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Monday, July 25, 2016

More and More and More

Repeating Itself (Another Summer of Wildflowers and Cherries)

Certain aspects of life capture my attention year after year, so much so that I know my blog posts and letters to friends become filled with repetitions. Same words, same photos: first spring wildflowers (again), succession of summer blooms and fruits (again), fall color (again), winter storms and snow (again). Do I repeat myself? So does Nature, and that is my excuse. Snow, thaw, spring beauties, cherry blossoms, daylilies, cherries, loosestrife, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, fall color, frost, and back to snow. Rain, shine. Sunrise, sunset. But for me the seasons never grow old. Each one is new and exciting when it comes around again.

And that's good, because the details of particular days are not always too exciting. For instance, this morning:

5 a.m. Up to read on the front porch, finishing Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child (more about this another time).
6:30 a.m. Started another load of wash, folded yesterday's dry laundry.
6:40 a.m. Walk up the lane with Sarah; come back to water garden and start coffee.
7:15 a.m. Hang another load of laundry on line.
7:45 a.m. Leave for Traverse City errand, stopping in Lake Leelanau to get a croissant for the road.
Etc., etc., etc. You see what I mean.

More Authors Visit Northport

What is exciting is having authors visit Dog Ears Books, and from mid-July to this past weekend, I’ve had writers visiting Northport from Grosse Point, Newberry, and Suttons Bay, Michigan. Both Kelly Fordon (see next-to-last post) and Lynn Kimball have new collections of linked stories published by Wayne State Press. Here is Lynn’s from this past Friday with her book, Seasonal Roads:

It was interesting to hear Lynn explain that she likes to present her characters through the places they inhabit, rather than with lengthy descriptions of their personal looks. She read three selections, focusing in turn on the three main characters in her collection of linked U.P. stories, and it made perfect sense.

Even when authors are making repeat appearances, it's usually because they are presenting readers with a new book. That was true of Lynn Kimball and also of Lynne Rae Perkins, who came up from Suttons Bay with spice cookies in the shape of dog biscuits to go along with her reading from her delightful new illustrated children's book, Frank and Lucky Get Schooled. The story and pictures, however, rightfully held first place in the audience's attention.

Lynne Rae was asked if pictures or story come first with her books, and her answer (I hope I'm reporting this correctly) was that sometimes it's one, sometimes it's the other, but usually she's working back and forth between the words and the images. However she does it, it certainly works, all agreed.

Each visiting July author maintained gracious good humor and infectious enthusiasm despite heat and humidity, as did audience members who came to celebrate Michigan writing and art and enjoy behind-the-scenes glimpses into the creative process. As always (another repeating theme) I was struck by the generosity of writers. My authors! That's how I think of them that way and am so grateful to them for their work, as well as for sharing time with us. Similar in having talent and a strong work ethic, each author works differently, and that is fascinating, too.

More Memories: “Was it really that long ago?!”

The words burst from me as I read an item in this week’s Leelanau Enterprise. Under the heading “35 YEARS AGO” I read about boxer Thomas Hearns training at Sugar Loaf Resort. The “Motor City Cobra” (I liked that nickname much better than “Hit Man” Hearns) was in training at Sugar Loaf from August 14 to August 28, and David and I were in the audience one day as part of a group brought together by Leelanau poet and friend Jim Harrison. We had all been up late the night before, dining and drinking together, and the space where the training was set up was not air conditioned that August of 1981. The idea, we were told, was to simulate the conditions Hearns would meet when he fought Sugar Ray Leonard in Las Vegas. Impressed as I was with the fighter and his entourage, including wife and children, it’s chiefly my own misery that stands out in my memory of that day. Worst hangover of my life – a sad confession.

Here is the Las Vegas fight from September of the same year:

Summer Again -- But Don’t Say “Hot”

A local friend of mine chides anyone who dares to complain of “hot” weather here in northern Michigan. The most he will allow is that sometimes the temperatures are “warm,” but we should remember winter’s cold and be grateful for warm, he maintains. That has been the challenge of the past week: remembering winter cold to be grateful for summer warmth. How did you do with the heat wave?

I felt cooler when I heard of other parts of the U.S. that were 20 degrees warmer than here in Leelanau County – and without a lake breeze, too – and the realization that summer has passed the halfway mark reminded me of my mother’s words, “Don’t wish your life away!” These warm days too are beautiful days. And they are flying by, faster every year....

Monday, July 18, 2016

How We Live (Hint: We Are Not Minimalists)

Friday farm market haul

“Weekend”? It begins with the farm market on Friday morning, but otherwise Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, in the summer, are much like other days of the week. We come to Northport, David to his studio and gallery, I to my bookstore, and we live our public lives, surrounded by art and books. The way we live at home is not entirely different, since there too we are surrounded by art and books. Our home life is just a little quieter and calmer than days in the bustling summer village.

Minimalism is not our style, but we cannot be called hoarders, either (We recycle on a weekly basis), and I like to think – this gloss actually occurred to me as I began composing the sentence – that we live according to Aristotle’s golden mean. Be that as it may, we are happy to live as we do. Original art and attractive prints and other objets d'art vie for wall space with fully loaded bookcases.

Tables are a different matter.

“We just can’t be trusted with horizontal surfaces,” David once remarked. Certainly, we cannot be trusted to keep those surfaces empty. I survey the house and find stacks of books on every table.

Is this so bad? Books are not dirty dishes, after all. Clutter is not squalor. (You may quote me, you with similar tendencies.) And to my eye, a house with no books in sight looks like a house where no one lives. (Our house certainly looks lived in.)

About four days ago I began reading (finding it on a table on the front porch) Letters From Russia, by the Marquis de Custine, Astolphe Louis Léonor, a Frenchman born in 1790, who wrote his impressions of a trip he made to Russia in 1839. One aspect of this book that fascinates me is how many criticisms the author made of the country under the czars that sound identical to those later made later under the Soviets: an unwieldy, overgrown petty bureaucracy seemingly designed to harass rather than help petitioners; constant rewriting of history with each shift in political power; governmental discouragement of travel, either into (by foreigners) or out of (by citizens) or within (by anyone) the country; the nonexistence of detailed maps (which goes along with keeping each Russian in his place and keeping foreigners from straying far from carefully policed urban centers); almost complete lack of concern for individual life at every level of society; and constant preoccupation with what should not be said.

Seventy-seven pages into Letters From Russia, however, fascinating as it was, I was distracted by Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo, when a neighbor brought two bags of books to the bookstore, each book with her little one-phrase summary. Inside Boo’s book, Bobbie’s note read: “This book ought to be required reading!” Curious, I opened to the first page and then could not stop. I keep reminding myself the book is not a novel. These are real people. This is the way they live. That children survive and grow to adulthood in such conditions is astonishing.

So then I could not stop reading that book - except when, after avidly turning pages all evening at home, the next morning I left it on one of the porch tables. And so, next day at the bookstore, during a quiet lull, I picked up The Silver Star, by Jeannette Walls, author of the bestselling memoir The Glass Castle. The Silver Star. It is no criticism to say that this novel clearly owes much inspiration to the author’s actual life. A writer’s experience, after all, is her raw material. The Silver Star could easily be one of those adult-YA crossover books, too, because I’m sure teens would find the story as captivating as adults.

So, nineteenth-century Russians, poverty-stricken garbage pickers in an Indian slum, and the fatherless daughter of an unstable mother were some of my companions over the summer weekend. Not my only companions, of course, and reading isn’t all I did, either, but it is a big part of the way we live. After a busy day in Northport and a leisurely supper on the porch, David and I enjoy settling down with our books, our sweet, patient little dog girl at our feet. We never lack for beautiful objects to regard, books to peruse, or conversation about our rich life, filled with art, literature, friends, and good, fresh food.

Beet greens to steam

Thursday, July 14, 2016

July in its infinite variety

Summer days. They can be good days from morning ‘til night, somewhat uncomfortable (we don’t often say “hot” in northern Michigan), or bring crop-damaging storms. “What’s it like here in the winter?” visitors ask. Well, what’s it like now, in the summer? It varies – enormously!

Do you tell yourself you’ll do such-and-such when you “have more time”? You never will. Each day that slips away is forever gone. That why those of us who work all summer don’t want to waste a moment of precious days off.

Bruce worked in the bookshop for me on Wednesday, giving me a chance to drive down past the Glen Lake Narrows to pick up books from Leelanau Press. The dunes were lovely, the water sparkling. It could have been a good beach day. Instead, my patient canine companion and I went home to her once-a-month bath, after which we lolled around outdoors in the shade, enjoying the breeze. Well, she lolled. I hung laundry on the line, clothes and towels that dried so fast in the hot wind that I was able to run through the routine more than once.

*  *  *

Here I want to backtrack for a minute to the “different roads” theme of the other day, with a few more images of Leelanau's summer variety, today showing you small, hidden-away waters, because sometimes I think I love these as much if not more than the magnificent lakes. They are modest secrets, but you can find them if you look. 

Along one of our favorite back roads this month I also discovered a wildflower I haven’t seen for years, on this road or anywhere else. The stalk is slender and tall, standing at the height of my hip; the flower is bright but very small. Because it is neither large nor massive, the plant is easily overlooked (so perhaps it’s been there for years, and I was simply missing it), even when one is on foot.

I remembered seeing it once before, and I can even conjure up the immediate surroundings but cannot put that mental picture on a larger map. The name of the plant eluded me until the end of the day, when suddenly I exclaimed, “Deptford pink! That’s what it was!” Much to David’s bemusement. Another flower....

*  *  *

Another change of topic – Thursday’s guest author:

Kelly Fordon was charming, relaxed, and personable. We were a small group but entirely caught up in her reading, though I had already read and so knew what was going to happen at the end of that first surprising story. It is always a pleasure to meet an author whose writing I have admired, and I was very grateful to the weather gods for backing that heat off and giving us more comfortable temperatures for a bookstore event.

Kelly signed a few extra copies of Garden For the Blind, and Karen Trolenberg stopped by near the end of the day with a couple more copies of Flight of Megizzewas, which she kindly signed.

July light is heart-breakingly lovely. July is generous in giving us long days, each  unique and never to come again. I hope all of you are able to make the most of your July 2016, wherever you are.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Writers' Days of Shame

Some writers should be ashamed of themselves. 

The other day I was taking a little mini-vacation on my front porch, reading an anthology of stories, essays, and short memoir pieces from Montana. There were lots of fishing stories. Most of the writers, understandably, worried about the purity of Montana waters and whether enough open space would be preserved to allow continued wilderness experience. We worry about the same things here in Michigan (a much more populous state), so I was sympathetic.

Then I came to a story – a true story, I’m sorry to say – that left me, by its end, without any sympathy whatever for the writer. He had gone on a cross-country road trip with another writer (the second writer’s name was one you would all recognize, though I’m happy to say I never met the man), and the entire trip was one drunken blur. By day in the car, by night in the bar, they drank their way down the highway.

Drunken driving is bad enough, but that wasn’t all. The famous writer had another reprehensible foible. He loved to sneak out of restaurants without paying. 

Mind you, this was not some starving writer – his reputation was well established, his wisdom sought by students. But he strategically chose his restaurants, and he instructed the other writer, who was driving, on where to park before they went in for their meal, with the intention of skipping out on the bill. I was disgusted, repelled and sickened by the story. 

The writer of the essay, who was the driver on the trip in lieu of the obvious alcoholic, says he was bothered by the famous writer’s assumption that he, the writer-driver, would be complicit in cheating the restaurants and waitresses of their due compensation. And yet – time after time -- he complied! And then he wrote and published the story of the shameful behavior, with both their names attached! As if he were only a reporter, giving an account of two completely different people. I am being kinder to the two than they were to themselves, by omitting their names from this blog post.

I don’t understand. I don’t understand their behavior in the first place. They weren’t teenagers, either: they were both married men with wives and children. Acting like total jerks. And then publishing the account? As if to say, “Weren’t we wild and crazy guys? Weren't we exciting, naughty little boys?” No, you were jerks!

My writer friends, I say without hesitation, are a different breed – honest, hard-working, even generous. I’ll bet anything they overtip waitresses. Some of them have worked as waitresses themselves, but none of them would behave in this manner.

The story turned me off reading anything else, ever, by either writer. Even the famous writing school, their destination, seemed ever so slightly smudged by association, but I’m going to try to get past that. It was not the school’s fault.

But really! Does anyone think such reprehensible behavior is somehow the mark of genius? Ha! More like a couple of guys who can’t manage to be grownups.

Postscript, 14 July: I have changed my mind, due to Maiya's comment. I would not want anyone to imagine the wrong people in this story! The book (overall a wonderful book!) is The Big Sky Reader: A Treasury of the Best Writing From Big Sky Journal, edited by Allen Jones & Jeff Wetmore. The disgusting essay, "Ridin' With Ray," was written by Jon A. Jackson, and his road trip buddy was Raymond Carver. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Try a Different Path Once in a While

Nothing has been planted along our old driveway. What grows there is of Nature’s choosing. Like any more carefully landscaped drive, however, its flowers change with the season’s advance. Just now it is the turn of gaudy wild sweet peas, happy daisies, bright yellow St. John’s-wort, delicate, pale bladder campion, and the sweet lavender blue rays of chicory. Early in the morning, greeting the sun, chicory flowers are both wide-eyed and eye-catching. Unfortunately, I left my camera's memory card in the card reader at the shop so couldn't photograph the chicory this morning as I'd planned.

Monday inserts (after original posting:

A woods road presents a very different aspect, mostly green now that the canopy has filled in and the blooming of spring ephemerals long past. But there are ferns, and you may find the wild rose-like petals that promise blackberries in the near future. Little wild geraniums, storksbill and cranesbill, seem to be happy anywhere, in the sun or in the shade.

Beaches, bogs, wandering creeks, lakesides – each habitat offers something different out of nature's variety. The same diversity holds true with fiction. Each genre, in all different lengths, presents a different kind of reading experience, all of them valuable.

Two of my Michigan guest authors in July are writers of adult fiction, and both their new books are short story collections. Some bookstore customers, I know, resist short stories, not wanting to meet and have to get to know new characters in every new “chapter,” as it were, but Kelly Fordon and L.E. (Lynn) Kimball have demolished that objection by linking their stories, so that the overall effect in each case is very similar to that a reader experiences in reading a novel.

Garden for the Blind, by Kelly Fordon, is set in the contrasting worlds of suburban materialism and urban decay of southeast Michigan. (Here is a good review.) Alice can perhaps be thought of as the central character, for it is Alice we meet first, as a child, in “The Great Gatsby Party,” and it is Alice and her daughter’s story, “Garden for the Blind,” that conclude the volume, though the cast of characters as a whole is large and diverse. This is a book that overcomes your aesthetic distance (and, at times, moral repugnance) gradually, pulling you in slowly and almost imperceptibly, until you catch your breath, literally, having arrived at empathy.

L.E. Kimball’s Seasonal Roads is set in the Upper Peninsula and features three generations of U.P. women. I reviewed this book in the spring but want to reiterate here the sense the stories give of a longer work, what some would call a “nonlinear novel.”

Wayne State University, the publisher of both these books, does not publish novels. They do publish short story collections. But what I’m telling you is that if you’re a reader of novels who generally eschews short stories, you need to give these two WSU titles the benefit of the doubt. Either one is an excellent introduction to the high literary quality of today’s Michigan fiction. The authors are coming to Dog Ears Books not only because they want to come but because I am able to recommend their work without qualification.

Kelly Fordon is coming to Dog Ears Books on Thursday, July 14, from 1-3 p.m., to read from her book and sign books for customers.

Lynn Kimball will be here the following week, on Friday, July 22, from 1-3 p.m. She also will read excerpts and sign books.

I hope all local readers of fiction will decide to give these short story authors a hearing and reading. It is a privilege to have them come to Northport.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

With Holiday, Real Summer Begins

Declaring independence!

In Northport, Beautiful 4th of July Weekend

Most years past in Northport, we've seen an influx of tourists and summer residents for Memorial Day weekend, followed by quiet weeks through June until the 4th of July, but this time around summer seemed to kick off early, with more visitors in June than I ever remember before. Apparently word has gotten out that June is a heavenly month Up North. And this yea's 4th of July weekend could not have been lovelier. Weather was warm enough for the beach, not hot enough to be uncomfortable, with refreshing morning and evening breezes.

Kathleen Stocking signs book for Ty Wessell

My first bookstore event of the summer season was a signing of The Long Arc of the Universe, by Kathleen Stocking, on Sunday, July 3. Once again, I neglected to have my picture taken with my guest author! When will I learn to make this a routine part of every author event? Well, the good news – and not just for my memory book – is that Stocking will return for a second event in August. We will set up chairs in David Grath’s gallery next door, and the author will give a talk, with an opportunity for audience questions -- and I guarantee a lively, stimulating evening! More on this subject later....

Wildflowers on porch table
At home

There is never enough time for sitting at home on the front porch, but I enjoy every morning and evening minute of it that I have. Over the holiday weekend I re-read Letters from the Leelanau, by Kathleen Stocking, and Drummond Girls, by Mardi Link, then read Kelly Fordon’s short story collection, Garden for the Blind. Not only is Kelly my next guest author (Thursday, July 14, 1-3 p.m.), but she has been getting well-deserved rave reviews for this book. I look forward to meeting her and hosting her event, and I hope all my local writer friends will be able to make it to her reading. I'll have more to say about her stories, too, as we get closer to her visit. 

*  *  *

Back in Northport

One day, during the usually midafternoon lull in the bookstore, I got to musing about phrases people use. For instance, people who come in out of curiosity, not necessarily because of an interest in books, usually insist that they don’t need assistance or information because they are “just browsing.”

Okay, I learned from my mother at an early age about telling salespeople, “Thanks, I’m just looking.” But looking, as I see it, is not browsing.

You can look with hands in pockets. You can look while in continuous motion, without ever coming to a halt. You can look pretty quickly -- and be out the door again in a flash! As I have heard tourists say to friends on the sidewalk, more than once, “It’s just books in there.” (Yep, pretty much just books, which explains why I call it a bookstore and why its name is Dog Ears Books.)

Browsing is something different.

Bookstore browsing is done with hands as well as eyes. It involves touching books, taking books from the shelves, opening book covers, sometimes reading a few pages, maybe even finding a nearby chair to investigate more closely a volume that has captured the eye and hands. A taste here, a taste there, the chewing-over of a thought or idea. Because unless you are already familiar with the book that catches your eye – and know that you want it – the title on the spine won’t tell you all that much. It’s what’s inside that counts, and the insides of books are a lot more than merchandise to be judged at a glance.

Now I know that I am not, single-handedly, going to change Americans’ use of the English language. “I’m just browsing” means, to most of the people who use the phrase in my bookstore, “I’m just taking a look around. I probably won’t buy anything. Don’t bug me!” I get it. Not that I bug anyone in my bookstore. There is no high-pressure sales force at work here. I offer once, so no one will feel ignored, and that’s that.

Browsers don’t have to explain themselves to me because their behavior tells the story. Like philosophers in the halls of academe, speculating on the dreams of dogs instead of obsessing about fringe benefits and retirement packages, browsers are my people. We understand each other. Looking is not enough for us. Rather, we look to lose ourselves in books.

*  *  *

Random bovine

I’d just drafted the paragraphs above about browsing (originally with introductory material about horses and cattle browsing and grazing, just because I love horses and cows, but it was kind of a reach) when a mother and daughter walked in the door, and the mother exclaimed, “I’ve never been in a real bookstore before! I feel like I’m in a movie!” She had, as it turned out, been in large chain bookstores, but not in any quirky little independent place like mine, and her delight delighted me.

And they browsed! The daughter bought an art book! As they were leaving, I told them they had taken a new turn in their lives, and the daughter replied, “Yes, now we’ll never not go into a bookstore!” Music to my ears!

Bookstore bulletin board

A Pause as Time Rushes By

I hope everyone’s summer is off to a good start, and I hope it doesn’t race by too, too fast, though I already know that it will. Summer is like that. But we love it!

Tuberose begonias

Friday, July 1, 2016

Flowers, Books, Insects, and Curiosity

June slid into July, as it always does, and the march of mad summer blooms continues. Again on Thursday morning I was greeted by flowers on the bookstore doorstep.

Bruce had come in to work for me on Wednesday, for the first time since last fall. Hallelujah! A day off for the bookstore owner! Naturally, I had a bookstore errand to run, an excuse for a morning drive down to Glen Lake, where I picked up the new book from Leelanau Press, Leelanau Trek: One Shoreline, Two Visions, a book about which I cannot say enough good things. That was exciting! We even made a brief dip into Traverse City.

I finished my reading of Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, a much livelier and funnier book than I had expected it to be. Our reading circle has decided to meet in August but without an assigned book to read and discuss. Instead each of us will bring something we want to share with the others. I’ll be sharing Samuel Butler.

A bookseller from Powell’s, out in Portland, Oregon, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post, and to every paragraph I wanted to shout, “Yes!” Here’s the link, if you’d like to read “Love and Bookstores” for yourself, because if I start quoting I won’t be able to stop.

And then, as always, there has been the serendipitous picking up of the odd volume and finding treasure:
There are for each one of us, according to his turn of mind, certain books that open up horizons hitherto undreamed of and mark an epoch in our mental life. They fling wide the gates of a new world wherein our intellectual powers are henceforth to be employed; they are the spark which lights the fuel on a hearth doomed, without its aid, to remain indefinitely bleak and cold. And it is often chance that places in our hands those books which mark the beginning of a new era in the evolution of our ideas. The most casual circumstances, a few lines that happen somehow to come before our eyes decide our future and plant us in the appointed groove.
-      Jean Henri Fabre, The Hunting Wasps
Who but Fabre, “the Homer of the insects,” would begin a book about wasps with a paragraph on the serendipity of book discovery? It was, admittedly, his way of introducing a monograph he had happened upon that set his mind in a new direction concerning the habits of wasps, but still – a curious mind, open to the discovery of whatever was nearby, guided Fabre’s learning about insects as surely as it brought the right books to his hands and mind. About my only disappointment in the trip David and I made together to France years ago was that Fabre’s house, now a museum, was closed for renovations the month we were there. Anyone wishing to visit the grounds, however, may do so by viewing the film “Microcosmos.” I recommend it highly.

Don’t forget that this Sunday Kathleen Stocking will be at Dog Ears Books from noon to 1 p.m., signing her latest book, The Long Arc of the Universe. I’m continually surprised to find there are people who have not yet read her first and second books, Letters from the Leelanau and Lake Country. In the car this morning, on the way to Northport, I thought of what I needed to tell those of whom this is true: “If you haven’t read Kathleen Stocking, you don’t know Leelanau County.”  So get started now!