Saturday, June 30, 2007

Howard Frank Mosher On the Road

Today's event in Montpelier, Vermont, for Howard Frank Mosher and his light-hearted novel ON KINGDOM MOUNTAIN is also the launch of Mosher's cross-country tour. True to his down-to-earth Vermont practicality, he's chugging the roads by car, more or less on his own. The last couple of times he did this ended up pushing his 1987 Chevy past the 300,000-mile mark -- so this time, Houghton Mifflin is helping him to rent a car that's a bit younger.

Here are his next few stops:

July 1 Philadelphia (W. Chester), PA: Chester County Books & Music, 2 p.m. Meet the Author
Contact: (610) 696-1661

July 2 Baltimore, MD: The Ivy Bookshop, 10:00 a.m. – Drop-by
Contact: (410) 377-2966;

July 2 Washington, DC: Politics & Prose, 1:00 p.m. – Drop-by
Contact: (202) 364-1919
July 3 Richmond, VA: The Fountain Bookstore, 10:00 a.m. – Drop-by
Contact: (804) 788-1594

July 3 Durham, NC: Regulator Bookshop, 3:00-4:00 p.m. – Meet the Author
Contact: (919) 286-2700

July 3 Raleigh, NC: Quail Ridge, 7:00 p.m. – Slides
Contact: (919) 828-1588

July 4 Charlotte, NC: Park Road Books, 1:00 Meet the Author
Contact: (704) 525-9239

July 5 Columbia, SC: the Happy Bookseller, 12:00–1:00 p.m. – Meet the Author
Contact: (803) 782-2665

July 5 Asheville, NC: Malaprops, 7:00 p.m. – Slides
Contact: (828) 254-6734

July 7 Nashville, TN: Davis Kidd, Noon – Meet the Author
Contact: (615) 385-2645

He'll have to keep rolling -- unlike this slow but powerful tortoise who greeted him at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier. To connect with the tortoise (she's Russian!) in person, visit Bear Pond's sister shop, Rivendell Books; to connect with Mosher, drop in at one of his events. There are more than a hundred planned -- see our web site for the full itinerary, and see the review (Rural Writing) here on this blog, earlier in June.

Vermont to California: Poetry Readings in St J, Summer Wednesday Evenings

The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum crafts a four-part poetry series each summer, and this year's roster of poets extends from East Coast to West. On Main Street at the top of the downtown, the 19th century art and architectural glories of the Athenaeum provide a striking backdrop to what is likely to be a far more modern set of poetics than its founders could have visualized. Caution: The building's not air-conditioned, and the turnout is sometimes huge, so dress for summer's heat, and arrive early to claim the best seats.

July 18, 7:30 P.M.: Ellen Dudley & F. D. Reeve

Vermont resident F.D. Reeve was once a Hudson River longshoreman and has spent years traveling the world from Mendocino to Moscow. He is the founding editor of Poetry Review and has received awards from The American Academy of Arts and Letters and the New England Poetry Society. His newest book of poems, The Toy Soldier, comes out in 2007.

Ellen Dudley is the founding editor of The Marlboro Review. Her poems have appeared in Agni Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Poetry Miscellany, Provincetown Arts, TriQuarterly, and other periodicals. Her most recent book of poems is The Geographic Cure (Four Way Books, 2007)

July 25, 7:30 P.M.: David Budbill & Jody Gladding

David Budbill is the author of seven books of poems, eight plays, a novel, a collection of short stories and several books for young adults. His Zen-scented collection While We’ve Still Got Feet was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2005. Budbill also performs with jazz musicians in a collaborative program of poetry and music. He lives in Wolcott, Vermont, with his wife, artist Lois Eby.

Jody Gladding is a professor, poet, and translator, and author of Stone Crop (1993; Yale Younger Poets Award) and The Moon Rose (2006; fine press work from Chester Creek Press). Gladding is the 2007 Poet-in-Residence at the Frost Place in Franconia, NH this summer.

August 1, 7:30 P.M.: Michael Collier & Ellen Bryant Voigt

Michael Collier is the director of the Bread Loaf Witers Conference. His five books of poetry includes most recently Dark Wild Realm (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), and his translation of Medea (Oxford) appeared in 2006. A collection of essays, Make Us Wave Back (Michigan), will be published in 2007.

Ellen Bryant Voigt is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006 (W.W. Norton & Co., 2007), Shadow of Heaven (2002), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Kyrie (1995), a finalist for the National Book Critic's Circle Award. Voigt served as the Vermont State Poet from 1999 to 2003, when she was elected Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. With a residence in Vermont, she also commits mentoring time at Warren Wilson College, where she cofounded the noted limited-residency MFA program in poetry.

August 15, 7:30 P.M.: Jane Hirshfield

Californian Jane Hirshfield is the author of six award-winning collections of poetry. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Nation, and The American Poetry Review. In fall 2004, Hirshfield was awarded the 70th Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by The Academy of American Poets, an honor held by such poets as Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, and William Carlos Williams.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Precisely the Word: Powerful Poetry from Ellen Doré Watson

I wonder whether the painstaking work of translation -- the dive into the soul of another writer, in another language, then the grueling swim back to the surface with the words, metaphors, lines and rhythms, all tugging at your responsible shoulders -- can act to sharpen. For weeks, I've been tracking that sense of knife and precision cut, through the three available poetry collections by Ellen Doré Watson (her early chapbook is out of print). Why don't the names of powerful poets have a claim to the daily news, the radio interview, the television special? After these weeks of reading and thinking, I find it startling that this poet isn't better known.

Director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, translations editor for the Massachusetts Review, and poet/translator for works from Brazilian Portuguese (11 books, including THE ALPHABET IN THE PARK: SELECTED POEMS OF ADÉLIA PRADO), Ellen Doré Watson has also co-translated from Arabic a volume of poems by a contemporary Palestian. Yet despite this global reach, her own poems linger luxuriously in her own western Massachusetts home -- with formidable results.

LADDER MUSIC, winner of the New York/New England award from Alice James Books, came out in 2001. It's Watson's most vivid collection by far. In the poem "Freight" she neatly grafts the shocks of the world onto the strands of her young daughter's life, a good example of the surgeries of words here. The poem opens:

I followed a truck of guns to work today,
crates lashed to a flatbed, dash of red
FRAGILE and taillights. Ugly March buffered
and air-brushed by fog, sun making promises
from offstage, but walking around my head:
the ones that particular freight would kill how long
from now.

But Watson's day will later include her school-age daughter:

... In Della, calming beneath my wide
mother hand, unloading the day's cruelties, kids
with their own invisible bullet holes who shoot hurt
like buckshot.

And within the poem is also a classic Watson thread of sensual attention to her husband, as well as the quickly disciplined emotions and mind that "hold the driver blameless... it could just as well be cabbages he's hauling."

That willingness to braid experience, love, and philosophy all at once develops a delicious savor in this collection. Watson can ask, as she does in "Imperfect Knowledge,"

But has my glass ever been utterly empty
or full? I know how to drain it, but not
who to ask about the long tunnel of light.

Yet each stretch for meaning is firmly rooted in physicality, as in "The Sounds Between What's On My Mind," which offers:

I was awake to see my baby, fat and happy,
when they cut her out of me, but still
they took someting I'll never get back--
my best chance to learn the bodily

meaning of yield. Wind is the sound
of the world refusing to budge.

Forms nudge their sharp bones under these narrative poems, which sometimes break in five-line stanzas, sometimes in couplets, sometimes in blocks of text where enjambed lines double as enjambed ideas. Emotions shiver under the intellect, too, flashing joy, love, fear, and a shivery premonition through the poems.

Most of LADDER MUSIC takes a jazzy style to riffing off family and the kind of great sex that can almost become routine in a long and satisfying relationship. Some of the poems slip into concerns about her mother's memory losses, but Watson never goes soft -- each line is a blade. From "Before Bed":

The word I leave out on the stoop to shiver
like a cat that tears up a couch in the night
is forget.

That's a precursor to the later litany of "She Forgets Aphasia":

She forgets aphasia and all of Asia
She remembers Bangkok and birch bark, babies
She forgets the cats' names, clocks gone cock-eyed ...

--and at last the poem closes,

She forgets to wonder Y
She forgts to zip her pants but not to unzip her face:
A zinnia

LADDER MUSIC is a huge generous collection to enjoy and to cling to. From its strengths, it's interesting to step back in time to Watson's 1997 collection, WE LIVE IN BODIES, and see the precursors, equally direct but not as focused or as infused with certainty. And this pair of books is the pair of water wings needed for a cold wet plunge into the 2006 volume THIS SHARPENING, a volume of agony, doubt, and loss, as Watson explicates the drastic dissolution of her marriage. The sturdy sensuality and the adored daughter were somehow not enough to make a fairy tale endure. Yet the poet's grief becomes another blade that again sharpens the choice of words and narratives. What emerges from this collection is a leaner, tighter writing self that shivers with wounded fragility, yet moves forward into the stripped beauty of midlife and hard-gained wisdom.

Parallels? I pulled out Ruth Stone from the shelf -- especially her IN THE NEXT GALAXY -- and also found similar intensity (yet controlled so that the line has meaning, the image has dimension) in Edward Hirsch.

With all this, it's no wonder that Library Journal named Ellen Doré Watson one of its "24 poets for the 21st century." I look forward hugely to her reading on July 14 (see Presses and Poets 1, earlier this month), as part of the Four Poets and a Publisher celebration of the work brought forth by Alice James Books. And what is she writing now? It's got to be good.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Real, Realer, Realest: Amy Dryansky, How I Got Lost So Close to Home (Poems)

Amy Dryansky's first collection of poems won the Alice James Books New England/New York Competition. Brava! Her second, THE ART OF REFUSAL, was a 2007 semifinalist for AJB's Kinereth Gensler Awards. And the names keep reeling from the spool of info that the press gives about this poet.

Her poems are narratives: they nail moments and decisions onto frames, stretching them and padding where necessary. Don't think padded bras -- think taxidermy. After soaking up the scenes in HOW I GOT LOST SO CLOSE TO HOME, I could see each one frozen in its place on a pedestal or wall mount, red glass eyes meeting mine. I felt haunted.

HOW I GOT LOST ... opens with "Today Everything Hurts." Enjambed lines expose the people you see in a parking lot, the fringes and worn spots of their lives dangling in front of your eyes until they shut their minivan doors and drive away. The final three lines put Dryansky into the scene, too:

The woman trying not to shake the screaming child.
The child's older sister trying to keep out of the way.
It looks like she can't.

Every time I've stood in a supermarket checkout line listening to a frazzled mother threaten her child (or pretend to ignore the whimpers and sobs) swept back over me. It's a bruising first poem to experience. True to its position in the collection, it's a mild sample of what's ahead: Dryansky's poems, deceptively simple in form (free verse, couplets, nothing distracting), tell complex short stories of humilation, hurt, even death. And oh yes, of survival.

It's not fair to assume that the "I" in any given poem is the poet, of course. Even when the speaker and author coincide, details can extend into the "more real" realm of embroidered disclosure, or symbolic revelation. That's one of the graces that makes it possible to read these poems without calling 911 or a women's group. A little distance helps a lot.

On the other hand, Dryansky's public appearances in western Massachusetts since her first book have been under titles like "The Ups and Downs of Personal Poetry" (with a group of other women) and "The Art of Refusal: Poetry and Motherhood." So it seems likely that she's writing from what's been real for her or for the people she cares about. From "Merit Badge":

...My merit badge sits on my chest
like a leather button on an old army coat. Its says Do not remove
under penalty of law
. It says don't tell, don't tell
if you break something or something breaks you. Don't ask.

And then, most brutally, at the end of the poem: "And I let her. My merit badge says I let her."

Yet there are also poems of holding a bird; making a place for the soul to fly back inside the body; renewing the way love can braid into lust, so that sex takes on a warmth and fluency entirely "other" from what it means in, say, rape. Dryansky can offer:

Lately I've wanted to kiss my husband
as if he were a handsome stranger,

and she can turn midnight in this way into a moment that glitters with the silver of restoration and reclaimed memory, even if it hurts.

Did all this pain happen to one poet? Or is she a magnet for the stories of others, stories she can comprehend and retell? For me, reading these again and again, I came up with an answer to a different question at last, the question of what makes Dryansky's work important. It's four reasons at once: (1) It happened (to someone). (2) It can be spoken. (3) It is spoken, here. (4) There are survivors -- who can kiss, love, speak, and write.


The Other Poetry of New England: Reading Nancy Lagomarsino

Mention New England poetry to a crowd, and the first name raised is Robert Frost; with luck, Emily Dickinson follows soon after. Though the poetry of the two could scarcely be more different in structure or matter, they are at least familiar. Frost in particular has come to represent the New England of marketing experts, rich with scenic vistas, pauses in or near the animals, and eccentric but interesting "characters" who live outside the downtowns. I'll set Dickinson aside for the moment, with her interior landscapes. But we'll come back to her.
Frost's narrative poetry is so much a part of the American fabric now, that Donald Hall, who also uses the mountains, barns, and regional dialects in some of his poems, has worn the label of being "today's Robert Frost" for decades. What the two men say and how they present it, again, are vastly different. But in a sense, if the building is red and made of slabs of wood and very tall, it gets called a barn. In the same way, the poetry of the Vermont and New Hampshire landscape is called Frostian, and its narrative and dialogue are as familiar as, say, the line "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood."
Nancy Lagomarsino was born in Montpelier, eventually earning an master's in fine arts degree in creative writing from Vermont College. Since 1974 she's lived in Hanover, New Hampshire. By most standards, then, she's a New England poet: Here she grew, and here she lives.
Any resemblance between Frost's poems and Lagomarsino's, though, is entirely coincidental (and perhaps imaginary). Instead, Lagomarsino spins the short, intense, immaculately crafted prose poems rooted in a cultivated ability to step back from a scene, envision it turned upside down, then deftly turn it inside out. She is the author of three books of prose poems, Sleep Handbook (Alice James Books, 1987), The Secretary Parables (Alice James Books, 1991), and Light from an Eclipse (White Pine Press, 2005). Light from an Eclipse is a memoir covering the years of her dad’s Alzheimer’s disease, and isn't dealt with here; let's stay with the two AJB collections.
SLEEP HANDBOOK, the earlier book, lays out three sections: Somniloquy, Domestic Bliss, and Mirror Image. The first plunges into the bizarre alternate reality of sleep and dreams. Have you soothed someone toward rest by talking gently of the Man in the Moon, looking down kindly? Taste Lagomarsino's "Moonstruck" instead:

A full moon shines on her as she prepares for sleep. Fearing lunacy, she stares back with outraged menace. From this distance the moon looks as strong and calm as a table, but there's no telling what turmoil might exist on the dark side where real life goes on.
The moon in fact feels uneasy. The side that is always day smiles like a jolly grocer ... out back, his old wife sorts baskets of melons, smashing rotten ones like so many heads.

I could stop there, actually: In one deft little poem, the salt of this poet's nimble tongue is already pinned onto the page. So it's a delight to discover that the rest of the collection continues to strike notes of both absurdity and threat, as well as loss. The second section of the volume, Domestic Bliss, conveys the mild lunacy of two people of opposite genders, freighted with social roles, daring to live together as spouses. In the third, Mirror Image, Lagomarsino climbs into her own reflection in varying lightings, locations, and seasons. Here is the poem "Mirror Image":

So far my reflection remains loyal to me, but with a stranger's loyalty, puzzling and undeserved. In mirrors over sinks or from the dark window of a bus moving at night, the person I know to be myself stares back. She doesn't mean anything by it -- in fact, she tries to look away. I love her. I don't blink.

Her second collection, THE SECRETARY PARABLES, is also laid out in three sections: Durations, The Secretary Parables, and Rescue. Here the prose poems reinforce each other, building toward surreal worldviews so that the collection has its own pulse and breath. Womanist frames are built more sturdily: "400 Yard Girls' Relay" ends, "Even now I think words are batons passed between men." "The Wedding" in its concluding twist asserts, "I'm still trying to understand what married love means, how we discard it temporarily, and how we get it back."
And in the final section, a deft exploration of writing weaves into a poem whose inner dream allows Lagomarino and the poet of Amherst, Mass., Emily Dickinson herself, to meet "alone at a table, my face and her skull."
For it is equally true that New England has bred many a surrealist poet, from Ashbery to James Tate to Charles Simic to Emily herself, and Dickinson, despite "her fragility, her many refusals" (Lagomarsino's words), insisted on the right to shake the snow globe and hold it upside down, or to take the framed photo and disassemble it, moving the pieces around like a puzzle with multiple unfinished solutions. In the same way, Lagomarsino presses the distilled form of the short prose poem into tilting, angling, and repositioning the images of girlhood, love, and entanglement.
My only quarrel with this second collection is in its finale, which I would have called for just a couple of pieces before the poet has. I would have treasured the ending of "The Provinces of Sleep" as the leap back from the page into unexpected realities. For here Lagomarsino writes, "This morning I held my breasts with relief. So much sorrow in one dream ... we find in sleep what we find in love."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Nifty Blog That Reviews Chapbooks

I'm mostly burrowed into stacks of poetry this week, preparing for our Alice James Press celebration (July 14; see earlier blog piece), but while researching, I discovered a nifty blog that reviews chapbooks -- by a book artist/writer based in Philadelphia:

Here's a sample from the site:

Axe Factory III
Louis McKee/Joe Farley, ed.
Philadelphia, PA

Published by Axe Factory and edited by Lou McKee and Joe Farley with cover art by Jeff Vetock, this issue is a time piece into the Philadelphia poetry community of 1990. In addition to work by Lynne Savitt, Tina Barr, Greg Geleta, Ann Mennbroker, and others, there are book reviews by books of Greogry Djanikian and Christopher Bursk as well as a listing in the back of received journals and zines. A must for anyone serious about collecting Philadelphia based publications.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Presses and Poets 1: Alice James Books

[N.B.: Four Poets and a Publisher -- the Kingdom Books celebration of and salute to Alice James Books -- is scheduled for Saturday July 14 at 3 p.m. in the air-conditioned comfort of Catamount Arts, Eastern Avenue, St. Johnsbury. Open to all, and free, it features AJB publisher April Ossmann and poets Ellen Doré Watson, Nancy Lagomarsino, Lesle Lewis, and Amy Dryansky. Hold that summer afternoon on your calendar! Kingdom Books is bringing treasures of AJB poetry, too!]

It's easy to see why a poet or group of poets would want to found a press: to get published, of course. But reasons reach far beyond this simple start, and for Alice James Books, the determination to publish the good work of others -- especially of women -- propelled the press into collaborative structure and its early years of woman-focused outreach. There's a concise description of its genesis at :

Alice James Books is a nonprofit cooperative poetry press, founded in 1973 by five women and two men: Patricia Cumming, Marjorie Fletcher, Jean Pedrick, Lee Rudolph, Ron Schreiber, Betsy Sholl and Cornelia Veenendaal. Their objectives were to give women access to publishing and to involve authors in the publishing process. We remain true to that mission and to publishing a diversity of poets, including both beginning and established poets, and a diversity of poetic styles. The press is named for Alice James—the sister of novelist Henry James and philosopher William James—whose fine journal and gift for writing were unrecognized within her lifetime. Since 1994, the press has been affiliated with the University of Maine at Farmington.

Women are still prominent on the AJB list, but hardly isolated. Recent "big names" have included the Nebraska poet B. H. Fairchild and the "embedded poet" writing from the war in Iraq, Brian Turner. Steering the press at the moment, in addition to its board of directors, is publisher APRIL OSSMANN. Author of the collection ANXIOUS MUSIC, which is being published by Four Way Books this fall, Ossmann has written poetry since age 7. (Hear her description of her "start" at the remarkable oral poetry site -- click on Authors and she's in the A's.) She also brought out a small and intense chapbook through Four Way in a limited edition for her friends (THE MUSIC WE TRAVEL BY, 2006).

Ossmann writes about the experience of managing a poetry press at and, with her permission, I quote some of her description here:

My favorite task as a publisher-poet is editing our books. Editing is really a kind of Ur-reading for me, a process where I am both reader and writer, and I love it for what it teaches me about both. In the past when I hadn’t been writing new poems, I thought I’d be embarrassingly rusty when I wrote again, but I’ve been surprised to learn that I’m most often not. I finally realized why. It’s because good editing, for me, is writing: to get far enough into another poet’s sensibility and technique to effectively suggest edits is to operate from the same creative impulse as I do when writing new work.

The wide range of poetic styles we publish, from Liz Waldner to Frank Gaspar to Anne Marie Macari to Donald Revell to Lesle Lewis to Brian Turner, et al, has meant that in some sense I have had to teach myself to write like all of these authors. My goal is always to try to edit poets the way they would edit themselves if they could see their work more objectively, and this means finding a way to fall in love with each author’s work, if I’m not in love already. Sometimes it means overcoming my own resistance, sometimes my affinities.

On a technical level, I am less able to allow myself to excuse or ignore weaknesses in my own work, because I’ve so often criticized the same weaknesses in others. I have also learned that despite being an editor, I continue to benefit from having editors. Perhaps it’s possible to get outside one’s own head, but I can’t claim to have done it.

On a more spiritual level, I’ve learned to appreciate not just poetry, but poets I might not have befriended otherwise. Learning to appreciate a sensibility seemingly alien to my own has taught me an old lesson: that no one is as alien as I might think at first. It’s also made me both more sure of who I am as a poet and more willing to experiment. It gives me regular glimpses of who I might be, or am…as Lynda Hull wrote in “The Window”: “If each of us / contains, within, humankind’s totality, each possibility / then I have been so fractured, so multiple & dazzling / stepping towards myself . . .” a regular reminder for me to “dwell in possibility” (Dickinson).

Ossmann will introduce four current Alice James Books poets at our celebration on July 14 (see top of this entry). She probably won't be reading her own work that day -- but we'll present some of it later. More on the other poets soon.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Poetry in New Hampshire: A Week of Readings

(Poet Jeff Friedman)

New England College in Henniker, NH, offers an all-poetry low-residency master's of fine arts program with, as the college says, "internationally acclaimed faculty." And that's great news for the rest of the New England community, with access to these top poets on most evenings of the session (June 24 to July 1) in a free public event.

Each evening reading starts at 7:30 p.m. and is held in the Simon Center Great Room -- which is in the white farmhouse-style building at the entrance to the campus.

The Sunday June 24 reading opens with Lebanon, NH, poet Jeff Friedman -- recently profiled by NH Poet Laureate Patricia Faragnoli on a state site -- and his 2007 collection should be on hand for purchase. Here's the list:

Sunday June 24: Jeff Friedman, Carol Frost, Ross Gay
Monday June 25: Judith Hall, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Alicia Ostriker
Tuesday June 26: Anne Marie Macari, Judith Vollmer, Michael Waters
Thursday June 28: Martín Espada
Friday June 29: Maxine Kumin, Gerald Stern
Sunday July 1: Joan Larkin, Paula McLain, Malena Morling

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Debut Mystery: Michelle Gagnon, THE TUNNELS

A "first mystery" from a little-known author has the perils and pleasures of any high-skills gamble and risk: Will it work? Does it read well? How about publisher promotion? And if the author "has what it takes," will it still be there for book two and book three? At least a dozen times, I've read a debut offering and said "Gee, this is pretty good stuff" -- and neglected to nail down a pristine first edition of the first book of what would turn out to be a remarkable author just moving into a long streak of growth.

Having a first book emerge in paperback only -- no hardcover -- makes the collector's task tougher. In general, a PBO (Paperback Original) isn't going to attain much value. Fabulous illustrations, like those on some of the 1930s through 1960s noir, can change the story. But today, those are rare.

So Michelle Gagnon's starting mystery, THE TUNNELS, is going to be a reader's choice rather than a "collectible," I believe. The publishing imprint for the June 2007 release is MIRA, which turns out to be the single-title imprint offered by Harlequin, that greatly expanded Canadian firm better known for its romance. In fact, the book doesn't even say Harlequin on it anywhere. Good thing! If it did, I might have skipped reading it.

And that would have been a shame.

Gagnon's FBI thriller, set on the campus of a prestigious New England college (like Wesleyan, where she took her own degree), takes its title from the 1800s-era underground tunnels that crisscross the campus and even run to the river. A gruesome serial killer pattern escalates, and Kelly Jones tackles it with her customary riveted attention and round-the-clock determination. She's an FBI Special Agent, but also a crime victim whose past compels her to battle the darkness without giving herself any sort of break. Heaven help us if this is a true-to-life picture of women in the Bureau; their shelf life won't be long.

But it makes a great character trait, and Jones's partners in the investigation, two men who pick vastly different ways to assist her in the hunt for the killer, add the necessary personal depth that pulls a mystery away from "potboiler" status and into something worth re-reading.

There are small flaws that a more seasoned thriller writer (with a top-notch editor) might avoid, and these, along with an ending that's a bit too sweet and light, betray the novice author. (A bicycle lies abandoned on a front lawn, when it should have disappeared with the child riding it. A historic comment muddles its decades. Each young police officer confronted with a nasty kill "heaves." You know.) Still, I found that even on the second reading, I didn't want interruptions. I wanted to pay increasing attention to the twists, the dialogue (which is far above beginner level), and the potential metaphors involved. No, the tunnels aren't as terrifying as the ones that haunt Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch. And the forensics ease into place, instead of blasting bloodily like a Patricia Cornwall development. Nevertheless, the solid reality of the college utility tunnels heightens the sense of threat.

Here's a sample of the level of detail:

"God, I'm getting sick of this street," Jake said darkly as they pulled up to the curb.
Kelly didn't answer. The early morning light reflected gold off the front windows, blocking the view inside. Two orderlies sat on an empty gurney parked [on] the lawn next to the walkway. She nodded to them as she strolled past. A single deputy asked their names, noted them in his log, then stepped aside to let them in the front door. All of the lights were on, illuminating a thin layer of dust she hadn't noticed the other night. The house was weighed down by an eerie hush that she immediately recognized, the calm that descended after violence. Through the kitchen door she saw Kim, her face buried in the chest of a uniformed office, sobbing. Kelly set her jaw and headed upstairs.

In perhaps the highest compliment a thriller can rate, I found the darkness outside my house uncomfortable, in the first few hours after finishing my second read of THE TUNNELS. Danger seemed more likely to hide there, in spite of the silently flashing fireflies and the sleeping households nearby.

Gagnon has a second Kelly Jones book scheduled for April 2008: BONEYARD. So I predict that copies of first printing of THE TUNNELS will become harder and harder to get. With author appearances this summer at significant shops and conferences, including the 2007 Thrillerfest, I recommend getting a fresh, signed copy of THE TUNNELS as soon as possible. Michelle Gagnon is worth reading and following.

Speaking of which: For more details from the author, including her scheduled events, check the web site -- . And for further insight into the MIRA books phenom, take a look at .

Friday, June 15, 2007

Farewell, John Engels

Today's Burlington paper announced the June 13 death of poet and St. Michael's College professor John Engels. Genial and inquisitive, he nurtured many interests, from photography to music to fly fishing and tying; his book Walking to Cootehill was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Engels's first collection, The Homer Mitchell Place, was published by University of Pittsburgh Press in 1958; his final, eleventh, collection is Recounting the Seasons. My own favorite is Sinking Creek (his tenth), which braids grief, aging, loss, and the possibility of redemption into taut strands of narrative verse that wick the very blood of the hills and rivers. Fearless in his exposure of his own doubts and regrets, he nonetheless transformed them into strength and a lyrical voice. Here's a sample that meets the season:

Eve Overlooking the Garden

The garden has ignited.
It’s feverish. Even the white clematis
flutters with sun,

and the red lilies and coral bells
burn back at it. Windblown petals
of cardinals flash

across the buttery primroses:
a good year for gardens.
Everything shines.

I write this standing at my window.
I don’t go down into the garden.
From here I see everything

at once, all the flowers trapped
in color, in their showy, slow
ignition — petal, pistil, leaf and stamen

separating off. Perhaps
there is a way
out of such fiery

gorgeousness. It must
be wearing. Even at night
when I’ve gone blind

I hear a splendid confusion
of harmonics, what only can be
the sharp yellowing

of gloriosas, the speckle-
throated oranging
of the Canada lilies.

— John Engels
From Recounting the Seasons:
Poems, 1958-2005
, University of Notre Dame Press

The memorial service for Engels will be next month: Saturday July 14, at 2 p.m., on the college campus.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Hold the Dates: Mystery Authors in Barre

The Aldrich Public Library at 6 Washington Street, Barre, Vermont (802-476-7550), has a stellar summer of Wednesday night readings planned. Each is at 6:30 p.m. and pauses at 7 p.m. to allow music lovers to slip out for concerts in the nearby park -- then continues with questions and a chance to speak with the author afterward.

Mystery lovers, note the following guests for the series: June 20, Jennifer McMahon with her debut work, PROMISE NOT TO TELL (a horror thriller set in Vermont).

July 11, Sarah Stewart Taylor, whose detective and art historian Sweeney St. George has already appeared in four mysteries.

July 25,Doug Wilhelm. Wilhelm's young adult novels are dark enough to slip into the mystery genre, even when their protagonists are only in seventh grade.

August 15, Daniel Hecht, author of SKULL SESSION and THE BABEL EFFECT, among others, and most recenty BONES OF THE BARBARY COAST.

Jamaica Kincaid Reads from Her Past

The director of the community library in mostly working-class Barre, Vermont, is Karen Lane. She gave a concise, professional introduction this evening for author Jamaica Kincaid, referring to Kincaid as the "very distinguished" guest of the Aldrich Public Library. The author noted right away that she loves being included in Vermont society and culture -- so when Lane contacted her, putting together the two words library and Vermont, Kincaid accepted the invitation with pleasure.

Several of the audience members expected a conversation about plants and gardens, familiar with Kincaid's most Vermont-associated work, her 1999 book MY GARDEN (BOOK). Instead, Kincaid treated the group to readings of four of her noted and sharp-tongued New Yorker "Talk of the Town" columns from 34 or 35 years ago -- her first professional work. Teasing gently, she told her listeners she hoped to make them laugh. And indeed, she succeeded, holding them spellbound for twice as long as the event had been planned for. Hurrah!

That was another era, Kincaid pointed out -- one where the cult of "celebrity" had just begun. Kincaid and her friends assumed it was a fad and would soon fade. So with tongue firmly in cheek, she opened the evening with her irresistibly funny "conversation reported" column called "New," in which one (presumably quite pushy!) woman tells another what the "new man" is going to be like. (Alan Alda is the prime example!) A second piece, "Expense Account," poked fun at Mr. and Mrs. Milton Friedman, Society figures of the time. Said Kincaid with merriment, "I never liked him [Friedman]. You shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but I think under the circumstances, with him, you can!" Her column briskly heaped contempt on both Friedman and his ostentatiousness; Kincaid also detested his notions about Chile.

By this point, I confess I had succumbed to the delight of being entertained with quick wit and naughty jabs, and readings three and four, one that poked great fun at a talk given by Jackie Kennedy's social secretary Letitia Baldridge and the other, "Memorandum," about a mayor's office report on a drama group that included a naked overweight woman performer, gave more bold strokes to the picture of Kincaid as young journalist. She revealed that her poverty in those days made her depend on the society events as the only good meals she was likely to eat! But that didn't stop her from tossing the social absurdities into view. Some become more absurd in reflection from today: Kincaid described the theater performers as Eastern Europeans who had escaped the world war to treasure artistic freedom in the United States.

"I can't imagine," she commented, "that a group of people would come to America to see artistic freedom any more -- well, you know the drill!"

Audience members then eagerly asked her to read from her newest work, which is AMONG FLOWERS: A WALK IN THE HIMALAYA (2005; paperback being released this summer). Kincaid chose a segment in which she sees herself as the spoiled and whimpering Westerner, accustomed to comforts, and deprived of them in the vagaries of tramping the mountains in Nepal. In particular, her group became frightened by repeated threats from Maoist guerillas, who held them up for money and appeared willing to shoot them. Detouring away from their planned route, in order to dodge the terrifying Maoists, they stumbled into a campsight one evening that turned out to be overrun with leeches -- not just blood-sucking soft creatures, but the kind that can leap upward to land on your skin, even your face, and whose bites left gushing streams of blood behind.

"At some point I stopped distinguishing between the Maoists and the leeches," Kincaid read aloud.

And all this, in order to collect some exotic plants to bring home to the Vermont garden!

In the event finale, Kincaid declined to talk about her current writing project: "Ah, that can't be answered. If I told you, I would stop writing because it wouldn't be interesting to me anymore." Judging by the nodding heads around me, quite a few listeners knew just what she meant.

As they clustered afterward for cookies, juice, and a chance to thank Kincaid and even ask her to sign a book, people talked about how they'd enjoyed the chance to meet her, to hear her, and to be surprised by what she chose to read. She earned a lot of appreciation for her smoothly flowing work and the vivid images.

One woman nudged me as we approached the exit: "I'm afraid I'll dream all night of leeches," she admitted.

A clue to one future topic for the gifted essayist and novelist: She reads mostly nonfiction, and said she's currently reading Reginald Farrer's account of walking in the Dolomites -- "Because I'm going to be walking in the Dolomites!"

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Espionage Author Alan Furst Opens Up

No bright lights in the face, no threats or bribes -- just a comfortable desk to lean against and a room full of readers, and Alan Furst started talking. He visited R. J. Julia Booksellers on May 31, where stacks of the new softcover edition of THE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT were eagerly purchased.

Although he read the first few gripping pages of this intense pre-World War II thriller aloud, Furst mostly talked that evening about his research strategies and writing habits.

How much time does he spend in research for each book? "It's months, not years. And it gets shorter as time goes by," because Furst is staying within one time period and more or less one continent, Europe. And he's not reinventing history, but following it closely. "History's a better writer than I am," he suggested. For KINGDOM OF SHADOWS, enmeshed in Hungary's complex evolution, he admits he plowed through the H volume of his Encyclopedia Brittanica repeatedly, working the dates and characters into his mind. Then he figured he could "just create characters and have them follow along in the webbing."

His favorite epoch has become 1930s Paris. "People knew that an apocalypse was coming, but they didn't know where, and they didn't know when." The push of history was so huge that there were limited roles for individuals to play -- "like hero and victim," Furst specified. "But you could NOT stand aside," he added, saying that France attempted to do so, and suffered for its effort.

"I moved to Paris to write the first of these books, NIGHT SOLDIERS," the author explained. He used a tape of Django Reinhardt and Stefan Grappeli to provide the background music in his room, and swore he could even smell the Paris night of that era.

Because his career was still young and fragile, Furst didn't have the money to explore the continent. Yet he needed to see, hear, taste the landscapes of Central and Eastern Europe. So he persuaded ESQUIRE magazine to hire him for a travel piece that would require him to take a steamer up the Danube River. There was an obvious flaw in this as a travel article: When Furst turned in his writing after the trip, the editor hemmed and hesitated -- "seems like such a dark piece of writing." Furst agreed: "It's a dark travel article," he urged, pushing the publication into a new face of the genre.

Classic for a Furst public appearance is a certain confusion about the details that he then incorporates in his novels. Several in our bookshop evening brought up places and people that had especially rung true for them, asking Furst where he had found the restaurant, the person, and so on. "No, it's made up -- I write fiction!" he admitted.

Yet the reality of 1930s Europe gives the canvas on which he paints his stories, and Furst doesn't expect to tire of it in any way. He has made the terrain his own.

"We sell you as a European writer," his British publisher told him.
"What's a European writer?" Furst inquired, curious.
"Nothing! There is no such thing! Except for you!"

Now Furst is creating his first "diplomatic" novel, one that takes place in the French embassy in Warsaw in 1937. That should be enough of a hint, he suggested to the gathered readers, and firmly refused to reveal more. Consider me hooked and waiting for the publication.

Oh yes, we brought home quite a few signed Alan Furst books from the trip. That's a good thing, because I need to read them all again, to make sure the characters are fresh in my mind. Furst long ago rejected the traditional series concept, in favor of developing his own set of background characters who appear repeatedly, linking each new protagonist to the other books and events. Read closely enough, and you're part of that world. Pass me another Django Reinhardt CD, would you?

Friday, June 08, 2007

Rural Writing: Howard Frank Mosher/Mark Twain

When Howard Frank Mosher first "invented" Kingdom County, his northern Vermont landscape stirred from several Northeast Kingdom towns into a set of heavily French Canadian neighborhoods, the comparison to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County was inevitable. But with this year's publication of ON KINGDOM MOUNTAIN (Houghton Mifflin), Mosher moves without question to the shadow of that other icon of American rural fiction, Mark Twain. Consider the following:

Found money signified that a stranger was coming. Always, when she discovered even a lone forgotten dime in the pocket of an old smock, a stranger had shown up on the mountain soon afterward. Perhaps that was why her second sight had directed her to go out on the ice so late in the year. To lead her to a coin that would alert her to the arrival of a stranger who might help her prevent her cousin and the township from ramming that highway onto her mountain. Miss Jane shook her head over her own foolishness. She had no idea who might visit her mountain, and she needed no help in her battle with Eben and the high road. She really should think about acquiring a cat, she thought. An able, strong cat that lived rough and knew enough to appreciate a barn roof over its head and table scraps to eat in exchange for keeping down the mice. She might even invite it into the house of a winter evening, as long as it didn't jump on her bed. There would be no cats on Miss Jane Hubbell Kinneson's bed, thank you kindly. She pocketed the double eagle, picked up her ox goad, and prepared to head over the ice toward home.

That's Mosher, of course. Now read this:

There was a rustling of dresses, and the standing congregation sat down. The boy whose history this book relates did not enjoy the prayer, he only endured it -- if he even did that much. He was restive all through it; he kept tally of the details of the prayer, unconsciously -- for he was not listening, but he knew the ground of old, and the clergyman's regular route over it -- and when a little trifle of new matter was interlarded, his ear detected it and his whole nature resented it; he considered additions unfair, and scoundrelly. In the midst of the prayer a fly had lit on the back of the pew in front of him, and tortured his spirit by calmly rubbing its hands together, embracing its head with its arms, and polishing it so voigorously that it seemed to almost part company with the body, and the slender thread of a neck was exposed to view; scraping its wings with its hind legs and smoothing them to its body as if they had been coat-tails; going through its whole toilet as tranquilly as if it knew it was perfectly safe. As indeed it was; for as sorely as Tom's hand itched to grab for it they did not dare -- he believed his soul would be instantly destroyed it he did such a thing while the prayer was going on. But with the closing sentence his hand began to curve and steal forward; and the instand the "Amen" was out the fly was a prisoner of war. His aunt detected the act and made him let it go.

Which, of course, is from THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER. Yet the tone, the pace, the language are so similar that the two passages could have been drawn from a single volume, and certainly a single author.

The rural tradition of trickery flowers in both books, too. Tom Sawyer is perhaps best known for his enterprising method of getting others to do his painting chore for him, to the point where we mention Tom whenever anyone tries to convince us to do part of their assigned tasks under the label of "if you're really good enough, I might let you!" And in Mosher's tale, the two principal characters, Miss Jane and the stunt pilot soon to land in her life, Henry Satterfield, both specialize in keeping a few cards up their sleeves. Miss Jane knows the state law better than some of its judges do, and has a plan to protect her mountain from progress and its attendant highway. As for Henry -- need I say more than this, that his specialty has been convincing people that he can and does make the weather change, in particular to rain? Both Henry and Miss Jane carry an absolute conviction, too, that people who are fool enough to fall for their stunts deserve to be made into fools.

Beyond this somewhat cynical approach, Mosher and Twain share another similarity: a willingness to let details build on the page, whether about a fly or a midwinter fishing trip, in utter disregard for movement of the plot -- until the mound of details spills into action after all, and the character, still snugly clothed in whatever village attire best belongs, has nonetheless opened a row of buttons on the soul and given us a flash of vision.

Like Twain, Mosher insists on a language that his ear discovers. Miss Jane doesn't just teach, or read, or carve; she instructs. And Tom, in his dealings with his new friend Huck, forces the wilder boy into a "civilized" position within the community, just as he has seen to Becky and will eventually provide an answer to the issues raised by Injun Joe.

Though there are no fence-painting scenes in ON KINGDOM MOUNTAIN, there's a delicious fraud perpetrated by radio; there are also some lively revelations about love and lust that carry forward over decades of people's village existences. And though the ending to this cautionary tale is not exactly happy -- another parallel to TOM SAWYER -- it has its own satisfactions, and a neatly knitted conclusion, much like the final row of a long sock, turning at last to toe.

The book is scheduled for sale this month, and on June 26, Mosher will give a reading and signing at The Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vermont (for details see I can't think of a nicer way to celebrate a country summer evening than that.