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Sunday, February 7, 2016

What Does a Story Need?

Critics and fans alike have struggled for decades over what to call The Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett, and so I suggested to the Fearless Leader of our Ulysses Reading Circle that when we discussed Pointed Firs we should address the question, “Is it a novel?” He was somewhat shocked, but I raised the question, anyway. We were only seven that evening, and I abstained from answering right away. Only one person immediately answered with a resounding “No!”

“Why not?” others asked.

“Nothing happens!”

Voices were raised around the table, five people eagerly and simultaneously enumerating various events from Jewett’s pages. “They go out to the island!” “She visits the old man!” “They go to the reunion!”

Yes, there are these quietly related events, but what is lacking is conflict, or, to put it more generally, tension.

“I loved it!” “I did, too!” Pointed Firs defenders were staunch and vocal around the table, although one of them admitted the story had “no dramatic arc.”

I said I meant nothing derogatory by saying it wasn’t a novel. Neither was I was saying it should have been different. I loved the book, too. I think the place itself is the main character, and it’s a charming place -- although I couldn’t help thinking the narrator’s impressions of the place might be different if she were a fulltime, year-round resident. It’s easy for annual visitors to see a place through rose-colored glasses. I admitted that Grand Marais is my Dunnet Landing. Perhaps Willcox, Arizona, even if I never return, is another, but I recognize that my feelings for those places don’t take into account the struggles people making Grand Marais or Willcox their homes and needing to make a living there. Vacation, after all, is a very different kettle of fish. But I digress....

Jewett herself, according to Willa Cather, never referred to this work as a novel or even as stories. Her term was sketches. (See “Miss Jewett,” in Cather’s Not Under Forty, published in 1946 by Alfred A. Knopf.) That intrigues me, as it suggests that there might be a form of fiction besides novels and stories.

Perhaps no tension is required of a sketch? In visual art, we do not expect of something is called a sketch all the qualities of a finished oil painting. And yet sketches have their own charm. Done well, literary sketches, too, can be delightful. And who is to say that a sketch lacks anything if it is everything its author intended?

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, by Stephen Leacock, is in a very different vein from Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs. Whereas Jewett shows the beauty and dignity of ordinary lives in a remote place, Leacock’s intent is humor. He holds up and exposes his main characters to our ridicule and laughter – and yet, he does so gently, even lovingly. Truly, we must laugh at ourselves when we laugh at the people in Leacock’s little Canadian village, for inflated self-worth and self-importance can be found in towns of all sizes. Doesn’t each one of us imagine ourselves the center of our world? And how silly is that, in all the enormity of the universe?

In Leacock’s book, as in Jewett’s, there is chronology, and there is one major event (the sinking of the picnic boat) to which smaller events lead, as in Pointed Firs (the reunion), but at no time in either book do we fear disaster. Whatever there is of pain in Jewett lies in the past and has been smoothed and mellowed by the passage of time. In Leacock, conflicts arise in the story as it develops, but the reader cannot be terribly concerned, since the author’s tone is saying all along, “Tempest in a teapot, isn’t it silly?”

On Saturday, looking for something else on my store shelf of writers’ helps, my eye stopped on The Essence of Fiction, by Malcolm McConnell. I have a friend who wants to turn a piece of memoir writing into fiction and isn’t sure how to proceed. Maybe she wonders where to start. Anyway, I brought the book home with the thought that it might shed light on my friend’s problem, as well as on my own meditations on what constitutes a story.

Malcolm takes a clear stand: fiction is drama. What the playwright creates for the stage, the novelist or short story writer must bring alive for readers on the printed page, but the very essence of fiction is always a dramatic core. Take Malcolm seriously on this point, and you’ll hardly be surprised to have him tell you next that the scene is the basic building block of all fiction.

Here is the list of scenic elements from Malcolm’s assignment sheet to his students:
o    Believable and Relevant Physical Setting
o    Point of View
o    Problem or Conflict Situation
o    Dialogue (or Monologue or Thought)
o    Relevant Physical Action
o    Relevant, Original Descriptive Metaphor
 From The Essence of Fiction: A Practical handbook for Successful Writing, by Malcolm McConnell (NY: Norton, 1986), p 37
(I have highlighted “problem or conflict situation” in red, since it is my major concern.)

In his discussion of the “problem or conflict situation,” McConnell does not even bother to argue that conflict is necessary. There is no drama without conflict; therefore, if fiction is drama, conflict must be present in all fiction, if it is to be worthy of the name. That’s a given, not something that needs stating except as it must be part of each scene:
Somewhere in any scene there must be dramatically revealed some aspect of the overall conflict of the story.
Malcolm quotes a friend and fellow writing teacher, Will Knott, who wrote in The Craft of Fiction that fiction is always about people in trouble.
...I take this one step further. Fiction is never about people with no problem or conflict in their lives. At first examination, this may seem perverse, that literature, one of the most respected art forms of Western civilization, is entirely devoted to the negative aspects of life. Be that as it may, the fact remains, that all effective drama, on the stage or in the pages of a fictional work, involves characters faced with one kind of problem or another.
Lest his reader turn away from all this gloom, he adds,
This central core of conflict, of course, does not necessarily mean that the writer must accentuate the negative side of life.
Perhaps the central character will rise to a challenging occasion, triumph over adversity, learn valuable lessons for the future. Whether or not there is a happy ending, however, drama and fiction, unlike the chronicle of factual events most of us recognize as history, allow us a special way to share emotionally in the experience of characters onstage and in books. Like us, the writing teachers say, fictional characters face problems, and that is what captures our interest. Without a problem, without a conflict -- no reason for the reader to keep turning pages.

What, then, accounts for the love so many readers feel for The Country of the Pointed Firs?

Nature is never static, and no one season of the year and no single day, not even the solstices, give us time in which “nothing happens.” If we are very fortunate, however, there may be moments or days or even seasons in our lives that seem uneventful, stretches that flow so gently we have the illusion of time standing still. Those peaceful moments will be lost, and time will resume its headlong rush. But recollection of an illusory season of stillness – perhaps that is inspiration for the literary sketch.

What do you think? Can a sketch be called fiction if it has no conflict? Can something that lacks tension be called a story? Or is it dealing in contradictions to say so? 

And finally, in your limited reading time (because reading time is always limited for all of us), are such slight productions, whatever we call them, worth reading?

Monday, February 1, 2016

The West Continues to Tug at My Sleeve

Arizona neighbors

I have two books to share today, but first I’ll be taking a brief memory trip. By this time last winter, David and Sarah and I were in the high desert of southeast Arizona, bedding down in a small cabin in a ghost town, with mountains on all sides, and as I told David the other day, I think about it more than he would ever guess.

“What do you miss most about it?” he asked curiously. He never fell in love with the area the way I did. 

That kind of question, though, is almost impossible to answer! It’s like asking what you love most about someone you love: features and qualities of a person or place are not discrete building blocks, not elements at all. Everything goes together. But it seemed a worthwhile question to try to answer, so I thought a while and then said, “Maybe the light. The way the sun shone almost every day and the cabin was so bright and full of light.” 

Michigan winter

Continually overcast winter skies in Michigan are much harder to bear than snow and cold, although with the beginning of February our days are already significantly longer, and, I say happily (on a good morning), “Spring is only two months away!” Here at home, our beloved old farmhouse is divided into small rooms in the way people built in the old days in northern Michigan. Also, the gracious, windowed front porch, where we spend so many evenings in other seasons but which is unheated in winter, forms an insulating barrier along the front of the house, as does the woodshed in back, meaning that our central room, the one where we do most of our winter living, has no exterior walls and is thus protected from cold winter winds. Evening coziness is the room’s strong suit. During the day, however, it is almost as dark as tiny-windowed Basque stone farmhouse in the Pyrenees.

Contrast that with --

Dos Cabezas sunrise

Light comes in!
The ghost town cabin in the high desert was basically one large room, with uninsulated plywood walls and lots of windows. I was up every morning before or as the sun’s first light broke over the mountains to the east, and as the morning progressed I moved between my writing table and the cabin windows, with pleasure and satisfaction at the routine, first lost in working and then called to adjust, once more, the slant of the blinds. The idea was to close them against the night cold of the desert when darkness fell in the evening, open them slightly for the first morning light, open fully once the sun’s warmth became available, and then, later, angle them half-closed again to keep the cabin air from becoming uncomfortably hot. The regularity of light and darkness governed the hours of the days and nights.

I could go on at this point and start listing other things I miss, but my main point at present is only that the desert and mountains carved a place for themselves in my heart, so now I read books set in the West with greater interest and feel a personal sympathy that landscape and culture did not call forth for me before our time there.

One heart-rending book I finished reading last week was Dead in Their Tracks: Crossing America’s Desert Borderlands in the New Era, by John Annerino, and I wish I’d known about this book when Trinity was choosing to read on the subject of migrant workers from Mexico. The author’s research went further into the dangerous experience of border crossing than anything else I know or can imagine. At one time he and the four Mexican immigrant workers he was accompanying on their desperate bid to find work were out of water and facing death. His book, in fact, documents as many as possible of the lives that have been lost over the years in this dangerous crossing.

Art at border crossing
Annerino pursued his story mostly in northern Sonora, Mexico, and southwest Arizona, U.S. My little cow town in southeast Arizona, Willcox, was mentioned only two or three times in passing, Dos Cabezas (the ghost town) not at all. The low “killing fields” desert of saguaro is not the high desert of cows. Still, my single experience of being overcome by sun and heat in the Dragoon Mountains -- the part of the hiking story that I left out of my online account -- gave me some small sense of what those crossing the desert must encounter.

(One question: everyone stresses water, but no one, in either movies or books about la frontera, seems to mention electrolytes. I had plenty of water on my hike with a friend in the mountains – water, food, sunshade, sunblock – but it took me many months later, in conversation with someone who has spent years in Africa, to realize that as perspiration and breathing wicked moisture from my body, I was also losing salt and that water alone was doing nothing to replace the salt. I think, in fact, that the more water I drank, the faster I was washing out and depleting my electrolytes, because gulp as I might, I kept having spells of dizziness when my entire field of vision became nothing but buzzing light, and I had to sit down to keep from falling. Not many times in my life have I felt life’s fragility so keenly. So what about salt tablets? Does anyone carry them in the desert? If not, how do they manage without them? If so, why are they never mentioned?)

My head is spinning, my body is convulsing with chills and nausea, and the ground is heaving at me in dizzying waves of sand and rock when Marcelino first sees Interstate 8: “Mira! La carretera!” (Look! The highway!)
Some would fault -- have, I’m sure, faulted -- Annerino for lack of journalistic objectivity, but I have no criticism of his book on that count. Here is a writer who walked way more than “a mile” in the shoes of his subjects – and walked with them for miles, too. Is an objective account of such an experience possible? Where is another journalist who has had the guts even to undertake such an experience, let alone attempt to write about it dispassionately? Besides, any reader is free to dismiss or skim over the writer’s pleadings on behalf his subjects, and still the bare, unadorned, hard facts remain, facts that must give rise to urgent questions demanding answers.

If you are an American, whatever your views on immigration and border control, you should read this book.

My only disappointment with this book was technical, in that the copyediting left a lot to be desired. For that I do not fault the author, however, but the publisher, the University of Arizona Press. The editing buck always stops with the publisher, as I see it. So what gives here? I expect any book from a university press to have regularity of pronouns and agreement between nouns and verbs. I do not expect to find infelicitous, badly chosen adjectives or confusing syntax. When my inner editor has to work as hard as it did with this book, more than one someone has seriously fallen down on the job.

I’ll zero in on one very specific criticism, too. With any obscure technical jargon or regional idiom, i.e., in this book, “cutting sign” -- a phrase that appears as early as the introduction and repeatedly through the book, sometimes as frequently as two or three times on a single page -- I expect the first instance to be accompanied by a definition for the uninitiated reader. In context, we gradually figure out that “cutting sign” has something to do with tracking, but is it different from tracking or just another way of saying the same thing? If different, in what way? Informing and being mysterious are mutually incompatible goals.

Still, read the book. Read the book. Read the book! Too many people with strongly held and very loud opinions about the border know nothing of its reality in the lives of desperate men, women, and children.

From the borderland, my reading next took me northward to Nevada. Sweet Promised Land, by Robert Laxalt, first published in 1957, is now considered a classic of the American West. Where Dead in Their Tracks informs readers about the present and challenges them to envision a better future, Sweet Promised Land looks backward to the rough frontier days of Nevada in the early 20th century, open range, cattlemen vs. sheepmen, towns not yet come into their own, and immigrants who came primarily to make money, perhaps also to learn English, with always the dream of returning home to their native European villages as self-made American success stories.

Such is the time and setting of Sweet Promised Land, but that description tells you nothing of the reading experience. Part memoir, part biography, with much necessary history woven in, it is a book that rises above genre, but not with fireworks or the least pretension. A small book, only 158 pages, it begins modestly and proceeds quietly. You take it up with mild curiosity and find yourself drawn into another world – another life, that is, stretching between two very different worlds – and you are reluctant to have it far from your hand when you stop to do something else for a while.

“My father was a sheepherder, and his home was the hills.”
How does that simple sentence cast such an immediate spell? It reminds me of Isaak Dinesen’s “Once I had a farm in Africa” and also puts me in mind of the story of a nonbeliever who demanded of Hillel that he explain the Torah to him while he was standing on one foot. Hillel's response? “Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary.” In a very real sense, the life of the author’s sheepherding father in America, Basque origins in the Pyrenees, the long-delayed visit home to aged family back in that mountain range between France and Spain, and the realization of father and son that Nevada, not the Basque country, was now their own family home – all is contained, in seed form, in the book’s perfect opening sentence.

First the son tells of his own childhood and the relationship of his largely absent father to the family. While their mother managed family businesses in town, the father was in the mountains most of the time in his sheep camp, not a fixed abode but one that shifted as the sheep were moved to new grazing. All the Basque sheepherders talked of going back to France “next year” to visit families, but very few ever made the trip. But with Laxalt’s aging sisters back in the old country longing to see him again, Robert and his brothers conspire to arrange for their father to take, at last, the long-delayed trip.

And with that we leave the modern world behind altogether. In the Basque villages, following two world wars, nothing in the way of life had changed since Dominique had left:
...There was a little boy in a beret and short trousers, and under his arm a loaf of bread that seemed as long as he was. There was a crude, wooden cart pulled by two oxen, whose nodding heads kept rhythm with the gay fringes on their horns. There was a girl in a scarf and bright peasant dress....
Men still wore wooden shoes to work outdoors, and women still cooked in huge iron pots hung in fireplaces. Nothing had changed -- except the man returning to the country and everyone he had left behind almost half a century before. Years that left stone buildings exactly as they were had left their mark on human beings. Dominique would see a familiar face and think he recognized an old friend, only to learn that the friend was dead, and this was the friend’s son.

My inner editor lay back, mental pencil hand idle, while I lost myself in Sweet Promised Land. The effect of beautiful prose is to carry a reader effortlessly forward, its only drawback that the end comes too soon!

Besides nonfiction categorization and Western subject matter, the third commonality of these two books, and the most important, is the American immigrant experience. In both stories we as readers encounter the hopes of immigrants and the new land’s promise of a better life, if the newcomers only have the determination to work very, very hard to conquer poverty, overcome prejudice, and win a place for themselves in the sweet promised land.

Determination, willingness to work, and, it must be added, the good fortune to see their adventure through. One of Dominique’s fellow immigrants was not lucky. Many of those whose stories Annerino tells are not.

Poverty in Agua Prieta

And I want to dedicate today's post to my dear friend Helen. She will understand why.

Friday, January 29, 2016

I Am Not (i.e., No Longer) the Target Audience

As this post began taking shape in my head, where a lot of preliminary writing takes place while it looks as if I’m only washing dishes or driving or doing nothing at all, I had in mind to title it “Slow Pleasures versus Immediate Gratification” or (I wasn’t sure), “Immediate Gratification versus Slow Pleasures.” Anyone who has read this blog before or knows me at all doesn’t need to guess which side I favor. Yes, I’m a slow food, slow books, slow walks kind of woman. I don’t even think fast, although in my defense David likes to say, “She grinds slow, but she grinds exceeding fine.”

I was thinking about the online behemoth’s goal of delivering books within 2 hours of anyone placing an order. No, as a small, independent bookseller I cannot do that. Well, if the customer is in my shop, and the book is in stock, I can do it faster, but otherwise? Order a new book from me, I’ll place an order on Monday (if I have enough to meet the minimum), and books will usually be delivered by Thursday and can be picked up that afternoon or Friday or Saturday. It doesn’t take an eternity (some customers have been surprised to get books “so fast”), but it’s way more than a 2-hour wait. Sorry! C'est la vie chez moi! 

And it's hard for me to frame or view my reality as a problem. Because, to me, even a book in hand is the antithesis of immediate gratification. It isn’t a coffee or a slurpy to go, nor a candy bar to stuff into your face behind the wheel.

o    Anticipation is a huge part of the reading experience.

o    Waiting until you have time to open the book at leisure is part of the reading experience.

o    Putting a bookmark between pages, setting the book aside, and turning out the light is part of the reading experience.

So why shouldn’t a waiting period between ordering and receiving also be part of it?

But I know, I know -- !!! (I knew long before anyone kindly informed me, too.)

Waiting and anticipating are not enjoyed, because (a) this is the modern world; (b) modern people want and expect immediate gratification; (c) I am a dinosaur; and – as I have pointed out to David on more than one occasion, whenever he shakes his head in wonderment over advertising we both find thoroughly repellent and off-putting – (d) I am not (and we are not) the behemoth's target audience.

In sad fact, no one is aiming at us at all any more, except to try to sell us things we don’t even want to think about, and I can say emphatically that we are in no damn hurry to get those things, either, so -- Back off, world! We did not choose life in the slow lane to be harassed at any age! We’re just hoping not to be roadkill before our time.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Bookseller Musings: Slipcases, Curating, and Fonts

Snug in Our Boxes

Sturdier than a jacket, covering all of a book but spine, a slipcase protects its inhabitant. No dust can collect on the slipcased book’s top edges. No hasty index finger can tear the binding at the top of the spine by careless removal of book from shelf. The slipcase demands respect for the book – and yet, there is nothing forbidding about it. Instead, it invites us in. Its presence lends anticipation to our reading experience before we remove the book from its shelter and carefully open to the pages within. 

We set the slipcase aside gently while reading the book. And when it comes time to return the volume to our shelves, there is again something magical and sweetly secretive about not only closing the book but slipping it into a neat box designed to fit that book and only that book.

In cold midwinter, when most of northern life is lived within doors, humans and pets snug in the “boxes” of homes and places of employment, a slipcased book has a special familiarity. In my bookstore, books in their cozy boxes are surrounded by the larger box that shelters us all.

Curatorial Publishing and Bookselling

Reading an interview with John Makinson, chairman of the recently merged Penguin Random House group and owner with his brother of a small bookshop in Norfolk, England, I came across a phrase that was new to me: curatorial publishing. When the interviewer asked about how Penguin Random House is negotiating the current [digital] environment, his answer began like this:
I wish I had some sort of cosmic message for you, but it is very difficult to divine the essence of curatorial publishing, the kind of publishing we do. That said, it’s about human relationship, a commitment to skill and craft. So the progress we make in any market is incremental.
How refreshing that someone in such a huge business can be content to make incremental progress! How heartening to read about commitment to skill and craft! Years back, an admirer of my bookstore referred to my curated collection. Now, reading Makinson’s phrase curatorial publishing, I was moved to get out a Webster’s unabridged dictionary.

Disappointment was my lot. 

The dictionary defined the verb ‘to curate’ as ‘to act as a curator,’ and ‘curator’ as ‘the person in charge of a museum, art collection, etc.’ or ‘a manager; superintendent.’ Is that all? I felt cheated. If ‘curatorial’ is nothing more than a management function, ‘curatorial publishing’ is simply a redundant phrase, the adjective contributing nothing. I’m not satisfied. I’m sure more is meant.

I conferred over lunch (homemade chicken soup with rice) with my artist husband. I told him I see a curator’s role primarily one of selection, ensuring quality, and I was happy to have him agree with me. Perhaps some readers take quality in selection as implied in managing or superintending. I don’t. It’s great when quality is one of a manager’s responsibilities, but whether or not it is seen that way will depend on others – chief officers, boards, even stockholders. Certainly, in business we’re talking about, management is generally first and foremost about sales and profits. The phrase ‘quality control’ is an add-on.

One of the ways booksellers have always survived has been (1) to sell products other than books along with books (e.g., greeting cards and non-book gift items) and (2) to stock large numbers of bestsellers by famous authors, fewer (if any) numbers of slower-moving, niche category books by unknown or forgotten writers. That is a perfectly legitimate management plan. It is not, however, the plan of a curatorial bookseller.

Any curated collection offered by any independent bookseller, whether or not augmented by items other than books, will reflect that bookseller’s interests and values, with selections made according to quality as determined by that bookseller. For example, someone once jokingly advised me that if I were to “get rid of all these science books, there would be more room for fiction.” I cannot envision a bookstore without fiction, but neither can I imagine one without books on the sciences. For me, that would be no bookstore at all.

Font Choice

I have abandoned (for some time now) Times New Roman on this blog for Bookman Old Style. Both have the serif, which I like for its generosity, but Bookman (besides sounding appropriate to a bookseller’s blog) has more readable spacing, to my eye, and a satisfying roundness. 

Again, I have made a selection that pleases my own eye. Comments? Like or dislike? Agree or disagree?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Good Weather -- for Reading and Writing

My Sunday bread-baking got shifted from Sunday to Monday this week. Reading and baking bread work well together, as do reading and writing letters, or reading and doing laundry. All are good, productive indoor winter activities.

But Sarah and I do get out a few times a day, too, of course!

Our intrepid Ulysses Reading Circle will meet next week to discuss Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, so I re-read and have been thinking about that book lately and also re-reading Willa Cather’s essay on Jewett’s work. Still making slow progress through The Tale of Genji. And I’m also still thinking about M.F.K. Fisher, as glimpsed through the collection of her letters I read.

In her books about France and about food, the author is MFKF, professional writer but also, as one learns from the letters, self-created persona. MFKF is solitary, mysterious, somewhat fey, definitely haunting. When she hurries around a corner, you think perhaps she vanishes.

I met MFKF for the first time in Map of Another Town and was spellbound. I’d never met anyone like her. Having now met Mary Frances the letter-writer, I realize the distance between the person and the persona, as well as how much closer I feel to the letter-writer. Mary Frances loved letters writing and receiving them. She loved getting to know her correspondents better through letters, keeping in touch with old friends, and exploring what was going on in her own head. For her, sitting down to write a letter was a self-indulgent escape from the hard work of “real” writing. In one letter (and I can’t find it again in the book) she writes that she is a letter-writer the way some people are alcoholics or “Benzedrine-boys.”

(Many times – and I’ll put my personal responses in parentheses so as not to seem presumptuous, as if I'm putting myself in the same league with MFKF -- I have the same feeling. Self-indulgent! I find it then very strange when anyone thanks me for a letter. It was not a selfless sacrifice! Almost always so much the opposite that I sometimes worry, in fact, about imposing letters on people, since those not addicted to writing letters themselves may feel irksomely called upon reciprocate. I don’t see it that way. I don’t consider that anyone “owes” me a letter in return. Just for the record.) 

Another time she writes,
I can think and feel and write better when I am invisible. I become clearer to myself... sounds foolish but you’ll understand. Here [at home] I play too many parts, often because I enjoy them or find them challenging. When I am in France I am more truly real to myself....
This passage, I think, was not meant to contrast the writing of letters to being with people face to face. It was, note, “in France” that she felt “more truly real” to herself, and as I interpret that, she felt, when far from home, more simply herself. Living abroad, she was not required to face anyone as daughter or sister or long-time neighbor, as professor or employee. The relationships she formed while in Dijon and later in Aix-en-Provence were limited by circumstances. Her landlady and the waiters who recognized her were not her close friends; they knew little of her other than what they saw. And out of that solitude Mary Frances was able to construct the MFKF persona and to work and to be, unhindered.

(In our last winter’s high desert isolation, though David and I were together, I felt very free of multiple roles and social expectations. With David and Sarah I can be completely myself -- lose myself in writing or reading or wandering aimlessly outdoors or exploring roads by car with the two of them. And no one else knew me in the ghost town or the nearby cow town. I could disappoint no one, and no one could disappoint me. Simply being there, taking in our surroundings, which felt delightfully foreign, as fully as possible, with all senses, learning as much as I could about a strange, new part of the world – all that was “work” I assigned myself. I felt very “clear” and lighter than air.)

Mary Frances the letter-writer was confident and frank. Asked to read someone’s book, even the book of a friend, she delivered her opinions bluntly. She was equally honest in her response if a friend confided in her about a mood or a personal dilemma. To her, friendship required honesty, and any relationship that honesty would destroy was no friendship in the first place.

(I cannot be otherwise than honest in giving my opinion of a piece of writing or an idea. My frankness equals Fisher’s in those restricted domains and is usually, though not always, received without resentment. On other topics, I’ll more often listen without giving an opinion, and I am unlikely to chide a friend for bad moods (even if frequent) or what look from the outside like self-inflicted personal difficulties. That is to say, I am a reader and writer and editor and philosopher to the marrow of my bones but do not take it upon myself to act as a psychiatrist. I am not criticizing Fisher for telling her friends how she honestly saw them. She was able to carry it off and perhaps to help. I have not that gift. Everything having to do with another’s heart seems complicated to me, and I am more likely to second-guess, over and over, my interpretations of others’ complex motivations and ever-present inner struggles. Also, I certainly do not welcome a friend’s “psychologizing” me! But this is a deep and mysterious realm....)

Fisher’s side (we do not have in the book letters written to her) of her correspondence with family and friends begins, in A Life in Letters: Correspondence 1929-1991, when she was living in Dijon with her first husband. The last in the volume is two sentences long and was written to the same friend who received one of the earliest in the collection. It is so short and such a perfect close for the volume that I will quote it in full:
Transcendental is the word. I don’t believe in all this stuff about grief because I think we grieve forever, but that goes for love too, fortunately for us all.

Some women I know were talking the other morning about how “no one” writes letters “any more,” and the thought made me sad. I think of the closeness developed with several friends through the writing of long letters to each other (after more superficial acquaintance) when they went to live in far-off places and we could not meet in person for months or years. When they returned, we had become true friends, and those friendships continue to this day.

The very slowness of handwriting a letter, along with the tactile component, brings intimacy to the process. The necessary wait for a letter to arrive allows anticipation to build. Finally, there is the delight of taking the envelope in hand at last, with that dear, familiar handwriting. A letter from my friend!

While I truly delight in e-mails from a handful of friends (and I’m sure people receive at least some phone texts with delight, though I do not text so do not know from firsthand experience), how can instant electronic match the miraculous sensation of opening a letter and beginning to read it, picturing one’s friend writing the words several days before, and now, days later, feeling that friend’s mind in communion with one’s own? My own letter-writing, as I say, feels self-indulgent, and yet I am grateful for personal letters others write me. Reading a letter, I am thankful that my friend set aside time to share her or his life and thoughts with me.

Friendship, after all, like marriage, takes time. There are no shortcuts to long relationships.

On the heels of the sad conversation about “no one” writing letters “any more,” I went straight to the post office to buy stamps. That was Saturday. Now today, Tuesday the 26th of January, Leelanau Township bows under a heavy, wet snow. School is closed. Roads are bad. It’s a good day to write letters. And maybe somewhere, far from my isolated farmhouse, a friend is writing a letter to me....

Friday, January 22, 2016

On the World Stage, Opinions Are All Over the Map

Years ago I heard for the first time, so memorable it never afterward left me, on Interlochen Public Radio’s Saturday morning call-in request segment, the tenor and baritone duet from Bizet’s opera “Les pêcheurs de perles” (“The Pearl Fishers”). For only the second time in my life (the first was a violin piece by Paganini), music on the radio stopped me in my tracks so that I had to sit down and do nothing but listen, with tears in my eyes. I knew nothing of the opera’s story. Subsequently I borrowed a CD from the library with music from “The Pearl Fishers” and listened to it over and over. Of all the operas in the world, this is the one I most wanted to see and hear live.

The New York Metropolitan last staged “The Pearl Fishers” in 1906. Even before I had any idea it had been such a long time since they’d done it, when I heard that the Met was mounted a production this month, I had to see it. That dream made possible by the fact that the production would be available to patrons of the State Theatre in Traverse City through HD simulcast (as well as by a good friend who, unlike me, doesn’t mind ordering tickets online). Many people we know regularly attend the opera simulcasts at the State Theatre. It would be our first time David and I had gone.

Were my expectations impossibly high? Was disappointment inevitable?

Saturday became increasingly complicated. I had already planned to take care of fairly urgent banking business in Traverse City when David got word of a friend’s funeral to be held that morning in town. We drove in early, and I dropped him off at the church, going on to credit union and bank by myself. It was a snowy winter day.

On Division Street (U.S. 31 South) another driver insisted on following practically on my rear bumper. The highway was snow-covered and slippery. Apprehensively glancing between windshield view and rearview mirror, I missed my turn and had to circle around, crabbier by the minute.

Driving back into town along West Front Street, not far from my old (as in “long ago”) neighborhood, I thought about driving on snowy Traverse City streets back in 1970-71 and how much has changed since then, the “City” part of the town’s name much more appropriate now. And yet, back then all streets, sidewalks, and alleys, not only downtown but throughout residential neighborhoods, were plowed 24 hours a day, much to my initial astonishment that first winter. “I miss it the way it used to be,” a friend said to me last spring. Sometimes I do, too.

But heaven forbid that irritability should ruin a day so long anticipated! Back in the 1970s, after all, the struggling State Theatre had a very outdated sound system and didn’t show many movies I wanted to see. Once again, “Something’s lost, and something’s gained,” as Jonie Mitchell sang in “Both Sides Now.”

I was still nervous about picking David up at the church, getting downtown in time, parking the car, and meeting the friend who had booked our tickets, but all went well, and once we found our seats I could relax and look around in good spirits. So many friends in the audience! And soon we were transported to New York City (where the people in the audience at the Met looked pretty much the same as the one in Traverse City). David and I tried to think of people we knew in New York to look for them in the audience. Later I heard that one of the couples we’d thought of had been in the audience, though we couldn't spot them onscreen. The wife told me they found it “amazing.” Same here!

The opening sequence of the opera was a spectacular technical tour de force, lyrical and captivating, but I was impatient for the full stage and the appearance of the singers. For me, there were no disappointments.

I loved the opening set with rickety wooden seaside docks and pilings, the ensemble of singers (villagers from the little pearl-fishing community) and the way they moved onstage with the music, the colorful but down-to-earth costumes, the mix of traditional and modern elements that felt like such a realistic portrayal of life in that part of the world, but always – above everything else – the beautiful music and exquisite singing. Not for a single moment did I feel the slightest hint of tedium. The voices of tenor Matthew Polenzani and baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, singing Nadir and Zurga, seemed made for their lyrical duet, and soprano Diana Damrau’s delicate, soft seemingly effortless trills made me hold my breath. We were also impressed by Nicolas Testé and the way he inhabited the role of the high priest, Nourabad. Throughout, the music swept me up, held me, and carried me away. In fact, days later, the magic is still with me. A couple friends from our group spoke of similar responses.

So imagine my shock when I looked online for a review, in hopes of finding someone in the larger world who shared our delight, and found one of the most negative opera reviews I’ve ever read, in which the reviewer actually calls the production “tawdry”! He liked almost nothing, from the composer’s music to the work of the set designer. I could only imagine what terrible things must have been going on in his personal life. Another reviewer, the second I found, raved about the singing and acting and the sets (thank God!) but faulted the story of the opera for its thin plot and contrived ending.

Okay, I'll admit it straight out – I am a naive opera-goer. My parents’ love of opera failed to capture me at an early age. I’ve never studied the musical genre and have attended very few performances in my life. But others in our group of ten greatly surpass me in musical sophistication, and we all loved what we saw and heard, so I hardly think my enjoyment can be chalked up to nothing more than naiveté.

As for “contrived”? Opera is contrived! The artificiality of it is the main reason I was immune to its charm for so long! Accepting contrivance now as part of the package, why would I be disappointed in a thin plot or an unrealistic ending? It’s the music, the music, the music, the voices, the voices, the singing -- and I was enraptured by the music of these voices from start to finish.

Told the New York Times had a positive review, I went over to read it. Thank heavens! Someone who saw and heard the same opera that thrilled me!

I still feel sorry for that poor Spectator reviewer, for whatever prevented him from feeling the magic, and as for history’s opinion, cited by the Guardian, that the promise of this opera of Bizet is “unrealized,” I can only be grateful to the Met for ignoring history’s opinion and staging their triumphant production in spite of it.

Bravo, les artistes! A merci mille fois mille fois!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Joining Love and Power

...And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites – polar opposites – so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a resignation of love. 

We’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.

-       Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his final presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967