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Page 32: Short Takes on Five Vermont Books

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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 sleuth of black bears. So this monthly feature is our way of introducing you to a handful of books by Vermont authors. To do that, we contextualize each book and quote a single representative sentence from, yes, page 32. If we got sucked in and read past that page, we'll tell you why.

ghost dancer

Alan S. Kessler, Leviathan Books, 294 pages. $18.95.
"I hate the way your mother looked at me, like I wasn't good enough to be there."

Alan S. Kessler has big ideas. Set in 1950s New England, the Barre writer's novel ghost dancer is a daring slice of magical realism that grapples with questions of race, sexuality, oppression and the isolation of otherness.

Kessler renders his tale through the eyes of Eleanor Wilson, who at 9 sneaks out of her parents' mansion with a homemade doll to an Indian cemetery. Her disapproving mother catches her and burns the doll.

But the doll isn't finished with Eleanor. Years later, the socially awkward teenager is thrust into the spirit world, where she will uncover secrets not only about herself but also about the real world — and, perhaps, how to save it.

Kessler is no Stephen Graham Jones, but fans of his horror novels or the spooky historical fiction of Alma Katsu might appreciate the creeping tension and cleverly threaded social commentary of ghost dancer. While it comes wrapped in some grand notions, the heart of this coming-of-age story is an intimate examination of fear, identity and, ultimately, salvation.

— D.B.

Without Reservation: Awakening to Native American Spirituality and the Ways of Our Ancestors

Randy Kritkausky, Bear & Company, 288 pages. $20.
My spiritual upbringing was suburban vanilla ... colorless, little natural flavor, nothing unique...

Randy Kritkausky is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. His grandfather and other relatives attended the infamous "Indian schools" where Native American children were once sent to be forcibly assimilated to white culture. As he explains in this book that is part memoir, part guidebook and part call to action, he grew up off the reservation, disconnected from the traditions of his ancestors. Returning to those spiritual beliefs "is a journey, as yet incomplete, homeward."

In lucid, accessible prose, drawing on both scholarship and traditional wisdom, Kritkausky takes readers along on his journey. A scholar who's worked at Middlebury College and elsewhere, the author founded the grassroots environmental organization ECOLOGIA. He argues persuasively that a more Earth-based spirituality might inspire us all to change our current dysfunctional relationship to the planet. But first, he writes, we need "the willingness to listen to and see what the land has to teach."

— M.H.

Isole & the Astronomical Compendium

Gwenivere Roolf-Cluett, Onion River Press, 242 pages. $11.
It was a large travel trunk, with scuffed black metal edging the corners...

Every reader of fantasy knows that a trunk sitting forgotten in a dusty attic must contain something special, even magical. So it is in Gwenivere Roolf-Cluett's charming middle-grade novel Isole & the Astronomical Compendium, whose title character is a young orphan in an alternate world resembling Victorian London.

Working as a maid for the embittered Lady Bothering, Isole is exploited and neglected like so many literary orphans before her. Then she meets a bird of rare plumage, finds and opens the trunk, and embarks on an adventure — with the blessing of the trunk's owner, who happens to be a ghost.

Writing in arch, accomplished prose, Roolf-Cluett fills her landscape with beautifully realized characters, from a scrappy street kid named Gamine to a pirate's daughter who says things like "Turn out thy pockets, my wee velvet varlet." While the novel lacks the world-changing stakes of many current middle-grade fantasies, its unbounded whimsy and inventiveness should appeal to bookish adults and kids alike.

— M.H.

Mianus Village

Jack T. Scully, Antrim House, 106 pages. $18.
We kept our distance / from the junk man, / who had more tattoos than teeth

Jack T. Scully's past occupations as a journalist and a successful tech entrepreneur appear to have sharpened his marketing skills: The Colchester author promotes his latest book with an informative website and video. Both give the impression that Mianus Village is yet another boomer memoir about growing up in a more "innocent" time.

And it is — to a point. Scully was raised in a development of "40 matchbox houses" built for World War II vets and their young families in Riverside, Conn. But this collection of poems isn't just rosy nostalgia for a "Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer life."

With adult retrospection, Scully weaves in his growing awareness of poverty and racism, alcoholism and abuse, and the contamination of his beloved Mianus River. He shows us the buried sorrow of housewives and the national trauma of an assassination: "I sat there biting my lip, / praying / our silver-tongued young president / was just wounded." Written in straightforward but vivid free verse, Mianus Village surprises with its eloquence.

— P.P.

Plato's Pigs and Other Ruminations

M.D. Usher, Cambridge University Press, 282 pages. $39.99.
Artemis aggrieved is Artemis avenged; Nature violated must be vindicated.

In this essay collection, M.D. Usher explores what he calls "environmental philology": a combination of environmental philosophy and the study of the classics. He reveals that ancient Greek and Roman literature and culture were rooted in systems thinking and sustainability thinking and argues that they have much to teach us.

A classics professor and a faculty member in the Environmental Program at the University of Vermont, Usher draws from both academic research and personal experience. For more than 20 years, he and his wife, Caroline, have raised sheep on their 125-acre farm in Shoreham. His keen understanding of nature's interconnectedness springs from "the hard-won folk wisdom of farming and land management."

The quote above appears in Usher's description of the Greek myth of the hunter Actaeon, who sees Artemis — goddess of wild animals, the hunt, vegetation and birth — while she's bathing. She turns him into a stag, and he's killed by his own hunting dogs. Woe to the human who mistreats nature — a timely cautionary tale.

—E.M.S.

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