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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

To Every Thing, There Is a Season

Looking up Nagonaba from marina

The shift from Saturday’s heavy traffic, in Leelanau County and all around Grand Traverse Bay (my sources report), to empty parking spaces all up and down the streets of Northport comes accompanied by a change in the weather. Balmy, light-filled, summer-like fall mornings have given way to leaden skies, blustery winds, and whitecaps on the water. Zip the liner into your trench coat. Go outside. Test the temperature. Go back inside and look for a vest to wear under the coat. Even knitted cap and mittens are not amiss. But the color goes on, and I saw a shaggy mane this morning by the side of the road. Autumn is not over. This shift is not as sudden as it seems, either: it’s been in the works for a while, caterpillars and birds on the move and plants making and scattering seeds.

Black walnuts on the ground

If last weekend was peak color, how quiet will the bookstore be this week? When I couldn’t get Sarah an appointment with her regular groomer on Monday, I threw caution to the winds and set up a session on Tuesday morning, and while Sarah was being made prettier than she already was, David and I took in Jean Larsen’s show at the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City. Yes, I had three days off in a row – Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday! And look at the improvement in Sarah’s appearance! Can you say “criminally cute”?


Inspiration struck on Monday, thanks to clouds that kept interfering with the sun, discouraging me from committing to projects in the yard, and instead of digging up the garden I did a major overhaul upstairs, from clean sheets on the bed to moving furniture. The old mission desk (missing center drawer) on the upstairs landing had never done anything there but collect junk. I never had used that corner as a writing studio, a fond dream when we first moved into the farmhouse. So now the desk is in the back bedroom upstairs, looking out over the meadow in the direction of the sunrise, and it’s set up as a permanent drawing station, inaugurated with a session that very afternoon. I tried it out this morning for an hour, too, and it was dandy, even before sunrise.

Flowing lines, object contours, contrast of light and shade – so wonderfully wordless! No, I certainly have not given up reading! What I have done in the last few days, however, is to shift over to books that focus on nature, re-reading Tom Browne, Jr.’s The Tracker (one of my old favorites, and I have his book The Vision close at hand to read next) and an equally inspiring book I discovered more recently, Forest Gardening: Cultivating an Edible Landscape, by Robert Hart.
The essence of life should be continuous creativity: in working out creative and comprehensive solutions to one’s problems, one rises above them. They become smaller, less tormentingly insistent, until, perhaps, in time, one realizes they have just faded away.

Are problems tormenting you? Wouldn’t you welcome a meditation practice or a book that let those problems fade into the background, even if only temporarily? Forgive me for repeating myself – I’ve recommended the title before – but Frederick Franck’s The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation combines both approaches. If you never pick up a pencil, simply holding this book and turning the pages slowly as you take in the author’s words and drawings is a calming meditation.
I draw a leaf . . . Still it is moving. Still the birds are on the wing. Still I can hear the silent falling of the snow . . . Some of the grasses are long, others are short . . .

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. The noisy campaigns will not last forever.

P.S. Another good idea is music, so if you are free on the evening of November 3, come get a ticket from me for Tristan Eckerson's live performance in Suttons Bay. I also have a few of his CDs left, "Leelanau Night," his original compositions on solo piano.

Saturday, October 22, 2016


De Facto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland
by Judy Juanita
Paper, 227pp, $19.95

In Virgin Soul, a novel set in the 1960s, the protagonist shared many of the author’s own experiences in terms of family, education, participation in the Black Party Party, and social activism in general. But a novel, even as it draws on an author’s own background, is fiction. De Facto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland is something different. This time we met Judy Juanita directly, face to face.

The essays in this book span the time period from the late Sixties to the present and include stories from Juanita’s life, her hopes and dreams, her strong opinions, and her unstoppable determination. There is honesty and humor here, along with bits of polemic, making for a complex mix that deserves to be read through more than once. Here are the first lines of Juanita’s introduction:
I’m a woman. POW! Black. BAM! Outspoken. STOMP! Don’t fit in. OUCH!
That tells a reader right from the get-go that no punches will be pulled in what follows, and no punches are pulled.

Juanita begins, easily enough, by recounting her growing-up years in East Oakland, a safe, friendly, middle-class neighborhood of unlocked houses inhabited by Portuguese immigrants, Mexicans, Mormons, and two black families, of which hers was the second on the block. (Her family was first on the block, however, to visit Disneyland.) Her parents were both readers, and her childhood world was a quite ordinary one of household chores, TV (all white faces, though, in those days), comic books, music, hide-and-seek, and backyard camping sleepovers, with occasional family expeditions to San Francisco. Despite the little heartbreaks that come to most young people in time, these memories read like a fairly idyllic American childhood, although as a child she took her family and neighborhood completely for granted, as fortunate children usually do.
I would not realize how fully, peculiarly and tightly loved I was until I left California – the state and the state of mind.
Growing up, of course, is only the beginning. There followed heady days of student radicalism and Juanita’s membership in the Black Panther Party. She served as editor-in-chief of their newspaper when Eldridge Cleaver went to jail.
My friends and I dropped out and worked in the BPP full time. We eventually returned to campus too, armed, not only with actual weapons, but with a new consciousness about education, service, the poor, the police and the military, oppression, and civil and human rights.

Along the way, Juanita had begun to write poetry, and when she quit a New Jersey job in straight journalism, she says, “I came to poetry when I was out on a limb.” She joined a group of others poetry writers and soon found herself reading in public and having work published. “Through contemplating my navel,” as she puts it with self-deprecating sarcasm, she won a fellowship and then, over a period of six years, enjoyed a series of short-term funded gigs teaching writing in New Jersey public schools. It was a stop-gap solution. But the inclusion of some of her poetry enriches this book of essays and helps us follow her development as a writer.

For a time, Juanita took on a job offered by a friend, cleaning condos, although her initial response to the friend’s offer had been,
Moi? A black woman with degrees, fellowships, travels abroad, a library of dictionaries within my library – a cleaning woman?
At one point she quit and took a temporary office job (for one-third the pay), but after four days she went back to cleaning, “where nobody called me Bertha, Beulah or Bessie,” and began to see her life and her strength more clearly than she ever had before.

Juanita’s evolution as a writer is an important theme developed in these essays. Through the years she pursued poetry, drama, and fiction, and when her agent asked why the humor he found in her conversation wasn’t evident in the novel she was writing, she decided to try for “funny” by attempting stand-up comedy. Approaching her comedy club gigs with the same strong work ethic she brought to writing classes, she learned what worked and how, but most importantly she learned about herself and the place of humor in her life and her writing. I’m not going to put a spoiler in here, though, to tell you what she learned! It’s in the essay, “Putting the Funny in the Novel.”

Blackness is another important theme. “The Gun as Ultimate Performance Poem” is guaranteed to stop readers in their tracks. Juanita had liked guns, she tells us, but “The Gun” is something else. Another no-holds-barred essay, “Report from The Front, i.e. Berkeley, CA,” makes clear the great racial divide all-too-alive, recounted in a series of maddening incidents.

The last ‘essay’ in the book stretches the meaning of the term pretty far, but by then I found myself going right along with it, in spite of the subject matter (Ghosts? Really?), thanks to the author’s dramatic skill in telling her story.

As I said in the beginning of my earlier review of the novel, Judy Juanita and I are of the same era. We both came from middle-class backgrounds, were both spelling champions -- and also suffered social trauma that same sixth-grade year. Inevitably, our paths diverged, as Illinois has never been California, and white and black Americans live in two different countries, anyway, in a lot of ways.

Personal essays, however, by writers of any era in any country, can invite readers into a writer’s life as effectively as autobiography or memoir. Temporarily inhabiting other lives is part of the magic of reading. That magic also, one hopes, can build bridges of understanding between people whose experiences of the world have been dissimilar.

Having read this book, I now want to read Judy Juanita’s plays, and I also want to read Carolyn Rodgers and Ishmael Reed. Multiple doorways beckon.

Another thing. I’m thinking of my own grandmother, my mother’s mother, in a slightly different way. Wasn’t she a de facto feminist, too? I feel strongly that she was, and I thank you, Judy Juanita, for coming up with this term. I hope you don’t object to my applying it to a dead white woman. Believe me, if you’d known my grandmother's life, you would agree that she deserved the title!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Their World and Mine – Light Years Apart

With the exception of the man who wanted to haggle with me over price a few days back (I posted about the incident on Facebook but don’t want to dwell on it any further), my recent bookstore conversations have been happy ones, for the most part, pleasurable for me and for my customers.

One local man who buys used paperback books by the bagload and brings them back after reading for trade credit, then buying “new” (used) books for a 50% discount, came in for one of his regular visits, and when he brought his stack of books to the counter for purchase, his face was wreathed in smiles. “This is so much fun!” he said. “I love buying books this way!” I thanked him for his appreciation. What a great way for both of us to start the morning! 

Without the press of summer heat or crowds, there is more time to visit with customers, taking note of books they select and talking about what they and I have been reading. We give each other ideas. We share experiences. And it’s been very pleasant, day after day, especially in this politically trying season. I feel as if my bookstore is an oasis for many people. Actually, people often tell me that it is.

So when another late middle-aged couple strolled in on Wednesday afternoon, I anticipated another pleasant encounter. I asked what they were particularly interested in, so I could make sure they found subject matter they might otherwise miss. “Oh, bookstores, libraries,” the woman responded airily, and I inferred from her answer that they didn’t want help and would be happier exploring by themselves, but that’s always fine with me. I often feel the same way in bookstores.

But then the woman stopped to explain that she and her husband were “downsizing,” and next, right away, she demanded in an almost accusatory voice, “Do you have any idea how hard it is to get rid of books?!”

The question took my breath away! I was (for a change) speechless.

Given their circumstances and feelings, why would they come into a bookstore at all? And why would the woman be compelled to share with me a sentiment so obviously opposed to my way of life and my way of making a living?

Selling books has always been more of a challenge than selling beer or burgers, but I have managed to keep my head above water as a bookseller for nearly a quarter of a century. That is to say, I sell books. On occasion, I do an inventory purge, and then I donate boxes of books to charitable resale organizations. Sometimes, either impulsively or after thoughtful consideration, I give books away.

But getting rid of books? That is a concept I do not understand.

Termites, now. Having to get rid of termites, I can see, would be a serious problem. Working to get rid of mold – there’s another terrible problem people sometimes have in their houses. Less drastically, in certain seasons, some of us fret about getting rid of fruit flies or mice. But books?

Never do I “get rid of” books! I help books find homes, either first-time homes or new homes. The difference is one between something no one would want, e.g., termites, and something of value.

I said none of this to the downsizing couple but simply urged them, as they walked out the door again, to enjoy the day. I’ve learned over the years that not everything that goes through my mind needs to come out my mouth. Wasted breath is wasted energy, anyway, and at my age I no longer have energy to waste.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Is Riding a Bicycle Like Riding a Bicycle?

Are there things you just don’t forget how to do, if once you’ve learned them? David thinks playing the violin is “like riding a bicycle,” in that anyone who ever played the violin can pick it right up again after years of not practicing. Oh, no! I told him that playing the violin is not like that at all! Even singing isn’t like that. The voice is an instrument, too, and not practicing has consequences. Really.

For most of my life, I only dreamed of being able to draw, but then I read Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards, and became convinced that even I could learn to draw with a teacher using these methods. At last Elizabeth Abeel offered a drawing class in Traverse City in the evening, when I could get there to take it, and so, three years ago, my lessons and practice began.

Three years ago. I kept at it through July 2014 but subsequently lost my discipline, only picking up a pencil or pen a few times during our following Arizona winter.

I’ve missed those sessions with paper and pen or pencil. Photography, another blessedly wordless activity, offers moments of relief from mental chatter, but drawing is more like yoga than it is like (amateur) photography in that regard, centering one’s focus and slowing subjective time. Really, taking time out of consciousness altogether.

It will take time, however, for me to work back into the wonderful discipline of losing myself in drawing. That’s okay. I fully intend to get back to doing it again on a regular basis – and making that decision, simply anticipating drawing, brought joy to my heart. Waking up Saturday morning, before opening my eyes, I was already seeing lines on paper – branches, leaves, facial features – simple lines growing organically into living forms. What a simply luscious way to wake up! A little later, then, driving along familiar country roads, I began seeing again as I had when morning drawing meditation was a regular part of my life. Seeing more, seeing with joy!

My hand is rusty, though. My mind still wants to jump around, and so do my eyes. What I need to do is go back to those first lessons with Betsy, drawing vase-faces and copying drawings upside-down. The purpose of those exercises is to turn off the part of the brain that has names for objects and wants to take a short-cut by producing a prototype. Oh, no you don't! We want that naming brain to shut up and let the eye and hand follow contours wordlessly.

This is going to be good medicine. I feel it already. Don't you feel the need for a break from talk-talk-talk this season, too?

...I venture to say that learning to draw always seems to help and never to harm. My students’ most frequent comment after learning to draw is “Life seems much richer now that I am seeing more.” That may be reason enough to learn to draw.
 - Betty Edwards, Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain: A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence

Thursday, October 13, 2016

My Minimalist Phase

When I went away to graduate school in my late 30s, it was the first time in my life I’d ever lived alone. Since my income was limited to a small monthly teaching assistantship check, it was not entirely by choice that my apartment furnishings were sparse, but I did find that I appreciated the look – and the simplicity of keeping things clean! The pictures today are from my second graduate student apartment, upstairs in an big old Victorian house in Champaign, Illinois. Basically, I had three generous-sized rooms -- kitchen, living room, and bedroom -- with a small, windowless bathroom. The discerning eye will spot many Michigan touches, although one thing missing in this group of photographs is a picture of my desk, the same desk on which I type this post today, in my own bookstore. But you see the back of that chair at the edge of the picture above? That chair goes to the desk that looked out the window down to the street and the city park beyond.

Please note that, minimal though my furnishings were, I found room for art. The fireplace in the bedroom could not be used for its original purpose, but for me it was another kind of art -- architectural interest, and a mantel to hold beautiful objects.

A wonderfully large, light-filled kitchen, formerly a sleeping porch, offered plenty of room for company, thanks to furniture that didn't weigh much and was easy to move.

And when the holidays came, I had no trouble finding room for a Christmas tree.

Books? Really, need you ask? I have always been a book person, I was then a graduate student in philosophy, and one among many attractions of the apartment to me were built-in bookcases.

Oh, yes, wherever I have lived, there has always been room for books, and I cannot imagine that ever changing.

Today's post is dedicated to faithful reader, friend and neighbor, Joanne! Best wishes for tomorrow morning, dear!

P.S. 10/14: Here is that desk in current nonminimalist phase:

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Book Review: TWO DAYS GONE

Two Days Gone
by Randall Silvis
Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, January 2017
Paperback, 384pp, $15.99

The information on the back cover and the first inside page of my ARC categorize Two Days Gone as mystery, but while the story falls into that genre for many reasons, it’s as much a psychological suspense novel or thriller as it is a whodunit. Maybe more so.

Here’s the setup: The wife and two children of a successful fiction writer and college professor, an apparently loving husband and father, have been murdered by having their throats slit, and a third child, the baby, was stabbed to death. Now the writer-professor, Thomas Huston, has gone missing, making him the most logical suspect. Huston, who had lost his own parents to violence, wrote novels with dark undercurrents. Had writing been the only thing keeping a lid on hidden vengeful fantasies? Did Huston finally snap? But why would he kill his own family?

Author Randall Silvis gives us two points of view, that of runaway Huston, eluding police by imagining himself a character in a novel-in-progress, and that of Sergeant Ryan DeMarco, investigator in charge of the manhunt and murder investigation. Early on, we learn that the two men know each other and were probably, before Huston’s dark family tragedy, in the early stages of a friendship important to them both, each sensing in the other a sadness that work could never wholly overcome.

Like Huston, DeMarco too had known tragedy. His young son, his only child, had died in a traffic accident, and his marriage subsequently fell apart, also, as his wife plunged into a shadow life of sexual encounters with strangers. Huston dealt with insomnia by taking walks and drives in the middle of the night, while DeMarco dosed his with Jack Daniels and television. Insomnia was routine for both men. Now there is even less sleep for either one, as Thomas is on the run, desperate, and DeMarco resolved to find the fugitive suspect and bring him in.

Most people who knew him, including DeMarco, have a hard time imagining Huston capable of the crime. If not Huston, though, who could the murderer be? A jealous colleague? Someone from the shady clubs Huston was visiting as research for his new novel? Perhaps his notes for that new novel hold clues?

Huston’s preoccupation with Edgar Allan Poe and Vladimir Nabokov play into his own fiction and thus into the novel in which Huston is a fictional character. How much of Huston is in his books? (How much of Silvis is in Huston? Or DeMarco?) Questions like this, asked by DeMarco and answered thoughtfully by one of Huston’s graduate students, Nathan Briessen, give Two Days Gone another level of complexity and interest for readers who are also writers, as well as complicating the investigation for the chief investigator.

We never know where the next chapter of this taut, suspenseful novel will take us. And what feels like a final chord keeps not being – until, of course, at last it is. I did not stay up all night to read the last page, but I confess I got up early the next morning to finish the gripping story. It is very, very well told.

And now I’m curious about Silvis’s two earlier books, both with Poe themes....