The dozens of books that arrive at the Seven Days office in a year span a wide range of topics and genres. We receive critically acclaimed novels, poetry collections, historical studies and heartfelt memoirs. We review as many as space allows — as long as the author lives in or very near Vermont.
Just as they did in 2020, scribes have kept on writing despite the vagaries of a pernicious pandemic. What follow are six of our reviewers' favorites from 2021. It's neither a best-of list nor a ranking — just a window into what we read, enjoyed and highly recommend this year, presented alphabetically by author.
The Secret to Superhuman Strength
Alison Bechdel, with coloring collaboration by Holly Rae Taylor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 240 pages. $24.
I'm doing more running for exercise these days, and it's all thanks to Alison Bechdel. Don't get the wrong idea: Despite its playful title, the Bolton cartoonist's third graphic memoir is not an exercise manual full of exhortations to burn those calories. It's a thoughtful, meticulously illustrated history of Bechdel's own attempts to transcend her physical being by pushing it to its limits.
The author-artist applies a critical eye to that quest, even as she shows how the drive toward self-improvement has defined her life from childhood on. She explores how exercise can become an addiction — and foster other addictions. "I see now," Bechdel writes, "that my yearning for self-transcendence is in some ways an attempt to avoid the strain of relating to other people."
It's no surprise that Bechdel's book recently won the annual Publishers Weekly Graphic Novel Critics Poll — even sedentary folks like me can relate to its insights. For us, though, The Secret to Superhuman Strength may also offer inspiration to leave the couch and find out how on Earth anyone gets addicted to exercise in the first place.
The Most Costly Journey: Stories of Migrant Farmworkers in Vermont, Drawn by New England Cartoonists
Edited by Marek Bennett, Julia Grand Doucet, Andy Kolovos and Teresa Mares, Vermont Folklife Center, 252 pages. $19.95.
When I started writing about food and agriculture 20 years ago, few locals would speak on record about the migrant farmworkers who kept many of Vermont's iconic dairies going. Today, these workers are less hidden, though their lives remain precarious and difficult. Their heightened profile can render them more vulnerable, but some have told me they find strength in openly sharing their experiences.
Two dozen migrant community members collaborated with regional cartoonists to convey their struggles and accomplishments in The Most Costly Journey: Stories of Migrant Farmworkers in Vermont, Drawn by New England Cartoonists. The Vermont Folklife Center published the English-language compilation in May, but the stories were originally distributed all over the state as booklets in Spanish.
Related In New Graphic Anthology 'Most Costly Journey,' Vermont’s Migrant Farmworkers Tell Their Stories
Called "El Viaje Más Caro," the project was conceived by Julia Grand Doucet, an outreach nurse for Middlebury's Open Door Clinic, to help farmworkers feel heard and support one another. Book sales help fund the nonprofit's work: providing free health care to uninsured and underinsured Addison County residents, about half of whom are migrant workers.
What I appreciate most about the project is that its primary purpose was not to educate those beyond the farmworker community; it was created by and for those to whom the stories belong.
the blue-collar sun
Lucas Farrell, Green Writers Press, 78 pages. $16.95.
One of the gifts of poems is that they change over time, the way songs do. While we're not looking, their meanings rearrange themselves — because we ourselves have changed. Our parents die, we fall in love, we move far enough out of town to see the stars at night. Books that barely provoke a shrug when we read them at age 24 might slaughter us at 34 — and vice versa.
It's only been nine months since I reviewed Lucas Farrell's the blue-collar sun, but I already love it more. I texted a photo of the first poem, "Ice Storm," to a friend, who immediately responded, "This is gorgeous." On page 19, an erasure poem that reads simply, "finally / a / poem about / the weather," made me laugh out loud, again.
Certain lines continue to produce a covetousness in me because I wish I'd written them myself: "I want you egregiously" or "Like fireflies we excused ourselves horizontally through the fields."
And I understand "Landscaping" more intimately. "Pull the starter cord eight times, in succession, jesus, mary, and joseph, FUCK—FUCK. FUCK. FUCK. FUCK. FUCK. / Curse the way my dad might've." Sure, I had used a Weedwacker when I read this for the first time — but I'd never ruined someone else's by forgetting to mix the gas with oil. (Sorry, Josh!)
Farrell's the blue-collar sun is a book I'll be coming back to; I wonder what it'll teach me next time.
Kerrin McCadden, Black Sparrow Press, 104 pages. $16.95.
I was impressed by Kerrin McCadden's poetry collection American Wake when I reviewed it, but I lamented what struck me as ineffective sequencing of the poems. I argued that interspersing poems about a brother's overdose death with ones about an ancestral, ongoing relationship to Ireland was disorienting — and at times diminished the book's cumulative impact. I thought that grouping together pieces by related setting and theme would have been more dramatic and powerful.
Yet I kept thinking about American Wake through the year, as Vermonters experienced a devastating surge of opioid-related fatalities. In August, there were 129, up from 104 in the same month last year, according to the state Department of Health.
This emergency became ever more acute for me when I reviewed Brett Ann Stanciu's memoir Unstitched: My Journey to Understand Opioid Addiction and How People and Communities Can Heal. Moved by the power of gifted writers to transcend cold, grim statistics with the stories of real people, I found my earlier objections to American Wake's organizational strategies now beside the point.
Most people probably don't read poems in a collection consecutively. Nor have I done so as I've returned to the book. What strikes me now is McCadden's eloquence in expressing anguish. The fluency of her phrasing and her plangent details give voice to a stern yet ardent empathy. There's pain in caring this much, but these poems never stop caring.
Among the Lilies
Daniel Mills, Undertow Publications, 260 pages. $19.99.
I read more books in 2021 than in any other year of my life. Of the 50-plus volumes I consumed, Hinesburg author Daniel Mills' Among the Lilies is unequivocally one of the best and most memorable. The writer's 12 short stories and novellas, mostly gothic fiction, are insidious in the best way. His compelling characters, unnerving settings and grotesque imagery literally gave me nightmares — an impressive feat, considering how desensitized I am to horror.
New Englanders may find Mills' stories especially affecting, given that nearly all take place in Vermont and nearby states. Try not to look at your town differently after reading "Lucilla Barton (1857-1880)." The story of a family torn apart by malevolent forces beyond their understanding, it delivers terror through faux yet thoroughly realistic historical documents and court testimony.
Every tale made me shudder. "Below the Falls" blurs the line between mental illness and supernatural disturbance. Neo-noir "Dream Children" casts contemporary Burlington as a mysterious place hiding a monstrous secret. And "The Account of David Stonehouse, Exile" is part haunting and part survival horror wrapped in layers of biblical allegory.
Mills' affinity for historical accuracy is evident throughout. There's truth on every page in the form of period-correct language, regionally specific details and incisive commentary on the human psyche.
Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid: America's Original Gangster Couple
Glenn Stout, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pages. $27.
My two favorite books by Vermont authors this year had a funny thing in common: Both were nonfiction books written by renowned sportswriters, and neither had anything to do with sports. The first was Endpapers: A Family Story of Books, War, Escape, and Home by Addison County's Alexander Wolff. Poignant, dramatic and often humorous, it's the longtime Sports Illustrated scribe's most moving work and deserves a place on your nightstand.
But, for the purposes of this list, I'm going with another gripping read by a sportswriter playing outside the lines: Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid: America's Original Gangster Couple by Glenn Stout. Employing meticulous research skills and a gift for storytelling, the Alburgh author renders a vivid account of Margaret and Richard Whittemore, aka Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid, the gangster couple whose sometimes brutal exploits captivated America in the 1920s — about a decade before Bonnie and Clyde.
Related In 'Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid,' Author Glenn Stout Rediscovers 'America’s Original Gangster Couple'
Drawn primarily from newspaper accounts, Stout's story is rich with historical detail related to the Whittemores, their gang and America in the Jazz Age. If the book sings, though, that's because it moves with the swiftness and scope of a good crime novel — or perhaps the gritty gangster film it seems destined to become.