BookMarks: Vermont Book Award Nominees, Part II
In my last BookMarks column, I reviewed three of the seven books that have been named the finalists for the 2018 Vermont Book Award given by the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The Award recognizes "literary excellence" in a book published during the previous year by a writer who lives in the Green Mountain State.
In this column, I'll review the other four finalists: "Selected Delanty: Poems and Translations" by Greg Delanty; "Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time" by Tanya Lee Stone; "Breaking Bread: A Baker's Journey Home in 75 Recipes" by Martin Philip; and "The Bear and the Nightingale" by Katherine Arden.
Greg Delanty is a 60-year-old Irish-American who has been the poet in residence at St. Michael's College in Burlington for more than 30 years. "Selected Delanty" contains poems and translations chosen by Boston University Professor Archie Burnett from more than 17 books that Delanty has written. Born in Cork and spending part of each year in Ireland, he writes poems that tell stories in blank verse, conjuring up vivid images of nature (especially birds), family, aging, and dying. His mother, dying a lingering death from cancer in old age, and his father, dying suddenly at 30, are prominent subjects, as is his father's work as a typesetter.
One series of poems is about the ink, the noise, and the skill of the lost art of setting movable type where errors end up in the hellbox, the title of one of his longer works. His poems about his own son's birth, likening the delivery room to a circus and the fetus to an alien in the Milky Way of an ultrasound, are wonderful. Translations from Greek poems and plays are also included.
"Girl Rising" takes its title from a 90-minute film created in 2013 that features interviews with nine girls who escaped desperate situations in India, Nepal, Cambodia, Haiti, Peru, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan to pursue an education. The book has beautiful color photographs of the girls as well as a number of additional girls and their stories. Perhaps most importantly, Stone, who teaches at Champlain College, provides information and data to put the crisis of young girls prevented from getting an education into a wider, global perspective. World-wide, more than 62 million girls are not in school. Stone convincingly presents the argument that this is not just a personal tragedy for these girls but a terrible loss for the world. Education has a ripple effect. The educated girl is likely to marry later and have fewer children, and there will be fewer infant and maternal deaths. She is able to get a better job, and she will be healthier and live longer.
So what stands in the way? Perhaps the two biggest barriers are poverty and traditions, such as selling a female child into slavery or indentured service and child marriage. The difficulty with changing these traditions is that these practices are deeply ingrained in many cultures in the developing world. Despite the despair and tragedies of many of the girls' stories, Stone closes the book on an optimistic note. The large number of non-governmental organizations working to better the lot of girls around the world is an encouraging sign, and the examples in this book should serve to inspire donors, activists, and governments to more actively support these efforts.
Martin Philip has written an unusual and beautiful cookbook in "Breaking Bread," combining multiple "ingredients" in complicated ways into a delicious final product, much like the breads and side dishes exquisitely photographed by Julia Reed. Philip's first sentence indicates that he began this book "with no plan, no structure, no writing experience," but the reader is quickly
captivated by his story of growing up in Arkansas, going to Oberlin College as a music major where he met his wife, decamping for California, Italy, New York City and finally finding his passion and moving to Vermont after he takes a course in bread-making at King Arthur Flour in Norwich. Interwoven with this memoir, Philip shares recipes for breads and other dishes that were important to him in each time and place. We travel from corn grit hoecakes and pecan pie in the Ozarks, to red sauce, focaccia, and pizza Napoletana in Italy, to bagels and brioche in New York, and oatmeal bread and baguettes in Vermont. He finishes with some complex breads that he created for Coupe, the bread-Olympics, as he moved from a novice to a world-class baker. My initial impulse was to race out to King Arthur just a few miles up the road from our house in Vermont, buy lots of ingredients and complex tools (I'd never even heard of a couche, banneton, transfer peel, or lame before!) and get to work. Reality set in when I realized that the final grand outcomes of Philip's baking were only achieved with hard work involving mixing, folding, dividing, shaping, scoring and loading. As a guy who is challenged by an electric bread making machine, I think I'll just slowly leaf through the pages, admire the beautiful pictures, and let my lovely wife do the baking. This is a fine book to add to your cookbook collection.
The Sunday New York Times Book Review each week features an interview with an author who is usually asked: "Are there any genres that you don't read?" If I were to be asked, I would have answered, "Fantasy," but after reading Katherine Arden's "The Bear and the Nightingale," I may now be a convert. Fascinating in its descriptive details and character development, gripping in its suspense, and heart-stopping in its wonderfully done battle scenes, Arden who lives in Middlebury, has reworked a traditional Russian folk tale about the Frost King in this, her first novel. Vasilisa Petrovna, aka Vasya, is the center of this tale of war between two brothers, the Frost King, Death and his evil counterpart, The Bear. In an unusual and thought-provoking twist, Death as The Frost King is portrayed as keeping order in the world through ensuring mortality among men while the Bear would rule the world through the undead. The book is very much in touch with the current zombie craze but far superior to World War Z, The Walking Dead, etc. Vasya and her special allies, the horses and the household spirits, overcome evil and the false priest Konstantin in a tense and exciting finale. Saved by her father's self-sacrifice, Vasya's own courage and determination lead to triumph.
So now the question looms: Which of these seven excellent books will be the winner of the Vermont Book Award? I don't envy the judges, since all seven are deserving while very different from each other. Choosing a single winner from the four categories of fiction, non-fiction, children's literature, and poetry would be difficult under any circumstance, but given these seven outstanding nominees, the task becomes beyond Solomonic. I will watch with interest as the panel of Vermont librarians, teachers, and "passionate supporters of literature" announce their choice on Sept. 22.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville and Cambridge, Mass. His reading and writing can be followed at www.epsteinreads.com where he would welcome your comments and suggestions.
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