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The Literary Life in Millbrook

by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat May 18th, 2019

Kira Wizner and Dani Shapiro at Millbrook Library

This past Saturday the annual Millbrook Literary Festival was hosted by Merritt Bookstore and the Millbrook Library. Due to the imperative of 10 am t-ball, I made a late start, even though I awoke at 7 am with no electricity—not a big deal since my rural poetic sensibility remains happy to live without the electric jolt. I feel free of the electric mass congregation when that happens.  

After the morning comedy, I attended a children’s paint-in at Smithfield Church, just a few miles outside of Millbrook. It was Landmark Conservatory weekend and the 277-year-old Landmark Church was entertaining a children’s paint-in from 10 am to 2 am. My grandson is not a promising painter, yet he loves to dot-paint on long paper scrolls—something the church had set up before we arrived around noon. Several other children were painting there under the direction of Jane Winfrey, but my grandson was more interested in eating cucumbers slices, which were abundant, after he performed his long dot-punch run of colors.

The Millbrook Literary Festival shifted into high gear at 2:45 pm with author Dani Shapiro as interviewed by Kira Wizner, proprietor of Merritt Bookstore. After three novels, four memoirs, and a book about writing, Shapiro, writer and psychiatrist, published a best-selling memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love. This most unusual autobiographical meditation raised a plethora of questions on uncomfortable areas of identity raised by DNA genetics. Shapiro discovered that her parents had difficulty conceiving a child and resorted to a Philadelphia Institute which specialized in mixed sperm insemination. Due to the explosion of inexpensive DNA test kits, this country is now suffering from half-sibling fatigue as many discover their two dozen half-siblings scattered across the country. All countries in the world limit the number of sperm donors—from one in China to ten in England to twenty-five in Netherlands, yet in the United States and Canada there is no limit, so sperm donors in the hundreds can pass down defective genes subject to horrible diseases. As a psychiatrist, Shapiro brought a kaleidoscope of colors and sophisticated angles to the problems of family and identity. Shapiro also articulated savvy comments on the forthcoming world of Artificial Intelligence. Her perspective was one of generous healing combined with an astonishing eloquence.

This was a most difficult act to follow. Englishman Michael Sedgwick, a former BBC broadcaster and the owner of Fountain Press in Amenia, interviewed Maxine Paetro, author of over thirty novels. Maxine read from a rather early novel, Seventh Heaven (2008), while Michael read from a recent novel, Woman of God (2016) set in South Sudan, as base-stealing interludes in their vibrant conversational exchange. Maxine was on here own for her first seven novels, yet when she partnered with James Patterson from Pawling, she repeatedly hit the New York Times best-seller list. Patterson would give her the subject and a brief outline of ten chapters and Maxine was off to the races. She described her imaginary average reader as a 55-year-old overtaxed multi-taxed housewife who can read her novels in short interludes. My own favorite novel is Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee (1993).

Paetro posted “Never let the adrenaline fade” over her work-desk. Maxine attempts to write about 5,000 words a day, which is about ten times as many words as Ernest Hemingway advises. Maxine excels in the 180-degree reversal. Maxine’s 18th novel in her Woman’s Murder Club series sails on the New York Times best-seller list; the setting of the novel presents a drama during the anguished Serbian war that broke up Yugoslavia with a roll call of atrocities and rapes. She has two more completed novels of that series in the can and is now working on the twenty-first novel of the series.

I think I might be able to compose 5,000 words on the varied facets of The Millbrook Literary Festival because the speakers and numerous workshops were so entertaining, yet few would read what would inevitably become a rant: you had to be there to believe the high octane of intelligent and sensible conversation circulating in otherwise mild Millbrook.