State of the Arts
In December, we promised a roundup of independently published fiction and poetry by Vermonters that had found its way to the Seven Days office in 2010. In the month since then, yet more independently or self-published titles have arrived.
So, for this edition, we’re sticking with just fiction. The usual disclaimers apply: These aren’t conventional “reviews,” because the books haven’t been read cover to cover. Given the volume we receive, some may have been lost in the shuffle.
Still, our browsing yielded some pleasant surprises, from an Alaskan wilderness adventure to the story of a bizarre bond forged in Hitler’s Germany. We want to share them with readers while it’s still turning-pages-by-the-fireside weather.
Most of these books can be ordered online or through your local bookseller.
Some readers will be put off by the swastika and gothic font on the cover of Siegfried Follies by Richard Alther (Regent Press, 316 pages, $18). Coupled with the title, they suggest a broad, goose-stepping parody along the lines of Springtime for Hitler.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Open the novel, and the author — a part-time Ferrisburgh resident who’s also a painter — sweeps you into a Lebensborn hospital in Munich during the last months of the Reich. Nurses are euthanizing sick and deformed children; the overcrowded corridors are full of death. Amid the chaos, no one notices when sturdy 8-year-old orphan Franz rescues a child who was tossed from a death-camp-bound train in a suitcase. The two boys — one a model Aryan, the other presumably Jewish — become an unlikely family unit. Their bond survives postwar poverty, emigration and even the 1960s.
Alther spent 25 years researching and writing the book, and it shows in his loving development of milieu and atmosphere — make-or-break elements for a historical novel. The characters discuss Big Themes, but they aren’t straw men. Whatever the two protagonists’ relationship may mean (or not mean) about the relationship between Christians and Jews, it feels surprisingly genuine.
Part of what’s touching about Siegfried Follies is the author’s use of his characters to revise and resist age-old cycles of persecution — if only briefly and emblematically in fiction. That eagerness to reconcile cultural hostilities is something we see again in The Monkey Bible: A Modern Allegory by Mark Laxer of Johnson (Outer Rim Press [distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing], 304 pages, $25).
Laxer, the founder of a conservation fund called Chimp-n-Sea, clearly cares a lot about our primate relatives. He’s crafted a novel of ideas in which the national wars between religion and science play out civilly — and sometimes humorously or erotically. A young Christian, shocked by the discovery that he may possess simian DNA, meets up with a bold, sexy evolutionist who doesn’t think science excludes spirituality. Lots of conversation results — and music, featured on the accompanying CD by Eric Maring.
Yet another novel of ideas is Parallel Play (CreateSpace, 306 pages, $19) by Robert Barasch, a retired clinical psychologist who lives in Plainfield. A seemingly normal husband and father decides one Sunday to attend church naked. His pastor isn’t too bothered by his break from routine, but his wife wants him to see a shrink. So begins a comic novel of psychotherapy whose characters range from a randy polo player to a supermodel who’s descended from Freud’s famous patient Dora.
Concerned that the Tri-State Megabucks lottery preys on the poor? So is Darwin Hunter, the hero of Stories & Tunes by Stephen Morris (CreateSpace, 256 pages, $14.95). So Hunter — who was appointed “Megabucks czar” after his unsuccessful run for state senate — invents “Negabucks” to soak Vermont’s richest residents. Thus Morris deepens the vein of Green Mountain satire he tapped in Beyond Yonder and The King of Vermont (originally published by William Morrow). Expect to recognize some of your friends and neighbors...
Seeking spiritual enlightenment, a man leaves his home and heads into the Alaskan bush with a backpack. We’ve all heard stories like this, and they don’t always end well (think Christopher McCandless or Timothy Treadwell). Walt McLaughlin of St. Albans did return to write Arguing With the Wind: A Journey Into the Alaskan Wilderness (Wood Thrush Books, 150 pages, $13.95). After one too many arguments with literary agents who wanted it to be less about philosophy and more about bears, he published the slim memoir himself. Good thing he did, because McLaughlin can write. His descriptions bring vivid life to the dense, desolate woods of the Endicott River Wilderness — and to his own ambivalence about what he was doing there.
You may feel a yearning for the Hebrides after perusing A Scottish Ferry Tale by Nancy Volkers of Fairfax (CreateSpace, 234 pages, $7.99). After a confusing first few chapters, it evolves into a chick-lit novel with a funny voice and a genuinely attractive hero — a Glaswegian actor who charms the wary American heroine.
A lyrical, speculative novel with a beat bent, The Super 4 Nothing by Lucian Harke (Harke Books, 215 pages, price N/A) takes place in a U.S. where state boundaries are strictly guarded and citizens must choose occupations by age 30. The narrator, a sometime ranch hand, doesn’t approach life that way. “Histories have been made during ... times of descent,” he writes, “ — that brief period of falling into the unknown with only hope that the next vine is swinging your way.”
Last May saw the 40th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State. Robert Buckeye of East Middlebury explores their resonance — then and now — in his novel Still Lives (Amandla Publishing, 144 pages, $15).
Louella Bryant’s stories have appeared in Vermont Life and Hunger Mountain. They’re collected in Full Bloom: Stories (Brown Fedora Books, 142 pages, price N/A; available at brownfedorabooks.com).
Two murders of therapists in a small Vermont town lead to the revelation of a world of dangerous New Age cults in Breath Work, a thriller by Lee Byrd of South Burlington (iUniverse, 532 pages, $27.95)