Good Nightstand: Nine Reviews
State of the Arts
In recognition of the Winter Reading issue, this week’s column is devoted to nine Vermont books that we’d not had a chance to read, or review, until now. But before we get to them, congratulations are in order to New Yorker and Seven Days cartoonist-illustrator Harry Bliss: Time magazine has named his book Diary of a Fly, with writer Doreen Cronin, one of the top 10 children’s picture books of the year.
Props to all the Vermonters who published books this year; just getting the words onto the page is a feat. We can relate.
by Peter K.K. Williams. The Kieron Press, 172 pages. $13.95. Available online at Amazon.com and Booklocker.com.
When it’s snowing outside, some of us like to curl up with a tale of terror. And if it’s a tale set in midsummer, one that involves bikini-clad babes and jet skiers meeting their doom in the sun-glittering waves, so much the better. When you’ve just spent three hours shoveling the driveway, you’re entitled to your schadenfreude.
This slim horror novel by a Burlington writer offers plenty of that, along with some humor. Set on the shores of Lake Champlain, Clamp is self-published — a New York house would never have sanctioned its seriously icky cover photo of writhing lampreys. But it’s nicely edited and designed, and its author knows his way around the English language. Take his description of local lakeside Fourth of July festivities as “a quintessentially rural celebration — an event as unabashedly American as frozen apple pie or an unwed mother.”
Peter K.K. Williams pitches his book by saying it does for lampreys what Jaws did for sharks. Clamp does recall the many knock-offs that appeared in the churning wake of Peter Benchley’s bestseller. But it reads more like a very early Stephen King novel had the author lived in Addison County instead of Maine. The title is also a pun on “Champ,” and the book’s central joke is that everyone’s out looking for the noble prehistoric lake monster when they should really be blaming a series of gruesome, water-related deaths on the humble lamprey.
Well, the humble mutant, flesh-eating lamprey. Williams doesn’t try to avoid the hokey side of horror — there’s a mad scientist who actually says, “Welcome to Dark Island” — and some scenes are only for fans of the gross-out. The book lacks a real protagonist, unless you count the lampreys. But it has tons of local color, delivered King-style with tongue in cheek, and passages that showcase the writer’s gift for satire. One clever extended set piece describes an ill-fated Fourth celebration that starts on a booze cruise and ends in an uptight resort that sounds a lot like Basin Harbor. Local folks may chuckle in recognition — and be glad to wait six months before they even think about going in the water.
Not a Bad Seat in the House:
Albert B. Chandler and His Marvelous Music Hall
by M. Dickey Drysdale et al. Chandler Center for the Arts, 106 pages. $29.95 hardcover; $14.95 paperback.
Before satellite TV, iPods and the Internet brought a dizzying array of entertainment options, town music halls and opera houses linked rural Vermonters to the bright lights of “big-city” culture. In Not a Bad Seat in the House, M. Dickey Drysdale recounts the colorful history of Randolph’s hall, now known as the Chandler Center for the Arts. Historic photos, drawings, letters and interviews flesh out an affectionate centennial tribute. The book chronicles the structure’s rollercoaster fortunes as its community role changed.
Drysdale is editor and publisher of The Herald of Randolph and an active member of central Vermont’s arts community: music director of the Randolph Singers for 25 years and longtime Chandler volunteer. Not a Bad Seat opens with a fascinating sketch of the original man behind the music hall — homegrown industrialist-turned-philanthropist Albert Chandler (1840-1923). The youngest of 13 children, he worked alongside Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, sending and decoding telegraph transmissions that served as “the President’s daily lifeline to his far-flung generals and armies.”
Chandler became a communications mogul who always maintained his Randolph roots. He intended the music hall’s state-of-the-art facilities as “a force for the upbuilding of the moral and intellectual condition of this entire community,” he said on opening night in 1907. A bounty of diverse programming characterized the early decades: plays, operas, music and even ballet with controversial, knee-baring costumes.
After World War II, top productions stopped touring the hinterlands as TV’s reach spread, and the Chandler went into decline. The town considered razing the aging building for a parking lot.
In the early 1970s, the “perfect community catalyst” of musical theater saved the hall. Annual productions engaged volunteer energy, raised funds for long-deferred repairs, and “reaffirmed for the Randolph public at large what a great thing it is to have your own music hall.”
Amazing . . . But False!
Hundreds of “Facts” You Thought Were True, but Aren’t
by David Diefendorf. Sterling Publishing Co., 256 pages. $12.95.
Know-it-alls, bookworms and history buffs, beware. Before you start spouting from your fountain of trivia and “known facts,” you have some more reading to do.
Amazing . . . But False!, by Winooski author David Diefendorf, debunks hundreds of routinely accepted tidbits of knowledge in a lively and entertaining manner. This well-researched paperback is bound to test many a well-educated mind.
If you thought, for instance, that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came up with the line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” you’re sadly mistaken. In addition to a team of speechwriters who probably drafted most of the president’s profundity, it seems likely that particular quote may have been lifted from another American master. In 1851, Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.” And the theft doesn’t stop there. Britain’s Francis Bacon, France’s Michel de Montaigne and others penned similar statements. FDR and Thoreau, plagiarists Amazing . . . But False! pulls no punches, and handily demonstrates that nothing is sacred in the world of misinformation.
Here’s another, from the anatomy department: The appendix is a useless sac of skin that evolution deemed obsolete, right Wrong. It makes endocrine cells in the fetus soon after conception, wards off disease, and produces antibodies and white blood cells. Oh, yeah, it also can be used to recreate a sphincter.
And your high school history teacher probably never told you that eunuchs — castrated men — were preferred by Roman women as bed partners, both for their sterility and virility. Who knew
Dedicated to Cliff Clavin — yes, the mustachioed, misguided mailman who sat at the bar with Norm on “Cheers” — Diefendorf’s book is a fun and interesting read, with photos or illustrations for every entry. An excellent “bathroom book.”
by Rusty DeWees. Rusty D. Inc, 219 pages. $24.95.
Rusty DeWees will probably never escape his alter-ego, “The Logger.” And why should he The plaid-wearin’, dialect-talkin’, chainsaw-wieldin’ hunk has earned a good living for this 6-foot-4 redhead reared in Stowe. But the gifted actor and comedian steps out — or rather, inward — in Scrawlins. A collection of short essays that first appeared as columns in Vermont Times, the off-center observations, anecdotes and insights are those of the Real Rusty.
He does bear some resemblance to his backwoodsman — as in, a little rough-hewn. For one thing, DeWees has no use for the fussy strictures of “proper” English: spelling, syntax, punctuation, etc. If this offends language purists, they should think of, say, Mark Twain. Truth is, DeWees has a pitch-perfect ear for vernacular speech — including his own. And, as Vermont poet David Budbill notes in his foreward to Scrawlins, DeWees has flawless timing as well. This can be harder to pull off in prose than in performance, but DeWees makes up for it in the rhythm of his sentences. He writes in “ben and betsy franklin”: “Made a few hundred bucks selling my DVDs at the fair. Drivin’ home, I spent every dime of it. I got gas.”
Budbill has known DeWees since he cast him 21 years ago as a French-Canadian logger in his play, Judevine. The role set DeWees’ career on a roll. “Rusty’s writing is straightforward, self-effacing and blunt,” Budbill observes. Indeed, he calls it like he sees it. But while DeWees is unsparing of sacred cows and pretentious ways, he is, more often than not, kindhearted and thoughtful. The Logger, a Sensitive Guy A-yup. Just read the piece about his dying father — titled “number one important soul” — and see if it doesn’t make you weep.
DeWees is attuned to authenticity; his affection for Vermont and its vestigial old-fashioned ways struts across these pages like a parade. And his down-home, cut-the-crap sensibility results in a practical wisdom. He writes in “the good ole days”: “When things aren’t going swell for me, I concentrate on the best of it, and remember that what you can’t change, you have to stand. If you stand it long enough, with the right attitude, it might turn out good.”
These are DeWees’ good ole days, and reading Scrawlins is a gol darn nice way to spend one of your own.
Brighten the Barn
Poetry Society of Vermont, 99 pages. $15. Available at area bookstores
The Waitsfield-based Poetry Society of Vermont was founded in 1947 and put out its first collection of poems seven years later. Now comes Brighten the Barn, the group’s third anthology, for its 60th anniversary. The self-published selection of 78 poems contains the work of current and deceased members. It finishes with smiling headshots of members, many of them white-haired — which may explain why the poems tend to sound nostalgic. The book’s title comes from a line in a poem by Ann B. Day, “The Quick Coming of Night,” about the passing of a family farm: “We’d pull the cords of yellow light / to brighten the barn against the night.” The poem ends with a regretful “Now, no lights glow.”
A judging committee of three — John Elder, the Middlebury College professor of nature writing, and Castleton State College English profs Tom Smith (retired) and Joyce Thomas (poet) — selected these works out of 223 submissions. Many express wonder at changes in season or sightings of wild animals and budding flowers, leading to thoughtful, Robert Frost-like insights. Others focus on relationships, often generational: In “Summer Lunch in Stowe,” Earline Marsh’s poem reflects on the pleasure of basking in a now-grown granddaughter’s “shadow.”
Rare is the poem that isn’t comprehensible on a first read, but all are richly re-readable. “Anne Boleyn’s Dressmaker,” by PSOV vice-president Carol Milkuhn, ventures into a Browning-esque dramatic monologue, leaving the impression that the queen and her seamstress had a complicated relationship. Certain images remain long after turning the page. The speaker of “Rose in the Shade of August,” by Barbara Asen, is massaging an 89-year-old woman when she notices, “How like my infant’s back and butt, / Your soles and heels together in my hands.”
America Dreaming: How You anged America in the ’60s
by Laban Carrick Hill. Little, Brown and Co., 166 pages. $19.99.
Listed for “ages 12 and up,” America Dreaming intends to show young adults today what it meant to be young — and abnormally influential — in the 1960s. Like any good textbook, it covers the basics: the radical politics borne of the Vietnam War, civil-rights demonstrations and uprisings by blacks, Latinos and Native Americans, the dawn of environmental consciousness, the second wave of feminism. Hippies and flower power. Yippies. And, of course, the music — The Beatles happened to a generation still stunned by the Kennedy assassination.
A section in the front summarizes the pop-cultural tsunami that began even earlier, when boomers were in elementary school — Dr. Spock, Elvis Presley, the Beats, James Dean, J.D. Salinger, Jackson Pollock. Like any slice of history, much of it seems quaint 40 years later. Consider Time magazine’s description of rock ’n’ roll in 1956: “An unrelenting, socking syncopation that sounds like a bull whip; a choleric saxophone honking mating call sounds; an electric guitar turned up so loud that its sound shatters and splits . . .”
America Dreaming is a sort of CliffsNotes of the ’60s, but with cool design — lots of vintage photos, eye-popping colors, large pull-quotes and sidebars and in-your-face typography. Laban Carrick Hill’s text is a straightforward, nonjudgmental reprisal of a tumultuous period — though he does gloss over a few things, e.g., the irresponsible sex part.
For readers who were young in the 1960s, America Dreaming is a capsule reminder of a remarkable coming-of-age time. Whatever conclusions a young reader today might draw from it — or from any disappointing history since — the book focuses on what a generation can accomplish if they put their minds to it. “The lesson learned from the ’60s was that all people — young, old, and in between — could make a difference,” Hill instructs, “. . . that was an important lesson indeed.”
Vintage Vermont Villainies: True Tales of Murder & Mystery from the 19th and 20th Centuries
by John Stark Bellamy II. The Countryman Press, 226 pages. $13.95.
If your idea of a good winter read is true tales of dastardly deeds, then Vintage Vermont Villainies might be just the book. John Stark Bellamy II brings a dozen notorious Green Mountain crimes back to life with a Kodachrome eye for detail. (The author, a recent Vermont transplant, penned six collections of similar sagas in his native Ohio.) As Bellamy reminds the reader, macabre murders and mysteries from the past prove the old saw that truth is stranger than fiction.
Bellamy’s “pronounced antiquarian streak” leads him to focus on the “peculiarities of past manners, past speech and past lifestyles.” He mines newspaper accounts, court records and other presumably dry archival materials for vivid specifics, such as how blood spattered at a sugar-shack murder scene. Some finds shock modern sensibilities, especially copious courtroom theatrics (displaying a victim’s severed head to the jury!) and repeatedly botched hangings (necks don’t snap, and the condemned strangle slowly instead).
The author recounts each crime with cinematic pace and cohesion, using swift brushstrokes to sketch character flaws, make behavioral insights, and summarize legal wrangling. His language often has an arch, slightly old-fashioned air, which feels appropriate both to the time period and lurid subject matter. A john who killed a Rutland madam “made himself notorious as a profligate if unimaginative rake, drinking heavily, boasting of sexual conquests.” Lawyers for a mentally unstable Montpelier murderess planned to solicit five generations worth of evidence proving her “the inevitable fruit of a degenerate family tree.”
Notwithstanding this colorful catalogue of capital crime, murder remained rare in Vermont. Only 25 killers (just two women) were ever executed in the state’s history, the last in 1954. One fascinating detail: The legislature, not the Supreme Court, voted on death-sentence appeals.
Grandfather’s Gift: A Journey to the Heart of the World
Photographs and essays by Ethan Hubbard. Heron Dance Press, 222 pages. $19.95.
In his 10th book, Chelsea-based “global documentary” photographer Ethan Hubbard shares black-and-white images and written descriptions from many countries he’s seen in more than 40 years. Given his tendency to visit indigenous peoples and to revere close-to-nature cultures, you might think the title of this softcover volume refers to a respected elder in some far-flung corner of the globe. Turns out, it’s Hubbard. Now 65, he posits the book as a gift to granddaughters Ella and Grace. An introductory letter begins: “I thought it would be fun to share with you what I have been doing for the past forty years — TRAVELING!”
Of course, the letter is also a neat way of signaling to all readers Hubbard’s lifetime of crisscrossing the globe, hanging out with and falling in love with diverse cultures, languages, customs and faces. Oh, those faces. The photos reveal both the remarkable variety of human life on the planet as well as the common threads. One of the latter: Everyone — no matter how poor, hardworking or toothless — knows how to smile at a camera.
No doubt this photographer’s obvious delight is contagious; Hubbard infuses the personal anecdotes that accompany his images with words like “magical” and “energy” and “spirit.” It’s not that he ignores the considerable negatives of the world — poverty is a frequent backdrop. Strife sometimes lurks as well. But Hubbard prefers to focus on the resiliency of his fellow man. And just as he relies on the kindness of strangers in his travels, he gives it in return. Grandfather’s Gift is, in fact, a lovely gift for anyone who wishes they could roam the world, too — where there is no McDonald’s, Wal-Mart or Starbucks.
Hunger Mountain: The Vermont College Journal of Arts & Letters
Fall 2007, 200 pages. $10.
This twice-yearly literary arts journal is only five years old, but it has attracted some weighty names. Barbados-born Kamau Brathwaite contributes a poem — and his own font — in the latest issue. So do Marvin Bell, formerly of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Mark Jarman at Vanderbilt University. The volume also features a sweeping geographical representation: Robin Hemley, director of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, writes an essay on his time in the Philippines; Heather Kirn’s short story is called “A Rough Guide to Living in Japan”; Randa Jarrar’s “The Story of My Building” is set in Gaza, while Jerusalem-based poet Shirley Kaufman writes of the Dead Sea meeting the sky at “an ink blue line.”
But the best reason to pick up a copy of this gorgeously produced selection of short stories, creative nonfiction, poems and full-color reproductions of paintings is the opening story by Andrew McCuaig, which won the journal’s fourth Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize. McCuaig is a high school English teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, whose work has garnered both readers’ choice awards and publication in the 2006 Norton short-story anthology, Flash Fiction Forward. “A Soldier’s Story” is told from the point of view of an Iraq war returnee whose right arm was blown off in a suicide bombing. Determinedly unsentimental, the story touches on the disconnect between civilians and those who have experienced war, the struggles of maimed but still young vets to redefine their lives, and the hypocritically warm reception our society grants returned soldiers from wealthy families — those who “didn’t have to join the military.”
Hunger Mountain is produced by Union Institute and University’s Montpelier site, Vermont College. This issue was guest-edited by four professors in the MFA in Writing Program, prose writers Phyllis Barber and Ellen Lesser, and poets Richard Jackson and Natasha Sajé.