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Best books of 2006
A short list of Vermont authors who made the grade

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted December 15, 2006

In 2006, Vermont authors produced volumes of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, much to the delight of literary aficionados everywhere. Here at the Guardian, we’ve had the pleasure of reviewing many of these books, and interviewing the authors both in the paper and in our monthly literary supplement, the Vermont Review of Books. What follows is a sample of the books we found memorable and worth mentioning as we enter the gift-giving season.

Dateline Vermont, Chris Graff (Thistle Hill Publishing)

Saving the best for last, at least in terms of its release, is the book Dateline Vermont, from former Associated Press Bureau Chief Chris Graff.

For 30 years, Graff has been at the center of the whirlwind that has been Vermont — from Jim Jeffords leaving the Republican Party to the adoption of civil unions. He’s written about some of the most powerful people of the last 30 years — Patrick Leahy, Tom Salmon, Bernie Sanders, Jeffords, Madeleine Kunin, Howard Dean, and Richard Snelling, among many others.

These figures, though engaging in their own right, are markers along a timeline for Graff. In his own inimitable style, Graff takes the reader on a guided journey through the past three decades of Vermont history, documenting the vast changes that have occurred in this tiny state.

Graff, too, came of age during this time of change. He moved to Vermont at the age of 11 to North Pomfret with his two siblings and his mother (his father recently had died and his mother had remarried). Graff is not native-born, but his early experiences in rural Vermont, and during his college days in Middlebury, did plenty to shape his worldview, and put him in touch with a part of Vermont that you can’t glean from the daily headlines.

Aside from Graff’s own insight and overview of how Vermont changed politically, and socially, in the past 30 years, the back of the book also holds two treasured reference lists: The top 20 stories, and the 10 most influential Vermonters of the 20th century.

— Shay Totten, reviewed December 2006

Malian’s Song, Marge Bruchac & Jeanne Brink (Vermont Folklife Center)

Malian’s Song is a children’s book designed to educate people of all ages about the truth about English Maj. Robert Rogers’ raid on the St. Francis Abenaki community in 1759. It is told through the eyes of Malian, a young Abenaki girl, who survives the Rogers’ Raid on her village.

The origin of the story is oral history. Malian Obomsawin passed the story to her granddaughter Mali Msadoques, who then passed the story to her niece Elvine Obomsawin. Elvine shared the story with ethnologist Gordon Day, who was interviewing her and her brother and sister. When he translated the story from Abenaki he realized that the story sounded familiar, and that it was the Abenaki version of Rogers’ Raid. Her grandmother’s interview was the first time Jeanne Brink heard the story, and she carried it with her until she told the Vermont Folklife Center, who then worked with Margaret “Marge” Bruchac, an Abenaki historian, to write the story.

— Courtney Brooks, reviewed August 2006

Hoops, Major Jackson (Norton)

The big issues in petry aren’t always “life, death, love, and loss” after all. Major Jackson, the soft-spoken young poet who has already seized a vibrant professorship in English at the University of Vermont and who travels cross-country to talk rhyme and reason on a calendar that looks like a president’s, wrestles bigger ones in his new collection, Hoops.

What’s bigger? How about racism? How about the potent rhyme of “skin” and “grin,” as he noted to a high school audience recently: the way African Americans often embraced the white stereotypes of grinning idiocy in order to survive in the United States’ slavery-shamed history. And the way that, even today, editors, program planners, and readers want to press black authors into “single-race anthologies,” as though their voices take some separate, mildly inferior, less intellectually challenging stance. In a volume offered as “a great big hug and kiss” to his hero Gwendolyn Brooks, Jackson proclaims both strength and craft:

What we profess: black poetry
As the eloquent testament and record,
A tacit argument for greater liberty
In America. Readers are rewarded,
Embodying an interiority
They need to possess their lyric freedom,
Their moral lineage, and borrowed drums.

This proclamation comes at the climax of the collection, in a 70-page sequence of poems titled “Letter to Brooks.” Whitman-like, it ranges over a nation that includes the clotted highways of New Jersey, the weighted bulk of the Rocky Mountains, the brilliant light of Cape Cod, and the green shadows around Robert Frost’s home in Franconia, NH, where Jackson spent a summer as resident poet. The North Philadelphia childhood and brutal high school years erupt repeatedly throughout, with flashes of gunshots, friends wounded in body and soul, joyous explorations of break dancing and music, threads of familiar musicians like The Supremes or, much later, 2Pac Shakur.

— Beth Kanell, reviewed April 2006

Still as Death, Sarah Stewart Taylor (St. Martin’s Press)

Sarah Stewart Taylor’s third Sweeney St. George mystery takes apart stereotypes — the one about nice young women in Boston, the one about reserved British men, a couple of the ones about gender discrimination, even the Irish Boston cop thing — and turns out a finely plotted and smoothly written mystery in Still as Death. It’s a great sequel to Judgment of the Grave and its Agatha Award finalist predecessor, O’ Artful Death.

Just one caution: For a book about a smart, mostly nice young woman who jumps into solving crimes because she can’t bear to see things that are unfair, Still as Death can get pretty grim.

— Beth Kanell, reviewed September 2006

In the Land of the Wild Onion, Charles Fish (University of Vermont Press)

It was 1994, and Charles Fish was in the shower with water pouring down over him when he had an epiphany: Why not write a book about the Winooski River and the region of his youth?

The result is In the Land of the Wild Onion: Travels Along Vermont’s Winooski River published earlier this year by the University of Vermont Press/University Press of New England.

The book is part memoir, part personal journey with currents of interviews, history, and facts woven together to give readers a complex, and complete, history of the Winooski River Valley from its headwaters to Lake Champlain.

— Shay Totten, reviewed October 2006

Golem Song, Marc Estrin (Unbridled Books)

This is Estrin’s third novel and a continuation of his exploration into contemporary Jewish identity that he began in his two previous novels, Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa and The Education of Arnold Hitler. Clearly influenced by both Kafka and Dostoevsky, Estrin has achieved an uncomfortable portrait of a Jewish man in the Bronx, who, fearing irrelevance and social decay, succumbs to ethnic hatred of the kind that has plagued Jews for centuries. Like the false messiahs he rails against, the main character comes to believe that he can stop society’s fall.

The myth of the golem, a creature made of clay by a rabbi in Prague during the 16th century to protect the Jews from their violent, anti-Semitic neighbors, provides a reptilian backbone to the novel. Golem’s narrative is sinewy, and meant to provoke.

— Sheryl Glubok, reviewed November 2006

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