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 sloth 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 just a little and quote a single representative sentence from, yes, page 32.
... And Master of None: A Memoir and Collected Stories
Jack Dennis, The Primavera Press, 150 pages. $12.
Somebody had spirited her away and left me somebody new to love.
Jack Dennis explores an abandoned gristmill with his boyhood friends. He savors the aroma of one of the fresh cans of Maxwell House coffee that he opens weekly for a cat-loving widow on his grocery delivery route. He has a platonic love affair with a female cousin — referenced in the quote above — when both are teens. Together, they listen to the broadcast of an atomic bomb test, wondering whether it, like their forbidden love, might tear the world asunder.
Johnson author Dennis continues his recollections of growing up in Manchester, N.H., in this, his second memoir. His storytelling feels like dream interpretation or as if he were assembling fragments of his past into a collage.
The self-described author, filmmaker, writing instructor and futurist has a propensity for using quotation marks for inexplicable reasons — emphasis, perhaps? Still, Dennis' tales possess a midcentury charm, which makes sense, given that he's now a great-grandfather. His many progeny will have rich stories from which to draw.
Living With the Neighbors
Jodi Girouard, BookBaby, 237 pages. $17.95.
This episode had ... set off anxiety's spiral, but I had actually handled it well.
Most people can pack up and move away from bad neighbors. Things are more complicated for Jodi Girouard. In the introduction to her memoir, the South Burlington author explains why she uses the term "the neighbors" to refer to her auditory hallucinations — hostile voices that she has been hearing since her teen years. "If the noise is just people through the wall talking," she writes, "it's not so terrifyingly real."
A poet and essayist, Girouard describes herself as someone who "has lived with mental illness for most of her life and is active in promoting conversations that aim to reduce the stigma associated with such illness." The story she tells in her memoir, alternating between poetry and prose, should do just that. While there are no magical cures for "the neighbors," Girouard evokes moments of happiness and grace alongside ones of anguish. Weaving words together, she suggests, is itself powerfully therapeutic: "I hold onto the patterns that bring peace. / And I breathe it in."
Street of Widows
Cassie Fancher, Green Writers Press, 240 pages. $19.95.
Mabel's ashes were blowing in the wind and none of it mattered, not really.
Death, loss and a pervasive sense of longing both shadow and illuminate Cassie Fancher's debut story collection, which won the 2018 Howard Frank Mosher First Book Prize. The dead include fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, lovers, an aunt, a girlfriend, a pet sheep, a puppy and a tank full of fish. The deaths of the latter three are felt as keenly as the others.
Fancher grew up in New Haven and splits her time between Vermont and graduate school in Florida. She builds characters and settings meticulously, spinning fully dimensional dioramas out of words. In the title story, set in Barre when silicosis loomed over the granite sheds like the grim reaper, the narrator reflects on the absence of her husband's constant coughing: "The silence of the house feels heavy, like a thing she can touch."
To the weight that suffuses Street of Widows, Fancher adds touches of dark humor. Vermonters will especially appreciate the image of a teenager ramming his Subaru into the mailbox of his mother's unreliable lover.
On Being a Vermonter and the Rise and Fall of the Holmes Farm 1822-1923
David R. Holmes, University of Vermont Center for Research on Vermont & White River Press, 256 pages. $22.
Jehiel Johns founded Huntington in the Vermont wilderness. His story borders on the mythical.
Studying one's genealogy can inspire pride and surprise. Panton author David R. Holmes takes the exercise further: He explores how the story of his ancestors' lives deepens our understanding of Vermont and Vermonters.
In this well-researched volume, he chronicles how three generations of Holmeses responded to myriad forces with ingenuity and grit. They came from hardy stock: Jehiel Johns fought in the Revolutionary War, built a home on land he'd cleared and served as the Huntington moderator, justice of the peace and representative in the legislature.
His descendants in the Holmes family overcame environmental, political, economic and health challenges to run an apple orchard and breed Morgan horses. They also faced hardships that ultimately shuttered their farm. Through it all, they became classic Vermonters: hardworking, resilient, community minded, morally guided and able to find humor in the absurd. Not a bad legacy to discover.
As Crooked as They Come
Philip R. Jordan, Onion River Press, 361 pages. $19.99.
"Today, the production began, not with the drawing of a curtain, but with the closing of a door..."
Jimmy "the Merchant" Callahan is an old Boston gangster with a score to settle. His sister was a Combat Zone stripper with a heart of gold — until somebody pumped it full of lead. When he sets out to avenge her death decades later, Jimmy unearths a sordid history that many would prefer to keep buried.
In his novel As Crooked as They Come, Sunderland author Philip R. Jordan spins a crime yarn that crackles with tension and humor. The retired editor and publisher of Vermont Magazine, Jordan has clearly done time in the hard-boiled pages of George V. Higgins, James Ellroy and Jimmy Breslin, an acknowledged inspiration. The cast of bumbling crooks that populates his North End street corners and Dorchester backrooms recalls the scene-stealing sidemen in Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn.
But the book's most lovingly rendered character is Boston itself. Jordan's affection for the Hub lends his story a sense of place as vivid as a Southie accent.