at what it means to be different in our society, how autism affects a family, and how our legal system works well for people who communicate a certain way and fails those who don't. This is not my favorite of her books but it was interesting just the same.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How Sweet It Is!

The change in seasons in northern New England signals one of our favorite traditions -- maple sugaring. Take a drive anywhere in the region right now and you can spot the signs: old metal buckets hanging from a cluster of maple trees, a complex web of plastic tubing snaking through a forest, and smoke spiraling from a sugar shack tucked into the corner of a neighbor's yard.

It's sugaring time, a wonderful season -- and reason -- to reflect on a traditional art form that has been a hallmark of our northern culture since Native Americans first called this region home. Why do traditional arts continue to be important? They connect us to the land and to the generations of people who relied on practical skills to support their families, generate income, and bring a touch of beauty into their lives -- whether it was quilting, weaving, fiddling or maple sugaring. When traditional arts are practiced today they include a hands-on aspect that is appealing in an era when cell phones, instant messaging, emails and eblasts (like this one!) more and more often take the place of face-to-face communication and interaction. In a word, people are hungry for authentic experiences.

For instance, over 100 people visited The Rocks Estate in Bethlehem last Saturday to enjoy horse-drawn wagon rides, learn about the history of maple sugaring, and sample the sweet syrup produced in the on-site sugar house. Estate manager Nigel Manley said people were pleased to find that they were expected -- and encouraged -- to be participants rather than observers during their visit. "They were amazed that their children could drill a hole in a tree during their visit," he says.

Cultural experiences also fuel the economy. Gail McWilliam Jellie, Director of the Division of Agricultural Development, NH Department of Agriculture, says that maple sugaring adds $3-3.5 million to New Hampshire's economy and is vitally important to the state's agricultural diversification.

So, the next time you see smoke rising from a sugar shack, remember that the folks inside are not only producing a sweet and much-loved product, but that they are also carrying on an important cultural tradition and contributing to the vitality of the North Country.

Want to experience the age-old art of maple sugaring yourself? The Rocks welcomes visitors for an extended stretch during maple sugar season (March 20, 21, 27, 28, and April 3) and on the 27th and 28th joins 64 sugar houses around the state for NH Maple Weekend, as they open their doors to visitors for tours, tastings, and special activities. Visit for a complete listing.

While the Arts Alliance hasn't yet ventured into the maple sugaring business, we do care deeply about offering culturally authentic and interactive experiences for North Country residents, such as recent appearances by 5th generation Franco-American fiddler Patrick Ross, Irish harper Regina Delaney, and Yankee storyteller Becky Rule. This week, the traditional songs and dances of Mexico are being presented by guest artist Veronica Robles as part of a multi-school residency. You can catch her public performance -- a Mariachi concert -- at 7 p.m., Thursday, March 18, at the Lancaster Town Hall. She's also offering two classes featuring traditional and contemporary Mexican dance, on Tuesday evening at 7 at the White Mountain School in Bethlehem and on Friday at 7 at the Jeanne Limmer Dance Studio in North Conway. Get all the details at

Meanwhile, warm wishes for an easy mud season, another North Country springtime tradition!

Eileen Alexander (Arts Alliance of Northern NH)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Author Barbara Kingsolver

Perhaps it is time to take another look at our collection of novels by Barbara Kingsolver known for her richly drawn characters and tangled cultural crossings.

Kingsolver's newest novel, the first in nine years, is entitled The Lacuna - it tells of the short, extraordinary life of writer Harrison Shepherd. Raised in and shaped by America and Mexico, Harrison discovers that his dual national identity is both a blessing and a curse. Do we make history or does history make us?

The Prodigal Summer (2000) is a trio of linked Appalachian tales about the birds and the bees - city girl marries into country family, stubborn codger is sweet on hippie chick, coyote researcher falls for coyote hunter... What's the difference between lust and love?

The Poisonwood Bible (1998) tells of a white missionary and his family who arrive in the Belgian Congo on the brink of its independence in 1959. The pastor's blind determination to 'enlighten' a Congolese village has awful results for both the native people and his own family. How do you atone for the sins of the father?

In The Bean Trees (1988), a Kentucky girl heads to Arizona, adopts a Cherokee girl and falls for a taken immigrant. Her eye-opening travels and her beloved's ordeal make her 'feel like a foreigner' in her own country. When do you have the right to love somebody who is not yours?