Book Notes: Upper Valley Girl’s new book aims to inspire

Author Ann Aikens near her home in Bethel, Vt., on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. Aikens, who started writing her column “Upper Valley Girl” in 1996, published a book of darkly comical advice for young women that she said no one gave her when she was growing up. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Author Ann Aikens near her home in Bethel, Vt., on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. Aikens, who started writing her column “Upper Valley Girl” in 1996, published a book of darkly comical advice for young women that she said no one gave her when she was growing up. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus

Ann Aikens holds a copy of her book “A Young Woman’s Guide to Life” in Bethel, Vt., on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Ann Aikens holds a copy of her book “A Young Woman’s Guide to Life” in Bethel, Vt., on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Chris Lincoln is the author of the book

Chris Lincoln is the author of the book "The Funny Moon." (Courtesy photograph) Courtesy

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 11-02-2023 7:55 PM

It seems an odd lapse that the newspaper that coined the term “Upper Valley” has never published a word about a writer known as the Upper Valley Girl.

If I have to offer an explanation, it’s that newspapers don’t often write about other newspapers, and Upper Valley Girl is the name of a column written by Ann Aikens. An alternative explanation is that I’ve known Ann for years and journalists tend not to write about their friends.

Now, though, Ann has gone and written a book, so, Upper Valley readers who don’t already know, meet Upper Valley Girl. She’s written a volume of, as she puts it, darkly comical, uplifting advice, originally intended for her now-college-age nieces, titled “A Young Woman’s Guide to Life.”

“I was just writing it as a lark,” she said in an interview last week. “I wasn’t writing it as a book.”

It helps to hear Ann’s voice in her native accent: She grew up in Pleasantville, N.Y., a leafy Westchester County suburb of New York City. She studied French literature at Colgate, graduating in 1984, and worked a succession of fast-paced, fun but somewhat toxic jobs in the city before deciding, around age 30, to move to the Upper Valley. Her family has deep roots in Barnard and her parents eventually moved there full time.

I met Ann when I was working for Paul Kendall, guiding trail rides and teaching riding lessons at Kedron Valley Stables in South Woodstock. She came in for trail rides and we talked about books and writing. She wanted to write fiction, but wasn’t the kind of person who could sit still. I moved away and when I came back to Woodstock, in 1996, she had embarked on what I think might be one of the longest unbroken records for a local columnist in the Upper Valley.

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“I remember Kevin Forrest saying, ‘Oh yeah, send me a proposal,’ ” she said. She thought Forrest, the friendly but ursine editor of The Vermont Standard at the time was blowing her off. Kevin also was my first editor at the venerable Woodstock weekly and was as big-hearted as they come. In an introduction to a 2004 booklet of Ann’s columns he wrote, “Ann’s take on life as a single woman in the socially bereft Upper Valley always walks the tightrope between brutal honesty and gentle kidding, between ribaldry and pushing the family values envelope.” (Kevin died of cancer in 2010, and his friends and acolytes still miss him.)

Upper Valley Girl is a product of its moment. Ann named it as a play on the Valley Girl pop cultural phenomenon of the 1980s, and the interplay between the goofy sensibility of the San Fernando Valley and the staid Upper Valley gives it its charm and immediacy. Ann is no Valley Girl, but her take is more urban than rural. If you haven’t run into her columns, she puts them online.

As a conversationalist, Ann can be hard to gauge. She’s flown on the Concorde for work, but said writing the book “was like the craziest six months of my life.” She’s worked all kinds of weird jobs, including in fundraising for Dartmouth, has lived in Los Angeles, and is currently living in Bethel and selling ads for the Randolph Herald.

To write the book, she worked on it early in the morning, late in the evening, on weekends, mostly without getting out of bed. “It wasn’t even hard,” she said. “I’ve been doing my column so long that it’s easy to write concisely.”

The book is a string of pearls, general advice for YPs, Ann’s abbreviation for Young People. “Read it in bits and pieces or it’ll drive you insane,” she writes in her self-deprecating way. “Please know it contains only my advice: do what you want with your life. If nothing else, let my life be a cautionary tale. Some of it I got right and huge swaths I did not.”

Some of her advice is last century stuff, or, as my 15-year-old son says, from “back in the nineteen-hundreds.” From the chapter on Friendship: “Spend your time with people lazing around doing drugs and watching TV and, well, as they say: ‘Hang around the barbershop long enough, you’re gonna get a haircut.’ You’ll become just like them.”

But the book is meant to inspire, not scold. Some writers are like flashes of lightning, but others are like a trusty flashlight, there when you need them, and in writing her column, Ann has striven to be the l atter. Life is hard, she writes, so connect with people around you when you have the chance and make time for laughter.

The best place to look for “A Young Woman’s Guide to Life” is online at annaikens.com, where she keeps a list of bookstores selling it.

A first novel

In writing, and in general, meaning accrues over time. That’s certainly true for Ann Aikens, and it also seems to have worked out for longtime Thetford resident and Upper Valley native Chris Lincoln, who has published his first novel, “The Funny Moon,” this year.

Though Lincoln’s book is fiction and Aikens’ is not, the similarities are a bit uncanny. Lincoln wrote “The Funny Moon” as a birthday present for his wife seven years ago, after she urged him to write something funny. Lincoln, 67, had already turned out several other manuscripts, at one point had a literary agent, and had a book nearly make it into print. A comic novel was a departure.

During the pandemic, Lincoln and his wife, Cecy Lincoln, revisited the manuscript, talking it over and laughing together as they brainstormed ideas. ” ‘The Funny Moon’ was really more collaborative with her than any other novel I’ve written,” Lincoln said in a phone interview.

It’s set in a fictional version of the Upper Valley, where the Lincolns have lived since 1986, after moving back from Boston where Chris started a career as an advertising copywriter and creative director. He’s also been a college admissions coach for athletes, and has written a book on that subject, “Playing the Game: Inside Athletic Recruiting in the Ivy League.” Their sons, Nolan and Nick, are now in their 30s.

With one book under his belt, Lincoln plans to revisit some of his earlier manuscripts. “Letting something marinate isn’t a bad thing,” he said.

For more information about Lincoln and his book, go to chrislincoln.net.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.