Shelf Life

MacDowell looks West

Michael Chabon, new chairman of the MacDowell Colony. Michael Chabon, new chairman of the MacDowell Colony. (Stephanie Rausser)
By Jan Gardner
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2010

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The MacDowell Colony, the oldest artists’ retreat in the nation, has broken with tradition to name a resident of the West Coast chairman of its board of directors. Author Michael Chabon, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., is taking the reins from broadcaster Robert MacNeil, chairman since 1993.

Chabon’s works of fiction include “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” “Wonder Boys,” and “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” a 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner that he labored over during three residencies at MacDowell. His most recent book is an essay collection, “Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son.”

One of Chabon’s first duties will be rallying support for the campaign to raise $13 million to boost the colony’s endowment and build a new library and media center. Thornton Wilder, Leonard Bernstein, and Alice Walker are among the thousands of writers, artists, composers, and architects who since 1907 have had a studio of their own for a while at the Peterborough, N.H., retreat. In the announcement of his new post, Chabon, who has been a MacDowell fellow nine times, described the colony as “a miracle that has come through for me many times over the years. Serving as board chair gives me the opportunity to repay my indebtedness just a tiny bit.”

For the love of Dickinson
A young man’s love of Emily Dickinson’s poetry blossomed into a tradition almost as mysterious as the woman herself. Now the anonymous donor of roses to celebrate the poet’s birthday has unmasked himself.

For the past 13 years, James Fraser, a retired physicist living in Acton, has bought roses to commemorate the poet’s birth on Dec. 10, 1830. During the open house at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst held on the Saturday closest to her birthday, roses have been handed out — one for every year since her birth. On Dec. 11 the first 180 visitors received a rose.

In a recent phone interview, Fraser said that he wasn’t a particularly serious student as a teenager, but he was drawn to Dickinson’s work. “There was something about her poems that was a little different,” he said. Then he turned to physics, earning a PhD.

Decades later he acquired Cynthia Griffin Wolff’s biography of Dickinson, but it sat on his shelf for years before he opened it. “By reading the book, I got a much better understanding of how she [Dickinson] put words and ideas together. My interest just sort of snowballed from there,” he said. He visited the Dickinson house, joined the Emily Dickinson International Society, and initiated the annual gift. This month’s open house and gift of roses was the last of its kind. Times change and so should birthday celebrations, Fraser said. Next year’s observance is a mystery for now.

Coming out
■ “Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart” by Maya Angelou (Random House)

■ “Old Maine Woman: Stories from the Coast to the County” by Glenna Johnson Smith (Islandport)

■ “Every Zombie Eats Somebody Sometime: A Book of Zombie Love Songs” by Michael P. Spradlin (Harper)

Pick of the week
Pam Clarke of Edgartown Books in Edgartown recommends “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemptionby Laura Hillenbrand (Random House): “This is the vivid story of World War II airman Louis Zamperini. When his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean, he and two other crew members floated on a raft across thousands of miles only to be rescued by the Japanese and placed in a POW camp.’’

Jan Gardner can be reached at