Daniel Ehrlich’s new photo book “Backstage Mandalay: The Netherworld of Burmese Performing Arts” (River) might be a revelation to those who know him as a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University. Quite simply, the book is a love letter to Myanmar and a plea, as Ehrlich writes in the book’s dedication, to the Asian nation as it modernizes to resist forgetting the great ceremonies that uniquely define it in a world where everything is becoming the same.
Since 1987, Ehrlich has made about 25 trips to Myanmar. In the beginning, he told me in an e-mail, he financed weeklong journeys by “bringing in a carton of Dunhill 555 cigarettes and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label (must be those brands), then hocking them for local currency to the taxi driver on the way into town.”
The sights, the culture, and the people kept him coming back. Describing an early trip, he wrote, “At sunrise the locals pulled me up onto the roof of the train car (never safe, now illegal) where we overlooked rice fields plowed only by oxen and sprinkled with hundreds of pagodas.”
People had a way of finding him when he returned. There was the man to whom he gave a broken tripod who announced on Ehrlich’s next visit to Myanmar that he had started a new career as a wedding photographer. And then there was the trishaw driver with whom he once traveled for three days who approached him three years later at a crowded vegetable market in Mandalay, a city of 2 million people. “I heard you were in town,” the driver said.
Ehrlich became entranced by Mandalay’s folk festivals, with their elaborate street theater performances, dances, and variety shows, some lasting through the night. At 3 in the morning, the air might be full of the sounds of traditional Burmese musical instruments. Increasingly these days, rock bands join in as well.
In an effort to help preserve the nation’s cultural traditions, Ehrlich six years ago cofounded a classical dance theater in Mandalay. He fears that the all-night performances cannot survive the opening up of the nation, now freed from military rule, and the advent of the 40-hour workweek. As Myanmar struggles to realize the promise of democracy, Ehrlich hopes that it will find a way to maintain its rich culture.
In his new book of essays “A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters, and Wildlife” (Skyhorse), Sydney Lea, poet laureate of Vermont, looks back on a lifetime of adventures: childhood family fishing trips, the opening day of turkey hunting season, and getting lost in the woods while hunting deer. He pays tribute to the old timers who taught him outdoor survival skills.
Lea gets around. He is closing in on his goal of giving poetry readings at all 300 libraries in Vermont during his four-year term as the state’s official top poet.
■ “Pigeon in a Crosswalk: Tales of Anxiety and Accidental Glamour” by Jack Gray (Simon & Schuster)
■ “All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship” by Kathryn Miles (Free Press)
■ “Guilt” by Jonathan Kellerman (Ballantine)
David Lampe-Wilson of Mystery on Main Street in Brattleboro, Vt., recommends “Three Graves Full” by Jamie Mason (Gallery): “A man driven to murder discovers that there are more shallow graves on his property than he’s responsible for in this sharp, dark, comic literary thriller worthy of the Coen brothers.”Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com. Follow her on Twitter @JanLGardner.