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Page 32: Short Takes on Five Vermont Animal Books

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Published April 24, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


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Seven Days writers can't possibly read, much less review, all the books that arrive in a steady stream by post, email and, in one memorable case, a flock of defecating cormorants.

No, that didn't actually happen. We just like to be cute with the names for animal assemblages in this feature, which introduces you to a handful of books by Vermont authors by contextualizing each one and quoting a single representative sentence from page 32. For the Animal Issue, we gathered a selection of books featuring beasts — in one of which the aforementioned cormorants appear.

Borrelia: A Microbial Mystery

Millicent Eidson, Maya Maguire Media, 348 pages. $14.99.
Maybe the lively songs could distract her restless brain and slow her thrashing legs.

No, bacteria do not count as animals; for the record, they're classified as prokaryotes. But they are fond of using animal hosts, and that's how veterinarian Maya Maguire finds herself tracking cases of Borrelia in this new "microbial mystery" from Millicent Eidson, who teaches public health at the University of Vermont.

Like Maya, Eidson has worked as an epidemic intelligence service officer for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In this second book of a trilogy, she brings that expertise to a tale that follows Maya from New Mexico to Norway as she investigates mysterious deaths from the tick-borne organism that causes Lyme disease. The young public health officer also weathers personal woes, from her boyfriend's cognitive impairment (caused by the title character of the previous microbial mystery, Anthracis) to sexual harassment and her ongoing struggle with a panic disorder. While not structured like a mystery or thriller, Borrelia offers plenty of fascinating facts about the "squiggly spirochete bacteria" of the title.

— Margot Harrison

Toby Dog of Gold Shaw Farm

Morgan Gold, Lillian Books, 164 pages. $19.99.
The thought of fighting coyotes scared little Toby Dog, but it didn't stop him.

Life turns upside down for a fluffy white puppy who's taken from the farm where he was born. Carried away by a friendly farmer who smells of sweat and peppermint, he's dubbed Toby Dog — short for Sir Bartleby de Mimsy-Porpington, Earl of Caledonia County.

As Toby finds his place among a barnyard of colorful animals, both wild and domestic, he moves ever closer to fulfilling his purpose: protecting the farm and the animals who live there. As a puppy, he stood vigil with his mother, barking into the October nights at the menacing singsong of coyotes relishing a fresh kill. Now he begins to come into his own as a proud guardian.

This middle-grade novel from Peacham influencer Morgan Gold is based on the real Toby Dog and other animals who populate the farm he portrays in his videos. Much like the childhood classic Charlotte's Web, it draws readers into a wholesome story with a gaggle of lovable animal pals.

— Jordan Adams

Birding to Change the World

Trish O'Kane, Ecco, 368 pages. $29.99.
The huge hawk who came down with a great whooshing of wings ... grabbed a rat, and sailed off...

Trish O'Kane had "zero interest" in birds before Hurricane Katrina inundated her New Orleans house with 11 feet of water. Four months into one of the country's worst environmental disasters, she became attuned to the first signs of life returning to her adopted city: the birds. Soon, New Orleans' winged creatures became a form of salvation and personal therapy, sensitizing O'Kane to her own ecological footprint and, in the process, sending her life on a new flight path.

A journalist turned professor who now teaches environmental studies at UVM, O'Kane describes herself as an "accidental ornithologist." Birding to Change the World combines engrossing storytelling with a reporter's eye for scientific detail and an activist's passion. Each chapter offers a new revelation about a bird species that taught O'Kane a valuable lesson about our place in the natural world. For anyone who enjoyed H Is for Hawk or The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness, this uplifting memoir is a must-read.

— Ken Picard

My Girl Vaida: An Adventurous Hiker, Her Big Yellow Dog and Their Everlasting Bond

Caitlin Quinn, Stars in the Sky Press, 139 pages. $12.99.
Everyone knew ... that every weekend, Vaida and I were off on some outside adventure.

Caitlin Quinn is a self-described introvert. When she fell in love with hiking, she preferred to take excursions solo — until she met Vaida. The Lab-mix puppy had bright, beautiful eyes that seemed to stare into your soul — although, Quinn writes, she was probably just looking at your lunch. In My Girl Vaida, the central Vermonter chronicles her love story with Vaida, from adoption day to their great journey together on the Appalachian Trail.

While Quinn is quick to disclose that she's not a writer, her casual, conversational style feels like catching up with a friend. She's candid about her struggles and grief over the loss of Vaida, who died in November 2021. This heartfelt tribute to (wo)man's best friend could be perfect for an adventurer who dreams of a monumental trek — but it also works for dog lovers who would rather experience a grueling hike vicariously from a comfy couch.

— Gillian English

Eat, Poop, Die: How Animals Make Our World

Joe Roman, Little, Brown Spark, 288 pages. $30.
Above the toilet, there was a picture of a cormorant defecating on the shore.

Shit doesn't just happen — it makes the world go round. That's what marine ecologist Joe Roman, writer-in-residence at UVM's Gund Institute for Environment, sets out to prove in his new book, which describes a sort of fecal diaspora. Animals consume matter and leave nutrient-rich dung in their wake, which adds nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil and delivers undigested seeds to new habitats. In Roman's analogy, this process is the world's circulatory system, much as trees and plants have been called the Earth's lungs.

This thesis takes Roman to sites around the world, beginning with Surtsey, a volcanic island near Iceland that sprang from the depths of the ocean in 1963. Once a lifeless rock, it now teems with life. Scientists have tracked the development of that biodiversity from day one — and tied it directly to feces. Roman entertainingly shows how death and defecation contribute more to the state of our world than we might like to admit.

— Jordan Adams

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