Booking It | Books | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Books

Booking It

From vengeful geeks to vengeful ghosts, Vermont has good reads this season


Published July 15, 2009 at 6:35 a.m.

Insects keening in the fields. Mysterious doubles, disguises and disappearances. Obsessive people living in close quarters. Bodies sunk in lakes, where they may or may not stay put.

Sound like good summer reading? So far, the season hasn’t exactly afforded us weather for lounging on the beach or the deck. But there’s nothing like a page turner when rain is drumming the roof, either. With that in mind, here are reviews of four recently published Vermont tomes — three novels and one accessible guide to the season’s fauna that could inspire forays into the fields and woods when it’s not raining.


The Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank

by Christopher Miller, Harper Perennial, 522 pages. $14.99.

The very funny second novel from Bennington College English professor Christopher Miller has already drawn praise from the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. While it’s many things in one, maybe it’s best to call The Cardboard Universe one of the defining comedies of modern geekdom.

Glance at the book, and it appears to be an encyclopedic guide — meticulously alphabetized and indexed — to the works of a science-fiction writer you’ve never heard of. Look a bit deeper, and “Phoebus K. Dank” sounds a lot like Philip K. Dick (1928-82), the prolific cult author whose memorable premises are better known today than his name. (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and Next were all loosely based on Dick’s works.)

Some fans have romanticized Dick, whose visionary late works were fueled by paranoia and pharmaceuticals. Not Miller. His Dank is a more clownish, less competent writer than Dick (as the writer acknowledges in an afterword), but he’s also not really the novel’s protagonist. That would be Bill Boswell, its narrator, a seething study in literary parasitism, sycophantism and envy.

Early on, struggling academic Boswell tells us he’s made himself the guardian of Dank’s legacy after the latter’s untimely death. As Dank’s longtime housemate, he considers himself qualified to pen a guide to both the man’s work and his life. But Dank’s lifelong friend Owen Hirt, an unsuccessful poet, insists that he be allowed to contribute to the compendium. Hirt is an unabashed snob — it’s hard not to hear him speaking in the voice of Monty Burns (Springfield’s richest resident in “The Simpsons”) — and his lofty dismissals of Dank’s “oddly premised, badly written science fiction” provide counterpoint to Boswell’s fawning appraisals. As the story slowly progresses, Boswell gains new dimensions, and the rivalry of the two commentators turns out not to be as simple as it appears.

With its unreliable narrators and contentious footnotes, The Cardboard Universe owes an obvious debt to Nabokov’s Pale Fire. So did Miller’s debut novel, Sudden Noises From Inanimate Objects, which used a similar conceit (fiction in the form of CD liner notes) to tell the story of a postmodern composer. While all that may evoke esoteric literary gamesmanship, Miller’s humor is nothing if not grounded. He writes from the point of view of one who follows the flights of fancy of a Dank, or a Dick, without losing sight of the old Playboys languishing in the Great Man’s spare room, or his habit of de-creaming his Oreos before eating them.

The novel proceeds as a series of episodes, like sketch comedy: On the one hand, we have the outlandish summaries of Dank’s works; on the other, the often “floridly silly” incidents of his life, chronologically jumbled to suit Boswell’s alphabetical scheme. Here’s a sample from the preface, where Boswell offers a quick overview of Dank’s eccentricities:

At one time or another, he built a time machine and convinced himself it worked, got himself arrested for public urination and then four years later for public defecation, decided that he was a robot and asked the police to arrest him again, decided that the man next door was beaming a death ray at him and took to wearing a suit of aluminum foil while working in the yard, formed a short-lived punk band called Idle Threat, was questioned in connection with the murder of a critic, wore his wristwatch on his ankle (“to give my wrist a rest”) …

Eventually we learn the when, how and why of all these incidents. Readers who prefer a clear line of mounting suspense may lose patience with the rambling narrative, and there’s no denying that some sections could have been truncated. But those who enjoy the shaggy-dog story of the vain, obese, testy, frequently deluded, oddly amiable writer and his dueling critics will be rewarded by Miller’s cutting insights into science-fiction fans and their much-maligned habit of rejecting “real life.”

Discussing Dank’s quasi-spiritual experiences of temporary insanity, for instance, Boswell speculates that such dissociation is “a circuit breaker to protect you from high-voltage surges of reality by letting you experience them as unreal. Usually the circuit breaker resets itself after a minute or two, but Dank’s never did reset itself, probably because he preferred to experience the life as unreal, if he had to endure it at all.”

The whole point of fiction that evades reality, Miller suggests, is to distract us from the fact that we’re all, in the end, stuck on what Boswell in one of his darker moments calls “a steaming ball of shit.” A pessimist’s sentiment, maybe, but a lot more plausible than Dank’s fiction.

— M.H.


The Brothers Boswell

by Philip Baruth, Soho Press, 329 pages. $24.

It’s a summer of Boswells. Miller’s cloying narrator Bill Boswell takes his name from James Boswell (1740-95), perhaps the world’s most famous hanger-on, who parlayed his friendship with groundbreaking English lexicographer Samuel Johnson into a celebrated biography. Philip Baruth’s new book The Brothers Boswell is about that first bearer of the name. But, like Miller’s novel, this compelling historical thriller has modern concerns, such as who ends up famous and why.

Baruth is a Vermont Public Radio commentator, a political blogger and currently a candidate for state Senate, but he also teaches 18th-century lit in UVM’s English department, where it’s safe to say he’s had occasion to read Boswell’s London Journal more than a few times. A candid, bawdy, fascinating document, Boswell’s diary of 1762-3 offers an uncensored glimpse into the life of a privileged twentysomething in the era of knee breeches. It paints a young man of contradictions, eager not to miss out on anything, who goes straight from listening reverently to Johnson’s homilies to flirting with actresses and trading with whores.

Bright as he is, there’s a Brat Pack aspect to Boswell, whose patrician sense of entitlement can get grating. Perhaps that’s why Baruth took the inspired step of making his narrator not now-famous James Boswell — the eldest son, heir to considerable wealth and position — but his younger brother John, mainly known for his episodes of insanity.

The novel opens with John Boswell stalking his brother and Samuel Johnson — just then embarking on their fruitful friendship — as they take a pastoral excursion down the Thames. He haunts the odd couple through the city, describing them in brutally acerbic terms, his motives only gradually coming into focus. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about James’ ruthless adolescent domination of John; about the game they played with Johnson’s dictionary, stumping each other with recondite words; and about their forays into the Edinburgh theater, where both discovered their sexuality in the world of make-believe. James’ preference was for actresses, John’s for actors, and his inability to speak about or even acknowledge his homosexual experiences contributes to his growing madness.

Unlike his brother, whose possibilities seem to stretch limitlessly in the Journal, Baruth’s John Boswell is barely 20 and has already backed himself into a corner he may never leave — like so many men and women cornered by straitened circumstances in those days. But he plans to go down fighting. Convinced that he and Johnson share a bond as strong as the one growing between James and the littérateur, John means to see that connection recognized, by violence if necessary.

The Brothers Boswell isn’t one of those broad-canvas historical novels; it’s more of a murky miniature, a noir for the Age of Enlightenment. John’s obsessive thoughts incite claustrophobia, as does the city he inhabits, which Baruth recreates in painstaking detail. From the shadowy park where prostitutes trawl for tricks to the river where men known as “mudlarks” provide a swimming messenger service, old London emerges from the pages with enough grime and grit to make us forget those movie images of gilded 18th-century salons.

While its plot perhaps winds up too soon, the novel’s conflicts are hard to forget. Like Owen Hirt mocking the alternate worlds of science fiction, John Boswell despises his brother for playing games with reality: Even James’ dalliances with prostitutes are “all about having other selves, silly childish romanticized selves,” he sneers. Read the London Journal, and you’ll see exactly what he means. And yet, James Boswell’s conviction that “there are several men trapped inside of me, a hundred men, and to be forced to be only one would be my death,” as Baruth puts it, is what made him an artist of sorts. And a profoundly modern man.

— M.H



by Jennifer McMahon, HarperCollins, 422 pages. $24.99.

When pressed to name a bestselling Vermont writer, most people would probably mention Chris Bohjalian or part-time resident John Irving. But 41-year-old Jennifer McMahon of Barre is making a name for herself with female-oriented thrillers that land on the New York Times Bestseller List and garner gushing reviews from glossies such as Entertainment Weekly.

She’s written three Vermont-set suspense novels in about as many years, and her latest, Dismantled, has the strongest premise of the lot. One summer, four young art students at a Bennington-like college light out into the woods and form a guerrilla group called the Compassionate Dismantlers. Under the influence of Suz, a charismatic, bisexual, borderline-sociopathic sculptor, Winnie, Tess and Henry become an artsy gang of monkey wrenchers who believe the only way to change the world is by “dismantling” it. By the end of the summer, their group is dismantled, too, and Suz’s corpse rests at the bottom of the lake.

Nine years later, Tess and Henry live quietly in the Vermont woods with their daughter Emma, who was conceived during the fateful summer. Everyone has agreed never to speak of Suz or Dismantlement again. But Emma is a neurotic, imaginative child, and she has an invisible companion she calls Danner — a friend who tells her, “Everything you have is mine.” When the girl discovers relics of the Compassionate Dismantlers and employs them in an ill-conceived plot to mend her folks’ fraying marital bond, everything goes to hell.

There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned creep fest to accompany the eerie drone of crickets in August fields, and the first half of McMahon’s novel delivers. The characters are less pulpy than those of her previous two books, and she leans on her strength: the ability to channel a child’s view of the world in plausible and disturbing ways. Ultimately, though, Dismantled dismantles itself. The narrative fragments into short chapters that all end with a predictable Boo! as Danner or some other beyond-the-grave manifestation of the pissed-off Suz jumps out to terrify someone. As the book degenerates into the TV-movie version of itself, it’s hard to care what happens, or that the ending twists just plain don’t work.

Which is too bad, because McMahon has real insight and skill with imagery. (Her descriptions of Suz’s artworks, designed to be “finished” through their own destruction, are among the most memorable passages in the book.) Perhaps the very factors that help her sell books — a hurtling narrative, a stepped-up publication schedule — keep her from going to those truly dark places the title and concept of the Dismantlers evoke. Suz and her acolytes and antics are destructive, sure, but subversive? No way.

— M.H


Summer World: A Season of Bounty by Bernd Heinrich, HarperCollins, 255 pages. $26.99.

A problem with Bernd Heinrich’s new book, Summer World: A Season of Bounty, is its width. A bit narrower and it would fit in the back pocket of jeans to be carried into the woods, or a bog, and read against a tree trunk.

With a narrower profile, however, it would not so easily accommodate Heinrich’s elegant and instructive drawings of the many insects, birds and plants that are his protagonists. Summer World is about the thousands of creatures and plants that come to life near his summer home in western Maine, and about their eating, fighting, procreating and sometimes just standing around, like the bitterns he watches in a swamp through binoculars.

Summer World is probably best read in numerous sittings outdoors as the critters flit or scramble nearby. A leisurely pace will afford more time to digest and ponder the natural complexities Heinrich has chosen to explore.

The professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont and author of 13 other books explores a lot: red-winged blackbirds, phoebes, bald-faced hornets, wood frogs, crane flies, long-horned beetles — the list goes on. As if writing a diary, Heinrich begins many chapters with the dates in past summers when the behavior of a particular creature caught his attention. Soon he is off researching in the field, raising questions, inviting readers to join in solving a riddle in the natural world.

“Why do male wood frogs call out?” he asks in a chapter about the amphibians that croak together from the banks of shallow woodland pools each spring. Heinrich saw hundreds of them hopping across the roadway on a rainy April night in 1995; over the next few summers he caught up with the species in their ponds. There he watched scores of males arrive at the water’s edge, where they proceeded to jam physically and vocally along the banks and pounce on any female that arrived. One male would successfully latch on to a mate, followed by two or three or as many as a dozen more.

Observation and book research lead Heinrich to the conclusion that the females have no say in choosing their partners. So, if a lovely male voice is not the turn-on, why the ruckus? With a nod to anthropomorphism, Heinrich compares the male wood frogs to boys at the fraternity house cranking up the music to let the girls on Sorority Row know where the action is.

Many of the questions Heinrich poses and attempts to answer may seem obscure, but in context they’re anything but. Can birds learn to hunt for caterpillars by using leaf damage as a tracking clue? Why does the maple-sugar borer, with so many New England trees to eat, not multiply until its food supply is exhausted?

Heinrich occasionally uses a broad brush for his science lesson — as when he discusses evolution and how the growing human population is destroying natural ecosystems — but he never strays far from science up close. When Heinrich sees ants fighting, he doesn’t offer allegorical ruminations on warfare, as Henry David Thoreau did. Instead, he counts the ants, follows them 250 feet on a tiny trail between colonies, and witnesses black queens “being pinned down” by a gang of reds.

Thoreau, the political and social critic, suggested humans are like thoughtless ants in their desire to create armies and wage war. Heinrich, the scientist, gets his digs — literally — into a red ant nest for research.

Heinrich’s findings were all very interesting, but in the end he must acknowledge that none of them proved original. “But no discoveries can be made without exploring, and thanks to my ignorance, I had been lured to try,” he writes. “I had fun. I learned much about ants, and they had helped make several summers special.”

Summer World is, above all, a reminder that paying close attention brings its own rewards.

— D.V.S.

Speaking of Summer Reading