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Monday, June 17, 2019

A Bookish Look Back: In Defense of Lists

Seems like just yesterday that Sarah was a pup
Conversation in the bookstore occasionally turns to the question of lists. The question, more specifically, is: “Do you keep lists of the books you’ve read?” I did not always do so but have now for quite a while, because it’s just too embarrassing to be a bookseller and be unable to remember the title of a book or name of an author one wants to recommend! This morning I looked back at my first list and see that I began the practice in 2009, about 15 months after my first post on “Books in Northport.” 

Bonnie Jo Campbell and me
Since I have been a re-reader almost as long as I’ve been a reader, there are old, familiar names of favorite authors on that list from 2009: Alexander McCall Smith, Farley Mowat, Georges Simenon, Louis Slobodkin, Elizabeth Enright, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Barbara Ehrenreich, Alfred Kazin, and Annie Dillard are there, and so are Michigan’s Mardi Link and Jim Harrison and Bonnie Jo Campbell. James Joyce’s Ulysses is on the list, telling me that 2009 must have been the inaugural year of a little reading circle that will discuss pre-World War I Vienna this July. 

Trudy, Steve, me at one (raucous?) reading circle meeting
Novels Forever Island and Allapatah, by Patrick Smith, remind me that we spent a couple of late winter months that year in Aripeka, Florida. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, is on the list, and I recall my grudging reluctance before that thick volume with the forbidding title — taken on only at the bidding of another book group to which I belonged for a couple of years — and my subsequent delight in the story and gratitude to the friend who had urged it on the group. U.P. Hedrick’s Land of the Crooked Tree was a book the Artist and I read aloud to each other, transporting ourselves nightly from the Florida Gulf Coast to the America’s other “Third Coast,” that of the Great Lakes. Which is third and which is fourth? I’ll leave that quarrel to others. 

It was in 2009 that I read Lisa Genova’s brilliant novel, Still Alice, a book I have not (yet) re-read but one that remains vivid in my mind for the way the author manages to convey the confusions of Alzheimer’s disease from the viewpoint not of a family member but of the sufferer herself. I also read Doug Stanton’s extraordinary Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, the images Doug’s writing conjured up in my head much clearer still, at ten years remove, from the movie version of the book. 

I read Harrison’s In Search of Small Gods, which came out that year. There would be still more poetry from Jim following that collection, for we had Jim among us (in a literary sense, although he no longer lived in Michigan) for several more years.

A few classics stand out: Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons; The Count of Monte Cristo, by Dumas (the Artist’s favorite story when he was a young man); Stendahl’s Le Rouge et Le Noir (not at all what I expected), all first readings for me; as well as the careful group re-reading of Joyce’s Ulysses. There were several books about dogs, both fiction and nonfiction (Sarah was still very much a puppy then), and one about a woman’s pioneer experience in the American West, a theme that has recurred in subsequent lists. I read Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks — and went on to read three more novels by Brooks in subsequent years. I read J. B. Priestley’s English Journey (1934) for the first time and have re-read it since. I rediscovered with great pleasure a favorite from my adolescence, Mrs. Mike

Besides serving as a record, my “Books Read” lists for each year take me back to where I was at that time in my life, vicarious experiences from books, always, blending with the experiences of my “real” life. Thus titles from 2009 take me back to Aripeka, Florida; to Sarah’s young-dog days; to the beginnings of one book group and the memory of another no longer active; to first acquaintances and deepening friendships with various Michigan writers; and to Sunny Schwartz with her Dreams from the Monster Factory and Rebecca K. O’Connor’s Lift: A Memoir. With Schwartz I met incarcerated men looking for redemption; with O’Connor I flew hawks! And there was Gustav Niebuhr, who urged me (and other readers, of course) to go Beyond Tolerance in building bridges with Americans of different faiths and opinions. 

Most of the titles on my list from ten years ago stir memories. A few, I admit, leave me blank. I see a certain title and ask myself what the book was about, and I may never remember, but it’s also possible that I’ll run across the book again someday and a little light will turn on to illuminate some dark corridor of memory. 

In general, my life is not organized enough to qualify as compulsive, and much of what I thought of (or tried to ingrain in myself) as habit has fallen away over the years, but my “Books Read” lists have acquired increased value to me as time has gone by, and I am very glad to have them. They are like photo albums or like physical books lined up on my shelves, a harvest of pleasure and learning it would be painful to lose. 

Friday, June 14, 2019

Tree-Hugger Travels

[Re 'tree-hugger' - Since the term is so often used as an epithet, I've decided to embrace it as part of my identity.]

You’d think I’d have had enough road travel to last a while, having settled back home less than a month ago after another Odyssean cross-country adventure stretched out over nine grueling days. But that was just the trouble: by the time we got to southern Michigan we were feeling the bite of the calendar urging us homeward, with the result that I had nowhere near enough time there with my son and none at all with a couple of my oldest friends.

One of the best things about June, though, is the length of the days, long enough that even someone who on the job until 5 p.m. can set out after work and have hours of daylight driving time. So that’s what I did last Saturday — and had a beautiful, sunny trip over the rivers, through the woods, and across the counties of Michigan from Leelanau to Kalamazoo.

Dark was falling by the time I arrived at the home of the friends who had offered to put me up, and by morning the rain had arrived. My friends’ home is surrounded by woods. The sky was overcast. All day long, therefore, morning, afternoon, and evening, the light was the same, a murky, underwater green, overabundant foliage pressing in like tangles of seaweed or like a jungle intent on devouring everything human. Mayapples were happy, though, and azaleas and peonies in riotous bloom. And it was ideal weather for sleeping late and catching a nap later on still.

When I was fully conscious at last, my son took me out to breakfast downtown at the very hip and trendy Food Dance. It’s a Kalamazoo institution, I’m told, though I’ve been gone so long that it was new to me. After our leisurely breakfast, we left town behind to venture up into Barry County, aiming first for our old farmhouse to see how tall the pine trees had grown. We continued north after that stop and proceeded to lose ourselves for at least half an hour — and maybe a full hour, because we lost track of time, too — on Barry County back roads. We wandered slowly and wonderingly through old forest, past secret, hidden-away lakes and ponds and wetlands, all of it undeveloped land, much of it open to public hunting. At one point a great blue heron swooped low across the road in front of us, followed minutes later by a flash of oriole. The forest was tall and far-reaching, without cabins or paths other than the roads that would around and around and uphill and down dale. It was a magical world, and we were under its spell. 

Before starting back on Monday I visited other friends, and their old country home too was wild with vegetation. Trees I remembered as new plantings had shot up like green and blue-green skyscrapers, the view of the lake across the road had almost vanished behind a thick screen of maple branches, and in the gardens out past the dining room windows, shouts of color brought hummingbirds.

After all my forest visitation, I could not face the high-speed expressway maze through Grand Rapids and chose instead to come back north closer to the Lake Michigan shoreline, from Kalamazoo to Allegan to Holland and north past Grand Haven and Pentwater. Old, familiar paths and names. Beautiful, overflowing rivers. A pair of young steers running and frisking in their pasture. Two horses standing with their rumps to the road, tails swishing flies away. A turtle crossing the pavement between one pond and another. These were paved roads, but they were roads less traveled nonetheless. 

I thought a little bit about the perennial question of where Downstate leaves off and Up North begins. Which is Holland? Which is Muskegon? What about North Muskegon? But quickly my thoughts turned to more general musings, i.e., what a wonderful state Michigan is from north to south and west to east. Prairies, farm fields, pastures, orchards — forests, shorelines, and dunes — lakes, ponds, and wetlands — a lifetime of exploring will never be enough to experience it all. 

Two book recommendations for today, reflecting my recent travel and reflections on the state of Michigan, come to you from your bookseller here in “Treeland” Up North. They are:

The Overstory, a novel by Richard Powers with characters whose lives are affected in one way or another by the great trees and forests of the United States;


The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne, a novel set in our own beloved, wooded and wild Upper Peninsula.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Round Two Goes -- Again! -- to Jennifer Clark

I’m so happy that poet Jennifer Clark contacted me this past winter about her new book of poems, A Beginner’s Guide to Heaven, and that she will be my first Thursday Evening Author of 2019, because Jennifer Clark is extraordinary. You think you know what to expect from poetry — and then you read Jennifer Clark. There’s the natural world, of course, in her work, a world traditionally mined by poets since poetry began, but from the heavens above to spiders close at hand, Clark’s eye sees nature anew, drawing connections and analogies as original as the ones she finds in ghastly newspaper tragedies or, to pull back to a happier scene, in the event of a young boy acquiring his first athletic protector. Is there nothing this poet fails to notice and give back to us in a strange and wondrous new light?

Original vision and an original voice are the gifts we receive from a genuine poet. That is, we experience writing that presents the world anew, in a voice on the page that is as individual as a face in a portrait. Clark paints pain wearing with a shock of humor, while in other poems the humor has its own sharp edge. 

Usually when writing about a book of poetry I give a few sample lines. Somehow with this work, I don’t want to take anything out of context. As each poem a unitary whole, so is the collection. As is always the case with the best poetry, each piece merits and rewards re-reading. Others demand it. There’s no way I could take in all the details of “Optimal Foraging Theory” my first time through, but my bafflement did not stand in the way of delight.

Poet and bookseller with poet's previous collection

But you don’t need to take my word for it or wait for June 27. Come in and pick up the book today, and then you will definitely not want to miss Jennifer Clark in Northport.

Her previous visit to Dog Ears Books

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Are You Tired of It Yet?

Are you tired of spring? Impatient for summer's heat? Do blooming cherry trees begin to bore you. Is your eye satiated with the leafing-out of fresh green everywhere? Impossible!

Unlike the white settled blanket of winter or the satiety of full-blown late summer’s dark green, Michigan shoulder seasons, spring and fall, change their appearance almost from hour to hour. Look closely at an open cherry blossom and notice a tiny brown edge. More obvious is the dandelion’s decline from bright yellow flowers to globes of ghostly seeds. 

Every footstep of every road’s vista is unique. Do you prefer the long view or the intimate perspective? To be lost at child’s-eye level among tree trunks or to soar overhead like a bird?

My advice is not to miss any of it. Take every possible opportunity to look about you. Take, take, take your time, but don’t take it for granted!

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

If You Seek…

This is one of the many times of year when Michigan’s state motto keeps coming to mind: If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you. Hills and woods and water and sky — and everywhere, right now, in the sun and in the rain, cherry orchards in bloom. Although I know cherry blossoms were not that different when I photographed them last year (and will be equally beautiful next year), I can’t help grabbing for my camera again and again. Since they speak for themselves, however, I’ll let them do just that for the remainder of today’s post.

Another of last year’s themes that will repeat in 2019 is my Thursday Evening Author series (TEA). I’ll be welcoming back three guests from former years and introducing to my TEA audience two seasoned writers new to Northport, with one change: this year series guests will appear only every other week, for a total of five rather than last year’s eleven. 

We will begin with Kalamazoo poet Jennifer Clark on June 27. Jennifer is coming back with a new book of poetry, A Beginner’s Guide to Heaven. Her previous visit was lively and full of surprises, and I expect no less this year. We look forward to having her with us to kick off our 2019 season — so glad to have a returning poet as our opening headliner!

Leelanau’s own Kathleen Stocking is no stranger to Dog Ears Books, and you certainly won’t want to miss her event in Northport on July 11. Kathleen is a Leelanau treasure, and From the Place of the Gathering Light: Leelanau Pieces is destined to join Letters From the Leelanau as a Michigan classic. Need I say more?

Our third returnee is Dorene O’Brien from Detroit. Dorene’s new collection of short stories, What It Might Feel Like to Hope, has been gathering praise right and left, so we are delighted that she will be with us to do a reading and signing on July 25 on her annual Leelanau visit. Also, as a writer who also teaches writing, Dorene will no doubt have some words of wisdom in the Q&A following her reading.

Another Detroit writer, Michael Zadoorian, comes to us for the first time on August 8, with his new novel, Beautiful Music. Did you read The Leisure Seeker? (Maybe see the movie?) Michael’s reputation has been building for a while now, so it will be exciting to welcome him in Northport. 

Finally, on August 22, we will host Charles R. Eisendrath, a “reporter’s reporter” (according to Tom Brokaw), formerly on the staff of Time magazine and now making his home in northern Michigan. Charles comes to us with a beautiful nonfiction book, Downstream From Here: A Big Life in a Small Place, addressing experiences from fly fishing and making maple syrup to witnessing assassination. Really!

I’m very pleased with and proud of our TEA lineup for 2019 and proud to bring authors and new works of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction to my bookstore audience.  These events are an opportunity for those of us in a small town on the end of a quiet peninsula to hear seasoned, published writers from all over the state read their own work aloud to us in a live, intimate setting. Having guest authors sign the books you purchase adds another dimension to memories of each occasion, as does the general give-and-take of questions, answers, and conversation.

So please put all five dates on your summer calendar now! And if you do not usually read fiction or nonfiction or poetry, make this the season you will step outside your reading comfort zone and try something new, because all of our TEA guests have already given richly of themselves in their books and now give of themselves additionally with these guest appearances in Northport. We are so fortunate! 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Thanks to Mother Nature

Blossoms in the fog
According to Jim Nugent, cherry farmer and former county extension agent, quoted in the current Leelanau Enterprise, spring is two weeks behind schedule this year. Maybe that’s good news for the growers, lessening their worry about a late freeze. It’s certainly nice for summer people and holiday visitors arriving for Memorial Day weekend, who otherwise would have missed the show. For them, the timing could not be better. 

Not all orchards or trees are in bloom yet — some barely on the verge of blossom — but every day, every hour, more join the blooming symphony, and the wild cherries are flowering, too, amid impressionistic first woodland leaves.

As always, I would remind you not to miss nature’s more modest spring offerings, such as tiny violas on the orchard floor. So tiny, so sweet, so easy overlooked!

There is plenty of water, too — no worries this year about low lake levels! Northport Creek is high! The water at the boat launch is high! The other morning (I’m not sure how it looks today), even the water level in the parking lot by the marina was high! Swimming should be excellent for the summer of 2019, though shoreline property owners will doubtless have challenges. 

Yes, we have rain, too, it’s true And during breaks in the rain, to be perfectly frank, some kind of pesky fly is out in the villages in little annoying clouds. 

“What’s with the flies?” a stranger on the sidewalk asked me in an aggrieved tone as I was coming out of the bank. I told him I had no idea. “Oh, you don’t live here!” He sounded annoyed about that, too, as if I’d only been masquerading as a local.

“I live here,” I told him, “but I don’t know what the flies are.”

“Is it like this every year?” 

He was demanding satisfaction I couldn’t provide. 

“Every year is different,” I told him cheerfully. 

And that’s the truth. The weather is different from one spring to another, one summer to another, no two falls or any two winters ever the same. The cherry trees don’t blossom according to a specific date on the calendar, either. When will the cherry trees bloom? When they are ready. 

So wear warm clothes and carry an umbrella, but carry a camera, too, and be prepared to stop and smile and take deep, happy breaths, because this year Nature has given us cherry blossoms for the Memorial Day weekend — and what could be more beautiful?

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Kitchens, Morning Coffee, and a Bit More

Stepping back into my Paris kitchen in our old northern Michigan farmhouse after several months far away was no big adjustment, any more than had been walking back into the one-room ghost town cabin in mid-December. Neither place is fancy or glamorous, which is probably why both feel like home. And that is how they are alike, but in other ways they are very different. 

My little kitchen in Michigan is a small galley, what one of my family members calls a “one-butt kitchen,”  which is why I began calling it a Paris kitchen in the first place. (Space is at a premium in Paris.) A second person can squeeze in, but it is difficult then for either person to move and work freely. — Well, moving and working are difficult, moving and working freely impossible. 

In the ghost town kitchen, there are steps to take across open space between stove and counter, sink and refrigerator. In my (Michigan) Paris kitchen, standing at one counter, I turn turn 180 degrees to face the sink, turn back and take a single step to the stove, and stretch an arm out to open the refrigerator. Only high shelves are a challenge. Everything else is within reach. 

In the ghost town cabin, as in Michigan, I was often up before dark or, when spring arrived, at least by first light. Both places, my morning begins with making coffee. 

This morning, for some reason, I thought of long-ago mornings in Paris, France, waking to the cooing and fluttering of pigeons, clink of spoons against china, and sounds of French conversation and singing through the open windows. That was in May, and I am now in May here, in northern Michigan. Is that what reminded me of the rue de Vaugirard and dear Hélène, the landlady who became a cherished friend? She, I remember now, made only instant coffee. (Does that seem strange?) Red wine she bought in bulk and kept a bottle filled for me on my shelf in her refrigerator. Her kitchen was somewhat larger than mine here in the farmhouse, but it was not large enough for a table, and our eating and drinking was all done in the apartment’s largest room, a combination parlor/dining room, the walls crowded with crowded bookshelves and an eclectic assortment of art work, courtyard window sill lined with herbs in pots. 

The largest kitchen I have ever had was in my graduate student apartment in Champaign, Illinois. It was an old sleeping porch on the third floor of an enormous Victorian house at the opposite end of a large city park from the downtown shopping district. Once a month, on the day I got my graduate assistant paycheck, I would get off the bus downtown and treat myself to fresh flowers from a little jewel of a florist shop (much like similar shops in Paris, France), next picking up a baguette from an Italian restaurant and bakery on my walk home, cutting through the park. My sleeping porch kitchen was enormous and filled with light. Also, and despite its generous size, because it was on the third floor and there were mature trees right outside the window, it felt like living in a treehouse.

I was alone then, without even a dog until — but that is another story. My point is that, living alone in Champaign, a single pot of French press coffee was enough to get my day started. Later in the morning, out in the world, near campus, I could stop in at a coffee house (say, the Daily Grind) or, toward the end of the long pay period when funds were running low, the basement cafeteria of the Newman Center. All that was a lifetime ago. Two dogs ago.

The ghost town coffee maker, one we bought new in early 2018, made the first pot of the morning quickly. During its operation I had time for a routine of yoga stretches but never enough time to become impatient.

Here in Michigan, in my little Paris kitchen, our equally modern but aging coffee maker takes its sweet time, even after a day-long ritual cleaning. Sometimes, not wanting to wait for the glass to fill, I pull it out ahead of time and pour a premature cup — always too strong, but the addition of hot milk makes it café au lait, thus more palatable. This morning another idea occurs to me, however, and I hunt through cupboards until I find a pair of seldom-used espresso cups and saucers.  

Yesterday I came to the last page of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, beginning at bedtime a Swedish novel recommended by a friend, Bear Town, by Fredrik Backman. I am generally careful what I choose to read before sleep, and so I saved for morning another book brought by another friend, a book of nonfiction by poet Carolyn Forché entitled What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, a story of modern-day El Salvador. That story begins with one I have heard before: the seizure of indigenous people’s lands for the cultivation of cash crops, profits reaped by the cultural thieves. In this case, the first such crops were indigo and sugar cane, as the campesinos were pushed up into the mountains. Then came the realization that the mountain slopes were perfect for coffee plantations. 

I get up and go to the freezer to look at the bag of coffee beans. The contents are claimed to be “eco-friendly,” but I see no mention of here of “fair trade,” and I remember that when my sister gave me the bag (we were visiting sister and brother-in-law on our way back to Michigan), she commented that it wasn’t what she usually buys. I remember too a piece in the latest New York Review of Books discussing slavery in the United States and quoting William Lloyd Garrison, who wrote that slavery was “not a southern, but a national institution, involving the North as well as the South,” and I recall one of my guest authors in the 2018 Thursday Evening Author series at my bookstore, Rachel May, the woman who wrote American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery, who came on her own to the same conclusion as she researched a piece of material culture. 

My original review of Rachel May’s book is here. One of the questions I note that May asked was how we, the United States, came to be where we are today, in terms of race relations. I think of that this morning because Carolyn Forché’s book seeks to answer, among other questions, how we Americans came to be where we are today in relation to Latin America, especially Central America. We cannot understand why so many refugees are streaming north to our borders without realizing what they are fleeing — and if we understand the role of our own government in creating the intolerable situations in their native countries, we cannot help feeling as responsible for their lives as we feel for the lives of our fellow United States citizens. 

When a Salvadoran man with two young daughters showed up at her door and said he had come because she was a poet, Forché had no idea that a few days later he would invite her to spend her poetry fellowship time and money by coming to spend time in his country. He said that war was coming to El Salvador and it was her chance to see something like Vietnam from the very beginning. Besides, he asked, what else did she have in mind? “Write poetry about yourself for the rest of your life?” 

What are we going to do for the rest of our days on earth? What are we going to challenge ourselves to learn, and how might what we learn change our lives? It takes courage to learn and even more courage to change. I am not unmindful of the strong coffee that accompanies my reading this morning. I’m thinking of this year’s garden, also, and wondering how it would go if I dropped seeds of corn, beans, and squash into little hills surrounded by straw mulch from last year’s gale garden — a natural thought, given my morning’s reading.