A read on the times: Novelists, poets and nonfiction writers discuss their work and current events

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BRATTLEBORO — Vermonter Harry Bliss is known for his wry, witty New Yorker magazine illustrations. But kicking off the Brattleboro Literary Festival at an assembly of wiggling, jiggling students, the Burlington artist opted to share color-splashed pictures from his children's books ("Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken" anyone?) before inviting questions.

The first: Who are you voting for?

"As a rule, I tend not to talk politics in public," Bliss told the inquisitive youngster. "I'm going to vote for whichever candidate is not going to blow up the planet."

Since its start 15 years ago, this town's annual Literary Festival has aimed to celebrate creativity. But that didn't stop this weekend's event — featuring nearly 80 novelists, poets and nonfiction writers at almost a dozen downtown venues — from also offering a good read on the times.

Meg Little Reilly embodied the eclectic nature of those speaking. The Brattleboro native, who grew up penning "terrible, heartfelt poetry," went on to become a spokeswoman for the U.S. Treasury and deputy associate director of President Barack Obama's White House Office of Management and Budget before returning to New England to publish her first novel.

That recently released book, "We Are Unprepared," tells the tale of a husband and wife who move to the Green Mountains, unaware a devastating super storm is about to threaten their marriage, town and the entire East Coast.

"It's a psychological anxiety inducer," Reilly summed it up, "born out of a frustration about the slow movement on climate change."

Other authors were equally topical. Vermont writer Larry Olmsted talked about his new book "Real Food Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating and What You Can Do About It." Mount Holyoke College professor Lauret Savoy spoke about "Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape." New York City poet Camille Rankine sampled her collection "Incorrect Merciful Impulses," which "reflects on the symptoms of and instructions for contemporary life, inquiring into history, politics, culture, identity and mortality."

The festival did offer a little levity. Bliss proved popular with students at Friday's kickoff, where he reminisced about riding his childhood banana-seat bicycle to his hometown comic book store.

"The things you look at now are going to creep back in the way you see the world," he told his young audience. "Life is so full of ideas — you just have to be receptive to them. Respect the little things and be curious."

The artist also drew smiles from adults at a Saturday talk, where he confided the New Yorker is casting about for a cover nod to American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for literature.

Plugging into PowerPoint, Bliss shared works that play off technology. Take his New Yorker cover of a Manhattan skyline crackling with Fourth of July fireworks as one holed-up apartment dweller watches the show outside his window on television. Or another of a couple standing in front of a museum masterpiece while staring at their cellphones.

"Put your devices away," the artist advised. "Look with your own eyes."

Other authors sparked thoughts of presidential politics, albeit, like Bliss, without naming names.

Bill Littlefield, a former college English teacher and current host of National Public Radio's sports show "Only A Game," gave voice to commentary such as his recent remembrance of visiting ballplayers in the Fenway Park clubhouse working on vocabulary lists or wondering how far it was to Harvard.

"I thought I might walk up there," the latter athlete said. "Some of the smart might rub off."

"Locker room talk," Littlefield concluded.

For his part, Arun Gandhi, grandson of the legendary Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, revealed memories captured in his "Grandfather Gandhi" children's books.

"The more materialistic we become, the less moral we are," the 82-year-old descendent said. "We are governed by greed and power. The easiest way to control is through fear. Grandfather said nobody oppresses us more than we oppress ourselves by accepting that. We have to stand up and say not anymore."

The goal, the author added, is not to become lightning, but instead light.

"One of the things my grandfather always insisted we should do is say, 'I'm going to be a better person today than yesterday.' We are all interrelated and interdependent. We should be strengthening the ties between us so we can all grow upwards. We may not reach the level that he reached, but at least we had the satisfaction that we were honest in our living."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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