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Friday, August 26, 2016

Facts and Stories

Hardly green cheese, eh?

As a reader and as a thinker, I am absolutely not an anti-fact person. Facts are important because truth is important. Living in the real world, as opposed to dreamy, wishful fantasy, demands recognition of reality, in all its complexity and all its myriad forms. And so, while we may have wanted nothing but fairy tales as children, as adult readers most of us mix the leaven of nonfiction into our reading.

If facts are going to appear in sentences, however, rather than in graphs or tables, I want something more than a mind-numbing recital of dates and numbers. I do not want an avalanche of nothing but facts. In fact (ahem!), when I suspect an author of trying to overwhelm rather than appeal to my critical faculties, I get downright annoyed.

Because under the avalanche, lost in the blizzard – what is the writer trying to hide? That’s what I ask myself when the fact storm gets too wild and woolly.

I’ve read a few books where a single unstated premise, when I plugged it in, was sufficient to undermine an argument otherwise well buttressed -- even overly so -- by a snowstorm of facts. (As a philosopher, I have learned to be very careful when reading historians, who are often tempted to tread lightly on argument and depend overmuch on fact storms.) Other authors, as becomes dismayingly apparent after several tedious chapters, try to cover so many bases that they are obviously trying to say everything that can be said on their subject (so as not to be wrong?), which boils down to saying nothing, once the snowdrifts are cleared away. Don’t waste my time!

Instead of a meaningless fact storm, I want at least one of the following: either a clear line of argument, leading to convincing conclusions or a compelling narrative. The nonfiction book that delivers both has knocked it out of the park.

My nonfiction reading these days is taking me far from home – up to Lake Superior, out to Arizona, and over to southern France -- and I've been reading some very good books. The most demanding in terms of argument and evidence is Tony Judt’s Socialism in Provence 1871-1914: A Study in the Origins of the Modern French Left, but the book is demanding not because the author resorts to blizzard tactics but because, on the contrary, he is very, very careful and clear about the claims he is making, the arguments he opposes, and the evidence for both sides. Painstakingly rigorous. It is exciting to be challenged by such a rigorous thinker, a writer so careful to avoid unsubstantiated generalization!

The temptation is great for me. No, not to leap into generalization but to pick up yet another book when I already have three or four others going. And so I could not resist looking into Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development, by Carol S. Dweck. 

Wow! Again, a writer perfectly clear about what has been said before on her subject and what she has discovered, experimentally, that contradicts and disproves long-held beliefs still, unfortunately, quite prevalent. Not to give away the whole show here, but Dweck’s studies show that learners’ self-concepts influence their motivation more than initial success and more than praise. Does the learner hold what Dweck calls an “entity” theory of intelligence or an “incremental” theory? The former is a belief that intelligence is a fixed trait, a belief shoring up "a system that requires a diet of easy successes.” On the other hand are learners who believe that intelligence can be cultivated and increased. These are more eager to learn, not simply to take an easy path where they can succeed and reaffirm to themselves that they are smart. Dweck calls the patterns that emerge in the face of setbacks “the helpless pattern” and “the mastery-oriented pattern.” You can probably guess which pattern connects to which theory of self, can’t you?

Superior Land and the Story of Grand Marais, Michigan, by Karen Brzys, does not strain my brain as much as the Tony Judt book, but like Judt’s and Dweck’s it is clearly written and presents its facts in accessible form, not in a blizzard. U.P. blizzards are best kept in meteorological form, as the author well knows! Very good stories emerge from well-chosen facts in this book.

Then there is A Beautiful, Cruel Country, Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce’s memoir of her life in southern Arizona, near la frontera, when she was a little cowgirl of three to five or six years old. In her book, the facts are not only very local (as are the facts presented by Judt and Brzys) but also quite personal. They are also recollected many years after the events described. Some could no doubt be verified; for others, we must either take the author’s word for her account or remain skeptics.

Curious to learn more about the author, I searched online and found this piece from a Tucson newspaper. Holy cow! “La Pistolera” – what a nickname! It seems the grown woman was every bit as feisty as the little three-year-old self-described in the memoir. Follow the link, read the article, and maybe you’ll want to read the book, too. (I found A Beautiful, Cruel Country still in print and have ordered a couple copies for the bookstore.) But a word of warning: There are some terrible, terrible events reported in the book and in the newspaper article. The book ends with the sad removal of the Indians from Arivaca, leaving the land silent in its sudden isolation, and even in the story of young Eva’s very early years there are many painful episodes – indigenous Indians, then called Papago and now identified as Tohono O'odham near starvation; the little girl whipped by her father, and such. The ensuing feud described in the newspaper, not part of the book, is also nightmare stuff.

What do you know? Whose story do you believe? What do you see as the facts of your world?

Beliefs, although not material objects independent of believers, are as real as microbes, the operation in the world of beliefs and microbes both dependent on so many other factors that we human beings are continually surprising one another. “X had such a healthy lifestyle, I thought she would live forever!” we say, or, “I thought I knew Y,” or, “Z had that election in the bag – how could he have lost?” The beliefs we hold about the economy influence the direction of the economy, as beliefs about the past influence the course the future will take.

Draw your own conclusions. But think carefully. And don't stop thinking when you've reached a conclusion, either.

Can you doubt that fall is coming in?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Careening Down a Steep Mountain Road!

(We both took off our glasses!)

Everyone asks me questions I never get used to and never know how to answer: “How’s your summer been?” I usually reply that it’s been a blur, but most of the time questioners push harder, asking, “How’s business been? Have sales been good? Have you sold a lot of books?” A man we know in a nearby town answers such questions the same way, season after season: “Best year ever!” He says that regardless of his sales, whereas I often say, truthfully, that I don't take my business's temperature on a daily basis and only compare one year's figures to another's in January. Until then, I'm working as hard as I can, doing everything I know how to do, and I can't do more than that.

But now -- The end of August is almost upon us! September is coming fast!

This morning I told a friend that by late August I feel like I’m careening down a steep mountain road without brakes. There are welcome peaceful stretches when I can slow down and breathe and even look around to take in the view, like our Monday evening dinner at the home of a friend -- 

Our dinner trays ready to be carried to the deck

Lake Michigan from deck

South Fox, courtesy of the miracle of ZOOM!


North Manitou and sun on water

varnished Petoskey stone surface

South Manitou growing dark
diners at dusk

South Fox grows dark

Manitou afterglow

-- but more often reunions with friends tend to be brief and rushed. My friend Linda, up at the head of today’s post, popped up out of nowhere on Monday. Surprise! She had her wits about her and had her husband take pictures of the two of us together, and it’s wonderful when a familiar face appears out of the past! But then – because I am, after all, at work -- on the heels of the hugs comes a box of business (i.e., books), necessitating a quick change of gears, quickly followed by a long-distance phone call (I wonder -- do young people ever think to describe phone calls as “long-distance” any more?) and another sudden shift, then a UPS delivery, questions about the dog, requests for specific books, and maybe a crying baby or people needing directions or wanting a restaurant recommendation, etc., etc. One hairpin turn after another! No, it is not – ever! -- boring!

Even quiet stretches of stolen reading time are hardly soporific. As fictional bookseller Roger Mifflin put it,
“Printer's ink has been running a race against gunpowder these many, many years. Ink is handicapped, in a way, because you can blow up a man with gunpowder in half a second, while it may take twenty years to blow him up with a book. But the gunpowder destroys itself along with its victim, while a book can keep on exploding for centuries.”
 Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop
As book after book comes to hand (much switching of gears and hairpin turns here, too), I find novels and history alike filled with tales of human desires and greed and work and effort and love and failure and success, so much that reading is sometimes almost too stimulating to bear for too long, and it’s been a while since I came to the last page of any given book. (Well, it’s been maybe three days.) Instead lately I’ve been book-hopping, going from Tony Judt’s Socialism in Provence to Karen Brzys’s Superior Land and the Story of Grand Marais, Michigan to A Beautiful, Cruel Country, Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce’s memoirs of an Arizona childhood, all rife with personal and political controversy and occasional violence, human nature being what it perennially is.

Goldfinch lure
Yet there are, too, moments of calm beauty – in the natural world, as well as in the pages of books. Along the driveway goldfinches flit in the sunlight, and sandhill cranes fly overhead, announcing their presence with a quiet, purring rattle, stroking through the air as if the sky were a placid sea.

September is coming, almost here.... Important to make time for a morning mini-vacation now and again.

Sittin' on the dock, feet in cool water -- ahhhh!

As September comes ever nearer, it’s getting to be apple time. There are wild apples –

apples on my small homestead trees –

and apples in the book we will be launching a week from Saturday in Northport. I’ve never done a bookstore event on Labor Day weekend, but we won’t have the book sooner, and after Labor Day the apple growers will be busy in their orchards and farmstand (and David and I will need a little break after our nonstop summer). So please be with us, if at all possible, on Saturday evening, September 3, beginning at 7 p.m. If you aren’t a local, you can come and mix with the locals, for sure, at the evening event!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Dawn and Katie Inspired Us

My blogger friend Dawn and her sheltie princess were on a camping adventure when they stopped by the bookstore on Tuesday. How does Katie manage to look perfectly groomed on a camping trip? My little tomboy Sarah doesn’t stay groomed for as long as an hour! But the adventure part of their visit rang bells for me as I launched into a welcome day off on Wednesday. My goal for the day was – not to have any goals and not to set myself anything to accomplish.

I love a quiet, rainy morning, wherever I am and whatever the day holds, the sounds and smells of rain, peaceful drizzle or dramatic downpour, taking me back to dreamy days of childhood. And so, not bothering about raindrops, Sarah and I began our outdoor adventure on familiar ground, near home, where lovely long views over orchards to dunes and lake competed for my attention with roadside weeds.

There is always something to see on our neighborhood roads. But we did not stop there for long.

Stop! Then GO!

Did I have a book with me on our expedition? Yes, of course! Superior Land and the Story of Grand Marais, Michigan, by Karen A. Brzys, went very well with an apple bratwurst sandwich from Bunting’s Market in Cedar. What a great job Karen has done with this book! I love the way she begins the history of the Upper Peninsula with the glaciers – not surprising, I suppose, coming from the Agate Lady.

And the rain cleared away -- .

After picnic lunch in the middle of the county, I was able to gratify a long-held wish to photograph old St. Joseph’s on Bohemian Road, bright white against clouds and blue sky.

School Lake warranted a brief stop, but without a boat there wasn’t a lot of exploring we could do around its shoreline, so it was on west on Bohemian Road and across M-22, headed toward Lake Michigan. We did not go to the beach – another time -- but family will recognize these near-Lake scenes, and everyone should be able to recognize the absence of crowds. I love my quiet places!

Inviting two-track

Miniature landscape with hint of fall at center

Horsemint in knapweed with bracken background

Horsemint closeup
Ghosts of raindrops

Bracken shadow

Orienting Shot #1

Orienting Shot #2

Days of adventure can be tiring, but they are well worth the energy, as are busy summer bookstore days. My only complaint is that all the days go much too fast....

Water flowing toward the Big Lake, where all will merge

Sunday, August 14, 2016

We Talk to the Artists – Then Go to the Dogs

Kaye, Ken, Kaye's painting, their book

Not knowing until the day of the event whether Ken Scott and Kay Krapohl planned to give a formal presentation or sign books, I advertised their appearance as “Conversation with the Artists,” and that’s exactly what it turned out to be. Ken’s message on Thursday was that they would do a Q&A if anyone who came to buy a book had questions, so I set up a few chairs in the front of the bookstore, with a signing table for the photographer and the painter. People came. They had questions. They had really good questions. The answers were fascinating. I didn’t write down everything that was said but did take a few notes.

What gave rise to the idea of two people trekking the Leelanau shoreline together. Ken cited the safety factor first and stressed that safety was particularly an issue in winter cold and on winter ice. Two people also meant two cars, one that could be left at the take-out point while the other (to be retrieved later) could be driven with both trekkers to their put-in location. Ken was also interested in what it would be like to work alongside another artist, especially one working in a different medium.

As a photographer and a painter, it was a given that the two of them would work differently. Ken Scott composes his frames onsite and does not manipulate images later, so his premise is “You get what you get,” in the moment. Very different, of necessity, was Kaye Krapohl’s way of working. She could not afford to stand in one place long enough to complete a painting and keep up with her trekking partner, too, so she made many studies (“scribbles,” she calls them) and photographs and notes for later use in her studio. There were also days when her usual “big picture” vision did not fit the weather, and then she learned to focus on small details she would not otherwise looked down to see.

I have a bit in my notes about an event Kaye and Ken did, sponsored by Inland Seas. It involved an exhibit, mostly of Ken’s photographs, and people with science backgrounds were invited to this free forum that gave the artists an opportunity to point to aspects of what they saw and ask the science people, “What’s going on here?” Sometimes it was sand structures, other times zebra mussels or something very different. Kaye was intrigued to find that environmentalists are not always opposed to docks, in that docks can provide habitat.

Live wire painter and Zen photographer
There were many more questions and answers and discussion, and altogether the conversation was fascinating. Somehow I prevailed upon both artists to stay long enough to sign most of the rest of my books, too, although Ken Scott was in a hurry to get outdoors with his camera, not wanting to miss “the light” as skies cleared after the rain and rainbows appeared. I’m sure he will have gotten some fantastic shots. [Have seen one of them since! Beyond belief gorgeous!] Mine from the front door of the bookstore leave a lot to be desired, but you may get a little feel for the evening.

I’d had our reading circle over for a picnic on Wednesday, but although a camera was mentioned early on, somehow we all forgot about it later, so – no pictures! We had not all read a book to discuss together, but each of us reported on what we have been reading, and there were several recommendations for a group read. I’m not sure which books fall into which category (reports/recommendations/group recommendations), but some titles mentioned were: Independent People, the Icelandic classic by Laxness; something by Hemingway; Huckleberry Finn; Madame Bovary; McTeague; John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy; The Way Things Are, by Lucretius (translation by Humphries); The Way of All Flesh; and All the Light We Cannot See, which two people reported they had tried to read and couldn’t get into, though everyone else who has told me (in the bookstore) that they read it loved the book. One group member has decided she will read one short story a day for 365 days. A noble goal! I want to introduce her to the stories of Valerie Trueblood.

So, Wednesday was the picnic; Thursday, conversation with artists; Friday, farm market; and then Saturday – dog parade and presentation by veterinarian Mike Petty, author of Dr. Petty’s Pain Relief for Dogs! You have to understand that “going to the dogs,” in Northport, is a good thing. Maybe you already know this, having read in the Leelanau Enterprise that the Northport Dog Parade began 20 years ago. (Yes, once again, time flies.) David Chrobak, then-owner of the Old Millpond Inn, was the instigator and force behind the parade, which quickly won the hearts of locals and visitors alike.

Ready and waiting -- early!

Hi, Chris!

The gap -- as we wait for the second half of the parade to catch up
Rudy #1
Rudy @2

Rudy #3

There he is! Dr. Mike Petty!

Like Thanksgiving dinner, the dog parade is long anticipated, planned for all year, and over in a trice. 

One major dog parade sponsor this year was Dr. Michael Petty, my guest author for Saturday afternoon following the parade. Mike’s book is Dr. Petty’s Pain Relief for Dogs, which I read and reviewed and highly recommend. As David Chrobak noted in last Thursday’s Enterprise, our pets grow old just as we do and, sadly, actually overtake us in their aging. As long as their quality of life can be maintained, however, Dr. Petty’s dog parade banner, on the trailer carrying his old dog (and other dogs with age and mobility issues), was “You’re never too old!” 

Dr. Petty's dog was pretty tired when they showed up at the bookstore for the signing, but one thing is sure: no one is too young or too old to enjoy the Northport dog parade! A limited number signed copies of Dr. Petty’s Pain Relief for Dogs available now at Dog Ears Books -- a reference book for your dog’s aging future and for all the dogs of your life! 

Sunday morning calm after storms