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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Just Out the Door and Down the Road

This morning’s sky confirmed the forecast I’ve been seeing on my phone for several days: we’re in for a rainy day — and that’s not bad. A day of rain now and then damps down the risk of fire, a good thing in the high desert. The prediction for the next nine days following today’s rain is for mostly sun with a few clouds. Today we're in for an all-day soaker. Fine.

We made an afternoon expedition on Saturday to the spectacularly beautiful Chiricahua National Monument, where crowds I expected to see on a holiday weekend were largely absent. Absent also (and this was a real blessing) was the strong, cold wind we normally encounter up on Massai Point. Although the air temperature kept dropping as we wound our way to the 6,870-ft. peak, and we saw increasingly larger patches of snow along the narrow, winding road, sunshine was absolutely glaring when we reached the high end of the road, and on a strategically placed bench, looking out over the astonishing hoodoos, across the 40-square-mile playa and surrounding Sulphur Springs Valley to the Dragoon Mountains seventy miles to the west, we were out of even the slightest breeze and content to soak up sun to our hearts’ content.

After five years, I’m finally getting some light grip on the geology of Cochise County, Arizona, and the sky islands of this basin-and-range country. At least, I think I am, but don’t quiz me. Instead, correct me if you think I’ve gone astray. 

To understand the formation of the Chiricahua range, we have to go back twenty-seven million years and the movement of tectonic plates those 27,000,000 years ago, when the molten core of the earth was much more active and closer to the surface than it is in Arizona today. Back then a dense oceanic plate of basalt was overridden by a lighter plate of granite (the North American plate, moving west in true though still prehistoric North American fashion), and as the resulting collision (friction?) increased both rock and water temperature, the former melted as it mixed with the already molten mantle. 

Just south of the Monument (which in itself occupies only a portion of the entire Chiricahua range) are the remains of what is known as the Turkey Creek Caldera. There a magma chamber broke through the earth’s crust and spewed burning gas, ash, and lava over 1,200 square miles in an explosion estimated to be five to ten times larger than the historic Krakatoa eruption in 1883. 

Turkey Creek is so calm and quiet today that it’s almost impossible to picture the nuée ardente — scorching rain! — that flew upward from the prehistoric volcano and flowed outward at over 100 miles an hour as a burning avalanche! In time, of course, the magma cooled and hardened, forming a rhyolite bedrock over eight hundred feet thick. And that and similar eruptions were the birth of the Chiricahua mountains.

But basin and range land is not created by volcanos alone. Once the dramatic volcanic events are over and plate movement slows down, everything gradually cools, and it is then that the cooling masses of rock, slowly but irresistibly, shove against each other, faulting, tilting, and lifting some segments up, while the surrounding basins sink. The creation of Arizona’s sky islands, then — these fault-block mountain ranges that rise up from a nearly level sea (though 4,000+ feet above sea level) of grassland and desert — was very unlike that of the folded Appalachians with their more gradual slopes. 

Nor, however, is faulting, tilting, and rising the end of the story, because subsequently comes the much slower action of weathering. Wind and water (in liquid and solid form) take starring roles in the weathering story but achieve their dramatic effects at very undramatic speed.
Formed by case hardening caused by the amorphous silica left behind after precipitated water evaporates off the surface of the rock formations, pinnacles in Chiricahua National Monument were formed by the freezing and thawing of water during the last ice age approximately ten thousand years ago. 
- William Ascarza, Chiricahua Mountains: History and Nature
Sculpted rhyolite makes for stunning scenes in Chiricahua, where jointed columns of rock invite “the entry of water, instigating chemical and physical weathering.”

Less spectacular but as much a part of the geologic story as the hoodoos are “solution pans” and “slot canyons,” the latter “forty times deeper than they are wide” (Ibid.).

We do not always think about it when admiring mountain hoodoos and the other rock formations we find so amazing, but weathering is a relentlessly ongoing process, continuing in our own age, day by day. Saturday there were pockets of snow in the mountains. As sun reached some of them, that snow melted, and meltwater sought out cracks through which it could descend to creeks and rills headed for the playa. Perhaps that ultimate destination would not be reached, but water would push its way along as far as possible, carrying with it occasional small bits of rock and stone. 

And on the other side of the mountain from where we found our sheltered bench, wind was doing the work it does night and day.

Because of weathering, all the sky island peaks have been worn down from their original height, and the valleys — recipients of eroded mountain material — have gained in elevation. Today’s rain is a geologic drop in the bucket, but each raindrop, each snowflake, contributes to the cumulative effect.

The Artist and I never view Chiricahua with jaded eyes. Every visit feels like the first time, so unusual and fascinating and mentally challenging are the sights. For me, though, the presence of tall, green trees is almost as exciting as the rock formations. Down in our winter ghost town we have only mesquite and netleaf hackberry, whereas in Chiricahua there are beautiful alligator juniper, Gambel oaks, Douglas firs, and stately Ponderosa pine. We are so very lucky, we tell each other, to have all this natural beauty practically in our backyard! It doesn’t even have to be a day trip: half a day gets us there, gives us time for a walk and a picnic, and gets us back to our own Dos Cabezas, which are, literally, in our backyard, so that coming back home at the end of the day is never a disappointment.

Back in Michigan, where we live maybe a mile from the glory of Lake Michigan, we don’t see the water from our windows, but neither do we pay lakeshore property tax or worry that rising lake levels will carry off our home. The closest road to the Lake is private, so we have to take a little ride to get to a beach, but it isn’t all that far, and on mornings after stormy, windy nights we can hear the waves from our front door. Thus it is well within our reach, that glory — even closer than it was when we lived in Kalamazoo and I occasionally needed a 100-mile evening round trip so I could walk on the beach to unwind after a day of work at a job I did not love.

I was lucky even in my girlhood, when the house my parents bought for our move from South Dakota to Illinois was on the last street of a subdivision, out beyond the city limits, with a working farm across the road to the west. How hungrily and greedily and gratefully, too, I watched thunderstorms and sunsets in that open expanse from our enclosed front porch! 

South Dakota, Illinois, Michigan, Arizona. Fields, lakes, desert, mountains. Just outside the door or maybe a little way down the road, open spaces and natural beauty have always helped me breathe deeply and filled me with peace.


1. Ascarzs, William. Chiricahua Mountains: History and Nature (Charleston, SC: Natural History Press, 2014)

2. Gilluly, James; A. C. Waters; & A. O. Woodford. Principles of Geology, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman & Co., 1959).

Saturday, January 18, 2020

My Beautiful Things

Male peacock at Holy Trinity Monastery, St. David, AZ

Years ago, the first time I ever visited a U.P. friend in her house, I came back out, bubbling over with enthusiasm, to the car where the Artist had waited. “She has rocks everywhere, hand-made quilts — books, of course — even a wasp’s nest!” He asked, “Does she have objets de vertu?” The phrase was French but not familiar to me, and I asked what it meant. “Beautiful things,” he told me. I was taken aback (why was he even asking?) and protested, “I already told you she has a wasp’s nest!” 

My Upper Peninsula friend had a kitchen full of her home-canning projects and a living room overflowing with books. Out on her porch were numerous wind chimes. She had chickens! I found her world enchanting, chickens included, because just as Amy March envied girls with nice noses, I always envy girls and women with horses and/or chickens. Chickens, whether beautiful or not (and chickens do vary in looks), all make those lovely, soothing, soft clucking sounds. And my grandmother had chickens, so there’s that, too.

Male in full display mode
I’ve never yearned for peacocks, but we enjoy seeing them at Holy Trinity Monastery south of St. David, and the males were in full display on our last visit, where we lingered to watch them. If only this male had displayed against some background other than green shrubbery! Well, the monastery is always a peaceful place, as it should be, away from the larger world’s hustle and bustle. — Not that our ghost town winter is characterized by hustle and bustle, except for bombardments of daily news, and even those are easily left behind, simply by walking out the door and into the quiet desert. 

Peahens are beautiful, too, in their quieter way.

But birds, lovely though they be, are leading me away from my subject -- the one I have not even begun to address -- which is: my own beautiful things. 

Cheap, modest beauty

Things I buy for myself are rarely new or expensive, particularly during my winter seasonal retirement, when five dollars on a non-necessity is a splurge that comes straight out of the grocery budget. I have to think very carefully before taking the plunge. Crucial question: Is this something that will give me lasting pleasure? Last year I splurged on an unframed painting at an estate sale, something I still look at often and enjoy, and the latest self-indulgence this year is another painting, this one a complicated Chinese scene from the past, appearing to represent an important dignitary arriving by horseback (in a village, perhaps?), preceded by an entourage to announce his arrival. I particularly like the little black dog cavorting in the background at the upper left. I like the touch of whimsy and the real-world feeling that little dog adds to the scene.

Not one of those subtle, understated and exquisite nature studies from a Japanese master, still this work charms me and will, I’m sure, continue to do so. In the same vein, I recently bought four small Navajo sand paintings, their artists identified by name and photo on the backs. These, of course, have spiritual significance, as well as aesthetic excellence, and they could not be more at home here in Arizona, so how could I resist? 

(Fourth is over my desk.)

And with the newly acquired Chinese and Navajo works, the walls of my little reading and writing corner are full, so now, shelves full of books (beautiful to me), writing tablets stacked on the desk, ephemera and mementoes tucked into the frame of the mirror, art on the walls, boots (when I’m not wearing them) propped in the corner between bookshelves (one pair) and (the other) perched high above, the entire corner gives joy to my soul. All of these are material objects. All beautiful to me, each adds to my happiness and contentment, and I love them in ensemble, both night and day.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Little Women: The Book and the Movie

“Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. 
"It's so dreadful to be poor!" sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress. 
"I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all," added little Amy, with an injured sniff. 
"We've got Father and Mother, and each other," said Beth contentedly from her corner.” 
- Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

Alcott's novel is very formulaic, and the formula repeats over and over — when the four sisters are together, whatever the topic, each takes a turn speaking: 1, 2, 3, 4. Yet the overall effect somehow works, at least it did, when we were young, for those of us who grew up with the book. And while I don’t know what the experience would be for a sophisticated reader coming to the book for the first time as an older adult, I find I can re-read it now and be seduced all over again by the March family, even as I am aware of that repetitious, somewhat stilted formula. It’s because Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, for lifetime fans of Little Women, are real girls — always were and always will be. Where the magic comes from, I cannot say.

Why is it, though, that every girl who reads the book identifies herself as Jo? A recent NPR segment began by asking callers to say which girl they identified with and why, but the question had to be quickly discarded, as no one ever saw her girlhood self as conventional Meg, vain Amy, or shy, stay-at-home Beth. No, every girl-reader-become-woman claimed to have been, in her mind, as she read the book, tomboy-writer Jo, whether or not she’d been a tomboy (or even wished to be a boy) or hoped to be a writer when she grew up. Why?

I had occasion to reflect on this question some years ago, when one of my sisters and I had an exchange on the topic. I’d been amazed that she saw herself as Jo! Who, then, pray tell, did she imagine I would be? I was the oldest, but I was no Meg! Puzzling, I have come up at last with a two-pronged explanation: 

(1) Jo was the bookish sister. An aspiring writer, she was naturally a voracious reader. Girls who read Little Women were, obviously, readers themselves. In my family, three sisters (as were our parents) were all readers! Ipso facto, we were all Jo!

(2) Readers see an author’s fictional world through the author’s eyes, even when that author isn’t one of the characters. Little Women is written in the third person, but Jo is clearly the author’s alter ego. So it’s Jo’s head and heart we inhabit as we read the story. How could it be otherwise?

Moving from page to screen, there have been more than twelve adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s classic girls’ story, beginning with silent film versions in 1917 and 1918. I’ll have to watch Katherine Hepburn again as Jo (1933), but just thinking of Hepburn you can see why she would be a natural in the role. By contrast, whoever saw June Allyson as Jo (1949) ought to have had his (and I’m sure it was ‘his’) head examined. 

As for Winona Ryder (1994), sorry, I did not care for that version at all, though I realize it introduced a whole generation to the story. I became near-apoplectic at Jo and Professor Baer kissing in the balcony of a theatre! So wrong, so very wrong! Nineteenth-century PDA among the genteel, aspirational, theatre-going poor? Hardly! Besides that, the chapter in which the kiss takes place is called “Under the Umbrella”! Jo and the professor kiss under the umbrella after he tells her that all he has to offer are “these empty hands,” and she puts her hands in his and replies, “Not empty now.” I seem to recall I didn’t care for Susan Sarandon as Marmee, either, but as I’ve never wanted to see that film version a second time I cannot give a detailed critique. 

Because of my feelings about the 1994 film, I was nervous at first about seeing yet another adaptation. Now, after only my first viewing of Greta Gerwig’s version (which I’m sure I will see again many times in the future), I find myself agreeing with another audience member I overheard telling companions on the way out of the theatre, “I’ve seen three different movies made of ‘Little Women,’ but this is my favorite.” 

The dialogue at the top of this post opens the story of Alcott’s Little Women. In the new adaptation, the pre-Christmas complaint scene is moved and solutions the sisters find in making and/or purchasing modest gifts are omitted, but Gerwig does what she does so gracefully that I cannot object. The all-important introductory visit to the Hummels is there, intact. And that brings me to something the film adds that a book cannot: strong, big-screen visuals that put the viewer not only in the heart of the family but also in a geographical/historical context. I found myself devouring outdoor and street scenes and interiors of houses, as their world became as real to me as the sisters themselves. 

I did wonder, early on while watching, if someone unfamiliar with the story would find the time shifts confusing (there is nothing faintly like that in the strictly chronological presentation of the written book) and have difficulty catching all the dialogue when many voices were speaking together. My own movie-going companion, the Artist, never having read the book, was that very person: unfamiliar with the story, he did have difficulty catching everything that was said and making sense of all the time shifts. Well, I told him, I was completely lost the first time I saw (never having read) the film version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, but I certainly wouldn’t change it. And I wouldn’t change Gerwig’s “Little Women,” either.

So many of the scenes from the book were there, just as L.M. Alcott wrote them, such as Amy falling through the ice when she follows Jo and Laurie after having burned Jo’s manuscript. Laurie’s proposal and Jo’s refusal: that scene, too, was straight from the book. I know the written story so well that I was aware of every addition or subtraction or substitution, but they were masterfully done, and I felt the story flowed along seamlessly. 

I’m still thinking about the ages of two characters, however: Laurie and Professor Bhaer (the latter generally referred to by his first name in the film). Both appeared much younger to me than I would have made them. I am coming around to accepting boyish Laurie, but Friedrich I can’t help wishing older and maybe not so handsome, more as he was in the book — though the actor’s very winsomeness makes it hard to complain about his looks!

The Artist asked me if the mother had been as much a background figure in the book as she was in the movie. I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think the answer is yes. She appears from time to time to offer sympathy and guidance, but it is the sisters themselves who form their own world, as young people always do, as each generation does.

In the car on the way home, I found myself telling the Artist about parts of the book that hadn’t made it to the screen. For instance, I loved the way they reminisced about the childhood game they played when small. “Backstory?” Yes. They played at being pilgrims, from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and as children would carry little bags of “burdens” that tumbled down the stairs when they reached the “Celestial City” at the top. Approaching womanhood, their burdens change: Meg hates being poor, Jo’s patience is tried by her work with demanding Aunt March, Beth struggles with near-crippling shyness, and Amy can’t help envying “girls with nice noses.” She so wants a classical nose!

They are so real to me, the March girls. Do you know them, too? What do you remember most? Or did you not care for them at all?

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Just Hangin' Out

Thursday's sunset
After a nearly sleepless night, I stayed home Thursday for a day of housecleaning while the Artist went to town, and then, taking a break to walk down  to the mailbox in the teeth of a cold west wind, managed to lock myself out of the house, with my cell phone in the house and a pan of milk left simmering on the stove. Ah, yes. That was Thursday, a grey, blustery, bitterly cold day in the ghost town. For all that grief, the mailbox had been empty, too. Friday had to be better.

And it was. 

Road to Chiricahua
On Friday our mailbox was full; friends from Michigan came for lunch; and in the afternoon the Artist and I made an expedition to the Mustang Mall, taking the Chiricahua way down and the Kansas Settlement Road back. 

Clouds stringing along
Clouds were beautiful, all around. And coming back to the cabin -- coming home -- we sighed with contentment as we settled into reading chairs with our respective books.

Moonlit mountains and desert

Books Read Lately

Several of the last few books I’ve read I can recommend, beginning with The Waning of the West, essays by Stan Steiner, published after his death in 1987. Steiner, born in Coney Island, New York, in 1925, fell in love with the West and spent most of his life writing about it. He challenged many Western myths and stereotypes and wrote not only of cowboys and ranchers but also of minority communities throughout frontier history. He acknowledged and insisted on the role of strong women in building the West; wrote the formerly untold story of Spanish Jews (run out of Spain by the Inquisition) and their role in Mexican ranching history; paid attention not only to Navajos in history but also to changes in the Navajo relationships with U.S. government and with corporations, etc. “The New West,” which the author died before he could finish, positions Ronald Reagan as a “new Westerner” and seeks to understand continuities and novelties in the evolving Western character, which he sees as the essential but very complicated American character 

While many details and statistics in The Waning of the West are dated, I recommend it for the the insights and political questions the author raises, issues we wrestling with in our country yet today. Perhaps Steiner’s most well-known book is La Raza: The Mexican Americans, one I need to read sometime in 2020. I also want to read The Last Horse, despite its, to me, frightening title.

Change of pace -- 

Then there was Greenwillow, a plunge into escape literature if ever there was one! B. J. Chute’s novel was a bestseller when it first appeared in 1956, and Lewis Gannett of the New York Herald Tribune thought it might “prove the literary find” of the year. Have you ever heard of it? Or of B. J. Chute? I had not. It begins:
Long ago, centuries perhaps, the village of Greenwillow had been stood in the corner and forgotten.

The following, gently meandering story takes place within the confines of the forgotten country village and its environs. There is a village church. When need arises for a new minister, one appears out of nowhere; when the need has been satisfied, one way or another the minister whose purpose has been fulfilled vanishes from the scene. It must be said that not everyone in and around Greenwillow is “churchly.” Only in the eyes of Reverend Lapp, however, are those who fail to attend services putting their souls in danger; Reverend Birdsong, who preaches sermons of love, leaving the devil, hellfire, and damnation to his colleague, apparently harbors no such fears.

Out in the country lives Martha Briggs, with her mother-in-law, Grannie Briggs; her stepson, Gideon; and all the little Briggses that have come along since Martha married the widower Amos, a wandering man. Amos, himself the first son of a wandering man, disappeared when he had the call to wander. Now he returns “at intervals” (as Reverend Birdsong observed), always long enough to ensure that, in time, another little Briggs will come to occupy the cradle. Gideon Briggs manages the farm and will until he gets the call himself — in anticipation of which he has vowed he will never wed, will leave no wife to raise children alone, nor father another wanderer to do the same in turn.

Down in the village live two sisters, Miss Maidy and Miss Emma, and with them lives Dorrie, a girl with no other name. No one knows Dorrie’s antecedents. As did more recently the Reverend Birdsong, Dorrie simply appeared one day, out of nowhere. A child then, she was taken in by the sisters and, to their delighted surprise, demonstrated what could only be called a gift for cooking and housekeeping. Now under the sisters’ roof Dorrie is becoming a woman. 
Dorrie put her elbows on her knees and her chin on her fists and stared, gray-eyed and interested. It did seem hard on Mrs. Briggs that she should have wedded a wandering man, and hard on Gideon too, left with a farm and a fistful of kinfolk.

When the two reverends hear that Amos Briggs is back, Reverend Lapp is determined to impress upon Amos his duty to stay at home, and to his annoyance the easy-going Reverend Birdsong seems to feel he must go along, too.
When they came near the little meadow, they could hear Gideon’s scythe singing and the silky whisper of tall grass dropping down, and the late grasshoppers talking around the edge. The scent followed the scythe, the hot oven smell of yellow turning brown, the dusty-powder smell of clover, the sharp smell of bruised pennyroyal like a plume in the air….

The implacable, imperative call to wander, along with suspicions that the Devil himself may be at work in their midst, are the flies in the otherwise soothing ointment of Greenwillow life. But, as my friend Kathy in New South Wales says, I would not for quids spoil the story for you by telling you how everything comes out!

Moving on —

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Marry Norris, is a book I would have bought for the title alone. In fact, in truth, I did. 

But Between You and Me is far from a dry grammar reference book. Instead Norris gives us, in essays on particular grammatical issues, enticing scraps of memoir. A girl from Cleveland who studied dairy science along with English and drove a milk truck winds up working at the New Yorker! Well, that is a story!

Grammatical nitty-gritty stuff morphs into the personal early on, but I have to begin with the nitty-gritty. Let's begin with pronouns. Between You & Me? (Yes, there is an ampersand instead of a spelled-out conjunction in the title.) I’m there! 

I can overlook casual, conversational, colloquial, spoken instances of “between you and I” or “to Alphonse and I” (here I choose an unusual name to protect the guilty), but it drives me up the wall when paid professional writers (I’m not making this up) use these incorrect forms! As if they knew no better! (Do they not? Scary!) Or when I hear an ‘I’ that should be a ‘me’ on the national evening news! I want to shout out loud (and sometimes do), “Get it straight!”  

It seems to me that getting object pronouns right is unbelievably easy and that there is no excuse for a professional writer to fall into error on this score. It isn’t like figuring out how or when to use the subjunctive, for heaven’s sake, or being clear about the difference between the verbs ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ (where ‘lay’ is the past tense of ‘lie’ and ‘laid’ the past tense of ‘lay,’ one verb intransitive and one transitive, and God save us from remembering out what those terms mean!), which the same people, i.e., professional writers, should also make an effort to figure out if they want to call themselves writers — or maybe those thorny bits can be left to copy editors? But pronouns??? 

(1) “He gave it to Alphonse. He gave it to me.” 
(2) “He gave it to Alphonse and I”??? WRONG!!! 
Correct: “He gave it to Alphonse and me.” See (1).

Mary Norris, though, is no drill sergeant. She never puts on an annoying, smarter-than-thou act. For example, she freely admits to the amusement she felt when hearing people pronounce correctly words she thought they were mispronouncing. Coming from a modest background in Cleveland, Ohio, there were many words she had only seen in print and never heard pronounced, as well as words she had never encountered at all and could not believe were real words, which explained the faux pas she made when changing the word ‘terrine’ to read ‘tureen’ in copy she was editing. Fortunately, someone down the line caught that, and her error did not go into print. That is, she not only points out mistakes made by others but cops to her own. Disarming, n’est-ce pas? Refreshing!

Back to pronouns. Gendered pronouns, Norris tells us, became much more important and freighted with meaning for her when a beloved sibling decided to transition from male to female — and in this context Norris expresses gratitude for the English word ‘sibling,’ a word with no equivalent, she tells us, in Italian. 
One of the first sentences I formed in Italian class was ‘Mio fratello vuole essere mia sorella”: “My brother wants to be my sister.” 

She (Norris, that is) realizes how important words are when Dee, the sibling in question, is cast into gloom over having Mary refer to her as ‘he’ rather than ‘she’ when speaking to their waiter in a restaurant. There is a subsequent, quite enchanting scene with their mother. 

Well, I could go on, but you get the general idea. If you have an interest in language and writing, you will find this an enchanting book. I laughed out loud more than once while reading to myself and had to read several amusing passages aloud to the Artist, after he commented, “Someone is enjoying that book!” Indeed!

Oh, what the hell! I’ll go on a bit longer.

Any copy editor’s eye (and I worked as a copy editor -- but remember, I have no editor for this blog, so leave me a comment if you find errors!) is, always, not only on the sparrow but on every crumb and seed in the vicinity. So as you might imagine, reading a book by a copy editor and about copy-editing (note: hyphenation distinction as made by author’s employer, the New Yorker magazine) gave my own inner editor a strenuous workout. And once or twice, it was what the author did not note in her examples that I found striking.

In Chapter 5, “Comma Comma Comma Comma, Chameleon,” Norris dwells — and I mean, she dwells — on a particular passage from Melville, asking her reader to think about Melville’s placement of commas and how the commas might be used differently. She tries it this way and that. Okay. But what jumped out at me in the quoted passage was the way Melville conjugated the verb ‘to lie.’ 
Often have I lain thus, when the fact, that if I laid much longer I would actually freeze to death, would come over me….

All right, picture the scene. See character lying down. He has been lying down for quite a while, as he must do every night if he is to get any sleep: “Often have I lain thus.” Fine. But why on earth does Melville shift from the correct to the incorrect, the intransitive to the transitive, writing “if I laid” rather than “if I lay”? He is not, after all, in danger of laying an egg! And I realize that the focus in this example is on commas, but I kept waiting for Norris to mention that verb business in an aside — and endnote — something. Silence.

Another Melville example was initially much more alarming to me. The author of Moby-Dick, frustrated over the number of errors in proofs from his English publisher (of The Whale, as it was titled over there), finally decided to correct the worst and let the rest go, “jeering with himself at the rich harvest thus furnished to the entomological critics.” I couldn’t believe my eyes on first, second, and third readings of this passage. Light dawned at last on a fourth reading: the errors constituted for Melville “minute, gnat-like torments”! Entomological! Gnats! All right!

Such are the torments, pleasures, and delights of a reader cursed and blessed with the eye of an inner copy editor.

And now — history, fiction, grammar set aside — I turn to suspense and crime in the world of (believe it or not) bookselling as I open the first pages of John Grisham’s Camino Island. So if you want me in the next couple of days, I’ll be in Florida, hanging out with very shady characters! In the world of rare books and bookselling no less!

Spanish moss -- miles away from the desert!

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Larry McMurtry and Me -- No, We've Never Met

The last book I read in 2019, finishing the last 50 pages or so aloud, in bed, reading to the Artist as we waited for the midnight hour to strike, was Larry McMurtry’s Books: A Memoir. McMurtry is a big-time player in the trade, as well as a very successful writer who has seen many of his novels turned into movies, but there are always areas of commonality in the lives and thoughts of reader/booksellers. Here are a few that struck me, and then a look ahead at bookish aspects of my Arizona winter.

On reading:
I nowadays have the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support—reading—is itself an eccentricity…. One could argue that Dickens and other popular, serially published nineteenth-century novelists started this…. But the silicon chip has accelerated the process of interruption beyond all reckoning…. 
Still, it’s at least possible that these toys will someday lose their freshness and an old-fashioned thing, the book, will come to hold some interest for the masses again.  
Then again, maybe not. Reading itself may have already become a mandarin pursuit…. 
- Larry McMurtry, Books: A Memoir
On bookselling:
By the time Internet book selling became first possible, Marcia and I thought the matter over and decided we did not want to put our stock online. We were in-shop, off-the-shelf booksellers and that was that. We don’t even like to catalogue: in thirty-five years we’ve issued two. We put attractive books on the shelves and hope that someone will recognize this and walk in, peruse, and purchase.
“That’s you!” the Artist exclaimed when I read him the passage above. As for Larry’s way of doing business, an “able shop manager” now at the Archer City, TX, began putting Booked Up’s titles online, and the partners, Larry and Marcia, have been happy to leave that aspect of the business to her.
At the bottom of our resistance to Internet book selling is our history. We always wanted not just books but a shop. Many of our customers have become friends. Like us they enjoy seeing and touching the books. Our stock represents our taste. What fun is there in clicking, compared to the pleasure of handling a fine copy of a rare book?
—Or any physical book, I would say.
We understand that we’re privileged, but so are many booksellers, so if we’re going to do this at all, we might as well do it our way. 
McMurtry is not privileged in the way of people who inherit great wealth. He has made his own privilege, as it were, working both as a writer and as a bookman, and from the start he earned his shop, his bookman identity, and his reputation as a writer. I think I understand, though, his idea of privilege, because I too feel it is great good fortune, in this often cruel world, to be able to pursue work that one loves and to make even a modest living from that work. I doubt I will ever fly to England on a buying trip, but I’ve made my primary living in bookselling for 26 years, and now, by frugal practice and careful planning, am able to enjoy a seasonal retirement in winter and return to my bookshop in spring. “You’ve got the best of both worlds,” a friend observed. Indeed!

Bookseller at Dog Ears Books, Northport, Michigan

On reading again:
Book selling will never quite expire unless reading expires first. The secondhand book business, both as a trade and as a subculture, has existed for centuries because people want to read, and the assumption book dealers work on is that people will always want to read. 
But will they? Seeing the changes that have occurred in the last few years, I sometimes wonder.  
Civilization can probably adjust to the loss of the secondhand book trade, though I don’t think it’s really likely to have to.  
Can it, though, survive the loss of reading?
The question, you see, is not whether human life on earth can survive but whether or not civilization can survive. What do you think?

Bookselling and reading in the high desert:

This is me now, not Larry McMurtry, reporting first on reading in my little winter ghost town and then on my new year’s gig coming up.

While I was back in Michigan last summer, a book club was formed among the women here in Dos Cabezas. I recall that one of the first books they read was My Name Is Ove and that I thought of reading it myself in Michigan so I would feel somewhat connected to my Arizona friends, but then a customer in my bookstore saw the book on my desk and wanted to buy it, and I said bye-bye. Another time, perhaps. After all….

Ghost town book club members decided that, for January, each would read a John Grisham book of their choosing, and since I will be joining the book club for discussion in January, I hope to get my hands on the particular Grisham one of the members highly recommended to me. I have never read a book by John Grisham. — Oh, that’s not true! I remember now that I read Skipping Christmas, or some such, in preparation for a talk I’d been invited to give the Northport Women’s Club on Christmas books. But I have never read what I take to be a more typical Grisham book, so this is an opportunity for me to fill a hole in my knowledge of contemporary book culture.

One friend here in the ghost town indulges herself by devouring books when her husband travels (which reminds me of the way I used to indulge —many years ago! — in the cheap grocery store pastries called cream horns when the Artist was on the road). This neighbor loves physical books, as do I. Another two women, sisters, also love books and bookstores, and they have me salivating to get to Bookmans in Tucson. (One of the men almost always downloads “books” onto his electronic device and only buys a physical book when there is no other option, but I have to cut him some slack, as the most recent physical book he bought was one of my all-time favorites, Bruce Catton’s Waiting for the Morning Train.) I know a couple of other women in the group but don’t know them yet as readers, don’t know their reading tastes and preferences, so it will be interesting to get together in a group to talk about books and reading. I’m really looking forward to this get-together.

(These neighbors don't read, but I love them, anyway.)

Besides joining the neighborhood book group, another winter book activity of mine (outside of reading in and adding to my own private library in the cabin) will be — ta-da! — working as a volunteer one morning a week in the little bookshop in Willcox! Wait until Bruce, my volunteer back in Northport, hears about this! 

Friendly Bookstore, Willcox, Arizona
The Friendly Bookstore is the only bookstore in Willcox. Run by the local Friends of the Library group, its stock consists of donations, library discards, and and a few new books by local authors. (They also sell local honey and jam.) My weekly stint will only be three hours, long enough to be fun and far too short to be anything approaching onerous (if that were even possible). I look forward to getting to know more local residents and to meeting strangers passing through from all over the world.

I don’t know if Willcox has ever supported a for-profit bookstore. Benson, west of Willcox on I-10, had three the first winter we were here, but the two shops dealing in secondhand books have since vanished. (One bookseller retired, I know, but I have no idea what happened to the other, who was a much older woman.) Singing Wind, north of Benson on a ranch and selling new books exclusively, is still in business. Benson also has a nice FOL bookstore on the corner behind their public library.

This Benson, AZ, bookseller retired.
We don't know the story of this Benson bookstore's closing.
Singing Wind is still in business ... 

... selling all new books and specializing in the Southwest.

But Willcox is my town, not Benson, the Sulphur Springs Valley, not San Pedro, my winter home ground. So there are times when I can’t help daydreaming of a bookstore in Willcox, flights of fancy encouraged by ghost town neighbors. When I realized the other day that the FOR SALE sign had disappeared from the most appealing potential bookshop property in town, however, the Artist exclaimed, “Thank God! That was a close call!” 

Oh, not really! Note that this blog, inaugurated in the fall of 2007, is called “Bocks in Northport,” regardless of where my winter peregrinations take me. I have no plans to leave Waukazoo Street! I’m just pleased for now that I’ll have a small part in the life of downtown Willcox, Arizona, and that my role will be that of bookseller, albeit for only three hours a week.

Also, Sarah (in background here) has her Northport fans!