On Sept. 22, the Vermont College of Fine Arts will host a gala banquet at which the winner of the 2018 Vermont Book Award will be announced.
Created in 2015 by VCFA, the award recognizes "literary excellence" in a book published during the previous year by a writer who lives in the Green Mountain State. Each year VCFA chooses judges from Vermont writers, teachers, librarians, and passionate supporters of literature who select finalists from books nominated by independent Vermont booksellers in four categories — children's literature, creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. The judges then choose one book to receive the award.
The first three winners of the award were Kerrin McCadden, a poet and teacher at Montpelier High School; Major Jackson, a poet, professor at UVM, and poetry editor of the Harvard Review; and Jensen Beach, a short story writer, a professor at Johnson State College, and fiction editor at Green Mountain Reviews.
This year's seven finalists are Katherine Arden, for her novel "The Bear and the Nightingale;" Philip Martin, for his creative non-fiction book "Breaking Bread: A Baker's Journey Home in 75 Recipes;" Adam Federman, for his creative non-fiction book "Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray;" Jason Chin, for his children's literature book "Grand Canyon;" Tanya Lee Stone, for her children's literature book "Girl Rising: Changing the World One Girl at a Time;" April Ossmann, for her poetry volume "Event Boundaries;" and Greg Delanty, for his poetry volume "Selected Delanty."
In this week's BookMarks column I review the books by Federman, Chin, and Ossmann, and in two weeks, I plan to review the remaining finalists.
Adam Federman has succeeded in what may be the biggest challenge for any biographer — writing an engaging and fascinating book about someone who is nearly totally unknown. Patience Gray (b. 1917-d. 2006) was born into a rather traditional upper middle class English family but quickly established herself as an independent thinker and doer. Traveling to Rumania, Italy, and France in her early twenties, she embarked on a love affair that resulted in a new last name and three children.
Gray had been a designer of wallpaper patterns, a newspaper editor for the Observer, and a writer of a well-received cookbook, when she met Norman Mommens, a married Dutch sculptor, in 1958. She and Mommens lived together for the rest of their lives, searching for a setting away from the industrialized and commercial world, finally settling in rural Puglia at the heel of Italy's boot. Their 11-acre property, Spigolizzi, became the setting for her exploration of living off the land, cooking the local plants and fungi, and ultimately providing the material for her landmark cookbook, "Honey From a Weed," published in 1987.
Gray is now being reconsidered as one of the most creative and literary pioneers of the locavore, slow food, and natural organic ingredient revolution. Federman has succeeded in bringing to life a unique and talented individual who otherwise might have been lost to time, and his superb biography is certain to bring her to the attention of a new generation of food devotees.
"Grand Canyon," by Jason Chin, is a beautiful, large format book about the eponymous land formation that stretches 277 miles in northwest Arizona. Filled with fascinating details about the geology and native flora and fauna, the book is classified as children's literature, but as is often the case, any adult reading this book to a child quickly realizes that it is enchanting for adults as well.
Chin guides us through the canyon's geology and nature, using the trope of a father and daughter camping at the base of the canyon near Phantom Ranch along the Colorado River. Nearby, the reader spies a mountain lion drinking from the river, and over the course of the book, the father, daughter, and mountain lion climb the mile-long South Kaibab Trail to the South Rim. Along the way, Chin's beautiful illustrations illuminate the geology as they climb from bedrock over 1.8 billion years old to the most recent Kaibab Formation, a mere 270 million years old. Lovely renderings of the plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals that populate the canyon fill the margins of the pages.
This book is the ideal combination for children of all ages — beautiful illustrations and an informative and accessible text. The young child to whom the book will be read by a parent or grandparent is unlikely to be fascinated by the geological detail but will be enthralled by the full page "paintings." The older reader will be thoroughly engaged by the pictures and information about the animals in the margins and by the cross-section diagrams of the geology of the canyon as the book proceeds.
Full of fascinating information and a delight to simply leaf through while enjoying the artwork, Chin's beautiful volume was recognized this year with the Caldecott Medal, awarded annually to the most distinguished American picture book for children.
The third finalist is April Ossmann, a poet living in West Windsor. I encountered her work at BookStock in 2017 and reviewed her nominated volume "Event Boundaries" in the Banner last October.
I found this work to be quite moving. She translates strong and sometimes overwhelming feelings of loss, grief, awe, and gratitude into words, and she brings those same skills to the natural world as well. The death of parents, the suicide of a brother, infidelity and the breakup of a marriage, the inexorable changes of aging and the approach of dying are her material, and Ossmann brings a deft word choice and poetic structure that moves those human events from the level of the commonplace to the extraordinary. Flashes of insight ("oh, yes!") greet the reader on almost every page as her alliterative and lyrical language opens our eyes and moves our spirit.
Her poems about nature, especially the snow, rain, spring green, running brooks, and wildlife that are the elements of Vermont's beauty, similarly moved me. In all this work, there is a tension that heightens the reader's attention, a contrast of opposites that elevates the stakes. This second volume of Ossmann's poetry is quite wonderful.
The VCFA Vermont Book Award is unusual among literary prizes in that there is a single prize chosen from four different genres. Federman, Chin, and Ossmann have all written superb and deserving works in three of those categories. In two weeks, I will review the remaining four finalists. How the judges choose between such excellence in such different literary forms will be fascinating to see. Stay tuned.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville, Vt. and Cambridge, Mass. You can read more about his reading and reach him at www.epsteinreads.com.