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Monday, May 2, 2016

The World Has Always Been Turning

Our country today is politically polarized. The gap is widening between the haves and have-nots, with the middle disappearing. Is this the worst time in American history? How can anyone say? This is where we are now. A hundred and fifty years ago, none of us living now were yet alive.

A younger friend asked me once, “What were the Sixties really like?” Well, the answer depends on the person you ask. High school students and college students had very different experiences, military families quite different again, and the rich and powerful, as always – well, they live on a different plane from the rest of us, don't they? 

How old are you? Where did you grow up? Are you black or white, yellow, brown or red?

In the United States at large, we enjoyed great music in the Sixties -- and mourned terrible assassinations. The decade brought Black Power and the Black Panthers, a story told in the novel Virgin Soul, by Judy Juanita, but urban and rural dwellers knew the Sixties in very different ways, as Anne-Marie Oomen reveals in her memoir, Love, Sex, and 4-H.

Across the United States and elsewhere in the world, there were protests against the war in Vietnam until American troops were finally pulled outBut in southeast Asia itself, life in warn-torn Vietnam brought years of terror that did not end when the Americans left, or as the Sixties bled into the Seventies, because it’s one thing to have your country involved in an overseas war and quite another to have a war in your backyard.

Andrew X. Pham, author of Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam (1999), has just given me an unforgettable reading experience. His father, an engineer and “a man of regrets,” also a former Nationalist, was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese Communists following the American withdrawal. (An and his mother, highly enterprising and deeply superstitious, lived near the prison camp to watch over the head of the family, while other children lived with grandparents.) One of six children, An (his Vietnamese name) was the second-born. After his father was mysteriously released from prison, and before he could be recaptured and executed – the fate he expected, had the Communists learned of his background as a Nationalist propaganda director -- the family escaped from Vietnam.

An was eight years old when his family came to America, but growing up in California he remembered his Vietnamese childhood. Those memories were the inspiration for his return visit as a young adult, to explore by bicycle (on a limited amount of money difficult for native Vietnamese who never left home to believe is all he has) the country he left so long ago.

For Americans and for Vietnamese, the Sixties were a world-changing decade. One friend of ours volunteered for the draft with a buddy, right out of high school. His buddy never came home, and our friend still asks himself what his life would have been like “if I hadn’t gone to Vietnam.”

During his often difficult travels, Andrew Pham asks himself again and again, what his life would have been like had his family stayed in Vietnam. He realizes that his good fortune was very much an accident of birth. Different parents, different life. Seeing firsthand terrible poverty and corruption in the country that might still have been his home, he is grateful for his good fortune, despite resentments and prejudice he encountered growing up in the U.S.

The Sixties were a long time ago, an era sanctified in retrospect by some and reviled by others. If you weren’t around then, this obituary for Daniel Berrigan will give you some idea of what you missed during that period in the United States. There was a lot more to it than tie-dye and drugs, beads and funny clothes.

Rest in peace, Daniel Berrigan. You got your work done.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

It's Indie Bookstore Day

No balloons, no visiting authors, but Sarah and I will be on hand to greet you with a few little surprises, starting at 11 a.m. Come see us!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Reading Alice Munro on a Blustery Day

Freshly turned soil drew gulls on Monday

Imagine you are home alone with a big tin full to the brim of Oreo cookies. I don’t know if Oreo cookies were ever available in tins, but imagine that they were, and that you have a tinful. You also have a supply of more grownup treats – maybe rice crackers and rolled anchovies or fresh avocadoes and slabs of good bakery rye bread. Whatever you love that gives you a feeling of sybaritic luxury. Something exotic to drink, too, like a bottle of Calvados, taken in small, languorous sips. But those Oreo cookies, too, don’t forget, and no one else in the house. Maybe the wind is from the east, as it was on Monday, a cold, blustery wind driving everyone indoors who had a choice in the matter. Driving you indoors to cozy down with your factory-made cookies and high-status alcohol and upper-class foodie treats. No, I didn't have all those: it just felt like it, reading this book. Alone with adolescent dreams and adult memories -- that’s the atmosphere created by the stories of Alice Munro in Lives of Girls and Women.

It isn’t necessary to have grown up in Ontario. The American Midwest will do, or the South. Why not the Great Plains? The East or West Coast, no, probably not. This is fiction from the interior of the continent, recollected dreams of anticipation, from places young people dream of escaping, although the majority never do.

*   *   *

This coming Saturday is Independent Bookstore Day, but I’d rather think of a week, or at least part of one – beginning, let’s say, on Wednesday, so make that Wednesday through Saturday, this week. Come in any of those days, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and find new titles waiting for you, along with a number of newly arrived used books, some shelved with their subject companions, others – temporarily -- in the “Newly Arrived” section, simplifying browsing for frequent visitors. At Dog Ears Books, every day is potluck and a treasure hunt, to boot.

And now, meanwhile, and à propos of none of the foregoing, if you’re looking for a good movie, I recommend “Bridge of Spies,” starring Tom Hanks. Hanks plays Jim Donovan, an insurance lawyer asked to defend a Soviet spy because the Americans want to show that in the U.S., even a spy is allowed a defense in a court of law. (The Fifties were more than Ozzie and Harriet: they were also the Cold War.) The arrangement is more for show than anything else, but Donovan takes it seriously. That's the first complication. Meanwhile, the C.I.A. has hand-picked a group of pilots to fly the new U-2 planes and take photographs of Soviet ground installations. Also, Donovan's kids are shown a movie of the atom bomb in school. They learn about the kind of destruction of brings and get taught the "Duck and cover" routine. (The son, like Jim, takes things seriously: he comes home and fills the bathtub with water, telling his dad there wouldn't be time to do it if they were caught unprepared.) Donovan attracts public hatred for defending the spy, and his wife and children become targets. Then Gary Powers is shot down (and, coincidentally and close in time, a young university student gets caught on the wrong side of the new wall in Berlin), and Donovan is asked to go secretly to East Berlin – not even his family is to know he’s gone, and he has no official government role or protection -- to negotiate with the Soviets for a trade, Abel (the Soviet spy) for Powers. Period details are beautifully done, as is every other aspect of the film, but it's the character of Jim Donovan that carries the story.

And for Paris dreaming, here at last is a new offering on my kitchen blog.

I am not working outdoors today!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Is Overkill Even Possible?

Spring maples

Everywhere, flowers! High above the ground, the first, faintest blush of red flowers shows in maple tree crowns, challenging notions of where blossoms belong. In this season of burgeoning abundance, I have taken another crazy leap and started a new blog. I plan to be more faithful to it than I have been to my kitchen musings or the abandoned sketches and drawings, however, because this is another blog related to my bookstore.

And because, here’s the thing. The blog you’re reading, Books in Northport, has never been a one-subject forum. As you know, I wander from bookstore and book reviews into philosophy or gardening or local politics or world economics, and I don’t apologize for doing so. Walks in the woods and laundry on the line are as much part of my life as is my bookstore. But now, with the sad demise of Partners Book Distributing, all of us with independent bookstores are going to have to work a lot harder to bring books to our customers’ attention that might otherwise have a hard time finding local readers.

Therefore, Northport Bookstore News! That’s the place where you’ll see just the books, ma’am, just the books. No long essays or diatribes or meanderings far from the bookstore door. No, just -- here’s a new book, and here’s why you should consider buying it. That will be the focus. Books at a glance, as it were.

My first post on Northport Bookstore News features a new regional book. Go check it out! Since it is regional authors and publishers, along with us booksellers, who will most feel the absence of Partners, my new blog is partly an effort to compensate for our mutual loss. Not all titles featured there, however, will be of local or regional interest, and I probably will not stick strictly to new books, either. All I’m promising is to focus on books and not be excessively wordy.

There is a gadget on this blog, up there on the right column, called “Subscribe by e-mail,” and I’ve added that gadget to the new blog, also. If you’re not a subscriber here already, consider subscribing. On the other hand, if you want “just the books, ma’am,” subscribe to the new blog. And, naturally, it won’t hurt my feelings if people choose to subscribe to both.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Looking for That Thin Line

Showing you my daffodils

The intrepid Ulysses Reading Circle met last night to discuss Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. I don’t intend to give a full report on our discussion (some of what is said in Reading Circle stays in Reading Circle), but the book got me thinking again about something I raised in our conversation, addressing myself primarily to the two fiction writers in the group. It’s this business of “Show, don’t tell” that writers hear all the time these days. (They are told. Is that ironic?) Sherwood Anderson, I noted, did quite a lot of telling. His characters were often silent types, either unable or unwilling to express themselves to others in their little town, even to their own spouses. (Marriage in Winesburg was more inevitable than desired.) The writers agreed, and I guess we chalked it up to the time, this novel or group of stories – whatever one decides to call it – being now almost 100 years old.

This morning I remarked to David that “Show, don’t tell” these days has almost the force of law in writing advice. Certainly it is an article of belief, a dogma of fiction instruction. Does this mean fiction before our time somehow fell short? Was it in an earlier, lesser stage of literary evolution? Or is today’s dogma simply current fashion, possibly “tomorrow’s outworn myth”?

David made an interesting point. If we see fiction as coming out of story-telling, he said, why would we denigrate it for telling? A story-tellers tells a story, he said, adding, “It’s not a movie!”

I’ve pondered this question before. Like so many of life’s fascinating questions, though, it has a way of coming around to nag me again and again.

Here’s one of the first sites (following a Wikipedia entry) that turned up in my search today. It’s a copyrighted site, and I’m reluctant to quote from it, partly because of the copyright and partly because I’m not crazy about the “evocative description” he uses as a substitute for flat telling. For me, the description is full of trite adjectives. And anyway, isn’t the writer telling the reader what the woman looks like, rather than, as in the rejected sentence, just telling the reader she’s old -- so that the former, more descriptive telling is not called telling, but showing?

Another site offering the same lesson and advice on avoiding the pitfall urges the addition of detail. So is showing just telling more? Caution is urged, relevance of detail stressed....

I keep scratching, and the itch doesn’t go away.

Then I come upon a site where a writer calls “Show, don’t tell” “the Great Lie of Writing Workshops,” and I can’t wait to read it! Joshua Henkin makes the same point David made, i.e., that stories are not movies and can do things movies cannot --
most important, novels can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture (and through the almost always contrived-seeming voiceover, which is itself a borrowing from fiction). To put it more succinctly, fiction can give us thought: It can tell. And where would Proust be if he couldn’t tell? Or Woolf, or Fitzgerald? Or William Trevor or Alice Munro or George Saunders or Lorrie Moore?
Henkin blames lazy instructors’ and lazy students’ reliance on the “Show, don’t tell” dictum for a lot of bad fiction writing, the kind full of pointless description that does nothing to reveal character or advance plot. I really, really recommend going to the Writer’s Digest site (so I’m giving the link here a second time) to read what Henkin has to say. And then you might want to go back and read again the supposedly improved versions on other sites advocating what they call “showing.”

Read like a writer. Write like a reader. That’s my very vague and unspecific advice.

How do you see the telling/showing question?

Showing chionodoxa

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Tolerance and Its Opposite Number

There is often worldwide unease when centuries turn. Certainly such was the case in Europe as the fifteenth century transitioned to the sixteenth. The showdown deciding that era's conflict was dramatized in history in the persons of two very different kinds of Roman Catholic clerics, Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther. Both men saw abuses in the Church crying out to be corrected, but their personalities and their ways of addressing conflict could not have been more different. 

Erasmus, ever the humanist and conciliator, hoped for reform from within the Church. In truth, he did not interest himself overmuch with theology – certainly not with dogma – and his definition of “Christian” had more to do with a way of life than a set of beliefs. “He alone does honour to the saints who imitates their virtues,” wrote Erasmus. To be Christian, he felt, was to live as Jesus lived. “The quintessence of our religion is peace and unanimity.” Moreover, “Wherever you encounter truth, look upon it as Christianity.”

As someone raised Lutheran, I was shocked to read about the historical founder. I have long disagreed with Luther’s complete dismissal of good works, the dogma of “salvation by grace alone,” but I had no idea – we were never taught in confirmation class – that Luther believed in predestination. No wonder he put no faith (if I may so phrase it) in good works! Theology aside, I was repelled by Luther’s unprincipled pragmatism, as I found it in this book. (I am a pragmatist myself, a romantic pragmatist, but for me pragmatism does not – cannot -- demand the rejection of principles.) Here is Luther, in his own words, telling what we might expect of him in a presidential campaign and what the people of Germany did get from him in his struggle against the Church and against mild-mannered, truth-loving Erasmus: “If you want to better humanity and reform the Church, you cannot afford to fight shy of a good, thumping lie.” Lies in the service of reform. How Socratic!

I have taken these quotes from Erasmus and Luther from Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Stefan Zweig. If you’ve ever wondered how the Enlightenment was pushed offstage by the Reformation, this little book makes a clear case.

Erasmus, the tolerant peacemaker and lover of truth, had no stomach for battle. He wanted only to be left alone with his books. Twice, first at the Diet of Worms, later at the Diet of Augsburg, he stayed away, leaving the field open to Martin Luther and his revolutionary followers. Had Erasmus gone to Augsburg, Zweig believes, reformation might have begun within the Church. There were those on both sides prepared to give ground. But Erasmus did not appear, and Luther’s bombast carried the day. In fact, according to Zweig, Luther by that time had had second thoughts but had lost control of his troops.

Thus inflammatory rhetoric carried the day, and the humanistic idea of the unity of mankind gave way to newly resurgent nationalism and the power politics laid out by Machiavelli in Il Principe. Zweig saw parallels between Europe in the time of Erasmus and Martin Luther and Europe in the 1930s.

Where are we headed now? Are we ever going to be ready to give peace a chance?

It occurs to me that I should say that I don't intend to characterize modern Lutherans as being in the mold of Martin Luther, either in character or in all aspects of his theology. Pace!

Friday, April 15, 2016

To the Powers That Be

Dog Ears Books, July 1993

April 15, 2016

Dear Village Trustees:

My business started out in Northport, on Waukazoo Street, back in 1993, so I have had a lot of experience with summer tourists. Some now make the trip to Northport specifically to visit my bookstore, while others driving up the peninsula are surprised to come upon it unexpectedly. 

First-time visitors have a lot of questions, but the Top Three Questions -- of all time -- are the following, which I hear on a daily basis all summer:

At all times of the day:
Where is the nearest public restroom? (It's surprising that no one yet has invented a bathroom app for smart phones. People still seek out physical facilities.)

Early in the day:
How far is it to the lighthouse, and how do we get there?

Later in the day:
Is there a restaurant where we can have dinner and look out on the water?

That’s what tourists want. I have never heard a tourist complain about traffic or parking or absence of benches or even our admittedly ugly streetlights (which I have always yearned to see replaced with more attractive lights). Visitors love our parks. They love our marina. They love, as we all do, our summer farm market and the welcoming friendliness and peacefulness of our town.

As for comparing Northport to Suttons Bay:

Suttons Bay has always been a much larger town and has always been ten miles closer to Traverse City. Thus Suttons Bay has become in large part a bedroom  community for people who work in Traverse City. Traverse City is also where most of the overnight tourist accommodations have always been, so it has that edge over Northport. But moving Northport closer to Traverse City is probably not feasible, and some of us, whether natives or transplants, like where we are. We chose life in the slow lane.

Yes, there are more restaurants and shops in Suttons Bay, but anyone who thinks Northport should be more like Suttons Bay needs to think about how many new shops and galleries and restaurants opened and closed in Suttons Bay in the last 20 years. Those of us in business keep an eye on that kind of thing. It's easy to have a dream, harder to take a flyer on it, but the real work comes in the long haul and requires sacrifices not everyone is prepared to make -- or, if they have families to raise, sacrifices not everyone can afford to make. Even in Traverse City, exorbitant rents and seasonal traffic have done in many a dreamer. 

Northern Michigan business is seasonal and will remain so as long as we have winter -- and not only because we depend so much on tourists. A large segment of our "permanent" population goes away in winter. More and more former single-family homes converted to seasonal summer rentals only exacerbate the pattern.

You want to improve Northport’s looks? 

o    Keep it simple. 

o    Don't do what doesn't need to be done. 

o    Don't try to make Northport look like somewhere else.

Because cosmetic improvements will not change underlying reality. Because wishes are not horses. And do you really think Northport at present is unattractive? I don’t see that at all.


Pamela Grath
Dog Ears Books
106 Waukazoo Street
P.O. Box 272
Northport, MI  49670
(231) 386-7209

Dog Ears Books, April 2016