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Q & A With Elizabeth Ann Bartlett, author of Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth & Superior

Posted byAlison Aten on 10 Oct 2016 | Tagged as: Interview, Uncategorized

Making Waves Elizabeth Ann Bartlett

Beginning in the late 1970s, a wave of feminist organizing broke on the shores of the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin. Its impact has transformed the lives of women and men in these communities and far beyond. In Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior, historian Elizabeth Ann Bartlett chronicles the vital history of the groups and individuals who put Duluth and Superior at the forefront of pioneering and innovative feminist organizing.

We asked Beth more about her book and what made the feminist community of the Twin Ports so special.

Join us on Tuesday, October 11, at Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis as we celebrate the publication of Making Waves with Elizabeth Bartlett.

Why did you decide to write a book about the history of grassroots feminist organizations in Duluth and Superior?

In the fall of 2002, hundreds of local feminists gathered at the University of Wisconsin–Superior for “Making Women’s History Now: The State of Feminism in the Twin Ports,” a conference that brought together feminists from a variety of organizations and across generations to talk about the pressing issues facing the feminist community. In her keynote address that morning, longtime activist Tina Welsh, director of the Women’s Health Center, chronicled the early days of feminist organizing in Duluth, from the development of the first rape crisis center to the trials of establishing and sustaining an abortion clinic. In her afternoon keynote, Ellen Pence, well known for her work in the battered women’s movement, regaled the crowd with her humorous rendition of the early efforts of the battered women’s movement in Duluth to work with the criminal justice system to set up a coordinated community response to domestic violence. As Ellen began to tell her story, my friend and colleague Susana Pelayo-Woodward and I turned to each other and said, “We need to write these down!”  The conference had reminded us of what we had always known—that we lived in an incredibly special and what we felt was quite a unique feminist community.

Duluth seems so remote to be such a hotbed of feminist organizing.  What makes this feminist community and the organizations that developed here so special and unique?

The programs and policies developed by feminist organizations in the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, have been groundbreaking, and the sense of connection and community is inspiring.  Duluth has been the home of some of the earliest, longest-lasting, and significant grassroots feminist organizations, many of which have grown to become national and international leaders in feminist activism, serving as models of feminist practice.

Perhaps the best-known examples of this are the “Duluth Model” and the “Power and Control Wheel,” a policy for and analysis of domestic abuse used widely throughout the United States and world. The Program to Aid Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA) and Safe Haven Shelter and Resource Center were among the first rape crisis centers and domestic abuse shelters in the country. Mending the Sacred Hoop was the first and continues to be the largest training and technical assistance provider on domestic assault to tribes throughout Indian Country. The Women’s Health Center is one of the few freestanding abortion clinics remaining in the United States, and is housed in the Building for Women, one of only three such women-owned buildings for women in the United States. New Moon Magazine, the first feminist magazine for girls, has achieved international recognition for its work on behalf of girls.

The Northcountry Women’s Coffeehouse was the longest continuously-running women’s coffeehouse in the country.  Women in Construction, which trained and employed women in the building trades, was the first of its kind in the nation.  The American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) created one of the first Native-specific shelters in the country, and its urban Indian center, Gimaajii-Mino-Bimaadizimin, is a model for tribes around the country.  This is truly a remarkable and vibrant community.

How did you go about collecting all the information for the history?

A few years after the conference, Susana and I invited our colleagues in Women’s Studies to join us in gathering these histories. Several of us collaborated in formulating the book – deciding on the organizations, interview questions, divvying up the work.  We initially set out to interview key people at eighteen different feminist organizations, though this eventually narrowed to fifteen and then ten key organizations for the book.  Most of us contributed by conducting interviews, though eventually I ended up doing most of the interviewing and writing the book. Overall, we interviewed about a hundred people, and several more than once.  We also used materials from organizations’ archives and old news articles. This has been a fourteen-year odyssey from our decision to gather these histories at the conference that day to the publication of this book. It has been a long, but compelling, inspiring, exciting, and incredibly fun ride.

What’s the meaning of the title?  Why Making Waves?

When I was trying to come up with the title for the book, I contacted all the UMD Women’s Studies alums on our Facebook page and asked them for suggestions.  They were unanimous that the title had to include something about the lake – Lake Superior.  Those of who live here know the immense power of the lake to inspire and renew and to connect us.  Its spirit is undoubtedly at work in the feminist organizing here. So Making Waves refers to the wonder of Lake Superior. But Making Waves also connects with the way feminist history is referred to as a series of waves – with First Wave feminism happening in the 1800s, Second Wave in the 1960s-1990s, and Third and Fourth Wave representing the contemporary feminist movement.  Finally, Making Waves refers to the movers and shakers in this community who joined together, spoke out, and organized to “make waves” — and created lasting and significant change.

What were some of the highlights of writing this book?

The best part of the journey has been interviewing the scores of women and men who were vital to the formation and ongoing thriving of these organizations. What an incredible privilege and honor it has been. I have been able to meet and often become friends with incredible women. They shared their stories with such grace, generosity, and openness. I could easily have spent hours listening to them. Many of the women I interviewed were friends and acquaintances, and this was a chance to learn more about them and, in many cases, to renew relationships. Even if I had not known the women I interviewed previously, these interviews usually felt like conversations between long-lost friends, and on many occasions I felt that by the end of our time, we had indeed become friends. Often, especially when sharing stories of those golden years of feminist organizing in Duluth, it was like being right back in the energy and excitement of those days. Even with people whom I had never met before, we shared a closeness and bonding in memories of that time.

I was consistently humbled by the openness and trust with which the women, many of whom I was meeting for the first time, shared their stories with me. I will always be grateful for this rare privilege.

Some of the most fun interviews I conducted were interviews I did with two or more people at once. Jody Anderson and Fran Kaliher and, in a separate interview, Deb Anderson and Dianna Hunter often finished each other’s sentences in telling me tales of the early days of the Coffeehouse. There was much laughter and good humor. The same was true when I met Marvella Davis and Babette Sandman as they shared their stories of the Women’s Action Group over coffee at Perkins. The way they lit up as they shared their memories of the Women’s Action Group and their evident love and affection for each other and for all the women in the group is one of my fondest moments. The way Patti Larsen and Janis Greene spoke together about Dabinoo’Igan inspired me with their deep commitment to their work, the women, and each other. I was invited to meet with the group of five feminist therapists who had had such an influence on the feminist community in Duluth, and who had continued to gather in their feminist support group once or twice a year for the past thirty-plus years. Their reflections together were tender and wise.

The most fun interview was my group interview with nine women who had worked for CAP [Community Action Program] weatherization. Many of them had not seen each other in years, and what fun it was to witness their reunion. Their fondness for each other was evident as they shared their stories. They clearly had empowered each other in significant ways during those years with CAP weatherization. They hugged and laughed and bounced their stories back and forth. They all had their stories of life-threatening times on ladders that they now recalled with humor. They had created a feminist solidarity when working together that had carried them through their lives.

It was also fascinating to pore over old documents, memos, letters, newsletters, meeting minutes, and newspaper articles. I am so grateful for those who took the time to collect these over the years. I could easily have spent hundreds more hours digging deeply into the treasures in archived material. It reminded me of my first archival work as a young graduate student thirty-five years earlier. My journey seeking out the histories of feminism has come full circle, from my early adventures combing through nineteenth-century archives of some of the earliest feminist thinkers and activists in the United States to those of the present day.

Doing this work has connected me to this community in a whole new way. I am honored to be their storyteller. I love this community. They have enriched my life in countless ways. It is a great honor, privilege, and joy to share their story with the world.

What is your own place in this story?

I moved to Duluth in 1980 at an amazing time, just when so many of these organizations were beginning and feminist energy here was so high. My first couple of years in Duluth were everything I had dreamed of. I trained to be a consciousness-raising facilitator with NOW and led CR groups with Joyce Benson. I was part of the early years of the creation of the displaced homemaker program, Project SOAR, and the political organizing of the Greater Minnesota Women’s Alliance. All the while, I was working with the group developing the Women’s Studies minor, and taught the first Introduction to Women’s Studies class at UMD. I was marching, organizing, researching, teaching – living and breathing feminism. It was a heady time – full of excitement and energy and enthusiasm. Duluth was coming into its feminist awareness and activism at the same time I was. It was the perfect place to be as a budding feminist.  The Northcountry Women’s Coffeehouse, which opened in 1981, provided my deepest connections with women’s culture and community in Duluth. I’ve made some of my best friendships, and met the women with whom I’ve been making music in our group, Wild by Nature, for thirty-five years. The women’s music scene was the lifeblood of the feminist community here, and I was fortunate to be in the heart of it. I have also had the great privilege of teaching Women’s Studies students for over thirty-five years. The feminist community in Duluth has been my heart and home for all of my time in Duluth.

Q & A with Caroline Burau, author of Tell Me Exactly What Happened: Dispatches from 911

Posted byAlison Aten on 18 Aug 2016 | Tagged as: Authors, Interview

Tell Me Exactly What Happened

Caroline Burau

In her new book, Tell Me Exactly What Happened, veteran 911 operator Caroline Burau shares her on-the-job experiences at both a single-person call center (complicated by a public walk-up window) and a ground and air ambulance service.

We asked Caroline more about the changes in the 911 dispatch community and the specific challenges dispatchers face.

Meet Caroline at the book launch celebration for Tell Me Exactly What Happened on Thursday, September 8, 2016, at 7:00 pm at Common Good Books in St. Paul.

Your first book, Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat, details your rookie years as a 911 dispatcher for Ramsey County. How long were you there, and how is Tell Me Exactly What Happened different?

I worked at Ramsey County for two years, then another two years at White Bear Police Department. Tell Me Exactly What Happened starts with my first year at White Bear, and ends after eight years as a medical dispatcher at an ambulance company.

Answering 911 is about the shock and awe I experienced as a rookie dispatcher, and Tell Me Exactly What Happened is about what happens after the awe wears off and what was once shocking becomes routine. It’s about how the things that may make you a great dispatcher may make you a really annoying parent or a distant spouse. It’s about losing people you care about to the job. It’s about losing people you will never meet. It’s also about the people you are sitting next to when these things happen, and how they become like siblings in a strange, macabre, sleep-deprived second family.

And in between those things, it’s also about all the strange new things I or my partners heard on the phone since my first book was written. In ten years, they do pile up.

How has the profession changed in the past several years?

Cell phones have changed things a lot, and not for the better when it comes to 911. It used to be that when a call came in from a traditional “land line,” the dispatcher could see an exact address plus an apartment or suite number. But more and more people are dropping their landlines and only using cell phones. The technology exists to pinpoint a cell caller as accurately as a landline does, but most departments don’t have that technology yet, and their budgets won’t allow it. I actually just visited a 911 center that didn’t even have computer-aided dispatch yet. I couldn’t believe it. The dispatcher wrote all calls, addresses, and every other detail down in a notebook. A notebook.

When I think about change in dispatching, I get stuck more on what needs to change, really. Dispatchers need more and better training. In Minnesota there isn’t even a 911 dispatcher cert course anymore. Most training happens on the job under huge time constraints and is very “catch as catch can.”

I’d also like to see dispatchers get reliable emotional support for what they go through day to day. Because of the culture in emergency services and also because of short-staffing, most dispatchers don’t get any relief after a traumatic call. Someone who has just dispatched an officer-involved shooting scene shouldn’t have to stay in the seat and keep working, for example, but it happens all the time. Dispatchers need the opportunity to step away and talk to someone after a terrible call. And they shouldn’t have to ask for it. It should just be the way things are done.

I probably sound ridiculously biased toward the profession, and I’m not ashamed of that. Dispatchers usually make up a much smaller percentage of any given police department or ambulance company, so they get overlooked. I’d like that to change.

Headlines about 911 dispatchers often bemoan the slow response times or mistakes. What would you like people to know about the job?

Depending on staffing, a dispatcher can be responsible for monitoring multiple radio channels and multiple phone lines at the same time. So, you might hear a recording of a dispatcher on the phone with someone, and it may seem like he or she isn’t listening or doesn’t care. But that is probably not the case at all. It’s just that if you have to listen to several things at once, something has to give. I worked in a single-person dispatch center for two years and felt constantly like I was missing things, and I know that I was. You just compensate by getting better and better at knowing how to triage it all. I had hoped that it would get better in a dispatch center with multiple dispatchers, but it really just meant more work for fewer dispatchers per call.

Basically, if all you heard was a sixty-second recording of the 911 call on the evening news, you’re probably not getting the whole picture.

You write about the toll this kind of high-stress job takes on you and your colleagues, yet so many people stay in the job–why do you think that is?

I think most dispatchers stay on the job because they like it, and they know (even if nobody else does) that a seasoned dispatcher who can multitask like a madman is a truly awesome thing to behold, and that skill and efficiency saves lives.

There are some who stay in the job long after they’ve burned out. Part of the problem is that it’s not a skill set that transfers readily to other careers. When I left dispatching to go into the corporate world, it took me a long time to get used to the idea that a clerical error or a missed phone call from a client could be considered an “emergency.” It took a while to get used to the fact that what I do now is NOT life or death. It will not be on the news, one way or another. Even if you’re miserable, there’s a lot of pride in the idea that as a dispatcher you’re doing something that changes lives. Saves lives. It matters.

What is the difference between a public safety dispatcher and a medical dispatcher?

Public safety dispatchers are usually the first to pick up a given 911 call, so they have to ask for and verify the address of the call and dispatch police and fire if needed. If a 911 call has a medical component, then the public safety dispatcher transfers it to a medical dispatcher, who sends paramedics by ground or by helicopter, and then stays on the line with the caller to give “pre-arrival” instructions. So, they are both 911 dispatchers, just with different roles.

How has the 911 dispatch community reacted to your first book?

Based on the reader reviews I’ve seen, and the followers on my Answering 911 Facebook page, I think half or more of my readers actually are dispatchers. They relate to what I went through as a rookie, and while the details might change a bit from region to region, the basics of the job are very much the same. The feelings are the same. Some dispatchers tell me they make their loved ones read it, so they can feel a little better understood. Some trainers make new dispatchers read it, so they can have some idea of what to expect on the job. This is all a huge honor to me, and humbling. These are the people I needed to do right by with Answering 911, and of course I wanted to do the same in the new memoir.

Do most people understand how incredibly stressful the job is? Is chronic workplace stress a common problem?

I think most people have work stress to some degree or another, and part of me feels selfish writing about dispatcher stress like it’s the only stressful job. But dispatcher stress is unique, and uniquely overlooked, and I don’t think most people quite comprehend it, no. Generally dispatchers are too busy to toot their own horns, so I’m just going to sit over here and toot it for them.

I think what people don’t understand about dispatching is that it’s not all funny and bizarre, and it’s not all murder and rape. In between the notable calls are about a million semi- or non-emergent calls, and those can really grate on you, too, partially because there are just so many and partially because they can get in the way of properly managing the really critical calls.

Another dispatcher stress I address in the book is powerlessness. Shows like CSI make things like detective work and lifesaving look so fast and easy. But most of the calls that come in are for crimes that are already cold and lives that are already lost and can’t be helped. Being a dispatcher often means always doing everything you possibly can, but having to accept that most times everything is not enough.

Q & A with Cheri Register, author of The Big Marsh

Posted byAlison Aten on 21 Apr 2016 | Tagged as: Authors, Event, Interview, Nature/Enviroment

The Big Marsh

Cheri Register’s newest book, The Big Marsh: The Story of a Lost Landscape, recounts how a rural community is changed forever when moneyed interests conspire to transform a treasured wetland. As Sue Leaf, author of Potato City and The Bullhead Queen, notes:

The Big Marsh describes the glorious dreams, the grandiose schemes, the lies, the deception, the ignorance, the avarice, and the unheeded pleas of those who saw beauty where others saw a wasteland. Minnesota has lost more than 50 percent of its pre-settlement wetlands. In lyrical prose, Cheri Register tells us how this happened.”

We asked Cheri to tell us more about how and why she came to write The Big Marsh.

The Big Marsh is set in your home territory and even involves your family. Did you grow up with this story?

No, I didn’t. I knew only the final piece—the Hollandale story—about how a lake was drained in the early 1920s and Dutch people were brought in to farm vegetables in the peat soil. I didn’t know that there was a long, contentious backstory that pitted local farmers against outside real estate developers. I didn’t know that the “lake” was actually 18,000 acres of wetland. That earlier history has been lost. My first inkling of it was an essay written in 1935 that I found by happenstance. The headline grabbed me: “Connivings of Dishonest Men Cheat Nature as Well as Fellow Beings, Writer Avers.” The writer turned out to be my great-grandfather! With that fairly cryptic article as my starting point, I had to piece together the story—or watch it take shape—from county records, newspaper mentions, family memorabilia, and revealing entries in a young, enterprising lawyer’s archived diary. It took years of research.

Agricultural drainage is hardly a sexy, or even literary topic. What kept you at it?

I’ve got both a practical answer and a spooky answer to that question. Drainage is an essential theme in Midwestern history. We can’t fully understand rural life or the flourishing of the “heartland” or “breadbasket” of the United States without acknowledging the radical transformation of the landscape that drainage brought about. My daughters used to come home from elementary school upset over what was happening to the Amazon rainforest, and I’d think, what about the loss of Minnesota’s forests and prairies and savannas and wetlands? I’ve talked to intelligent, educated Midwesterners who have no idea that we live atop a network of buried drainage tiles, miles and miles of plumbing. The history of drainage needs to be told, and I felt lucky to be able to contribute one small story. My spooky answer is that my great-grandfather would not let me go. He followed me everywhere, dropping hints, drawing unexpected connections, reminding me of my obligation. I never saw his ghost, but I sure did feel his moral conscience bearing down on mine.

So is this an environmentalist book?

I’m not making an argument or proposing solutions. What I have written is history and family memoir, with an emphasis on landscape and the meaning of place. I am, however, a lover of wetlands, having grown up among the remnants of them, and I’m happy to show that wetlands were not universally dismissed as wasteland but in fact had value to those who lived around them. I do hope my story of how this one drainage happened will serve some purpose in our current public discussion of the unintended consequences of drainage: flooding, soil depletion, water pollution, loss of wildlife, etc.

Your memoir, Packinghouse Daughter, was quite successful. This is a very different book, isn’t it?

Not really. It may not have the immediacy of a memoir that draws on firsthand experience, but I do make clear my personal stake in the story, and I use family memoir throughout. I am pursuing, once again, the central question that motivates all of my writing, even my books about chronic illness and international adoption: What can we learn from the intersection of personal experience with larger, public events? As for the specific subject matter of The Big Marsh, I think of it as a prequel to Packinghouse Daughter. Ultimately it’s about the industrialization of agriculture, and it helps explain how the offspring of family farmers ended up working in the food processing industry, including meatpacking plants.

The structure of this book may surprise and even puzzle readers, because it doesn’t just relate the facts of the drainage. It seems to go off on tangents and even change styles at times. Why did you do that?

When I write, I’m propelled forward by the sounds of words and the rhythm of sentences, even as I’m committed to precision and clarity of meaning. I want to share my pleasure in the writing with the reader. Sometimes, when I’m conveying complex information, a simple, straight narrative is the best course. But at other times, say, when I want the reader to experience the sensation of being by the marsh, I can be more lyrical, or even fanciful. I like a little whimsy now and then. Also, the story isn’t just about the drainage of the marsh; it’s about the life of the marsh and of wetlands in general. So it’s not a tangent to write about Native life on the marshy landscape, or dairy cows grazing in the wet meadow, or binder twine, which is made of marsh reeds. The context of the drainage story is long and wide and deep. I chose to explore it the way an essayist does, by approaching it from many angles, “wheeling and diving like a hawk,” as Phillip Lopate says. A hawk even shows up in the story.

Upcoming author events:
Book Launch Celebration: Magers & Quinn, Thursday, May 12 at 7pm
Book Talk and Signing: Subtext, Tuesday, May 24 at 7 pm
Book Talk and Signing: Prairie Lights, Thursday, June 9 at 7 pm

Sharing Family History

Posted byAlison Aten on 16 Jun 2015 | Tagged as: Authors, Event, History, Interview

Sara DeLuca and her granddaughter Emma

Sara DeLuca and her granddaughter Emma

Today’s post is by Sara DeLuca, author of The Crops Look Good: News from a Midwestern Family Farm. Sara will be touring Wisconsin later this month. (Click on the title link for her event schedule, media interviews, and book club guide.)

From Sara:

This photo of me with my granddaughter, Emma Drury, was taken at Folsom House in Taylors Falls, Minnesota, on April 25, 2015.  We were celebrating the recent publication of my book,  The Crops Look Good: News from a Midwestern Family Farm. Based on a collection of family letters, the book is an intimate portrayal of family farm life in the region – first-person history, written as it was being lived. My mother’s letters to her eldest sister, beginning when she was seven and continuing throughout middle age, make a significant contribution to the story.

The Folsom House event on April 25 was very special to me, for several reasons.

Fifteen-year-old Emma planned and hosted my reading in this gracious home, built in 1855 by lumberman, historian, and Minnesota state senator W. H. C. Folsom. Five generations of the Folsom family occupied the house, which still contains their original furnishings, library, and personal effects. It is now operated by the Taylors Falls Historical Society, in partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society.

My parents, Harvey and Helen Hellerud, who farmed for decades in Polk County, Wisconsin, retired in 1976 and moved across the St. Croix River to Taylors Falls. As an accomplished pianist, my mother entertained Folsom House visitors on the Hews rectangular grand piano (shown in the background of this photo) on many occasions. She also served as a volunteer guide during the 1980s and 1990s. Her affiliation with the Taylors Falls Historical Society was a great joy to her during many productive years of retirement.

Now Helen Hellerud’s great-granddaughter Emma is volunteering at this beautifully preserved historic site. And I have enjoyed the privilege of sharing my book about a place that has been important to my family and history lovers throughout the Upper Midwest.

Here is a poem I wrote ten years ago, in recognition of a rich heritage, a craving for deep identity, and our interwoven lives.

Braiding Dandelions

We find a bright, prolific crops of dandelions

splashing the vacant lot behind my mother’s house.

She’s eighty-nine this spring, but she remembers being nine,

braiding yellow heads and milky stems, crowning

and necklacing herself with blooms.

Now she demonstrates for me

and for my grandchild Emma – six years old –

how you can braid an ornamental rope from flowers.

The trick, my mother says,

is working three stems at a time, all different lengths.

When one runs out you splice a new one in its place –

that way you never break the chain.

Emma plops down in the deep wet grass.

Mom squats.  I kneel

between the generations.

We laugh at rough beginnings, ragged endings,

but we persevere.  We practice,

practice till we get it right, Emma, Mom and me,

our heads bent low, lost

in a field of yellow tassels.

When our circles hold

we rise

and crown each other with our handiwork.

C-SPAN’s BOOK TV & American History TV Visit St. Paul

Posted byAlison Aten on 24 Sep 2014 | Tagged as: History, Interview, Literary


C-SPAN’s Cities Tour recently visited St. Paul, profiling various literary and historic sites and interviewing local historians and authors. Featured segments were broadcast on BOOK-TV and American History TV and can be viewed via the hyperlink above.

Minnesota Historical Society staff as well as MNHS Press authors Paul Maccabee, Dave Page, and Adam Scher helped C-SPAN share the stories of the Capital City’s rich historical and literary past.

BOOK-TV features include:

F. Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul with Dave Page, co-editor of The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Cultural History of St. Paul via the  Minnesota Historical Society’s Gale Family Library with Patrick Coleman, acquisitions librarian

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist by Jack El-Hai

The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Story by Kao Kalia Yang

A profile of indie bookstore Common Good Books

Poet Laureate Carol Connolly

American History TV stories include:

The Minnesota State Capitol with historic site manager Brian Pease

Gangster History in St. Paul with Paul Maccabee, author of John Dillinger Slept Here

Early Life and Career of F. Scott Fitzgerald with Dave Page

Toys of the ’50s, ’60s, & ’70s with author and curator Adam Scher

Tours of the Alexander Ramsey House, James J. Hill House, and Historic Fort Snelling

Living Here, Loving Minnesota with Marie Porter

Posted byAlison Aten on 27 Jun 2013 | Tagged as: Authors, Food, Interview

Living Here, Loving MinnesotaAn occasional series highlighting local authors and their favorite ways to spend a Minnesota weekend.

Marie Porter is the author of the newest title in our Northern Plate series, Sweet Corn Spectacular.

Win a copy of Sweet Corn Spectacular by entering Marie’s Corn Haiku Contest!

Marie Porter

Sweet Corn Spectacular

What is a typical weekend for you?

Oh, man, I’m not sure we have anything resembling typicality in our LIVES, never mind weekends!  I guess the closest thing to typical we’ve had lately is that weekends usually involve a lot of work on the house.  We had our house smashed badly in the 2011 tornado, were under-insured by $60k+, and have been picking away at DIY-ing a lot of it.

What are some of your favorite local Friday night activities?

When the weather is nice and cool, I like getting out for scenic walks or drives.  When the weather is too hot, we become about as local as possible—holed up in our house, watching movies.

What/where do you eat on weekends? What’s a typical Sunday breakfast at your house?

Well, aside from renovation stuff, I like to use weekends to hash out recipe ideas I have, whether for my blog or for upcoming cookbooks.  What we eat varies wildly depending on what I’m working on at the time, and it isn’t necessarily seasonally “appropriate” at all times, either.  Due to the nature of publication schedules, we may eat a full Christmas dinner in early summer!

Lately, I’ve taken to making a batch of muffins almost every Sunday. It’s a great weekend breakfast and works for easy to-go breakfasts for my husband for the week.

What’s your weekend reading like?

When I have time to read, it’s usually catching up on blog entries and/or reading up on DIY techniques. (Like teaching myself to demolish and tile our bathroom!)

What is your top Minnesota getaway?

Duluth!  I’ve lived here for seven years and only recently made it up to Duluth.  We’re looking at maybe making it a monthly thing—sitting on a rock by the shore does a world of good for me, reminds me of home.  It’s great for de-stressing!

Bug Buzz

Posted byAlison Aten on 12 Apr 2013 | Tagged as: Authors, Children, Event, Interview, Nature/Enviroment

Bruce GiebinkBill JohnsonMinnesota Bug Hunt

It may be snowing in Minnesota, but bugs will be crawling out soon. Today we chat with Bruce “the Bug Guy” Giebink and photographer Bill Johnson, collaborators on Minnesota Bug Hunt, a new children’s book about insects big and small, fierce and friendly.

Find out why they are both fascinated by the Mantisfly.

How did you become interested in bugs?


Although I’ve had naturalist tendencies since I was a kid, I wasn’t especially fascinated with insects as a group until I took an introductory entomology course in college. I had no idea of the incredible diversity that exists in the insects. They come in a nearly endless variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, and more species continue to be discovered on a daily basis.  Many truly do look like mini alien creatures! Once I began to study them more closely, I started to appreciate their amazing ability to survive and adapt to their environment.  As a group, they interact with each other and the environment in some truly amazing ways. One area I find particularly fascinating is how insects interact with each other and plants on a chemical  level. Although many insects live in a visual world, even more exist within an amazing world of smells.


One of my earliest memories is from around age three or four and I was looking at some hollyhock flowers and saw something fly into one. Being very curious, I walked up to the flower and for some reason stuck my finger in it. Well, the flower bit back. That was a big surprise for me! After a few seconds, I realized that it wasn’t the flower that bit me, but some large insect that quickly flew out of the flower. Later I determined that it was a large bumblebee that had stung me, only because I had just poked it. Because of that, I made it a point to find out what did that and why it did that.  To this day, happily, that investigation continues.

If you were a bug, what bug would you be?


I’d want to be a praying mantis. Mantids are very active and alert predators with excellent vision. They have a very good idea of what’s going on around them. Within the bug world, they are a top predator, so there aren’t many other bugs you’d have to worry about eating you–except perhaps a larger, hungrier mantis! Most can fly, so you’d be able to fly around, just for the sheer joy of flying or to escape danger or to check out different habitats. For an insect, they also live a fairly long time (2.5–4.5 months).

How do you get such detailed images?


With the right equipment, patience, and practice, it’s really not that hard to do. The best lenses to use are referred to as “macro lenses,” specifically made for close-up photography. When working at such a small scale and subject matter, depth of field is almost nonexistent, so the addition of a flash or multiple flash units is required to achieve sharp detail.

What is your favorite cool fact in the book?


The crazy life cycle of the Mantisfly. By appearance alone, the Mantisfly definitely qualifies as a bizarre bug! It’s got grabbing front legs (like a praying mantis), a really long neck (about the only other bug I know with a long neck is the Giraffe Beetle, another bizarre bug!), and beautifully patterned wings (like a lacewing). The life cycle of the Mantisfly is so unusual and detailed that I had a very difficult time keeping the description as short as it is. I wanted to say a LOT more! The world of bugs is truly full of weird and wacky characters. The more you look, the more you find. If I had been a part of creating the movie A Bug’s Life you would have seen some REALLY WEIRD and CRAZY bugs, some behaving in a truly WEIRD manner!


I like the Mantisfly life cycle story. In the insect world, it’s eat or be eaten, and you do what you can to be successful in one and try to avoid the other. To do that sometimes requires being really sneaky or devious as well as being able to show off bright colors, startling patterns, and weird body shapes.

What do you hope readers will get out of this book?


When readers (or even those just looking at the pictures) pick up this book, I hope they’ll appreciate the incredibly detailed pictures and want to know more about what they’re looking at. When they read about a particular insect, I hope they’ll say, “Cool!  I didn’t know they did that!”

After seeing all the different sizes, shapes, and colors of the insects in this small book, I hope they’ll appreciate the incredible variety or diversity that exists in the world of insects, even in a temperate location like Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. I hope this tiny glimpse into the hidden and mysterious world of insects will pique their interest enough to want to explore their own backyards, woods, and ponds to find their own bugs. Once they find them, I hope they’ll want to learn more about them, such as what they are, what they eat, how they protect themselves, etc.

More than anything, I hope they develop an appreciation for all the many important jobs that insects do and begin to realize how important they are to the natural world. In many respects they truly are “the little things that run the (natural) world.”

Meet Bruce, Bill, and some bugs tomorrow at Red Balloon in St. Paul at 10:30 a.m. Click on the hyperlink for the title, above, for more events with the authors.

The Rockwell Heist: An Interview with Author Bruce Rubenstein

Posted byAlison Aten on 21 Mar 2013 | Tagged as: Authors, Event, History, Interview, True Crime

The Rockwell Heist by Bruce RubensteinIn 1978 seven Norman Rockwell paintings and a supposed Renoir, later discovered to be a forgery, were stolen from Elayne Galleries in St. Louis Park. It is still the biggest theft in Minnesota history, and no one was ever convicted of the crime. Veteran crime writer Bruce Rubenstein, author of the new book The Rockwell Heist, details the story of the theft, the investigation, and the twenty-year quest to return the art to its rightful owners. Mr. Rubenstein recently answered some questions about his new book.

Why do you write crime stories, Mr. Rubenstein?

Because I always have something to write about. At least that was my standard answer when I was a freelancer selling articles to weeklies and monthlies. There is more to it than that, of course. People who write about business, or politics, or any number of other things always have something to write about too. But with crime your story has a dramatic hinge. And people are fascinated by crime.

Why were you drawn to the story of The Rockwell Heist?

It had everything a writer could ask for–feisty, sympathetic victims, bold villains who were part of a colorful local underworld, a sexy female con artist and her quasi-sympathetic dupe, a quest to recover the stolen paintings that went on for decades with one twist after another, hundreds of pages of files and many knowledgeable people to interview. And nobody got killed. I’ve been writing about crime for a long time, and I’m pretty tired of murders. This art theft and the many attempts to trade the loot for cash or something else of value seemed good-natured compared to the kind of crimes I’ve written about in the past.

Did you manage to solve the crime?

I found out who did it. So had the investigators. Like many crimes, it went into the books unsolved, even though the perpetrators, locally based professional criminals, were identified. There simply was not enough evidence to indict them. Their names were blacked out of the files, but I got in touch with one of the FBI’s informants and he told me who they were.

Why? Did he want credit? Notoriety?

No, in fact he went to great lengths to remain anonymous. It’s a phenomenon I’ve encountered many times. There are people who like to talk. There’s nothing in it for them. Just the opposite. In many cases they are risking their lives.

You say that the value of the paintings that were stolen has mushroomed to more than $1 million by now. How much did the thieves realize?

Not much. The value of Norman Rockwell’s work waxed and waned during the time they retained possession of the art, but it didn’t really take off until long after they’d turned it over for a pretty minimal price to the mobsters who’d hired them to steal it.

So the theft was a failure, even though they got away with it?

Not at all. It accomplished exactly what the real authors of the act, Miami-based mobsters, wanted it to accomplish.

What was that?

I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the book to find out. I’ll tell you this much: the Rockwell paintings were peripheral to their real objective.

Well, if the mobsters didn’t really want the Rockwell paintings, what did they do once they got them?

They offered them for sale through a stolen art network in Europe. The evidence suggests that the paintings were  bought and sold several times there, and maybe again in Argentina, before someone who was attempting to enter Brazil surrendered them to the Federal Police in Rio de Janeiro, probably in return for expedited processing of an application for Brazilian citizenship. Brazil doesn’t extradite its citizens to face charges in other countries, and wanted criminals often seek refuge there.

How much are the paintings worth now?

Rockwell’s work has undergone a critical re-evaluation in the last decade or so, and several of his paintings have sold for more than $1 million. The collective value of the Rockwells that were stolen from Elayne Galleries is conservatively $4 million.

Bruce Rubenstein will talk about his book and sign copies next Thursday, March 28, at 7 pm at Common Good Books, and Thursday, April 4, at 7 pm at Once Upon a Crime. Please click the hyperlink to the title, above, for details.

Tasteful Taxidermy

Posted byAlison Aten on 27 Nov 2012 | Tagged as: Interview, Nature/Enviroment, Videos

“DIY Death Rituals,” “Sing Like a Voyageur,” “Field Dress a Deer,” “Crop Art 101,” “Detasseling Corn: The Hows and Whys,” and “Tasteful Taxidermy” are just a few of the chapter titles in The Minnesota Books of Skills: Your Guide to Smoking Whitefish, Sauna Etiquette, Tick Extraction, and More by Chris Niskanen.

Chris is no stranger to the art of taxidermy. In his book he profiles Marv and Betty Gaston of Taxidermy Unlimited, but for today’s blog post he wrote up the story of Francis, below:

I was driving home from Best Buy in Woodbury when I saw a badger lying on the shoulder of a two-lane highway. It appeared to be perfectly intact after getting hit by a car. It was August.

Another SUV had stopped in front of me, and a woman with several older children were inside. About the time I pulled over to investigate, a teenage boy jumped out of the SUV, and soon the two of us were standing over the dead badger. He couldn’t believe what he was looking at. I was surprised, too, to find a badger in Woodbury. We discussed the matter with his mother, and while she was intrigued by the idea of bringing it home (they had stopped first, so had dibs), she understood that on such a warm day she needed to get it either in a freezer quickly or to the taxidermist. I volunteered to take it because I knew a taxidermist who could do the job immediately. When I brought it home, my five-year-old daughter was fascinated by the story and the face of this young badger, struck down in the prime of its life.

The taxidermist did a marvelous job, and later that winter (taxidermy takes a while to complete) the entire family went to pick it up. My daughter was now in love with the adorable young male badger mounted tastefully on a board, looking like he was peering through grass. She insisted on putting it in her room, and ever since, Francis (named after the children’s book character, also a badger) has been adorned in pearls, earrings, and doll clothes. Up close, Francis is an amazing animal, with his flat head, powerful shoulders, and long, sharp claws, but he doesn’t appear menacing.

He’s been a great way to talk about wildlife and science with our kids, plus he’s a swell conversation piece. My wife, bless her heart, has always embraced the idea of having Francis in the house, which is key if you ever plan to do something like this (warning to any spouses who see roadkill and fancy having it mounted for display in the home). The other lesson learned here is that taxidermy isn’t what is used to be. Francis is like a museum piece, and because we enjoy nature so much and have designed our home around the nature that surrounds us, he fits pretty well into our decor.


For a glimpse at more of the Niskanen taxidermy decor, watch Fox 9’s M.A. Rosko as she sharpens her Minnesota skills with Chris in his home.

Chris will be on KARE 11 Sunrise tomorrow (11/28/12) around 6 a.m., and listen for him on Minnesota Public Radio soon too. (We’ll update links here.) Please click on the book title link, above, for upcoming signings with Chris.

Original Short E-book: Minnesota Voter ID and the National Debate

Posted byAlison Aten on 22 Oct 2012 | Tagged as: Interview, MHS Author in the News

Jim RagsdaleMinnesota Voter ID and the National DebateMinnesota Voter ID and the National Debate: What You Need to Know is a new original e-book short by veteran reporter Jim Ragsdale. The book is available for $0.99 from most popular e-book vendors, including,,, and iTunes.

Our post today is from author Jim Ragsdale:

In rushing from event to event covering the photo ID issue in Minnesota for the Star Tribune, it is hard to find time to put what’s happening into a national and historical context. I tried to do so in this piece, and to direct readers to court cases and books that do that far better than I.

The experience helped me understand why making any change in our voting system is so difficult.

This most basic right (and rite) of citizenship is how “We the People” choose our leaders. But the meaning of those words in the preamble to the Constitution has divided us since the days of George Washington. The framers fought over who should vote. The Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, the draft and the Vietnam War — all enlarged the meaning of who “We the People” are, and who can vote. Seven amendments to the Constitution have been needed to expand and clarify voting rights and election procedures. Nearly a century passed between the Fifteenth Amendment of 1870, which protected voting rights of black men who had been enslaved, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was needed to end Jim Crow laws in the South and enforce the Fifteenth Amendment.

So the photo ID movement sweeping the country, despite its common-sense appeal in a society where IDs are required in virtually every transaction, runs headlong into this history. And it is not ancient history. In my lifetime, people have fought and died on our soil for the right to vote.

I hope readers can begin to see this historical and national context as they watch the ID drama unfold.

Jim Ragsdale on Twitter: @jwrags

Twitter handle for the book: #minnvoterid

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