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Monday, December 31, 2007

Random Thoughts at Year's End

A line in the space of time: on one side, 2007, and on the post-midnight side, 2008. The line feels so arbitrary. Organic seasons meld into one another gradually, but the celestial mark provided by the solstice would make sense. Oh, well. As it is, so be it. Here, on the fast-disappearing ground this side of the line, are a few of my thoughts as the year comes to a close.


This morning’s e-mail brought a message from a bookseller colleague that began, “It makes me smile, too, to know that you and I are still around and that there are people who love our shops.” I smiled reading that. My friend ended with “I'm so happy that we have arrived at much the same destination through our very different paths.” Me, too!

Although the actual time we have spent in one another’s company through the years can be measured in a few brief hours, this friend’s importance in my life is out of all proportion to time. We share our love of books and the joys of bookselling, as well as its frustrations, struggles, fears and heartaches. We take comfort in one another’s persistence, knowing that neither of us is alone as long as the other still has her bookstore, too. When someone tells me they love her shop or tells her they love mine, we rush to share the compliment. Another year, Mary! We’ve made it through another year!


Why are volumes of short stories such a hard sell these days, and what happened to diminish the popularity of the form? Where do we look for the explanation?

Magazines? It doesn’t take much of a search to realize that there are fewer popular magazine outlets for short fiction than existed 50 years ago. But if there’s a causal connection here, which way does the arrow point? Are short stories less popular because fewer are published, or did falling popularity erode their platform?

Book publishers? One writer I know blames book publishers for failing to market short stories aggressively. “Novelists are treated like rock stars,” this informant says, implying the undeniable difference. Well, some novels are treated like rock stars, but most are not, I’d say. Anyway, if short stories were hot, wouldn’t publishers be the first to jump on that bandwagon? Here, too, I have to question the direction of the causal arrow. (Or maybe it goes in both directions?)

How about “investment mentality”? You would think that heightened demands on personal time, overbooked schedules, long commutes, etc., would send people running away from long novels and straight into the welcoming arms of short stories, but such is not the case, and the only way I can make sense of it, after listening to what readers say, is in terms of a widespread investment mentality, a deeply held but unarticulated desire for a big payoff to time spent reading. Picture a reader finishing the first short story in a book with the belief that it was the first chapter in a novel. The reader turns expectantly and eagerly to the second story and finds—END OF GAME! Deposit more coins to play again! Yes, Virginia, now you have to invest your energy in getting to know all new characters! Even in collections that feature reappearing characters, I’ve also heard complaints about the lack of an “ending” to a short story collection.

It’s a shame, really. Not only is the short story a convenient and portable form, fitting comfortably into busy lives, but the best short stories, like the best poetry, are distillations of worlds--of character development, of plot, of language itself. “Each one is a jewel!” a friend exclaimed about one collection she had discovered. Looked at this way, the payoff is huge for the time invested! What’s required to see it this way, though, is a different set of expectations.

I was reminded to write about this topic (how can I have neglected it for so long?) by discovering a book blog issuing a short story challenge for 2008. If you’ve neglected short stories, consider accepting Kate’s challenge. You’ll have plenty of time left for reading history, memoirs, novels and all those fun books on economics, politics and the environment that come at us faster than we can possibly get through them.


Writing is something I think about more often than I do it, except for this site. Getting any further along in my 'tween novel this winter (it was begun last March and set aside all summer and fall) looks doubtful, what with commuting to Traverse City to teach philosophy two mornings a week (unexpected addition to winter workload), on top of running the bookstore. Preparing classes, teaching, grading—all that takes up a lot of mental space. It's also been two years since my last winter trip to Florida, when pencil drawing was the pleasant vacation assignment I gave myself, and that’s something else I don’t expect to do this winter. But there is still the blog, and I try to be faithful to it.

David asked if I “have to” write something every day. There is no obligation, I told him, but if my regular readers logged on and found nothing new for several days in a row, I could easily lose them. There’s a certain satisfaction in having someone tell me they read me every day. Some like the pictures best, and that’s all right, too, but even that takes some preparation and attention. (I’ve held back from promising a new picture every day, but those who visit frequently know that I try!)

So, is this self-imposed obligation worth the effort that goes into it? There have been a few new recent customers to the Dog Ears Books website who found it through the blog, but the blog itself is much more than a sales device. I write it as much for myself as for an audience (though connecting with you readers is part of what’s important to me). So as long as I enjoy the writing and can find the time, it's worth it.

Keep reading, my friends! (Blogs AND BOOKS!) And have a happy, healthy, meaningful, productive, peaceful, hard-working new year!!! As my friend Ellen likes to say at the close of her e-mails, “Onward and upward!”

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Holiday Dog

Dorene O’Brien, author of VOICES OF THE LOST AND FOUND, showed up in Northport on Friday with husband Pat, daughter Hadley, and four-month-old yellow Lab puppy Chloe, all come to enjoy a long holiday weekend. When they bemoaned Chloe’s lack of bandana, I liberated Nikki’s old holiday scarf from the picture frame on the counter (it had been tied around her portrait) and insisted that it now be Chloe’s. “Are you sure?” they kept asking. But of course! Nikki wouldn’t mind at all, and see how cute Chloe looks in it! I’m sure Chloe and her family enjoyed the beautiful blizzard that arrived later in the afternoon, too. After a convivial stop at Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern, we were glad to get home to our reading chairs by the fireplace.

Tonight, continuing with UNBOWED, I'll be referring to maps in Fodor's.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Water and Trees the World Over

“When my mother sent me to fetch water,” writes Wangari Maathai, in her memoir entitled UNBOWED, “I would get lost in this fascinating world of nature until she would call out, ‘What are you doing under the arrowroots? Bring the water!’”

In Kenya, in Connecticut, and in northern Michigan, too, small streams first emerge amid moss and ferns, passing through a variety of habitats as they gather volume. For young Wangari, the presence of arrowroots meant water. Here where I live, a course of flowing water across a field is indicated by a haphazard parade of Joe-Pye-weed wandering through the grass.

There is no telling what a day in the bookstore will bring! A conversation with my first customer this morning, coming to pick up two copies of Berndt Heinrich’s wonderful out-of-print work, THE TREES IN MY FOREST, revealed the fact that she herself had traveled to Kenya, where her daughter had gone to work with the Leakeys, and this Northport woman had been invited to dinner by Mary Leakey, Richard's mother. She told me that the landscape of the region she visited reminded her of the southwest United States, and her daughter mused that perhaps that was why she felt so at home there. I remember how the sand beaches and pine trees of the north coast of France felt like home to me, as did the lakes of Scotland.

Next visitor was pal Chris Garthe, and telling him about all of the above sent us both to THE NEW FIELD BOOK OF FRESHWATER LIFE, by Elsie B. Klots, to look up arrowroots native to our part of Michigan, then to the Leelanau County map to show each other the boundaries of our small home "worlds," both within the same township but without overlapping borders.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

More Armchair Travels

Again I am reading two books at once. Not very far along yet in either, I am so excited by both that I turn from one to the other, compelled and distracted at the same time, a child between two equally attractive new toys. One book is called CUTTINGS FROM A ROCK GARDEN and is a collection of short writings by Lincoln Foster and Laura Louise Foster, husband and wife, both gardeners and artists. The other is UNBOWED: A MEMOIR, the life story of Wangari Maathai, first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for her efforts to save the forests of Kenya, a project that has become worldwide in scope.

There is some common ground, obviously. Still, I am surprised and delighted by purely coincidental similarities between the Fosters’ New England homestead and Maathai’s childhood environment in the Central Highlands of Kenya. Kirinyaga (named Mount Kenya by the British) dominated Kikuyu spirituality, Maathai writes. “Everything good came from it: abundant rains, rivers, streams, clean drinking water.” In the Fosters’ Connecticut neighborhood, Wangum Lake on top of Canaan Mountain was the source of their own Deming Brook. “The brook rises just behind Bradford Peak, Canaan Mountain’s highest point,” collecting and dripping and trickling, joined by other waters (seeps and streams), widening and purling until “plunging in a series of falls down the steep escarpment that forms the south face of Canaan Mountain.” The Fosters had an emergency 30-foot well to carry them through drought years but much preferred the sweet, rushing brook water from the mountain. Maathai writes of her home stream, Kanungu, bubbling up fresh and clear from the good Kenyan earth, “I imagine that very few people have been lucky enough to see the source of a river.” She explains how (as she learned later in life) the roots of a fig tree penetrated to the underground water table and brought water up to where it emerged as a spring. Because the people held the fig tree sacred, their fresh water source was culturally protected.

Mountains, streams, reservoirs, mills, trees. I can imagine the Fosters visiting and appreciating the Aberdare forest, as I can imagine Maathai taking curious pleasure in exploring the woods and valleys and gardens of Canaan Mountain, each returning with satisfaction and contentment to home soil.

More and more my own sense of home becomes increasingly localized, shrinking from county to township to the small, irregular wedge bounded by M-22, Jelinek Road and Kovarik Road. It contains enough variety for a lifetime of exploration. Once, years ago, after a hard afternoon thunderstorm, we heard the rushing roar Laura Foster describes and, following our own usually small, suddenly overflowing creek upstream, found a magical, temporary world of cataracts and waterfalls. Another time, further downstream—on the Lake Michigan side of the highway, in fact—we tried to keep up with our elderly neighbor, Julius Houdek, as he led us up- and downhill to where the creek empties out into the big lake. Julius knew every tree. He knew every species, but he also knew every individual tree. There is also a story Ricky Deering told me once about the time his father took him to see a ram on Kovarik Road. Not a male sheep, but a water ram, a device for pumping water using the force of falling water itself rather than an outside power source. The very idea of the ram fascinates me. It captures fully for me the magic of water.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Adventures in Books

Is there a bookseller alive who can resist books recounting the experiences of other booksellers? A few weeks ago I devoured REBEL BOOKSELLER, by Andrew Laties, and then THE SEVEN STAIRS: AN ADVENTURE OF THE HEART, by Stuart Brent (latter first copyrighted in 1962). Both are Chicago stories, as well as bookselling stories, so for someone who grew up in the shadow of the Second City, the appeal is irresistible.

Both books (as is only natural) explore serious challenges to the dream of having one’s own bookstore. Although publishers came to his rescue more than once, Brent lays a lot of blame at publishers’ doors for turning books into commodities. The thrill of seeing publishing houses on the board at Wall Street is, for Brent, offset by his suspicion that investors are not looking to invest in a “cultural renaissance” but want only a “sure thing,” a safe return. All the market excitement of mergers and acquisitions involving publishing houses, Brent thinks, only mean that publishers and their stockholders are more and more driven to want only block-busting best-sellers.

Laties blames the returns policy. It’s hard for a small, independent bookseller to survive when the big-box boys are ordering tens of thousands of books at a time from publishers and distributors, for deep discounts, and then returning tens of thousands for credit, adding another 90 days to their invoices. Publishers, unpaid for months on end, are caught in a squeeze. Often they print too many books, based on early orders (because who can calculate returns in advance?), and then have to warehouse or remainder or shred their surplus, adding to the cost passed along to the end customer. Books should be sold like any other retail commodity, Laties says: you order it, you pay for it, it’s yours, to sell or not to sell.

I’m sympathetic to both these views, as well as the recent NEA report that says fewer Americans are reading books for pleasure these days. There’s more than one culprit here, in other words, but I do see a common theme, and its name is, I’m sorry to say, adventure avoidance. In theory (en principe, as the French and I love to say), free market capitalism is the place for risk, the ideal arena for business adventure, but what is the reality? People who want to take wild fliers with their money go to a gambling casino, where the experience is marketed honestly as entertainment rather than investment. Investors in the market, on the other hand, are usually looking to minimize risk and maximize earnings, as are the corporations selling stock. This is why “free trade” agreements with Third World countries put the governments and workers of those countries over a barrel with their hands tied behind their backs. The big guy’s object is not to level the field but to gain for himself the biggest possible advantage at the outset, and fairness be damned. It’s horse racing minus handicapping, with drugs and fixing thrown in. (See CONFESSIONS OF AN ECONOMIC HIT MAN; THE SHOCK DOCTRINE; EVERYTHING FOR SALE.)

But back to bookstores--are we talking about small independents run by foolish idealists, big box chains, or online giants? The second and third groups, already financially advantaged, will continue to seek further advantages wherever possible. Chain stores of every kind, like multiplex theatres, have as part of their business strategy identifying a small, successful independent and invading its territory. This is supposed to be good for the consumer, too, offering greatest breadth of product at lowest price, but the argument Laties presents casts serious doubt on the results, at least for bookselling. Book customers would be paying less for new books if huge chains did not have the advantage of ordering thousands of books on credit and returning them for continued credit.

Brent tells the story of how he found his original Rush Street location and the way he imagined the store versus the shock of business reality. “I saw the little room filled with books and records, a fire going, and myself in a velvet jacket, being charming and gracious to everyone who came in.” He jumps … at last everything in place, and—“And no one came to visit me. Morning, noon, and night it was the same. I was alone with my books and my music.” His books, he writes, were “all so good” (one hears the exclamation mark that does not appear after those words), and: “Still nobody came.”

If publishers lack a sense of adventure today, if corporate chain bookstores are avoiding adventure, and if (as Brent believed in the 1960’s and the NEA seems to suggest today) buyers of books want only safe, known-quantity “products,” is there still room for adventure in the world of books? (And don’t you just love rhetorical questions?) I’d like to give two answers.

The first is that my life IS an adventure in books. On July 4, 2008, Dog Ears Books will be 15 years old. It hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been a laugh riot every single step of the way (living a dream is a much bigger challenge than simply having one), but it’s been done without a trust fund or a retirement pension or health insurance, and it’s been done with a whole lot of re-invention along the way, and I’m proud of having bootstrapped my little operation up from its origins in an unheated shed. Part of my adventure is books, part is business, and part of it is meeting other real book people, those who absolutely love--and regularly buy--books. Just as travelers share carefully guarded information about wonderful places they’ve discovered, my customers and I learn from each other about book treasures and adventures.

Which leads to my second answer: My bookstore offers an adventure in books to anyone who walks in the door. My new books are not corporate-picked but chosen by me (taking into consideration suggestions from friends, customers and my distributors, to be sure), and with the used as well as the new, decisions as to what deserves shelf space is one I take seriously. Sometimes on those lonely days Brent describes, I look around and say aloud (reminding myself), “This is a treasure trove!” For people who want homogeneity in their “shopping” experience (the word doesn’t even seem appropriate), does my bookstore stray outside safe, familiar borders and arouse anxiety? How many times over the years have I heard people exclaim in surprise and delight over the contents of Dog Ears Books, after they’d driven by the store for years without coming in, assuming I sold only used mass market paperbacks?

Yes, there is still adventure to be found in the world of books, as in the world at large. All you have to do is get off the expressway, both the literal and the metaphorical, and explore a little.

My deepest gratitude goes out to explorers from Chicago, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, St. Louis, Seattle, and from right here in NORTHPORT!-from all parts of the country and world that my customers call home. Your Dog Ears Books purchases keep my little bookstore open. May your numbers increase!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Monday, December 24, 2007

Remembering, Imagining

This is what I’m remembering: It was in the mid-1990’s, when we were living in Leland, and I left David and a visiting friend in the living room with the half-decorated tree to drive to Traverse City, where my son was arriving by bus from Kalamazoo. It was a cold and wild night—not just storm “warnings” but a full-blown blizzard in process. The bus station, it turned out, was closed, and the bus from Kalamazoo was late. Waiting passengers with tickets, dropped off by friends and relatives at the start of their journey, stood out in the cold, stomping like restless cattle to keep their feet from freezing, their faces turned away from the wind. I joined the herd to wait with them.

One young couple captured my attention. Everything about their hair and the way they were dressed said they were hippies from the late 1960’s, but it was obvious they hadn’t even been born that long ago. The boy had amazing quantities of hair. The girl wore a very large shawl draped over her head and held a baby, wrapped in blankets, tightly against her body. They were a quiet family but smiled at each other and anyone who met their gaze. On Christmas Eve, they made an unforgettable picture, evocative of that other couple so long ago.

The bus arrived, my son descended, departing passengers boarded, and Ian and I started north—my return trip and the last leg of his journey. It was the most frightening drive of my life. (David says that of his turn at the wheel on the first of this very month, this year). The road ahead of me was hidden by swirling snow much of the time. Where was that road, anyway? Traffic was nonexistent, so there were no taillights to follow. The last S-curves on M-22 south of Leland, between Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau, were the worst. Even now, I never drive that stretch of road south-to-north without recalling that night, when I feared swerving inadvertently off the road and being plunged through the ice, taking my only child with me.

Yes, we made the journey safely and finished decorating the tree. But all these years later, I still wonder about that little family at the bus station. Where were they going? What became of them? Thinking of them brings to mind all the struggling young families around the world, so disproportionately affected by war, famine, disease, political upheaval—by all that is difficult in the world.

Some people say that anything human beings can imagine can be made real. Usually they say this in terms of technology. What about peace on earth? What if we all imagined that tonight?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Cold Day in Our Little Village

During the first early afternoon hour this last Sunday before Christmas, the shortest day of the year, the temperature plunged. I’d gone to the bookstore (usually only do Sundays during the summer, but I had a few things to take care of today), where I enjoyed coffee and a chat with friend Susan C. while visitors from Leland browsed the shelves. A look through the windows was enough to tell us that the wind had picked up. Horizontal bursts of snow were flying down the street. Br-r-r-r! Not much later, David and I made our way heroically to Tom’s Market for a major grocery shopping. Done! Ready for Christmas and prepared for the possibility of being snowed in! Being home in front of the fire by 2 p.m. was a treat!

Today’s picture shows one small section of the miniature village set up in the window of the former pharmacy, courtesy of Patty DeYoung. Skies have been dreary the past three days, but the colors of holiday lights bring us good cheer. Thank you, Patty!

The book I’d like to highlight today is by an old friend, Dan Gerber, originally from Fremont, Michigan, recently of Leland (a neighbor back in the 1990’s), and now a resident of the West. Dan’s latest book of poetry, A PRIMER ON PARALLEL LIVES, has been chosen as one of this year’s Michigan Notable Books.

The press release I received along with the list of 2007 Michigan Notables says: “Gerber’s seventh book of poetry explores his fears and doubts as a youth growing up in western Michigan and reveals the landscape of his current home on California’s central coast. Nature and observations of the world around him are central to Gerber’s poems. His poetry explores everyday experiences and images, successfully converting them into something unique and magical. Gerber won the 1992 Michigan Author Award and is a past recipient of the Mark Twain Award.”

What I am aware of throughout is the simplicity of language and recurring threads of concern that inform this writer’s thought. Searingly personal without being in any way tediously introspective or agonizing, the poems in this volume are haunted by the presence of the poet’s mother (from his childhood to her old age) and graced by natural objects. They are also criss-crossed by dogs, his constant companions (“My old dog’s eyes stay with me/though she’s gone”), and frequently visited by the Buddha.

Much of the imagery is Western. This is natural, in that Gerber now makes his home in the West. But Michigan, unnamed, is still in the background, as I sense in this stanza:

"I am always returning to the edge of water,
lapping at the loam of a bank under pine needles,
and slapping at the bellies of dock planks.
Or I’m looking into one of those still, black ponds,
which seems to me like a pupil of the planet,
through which it watches the other stars
and finally our own silent faces,
going down to its ever-intensified heart."

Tonight a film of ice will close over many more pond and lake eyes, and in the coming months we will have to look directly at the stars without water’s mediating reflection.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Mystery Object

As a thin skin of ice was forming in the harbor on Wednesday, through a patch of open water I glimpsed this object on the lake bottom. Boaters, did one of you lose something? It looks like a keychain for a giant key.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Three Phrases I'd Like to See Disappear

Bankruptcies, foreclosures, surgeries, illness and death, family and business worries, cranky letters to the editor in our weekly local newspaper. So many people are in full-blown crisis or just plain bad humor as the holidays approach. Why shouldn’t I go on a little rant, too? I’d like to purge myself of any residue of grinchiness before it’s too late. So here are my top three most-detested phrases in current usage:

A nationally syndicated columnist recently complained bitterly, in print, that “Merry Christmas” is now “politically incorrect,” joining legions of vague speakers and writers who prefer to make accusing statements in veiled terms and cloak insults in the armor of self-righteousness. Both sins fall under the use--usually accompanied by a snide smirk--of this ubiquitous and annoying term, “PC” for short. Let me state my own position clearly. I do not greet or take leave of people whose beliefs are unknown to me, much less those whose beliefs would make the greeting inappropriate, with “Merry Christmas.” And that’s not because I’m quivering in fear of thought police but because I want to express seasonal goodwill to all, regardless of belief, neither excluding nor insulting. To me, that’s what goodwill is all about. Talk of PC is not limited to the holiday season. Those who take pride in being “politically incorrect” see themselves as courageous defenders of besieged positions, but I’ve heard the phrase and seen the smirk when the language being used and labeled, proudly, “politically incorrect” was language I would not use in any arena, words one would expect to see in the worst graffiti or hear in the most outrageous rap lyrics. Nowadays, instead of expecting to have their mouths washed out with soap, big boys and girls with naughty pre-adolescent urges intact spew profanity and racist and sexist remarks while waving a banner proclaiming their courage in the face of PC-ness. I’m not buying it. It’s true, of course, that people sometimes use words timidly. Sometimes, though, what the snide denigrate as timidity may be intentional goodwill (rather than exclusion) or reason (rather than insult) or plain, old-fashioned civility. I don’t think there can be an excess of civility in public discourse.

I blame journalists for this one. What are they thinking? The phrase originated in countries run by monstrous dictators who didn’t want to call their deadly policies by the correct name! In the mildest forms, policies called EC constituted oppression; at worst, they are out-and-out genocide. When free men and women of goodwill and concern for the downtrodden buy into the metaphorical language of “cleansing,” they give up their ability to frame outrage in meaningful terms. If ethnic groups are being oppressed or harassed or denied justice or deprived of their very lives, let’s say so, straight out. Don’t help bullies reframe their bullying in cleaner terms.

Again, journalists! Think about the language you use! The statement behind statements of this kind is simply “We did it!” That’s the bottom line, and there are more ways than one to translate such a statement into news-talk. Why not frame it as an admission of guilt? Why not call it a confession? Why give murderers, of whatever political stripe, a phrase that glorifies their deeds? Whose side are you on, anyway, guys and gals?

Okay, there it is. One last thought: wishing peace only to men of goodwill isn’t asking for the world to change very much. So I say, Goodwill to all! Happy holidays!!!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Downtown Tree

The tree at Nagonaba Crossing, draped in white and blue lights, looks beautiful as day edges into dusk and dusk to dark. Santa visited here on the evening of December 1 and is scheduled to reappear on Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dreams: Another World Altogether

The other night I was having such a bizarre and interesting dream that when I woke up I grabbed a pen and paper to write it down. In the dream I was substitute teaching high school English. The topic for the day was ‘profit,’ but I didn’t know what book the students had been assigned to read. They were all sitting on their hands, so to speak, trying not to make eye contact with me as I endeavored to get them to think about ‘profit’ and the associations the word had for them. Finally one boy uttered a word (and I can’t remember it exactly) that sounded like either ‘typhoon’ or ‘tempest’ or both, and I thought, Fine! I’ll take anything I can drag out of them and turn it into a discussion. My next thought was Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST and the character of Caliban. I quoted to the students Caliban’s bitter line, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse.” Then I remembered Miranda and her exclamation on seeing the first beings she has ever seen on the island outside her father and Caliban, and suddenly I remembered the assigned reading for the day--BRAVE NEW WORLD, by Aldous Huxley. But I was distracted from Huxley by all kinds of thoughts about Shakespeare and economics and world trade, e.g., What benefit did Prospero (the prosperous British noble) bring to Caliban, native of the island? Today, awake, I looked into the play and felt I’d never read it before. Must begin from the beginning again!

The sun shone all day in Northport, which raised everyone’s spirits considerably. Lots of snow and ice melted. The air was (relatively) warm. People were out walking and shopping and smiling, and it was a busy, pleasant day at Dog Ears. At the end of the day, as dark came on, the many bright lights were as cheery as the sunshine had been.

Started WATER FOR ELEPHANTS last night and got two-thirds of the way through the book, which surprised me. I'd thought it would last a week, at least, but the story moves along very quickly.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Top Ten Reasons

Okay, so it’s a pitch, but you’ve got to humor a bookseller once in a while. The picture today is another self-indulgence on my part, a dip back into the memory banks to enjoy Nikki enjoying the snow-filled meadow. And here now, without further ado, are my top ten reasons for giving books as gifts::

10. They can be opened again and again and again.
9. If treated well, they never wear out.
8. They add character and warmth to any room.
7. You can’t go wrong on size or color.
6. You can enjoy them yourself before you give them.
5. They are easy to wrap and ship.
4. They’re fun for kids despite the approval of parents and teachers.
3. They are equally at home in the woods and in the city.
2. They require no batteries or outside power source.
1. You’re adding to the recipient’s lifetime pleasure.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Girlhood Revisited

After a mildly stressful week of hurrying to get cards and packages in the mail, our household morning today featured a four-hour reading-aloud marathon. I’d already been thinking that THE ISLAND STALLION might be a good book to introduce David to the work of Walter Farley, my favorite childhood author, so when he asked this morning, “What are you reading?” and I’d already made coffee, we dug right in. Would I find the same magic I’d found in upper elementary school when my friend Kathleen and I devoured everything Walter Farley wrote?

The Island Stallion has all the makings of a cracking good yarn. There is the romance of faraway islands, one of which encloses a hidden world not seen by human eyes for centuries. As hardly needs saying (given the title), there are beautiful, wild horses. There is danger and more than one near-death experience. Moral dilemmas present themselves, and knotty problems of survival and decision have to be thought through. The passion Steve has for “his” horse (literally, the horse of his dreams) is matched by his friend’s passion for thrilling archaeological finds, and the two friends find themselves in conflict over and over as the adventure progresses.

The wild red stallion’s dominance over his mares is threatened by a challenger (here I admit that racist overtones troubled me), as, similarly, the entire hidden world’s integrity and continuity are threatened by the outside world (if the secret becomes public) and, more specifically, by a heartless brute of a man, Steve’s friend’s stepbrother, whose only interest in wild horses is inciting them to physical rebellion and then subduing them by force. Both Steve and his friend, Pitch, are tempted by the desire to possess permanently what they most love, even as they realize that possession will destroy a priceless world.

Near the close of the story, as Steve is pondering a letter to his parents, he reflects that his father is more likely than his mother to understand his feeling for the wild horse he wants to rescue, and I had to stop and think about that. Not a single female character appears in the book, and the only one who appears indirectly lacks the requisite passion for horses or even the ability to understand such passion. How, then, explain the spell cast over me, as young girl, by this adventure? How explain Farley’s appeal to girls as well as boys?

Well, first, the horses, of course. But there is also, importantly, the way girls identify with horses rather than imagining themselves in the role of owner. This feeling, completely alien to the stepbrother’s urge to dominate animals, is the main character’s feeling, too, so that girl readers can imagine themselves not only as the Flame but also as Steve. This has nothing to do with gender, everything to do with love.

When Steve at last succeeds in mounting and riding Flame, his eyes fill with tears. “No longer did he feel that the stallion was separate from him, that he was riding Flame. It was entirely different now. It was as though he and the horse were one. He was Flame! He thought the same, felt the same! They were running because they loved to run, because this was the way it was meant to be!”

Rough-and-ready boy readers have plenty of heart-pounding vicarious violence to enjoy as Flame battles to the death not one, but two challengers, and the excitement of the many challenges to life and limb are enough for readers of either gender and any age. I found myself defending (in one of our many interruptions to the story to discuss one or another aspect of the writing or the plot) the piebald stallion, described as “ugly,” with his large, heavy head and eyes of mismatched color. He couldn’t help his looks. He was a horse, after all, not a brutal man like Pitch’s stepbrother. The piebald was no more cruel than Flame. All the horses were acting only according to their nature.

--Ah, there’s another, more general appeal to girls in a story like this: What young girl in the world would not want to be smart, beautiful and wild, “conquered” by love but remaining forever untamed? Women, am I right?

It’s another cold night, and the blowing snow is thick. It could be a wild night.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Holiday Count-Down

Only eleven days until Christmas, so here’s another ornament. This one is on Donna’s tree, down at the Treasure Chest, a Santa that belonged to her father. Cookbooks, horse books, dog books and history—those were the front-runners at Dog Ears Books today.

One shopper arrived mid-afternoon at the very moment when the awful old “Starvation!” feeling was overtaking me. (Somehow lunch time had come and gone without my noticing.) Fortunately, my sister Deborah had sent a big box of Florida citrus, and there was a partial jar of peanuts on hand, so when Marjorie admitted her blood sugar was feeling low, too, we shared an orange and nibbled peanuts until our survival was assured.

Now David and I are home for the night, listening to forecasts for single-digit temperatures overnight. It won’t be the first time. It won’t be the coldest night we’ve ever had in Michigan, either. That would be almost -40 F., right here in Leelanau County, many years back. A memorable December—but what year was it?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Irish in Me

Thanks to my sister Bettie, I now have copies of a few documents relating to the maternal grandfather we never met, Patrick Daley of County Cork. All we knew of him for decades was just that: Patrick Daley from County Cork. Now we know more.

It’s strange to have specific information for the first time—his date of birth, December 13, 1886, and place of birth, Fermoy; to know that at the age of 30 (having immigrated to America in 1913) he registered for the draft in Dayton, Ohio, identifying himself as a citizen of the Republic of Ireland, employed as a furniture finisher for Burkhardt Furniture Company on Monument Avenue in Dayton; to have evidence on paper that he and Grace Braudendistel [the spelling on the document, though we were never given that name with an ‘r’] were married in Dayton in February of 1918 at the Church of St. Joseph, “according to the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church.” There is even a physical description: “medium build, slender, blue eyes, dark brown hair.” My mother, at the time of her own marriage following World War II, could have been described in the same words.

For me, these details deepen the mystery of my mother’s father rather than diminishing it. For the first time I have sketched for me a living person rather than simply a name from an Irish county. A man peers out from behind the myth (of which, over the years, we had conflicting versions), but he is still in the shadows.

The man, though, gives me a different perspective on Irish history. It’s all more personal. I read of the Mitchelstown Massacre in 1887 and think, “My grandfather was less than a year old then.” Reading Nuala O’Faolain’s wonderful MY DREAM OF YOU (so richly layered and full of surprises), I realize that my grandfather’s parents were among the thin ranks of “survivors,” those who neither died nor emigrated during the Famine.

Another Patrick, Patrick Gallagher, whose grandfather of the same name was born in 1842, writes in his introduction to Laurence O’Connor’s LOST IRELAND:
“Old photographs are spooks left by their subjects, emanations of their presence, tracings of their bodies. They are not at all one man’s image of another, as is the painted portrait. They are tangible after-images of existence: they diminish imagination, offering in its place an embarrassing closeness to the waxy dead.”
We still have no photograph of Patrick Daley, but this documentation offers traces of his existence, and I find myself with new markers in time.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Guest Review #1: SEVEN LOVES

In each chapter, each separate yet interwoven story of SEVEN LOVES, Valerie Trueblood picks up the glass prism of love and turns another side toward the light.

SEVEN LOVES is a series of glimpses into the life of May Nilsson. The first look shows us a retired English teacher who lives alone in a senior apartment building in Seattle, a fiftyish widow who worries about her own diminishment as she ages. Working in a downtown office as part of a program called ‘Senior Class’ that returns older people to the workplace, May develops a sort of crush on a beautiful but awkward co-worker, a sad young woman full of confused compassion, who reads the newspaper every day “as if it were a letter (she) had to answer” but who cannot figure out how to actually do anything with her profound empathy. As though she is randomly pulling puzzle pieces from their box, Trueblood goes on to show the reader, through each precisely and intricately written chapter, May’s several passions during her long life, some of which caused her great heartache, some tremendous joy. Through her reckless affair with an improbable stranger years before and its attendant toll on her marriage, her alternating loyalty and disloyalty to her physician husband, her adoration for her weak, drug-addicted son and her compassion for the guilt-ridden police officer who holds himself responsible for her son’s death, Trueblood’s puzzle pieces fit cleanly, giving us a tender and studied picture of May’s life and the passions that guided her.

In her eighties, after May suffers a serious stroke, she is moved to a nursing home where she begins a flirtation with Sven, a kind but misguided attendant who helps care for her. By this time May can no longer manage her own buttons; her speech must be guessed at by others. She daydreams about a planned outing to a farm where bees are kept, thinking, “A bee’s life of effort, of unforced, pitiless agreement. Yet how the bodies twitched, and whirled off, as if in a passion. She hoped they would see some of that on this trip. The message bringing and shooting off in pursuit and the ecstatic burrowing, not just the boxed seething.” May’s need to continue to reach out, to love, to save, results in her own bungled attempt to rescue Sven from himself and that, ultimately, leads to her own destruction.

In the seventh and last chapter Trueblood shows us May’s early life, along with the loss of her mother (a woman whose socially passionate nature May inherited) and her need to recoup some of her mother’s fire—her “colors,” as May thinks of them. The final puzzle piece, May’s past, shows another facet of how she came to be a woman willing to risk all and anything for love.

There’s a tendency to think of love only in its traditional forms—romantic, maternal, or non-specific love for humanity in general—and to ignore the rest, particularly in these days when so many forms of love are seen as destructive or, worse, “unhealthy.” In SEVEN LOVES, Trueblood seems to be saying that love in all its forms is what gives life depth and dimension, “color,” as it were. She writes, “Love, to May, even if it conjures itself up out of nothing . . . is not imaginary . . . . The body feels it and it is always real.”

- contributed by Marilyn Zimmerman, Northport, Michigan, December 2007

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Modest Collections

Couldn’t sleep this morning, I was up at 4 a.m. to address a few more holiday cards. Then I finished reading SUITE FRANCAISE, then read an essay on photography by Barry Lopez (who says he misses photographing but found that the camera distracted him from what was happening around him, so that his writing of those happenings suffered). But earlier, in the dark, before I’d given up on getting back to sleep, my mind had started working over a connection between Christmas tree ornaments and books, and now, with my second cup of coffee, I want to see if I can’t stretch this point.

Although a bookseller, I do not call myself a book collector in any serious sense of the word. Books collect, seemingly by themselves, in our house--like dust kittens and with about as much rhyme or reason. There are the “books not good enough to sell in the bookstore” (mine, often lacking bindings altogether), “books by people I know” (most of these are David’s, though my share is increasing), travel books (mostly outdated), cookbooks and dictionaries, and then there are pockets here and there of books that belong together in groups, though what they have in common with other groups might be hard to determine. My Walter Mosley and Wendell Berry books, along with those of French philosopher Henri Bergson, are examples. I also have books on agriculture, botany and gardening.

The assortment of ornaments that have collected themselves in our house (I can take even less credit for having directed this agglutination) would be more difficult to break down into categories than the books. Among the boxes of ornaments are cherished gifts from loved ones, thrift store finds and a small number of self-indulgent purchases—but these groupings hardly seem like categories.

Both the books and the ornaments (many used before they came to us, in both cases) accumulated over time, that’s all, and the resultant accumulation would be meaningless to anyone whose history had not included this very particular assembled flotage. My life, David’s life, our life together—the books and ornaments provide hints and glimpses. It is nothing like the view one would have by looking at a room of David’s paintings or even reading successive entries in this rambling site of mine. Those views are intentionally created. The modest collections, on the other hand, have a haphazard, accidental quality that betrays another side of who we are.

Among our books there are a few we both love equally, the “favorite child” of an otherwise pretty random home library. These are the books that have to do with houseboats or living on (or in) boats, and the gold standard for this category, the WIND IN THE WILLOWS for adults (of course, WITW is for adults, too, and belongs here; we have three copies at present), is Harlan Hubbard’s SHANTYBOAT. Harlan was a painter from Kentucky, living on the shores of the Ohio River, when he met Anna, a librarian at the Cincinnati Public Library. They both loved music and initially got together to play duets, at Anna’s bold suggestion. Next came picnics and then camping trips.

Harlan’s lifelong dream had been to build a “shantyboat,” an unpowered houseboat or driftboat, and take it down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, a dream Anna encouraged him to follow, and so they married and set up housekeeping on the riverbank, camping and building their boat. (In the bookstore, I have a print of a painting Harlan made of the shantyboat across the river and upstream from Cincinnati, at the site of its building.) The drift downstream took years, what with long stops to sow and harvest seasonal gardens along the way. They traveled with dogs, books, musical instruments. Harlan caught fish, and Anna canned food. They bartered with people on shore.

“It might be said that the river flowing by is the present time, upriver is the past, and downstream lies the future.

“In the past with us was the country locked in the enfolding hills upstream. It had once been the promised land, the goal of many river excursions made when we were living on the hilltop. Our frontier had gradually been extended upriver as we sought new and unworn shores….’”

There is another book of the same title, the SHANTYBOAT by Kent and Magaret Leighty, and it’s a lovely little book in its own right, though their trip down the Mississippi was different from beginning to end from that of the Hubbards. Then there is TWO CANOE GYPSIES, by Melville Chater, the story of a trip made through the “back door country” of Europe, and there is CRUISING FRENCH CANALS AND RIVERS. (Where is SAN LUCCA this morning? It should be on this shelf!)

There are a couple of children’s books: HOUSEBOAT GIRL, by Lois Lenski, and “HELLO, THE BOAT!” by Phyllis Crawford, the latter story set in 1817, along the Ohio, the former in the twentieth century. Lenski writes in her foreword: “When Harlan Hubbard drifted down the Mississippi River in 1949, he met them [the Story family] in their houseboat on Nonconnah Creek below Memphis, and he told of this meeting in his book SHANTYBOAT.” Hubbard helped Lenski locate the Story family in 1954, “in a newer and larger houseboat than the one at Nonconnah Creek,” and she found them a perfect ‘story family.’”

We are not saltwater sailors but armchair drifters and rowers, and these books constitute a window into that part of our souls.

In a similar way, among the boxes of ornaments from so many different times and streams there is one special subcollection, given to us last year by Amanda Holmes of Omena. She made them from her mother’s dog Lorna’s old license tags. I still have all of Nikki’s tags and haven’t yet decided if they will become future tree ornaments, but for now, the “Lornaments” hang on the tree at Dog Ears Books, and, since they are dog tags, I see Nikki in them.

What do other people see? Are these a window into my soul?

“You’re so transparent!” David likes to say.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Back in (Photo) Business

Yes, it’s true! I found my good camera! It had not walked off, after all, and that makes me so happy! I’m very glad to have it back and overjoyed that it was my own forgetfulness rather than anyone else’s dishonesty at the root of the mystery. Of course, now the burden is on me to come up with good pictures.

Today not only is the sun out, but the sky is virtually cloudless, to boot, and I feel like Fate’s Little Darling. My camera, Bruce working in the shop, AND sunshine? To make the day complete, four boxes of used books made their way to the bookstore, among them one of my all-time favorites, Alfred Kazin’s A WALKER IN THE CITY. Magic memoir! This copy is an inexpensive paperback, but it has all Kazin’s wonderful stories and the added value of charming line drawings by Marvin Bileck.

My cup runneth over.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Peaceful Weekend

From reading in bed this morning to dinner at the Happy Hour tonight, it's been a restful, satisfying day. I don't have a lot to say. Am halfway through SUITE FRANCAISE and am preparing a couple of meatier postings for the week ahead. Last night's Madrigals concert by the Leelanau Children's Choir and Leelanau Youth Ensemble was just marvelous! I'm going to see if I can't find someone with pictures and beg one to post here, because the costumes and stage set were as good as the singing and all those beautiful young faces.

Saturday, December 8, 2007


The one from last night was taken with my old camera. (I tried more--of the bakery, of the village tree--but most of the results weren't worth keeping or showing) The black-and-white image on the 12/6 post was my first attempt at scanning. (The original snapshot of my friend's snow-covered John Deere is a little hard to read without the color, I realize.) November 30 had, for a few days, a much warmer, more successful shot of the same scene (interior of bookstore), and it appeared on the blog for a few days--then vanished! Unfortunately, I had not saved the image file and had to make a substitution, shooting with the old camera since my better model walked off. So, I'm limping along at the moment with my images but trying to keep things lively. Today's view from the bank out toward the harbor was shot on Monday morning.

Friday, December 7, 2007

December odds and ends

Another cold day in northern Michigan, with temperatures expected to “dip down into the teens” (radio voice) again tonight. As darkness fell over our little village, it was gratifying to see more lighted buildings this year than last. The old Willowbrook, slated to be remodeled as a bed-and-breakfast next year, is beautifully decorated for Christmas (see above), and yesterday’s Record-Eagle had a big article on David Chrobak’s Christmas trees and the magic he weaves at the Old Mill Pond Inn in Northport.

Between bouts of work today, somehow I managed to read half of a slim volume of short stories by Jane Smiley. Arriving home tonight, I reaped the benefit of having planned ahead for tonight’s dinner (herbed barley and pancetta and a simple homemade chicken-pasta soup), turning the fire on under the pans and sitting down with a glass of wine to read a few more chapters of SUITE FRANCAISE before dinner.

Tonight and tomorrow (we’re going tomorrow) is the Leelanau Children’s Choir/Leelanau Youth Ensemble Madrigals concert at the NCAC in Northport. Have I mentioned that before? It bears repeating.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Books, Farming, Love

It's a very cold day, but glimpses and stretches of sunshine and blue sky are heartening. We have no cows to milk, and it didn't take too long with a chain and cooperation to pull one of our vehicles out of the deep snow that had held it since Saturday night's skin-of-our-teeth arrival home.

Here are two books I want to recommend together, as they have a common theme: THE ORCHARD: A MEMOIR, by Adele Crockett Robertson, and EPITAPH FOR A PEACH: FOUR SEASONS ON MY FAMILY FARM, by David Mas Masumoto. The time period of THE ORCHARD is the Depression (though not published until 1995), while EPITAPH FOR A PEACH (1995) is closer to our own day, but both are beautifully and compellingly written first-person accounts of the day-to-day dreams, struggles, heartbreaks and joys of growing fruit for a living. Making my home and selling books here in cherry, grape and apple country, I find these books particularly relevant.

“There are tricks to picking apples,” Robertson writes. “Each stem has to be snapped off, not pulled out, or the fruit will rot where the skin is broken. They have to be handled gently: fingermarks make dark bruises later. They are picked into bags worn around your neck with straps over your shoulders, leaving both hands free, and the bags have to be very gently emptied into the field boxes or the apples will be bruised. Each little cluster or leaves contains the bud for next year’s fruit. Rough handling of the ladders or jerking the apples off the twigs breaks too many of these fruit spurs.”

There’s a twist you give when snapping off an apple, and you do it two-handed, as I know from my brief stint at Kilcherman’s Christmas Cove Farm one year, so that one hand is picking while the other is depositing a picked apple into the bag. You do it in the cold, and you do it in the rain, and the weight of the bag tests shoulders and back muscles to their maximum. And that’s just picking. It isn’t—as Adele Crockett Robertson did herself, running a one-woman operation before finally reaching the point where she could afford to hire an assistant, and then she kept right on doing it, too—pruning in winter, spraying in spring, agonizing over machinery, digging wells, negotiating with wholesale buyers and bankers--.

Farmers don’t get paychecks. They don’t have sick time or annual leave. What’s the fastest way to become a millionaire? Start with a billion and go into farming. It makes no sense at all without the element of love. Robertson was determined that her father’s orchard not be lost, and she saved it single-handedly. The conclusion of the story will break your heart.

Masumoto’s struggle was to keep in production a certain variety of peach, the Sun Crest, a peach that tastes “like a peach is supposed to.” Remember? Not fuzzy, green softballs from the grocery store, but sweet and juicy, with “nectar that explodes in your mouth … fragrance that enchants your nose [and] perfume that can never be captured.” You see the problem? A hard peach is easy to store and transport; a delicate, juicy peach is a fragile object. Which do you think buyers prefer?

A third-generation Japanese-American farmer, Masumoto breaks with conventional modern wisdom and decides to stop using herbicides. “Farming with Chaos,” he calls it: “My farm looks as if the farmer has died.” His crew of farm workers plant bare-root trees by hand, “which is rare these days.” A farmer can’t hide his work, Masumoto observes. Everyone watches, and his fields and orchards and the way he plants and tends them announce his opinions and values to the world.

For Masumoto, however, the measure of success is a little different from what neighbors and passers-by might see from their car windows. “I relish the fact that people enjoy the taste of my fruit,” he writes, and, “My peaches are my gift, and with each new year the joy of giving is renewed.” Besides, the egret has returned, now that the chemicals are gone.

As agriculture, as history, as economics, read these books. Read them also as memoir, essay, literature. They have earned permanent shelf space.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Books, People, Love

(This is an old picture, for reasons that will be apparent down the page a way.)

The title of Pierre Bayard’s book, THE IMPORTANCE OF NOT READING, annoyed me so much I decided not to so much as glance at the book. (Some infinitives beg to be split.) It is a sad commentary on French style that it deteriorated in one generation from clarity and distinctness (Bergson adhering to the standards of Descartes) to intentional mystification (evident in Sartre and continuing to the present). All of the first “reviews” I saw, too, were written by writers who had, too cutely, chosen not to read the book but wanted to blather on about it, too cutely. Don’t waste my time: that was my response. But tonight, catching up on the “Economist” magazine (a weekly, like the “New Yorker,” it comes at me faster than I can keep up with it), I found a review worth reading, written by someone who actually read the book, summarizes its content, and gives her own thoughtful, pithy conclusion. So skip the book, but take a look at the review if you’re interested.

Now, I was hoping—no, I had carefully planned—to have pictures of Saturday evening’s open house to post the following Sunday. Alas, for the plans of mice and booksellers! Sometime between the hour of Saturday morning’s store opening and the moment when all the food was on the table and everything ready for the arriving guests (a moment I wanted to capture for posterity), my camera seems to have walked away. No, this could not have happened! I took everything out of my carry-all-from-home bag half a dozen times, even though its weight told me the camera was not there. On Monday the shelves under the counter were thoroughly swept, and the camera did not turn up. When I last saw it, the camera was sitting on the counter inside my tan tam, which also walked away. Bottom line: no pictures of all the people enjoying themselves at the bookstore!

From a relativistic perspective, the good news is that the camera disappeared well before the open house, so that no suspicion casts a shadow over my party memories.

Moving from relativism to more solid ground, I remind myself that the real good news from Saturday is the number of friends, customers and well-wishers who turned out to celebrate with us on the evening of the worst weather of the year. (I wish I had a movie of our horrendous, miraculous drive home that night!) Some people shopped, more did not, but I’m sure many will return for holiday gift shopping, and it was a wonderful party! People do love Dog Ears Books. They are happy to have it in Northport and want it to stay. And in the end, it is the people who love us who matter, not uncaring strangers.

Wish you all could have been with us!

Monday, December 3, 2007

Northport Author Goes International

Rich Thomas writes from Potomac, Maryland, with news of his late wife’s book, introduced in Northport this past summer:

“Sigrid and her book are now making history. She and GOODBYE STALIN [see Books in Northport postings for October 22 & 24] will be the subject of a huge, two page spread, with six pictures, tomorrow, December 1, in Postimees, the only national daily newspaper in Estonia. (Her book is not--yet--translated into either Estonian or German, although such editions may soon be in the works. The news story is probably in Estonian, although an English translation may be instantly available. I'm going to have one made if it is not.) The Estonian piece can be viewed on tomorrow. [Note from Dog Ears: Here is the link to the Estonian online article.]

“I learned the paper planned this spread only on the morning Sigrid died, Oct. 22. My son Stryk and I spent the day kissing her, holding her hands and repeatedly telling her that she was going to be a famous author in her homeland, and that her book because of this prominent treatment would become at least a paragraph or footnote in the national narrative of Estonia. I have been supplying information to Postimees off and on over the last month.

“I am now weak with joy for my beautiful wife and her legacy. She has had attention before but nothing like this. You must all have seen the Leelanau Enterprise piece by Amy Hubbell last summer on her book Also the Potomac Almanac locally did an interview, and the current issue of Bethesda Magazine, November-December issue, p. 37, has a piece. You can seek it on

“I am also about to publish a piece, 'An Email Illness, An Email Death,' in Newsweek magazine, the 'My Turn' page. This is on the wonderful ability of a concerted email campaign to lighten and make sustainable a horrid bout of long-term hospitalized illness and even death.

“The Postimees article is especially wonderful because it is about a book that still is in English only. Also, the book marks an absolute turning point in Estonian views of its own history. Until this moment modern Estonians have chosen, with ample historical reasons, to ignore the Baltic German heritage of their country. This reflects their anger for having been subjugated to Baltic German nobles, descendants of the Teutonic Knights, for 700 years, from 1226 to 1921. The Estonians even deprived the remnant of Baltic Germans who stayed after 1921, Sigrid's family included, from the right to reclaim property they had to abandon when they fled Stalin in 1939.

“Now, Postimees is using Sigrid's book and her family's fantastic story to bring this submerged history of Baltic Germans up for consideration and review.”

Friday, November 30, 2007

Cozy in the Bookstore

"Oh, the weather outside is frightful," indeed! Bitter, cold wind, sloppy roads, treacherous footing. No need to look at the calendar to know what time of year it is. Stephanie next door at Funky Mama's consignment shop is decorating her tree, and I'm trying to settle on exactly what I'll prepare and serve at our joint open house tomorrow (5-9 p.m., in case you haven't gotten the message for the last two days!), and both of us are trying not to freak out over the forecast of a possible storm tomorrow afternoon. Do we need a "snow date"? Right now I'm just hoping for the best. After all, weather forecasts have been wrong before (within the past week, in fact), and as the last person through the door reminded me, "People up here are used to winter." We are Up North, in all seasons! I type these words as blowing snow is almost horizontal, with the occasional swirling funnel....

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Village OPEN!

Sewer work, which will go forward for another week, then resume in the spring, won’t get in the way of Saturday evening’s open house at Funky Mama’s and Dog Ears Books (5-9 p.m.). The crews knocked off early today (Thursday) and won’t be back on the job until Monday. Even when streets have been temporarily closed, the inconvenience has been minimal, progress encouraging.

The Christmas tree lights were on today at the T-intersection of Waukazoo and Nagonaba. Presumably they will be unplugged prior to the formal “lighting” at 5 p.m. on Saturday, but making sure ahead of time that all were in working order was a good idea on someone’s part.

My guilty pleasure today (aside from the last of last weekend’s Christmas cookies) is THE WOMAN IN THE DUNES, by Kobo Abe, my intermittent reward for small tasks accomplished. Hailed on the back cover of my Penguin edition as “one of the “premier Japanese novels of the twentieth century,” the novel is certainly Kafkaesque, as has often been noted. The protagonist sets out on holiday and becomes an unwitting prisoner and slave. Because of a stupid letter he left behind and a ridiculous insistence on being mysterious about his destination, no one will know where to look for him or even realize that foul play must have been involved in his disappearance. He has done nothing wrong. His rights have been outrageously violated. Nothing makes any sense. He protests, he struggles, he plots his escape. There is no avoiding the fact, however, that he must dig sand or die.

The sand is omnipresent:

“Because winds and water currents flow over the land, the formation of sand is unavoidable. As long as the winds blew, the rivers flowed, and the seas stirred, sand would be born grain by grain from the earth, and like a living being it would creep everywhere. The sands never rested. Gently but surely they invaded and destroyed the surface of the earth.”

Like an ant-lion waiting in its trap for heedless ants, the woman at the bottom of the sand pit into which the amateur entomologist is lowered (for what he thinks will be one night’s lodging) greets his arrival with scarcely disguised pleasure, but he soon realizes that the sand itself is their captor, the woman as helplessly trapped as he, both of them dependant on villagers above the pit for the very water that keeps them alive.

More than in the writings of Kafka or Camus, physicality plays an unrelenting role in the story. I am reminded of the repugnance Sartre felt for the physical world: Abe’s awareness is as keen, without the nauseated rejection. Perspiration, urination, skin rashes, itching, mucous, saliva, skin (“soft, downlike bandage for the soul”) appear on almost every page.

Is Niki Jumpei an Everyman, the author’s message that we are all hapless insects trapped in a demeaning struggle for our brief, meaningless existence? One reviewer, David Mitchell, puts the question this way: Is this a story of salvation or damnation? I am two-thirds of the way through the book and not about to skip to the last page, but I doubt the last sentence would give a clear answer to the question, anyway.

Over and over, too, our Michigan dunes come into my mind--the difficulty of the dune climb at Sleeping Bear, the sand’s “angle of repose,” the “ghost forests” of giant buried trees, ant-lions and wolf spiders, Pitcher’s thistles, the fragility of dunes (despite the strength of sand and wind) and their vulnerability to erosion. What would Abe’s images of migrating dunes mean to me if I had lived my whole life in forested hills deep in the continent, away from the Great Lakes shore?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Most of my mental energy today is going toward making up book order lists and planning for Saturday evening’s open house here at Dog Ears (and next door at Funky Mama’s) from 5-9 p.m., planning that involves lots of cookbook reading and the making of grocery lists. Lists, lists! Naughty or nice? One customer told me this morning that their family decided to give only books for Christmas, “no more junk!” Books are good! Cookies are nice, too, though!

Anyway, here are a couple of short items for today:

First, according to Franklin D.Martini’s book, THE MEANING OF DREAMS, the answer to my question this past fall, “Why Elephants?” is that “To dream that you see an elephant is a happy omen; it tells of peace and prosperity. To dream of many means you will gain fame and fortune. To feed one denotes a job change.” Fine! Peace and prosperity appeal to me more than fame and fortune, which would bring as many problems as they would solve, I’m thinking.

Then, you might want to take a brief look at the dizzying World Clock site. (Thanks, sister BJ, for calling this to my attention.) I could only watch the figures race upwards for a couple of minutes before becoming overwhelmed and turning back to printed paper pages, but the question stays in my head: What kind of world will we leave to our grandchildren?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Books, 'Books,' and Non-Books

That heading seems to include about everything under the sun, doesn’t it? I read Anna Quindlen’s yesterday afternoon (the one with the title that complicates punctuation of any sentence one drops aforesaid title into) and browsed again, appreciatively, in EIGHT DOGS NAMED JACK, Joe Borri’s short story collection just out this summer, reflecting again how fortunate I am to have work that I love. Then I started another new order list, sold a few books, moved others around, and finally—because it was Monday, and the UPS delivery was the big event of the day—went home early to begin reading a manuscript.

There’s more to having a bookstore than reading books, however, and late evening found me catching up on bookkeeping, a job that brought on a very different set of reflections, such as, “Why do they call accounts ‘books,’ anyway? What a libel on the pleasures of men and women!” I did think of the ancient Egyptians, though, and their careful record-keeping, and that reminded me once again of how easily we remember the alphabet, thanks to the little song, but how difficult it is to put the multiplication tables to music, hence the necessity of writing numbers down. ‘Books’ before literature, in other words. (Sigh!)

My use of the category ‘non-books’ means different things on different occasions. Since Sunday breakfast with Chicago ‘outsider art’ collector Susann, I keep thinking of the artist she introduced us to, Stella Waitzkin, and Waitzkin's shelves of what appear to be books but are actually sculpted polymer resin pieces, innocent of words. ”Words are lies,” the artist said. Her non-book constructions were lovely on the shelf, but what, I ask myself, did she do for stories?

The books in the photograph above are real and were not harmed in the making of the image.

Wild and bitterly cold gusts of snow-bearing wind are blowing untethered Christmas trees down the streets of Northport. Don't you wish you were here?

Monday, November 26, 2007

This Time of Year

It’s beginning—the time of decorations and shopping and parties and cookies, of wrapping gifts and trying new recipes and never having enough time and the time one does have going by much too fast. It’s the time of year for a bookseller when new book orders are coming in one right after another, and the question comes up sometimes, “Who was it who ordered this, anyway?” And if I don’t remember, will the customer call or stop in to see if his or her book is here (I hope)?

As thoughts turn to food, it’s a good time of year for cookbooks (not that there’s ever a bad time, other than—for me—September, when all I want to do is go on vacation to recuperate from summer), but it’s just the best time of all for children’s books! As someone who started in used titles and added new later, I’ve hit on what I consider a pretty good strategy for ordering children’s classics: I look for an “anniversary edition” whenever one is available through my distributor. THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT… THE LITTLE PRINCE… THE WIZARD OF OZ, etc. Who doesn’t want the original illustrations? When it comes to something like THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, published in countless editions and the dream of countless illustrators, I look for tried-and-true artists, such as Tasha Tudor.

And this is neither a cookbook nor a children’s book, but I can’t help being happy that Anna Quindlen’s GOOD DOG. STAY is out in time for Christmas and that it’s in hardcover with a paperback price. That is the perfect combination!

This morning, digging through a closet in search of a certain set of tree ornaments, I found our little Nikki’s Christmas scarf from last year. David had the same idea I did, which was to tie the scarf around her framed portrait here at Dog Ears Books. The words to a contemporary seasonal song drift through my mind: “This is how I see you / in the snow on Christmas morning.” Good dog! Christmas won’t be the same without you!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Closing Time

When dark comes on at the end of day this time of year, the bright, cheery lights indoors seem all the brighter and cheerier, and it’s hard to turn the sign from OPEN to CLOSED, lock the door and leave the bookstore to walk out into the slush (underfoot) and chilly wind (head to toe). On the other hand, it was wonderful to walk into the house tonight, where the lamps and fire were already lit and David offering to fix dinner.

Having finished DINNER AT ANTOINE’S (and even having guessed the murderer, though not from putting together clues, at which task I am hopeless), I turn again tonight to my economics shelf here at home (which is in no way a “home economics” shelf), opening ONE MARKET UNDER GOD to the last page bookmarked, about three-quarters through the book. The topic is brands and the new “discipline” of account planning, evolutionary successor to what we used to call simply advertising. A Ph.D. in anthropology is the recruiter’s new dream candidate, as long as the degree-holder in question brings along no “values” baggage.

As usual with a book of this kind in my hands, this one bristles like a hedgehog with gummed tags (brand name omitted). Here’s the beginning of a paragraph where the author steps forward from his dispassionate reporting stance and makes it personal:

“I confess: The way the word is used in marketing literature, I am an extremely ‘cynical’ person. I doubt advertising. I scoff at brands. I do not believe that Macintoshes make you ‘think different’ or that Virginia Slims help you ‘find your voice.’”

Author Thomas Frank goes on from there to explore--with appropriate, rational cynicism--Nike’s search for ‘authenticity,’ that is, an approach to advertising that won’t seem like advertising because its ‘stars’ come not from Hollywood but from the working class or even the ghetto. Frank “can’t help but marvel at the effort it would require to achieve a comparable level of visibility for the actual concerns, not just the authenticity, of working-class life.” The desperate search for what he calls “redemption through sport,” that search exploited by the commercials in question, is the flipside of the coin whose face is “starvation wages in Indonesia.”

It’s morning on the other side of the world. The sun and moon are impartial.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Sticking with This One

One of these moon images was yesterday’s, taken in the late afternoon on Thanksgiving Day through our friends’ east-facing living room window. The other is the same moon this early evening, caught in the branches of an ash tree along our own driveway.

My resolve to read DINNER AT ANTOINE’S (which I keep wanting to call MY DINNER WITH ANTOINE, confusing the book title with the title of an unrelated movie) was tested severely early on in the story. So many characters introduced, the writing so relentlessly expository! Then the black servants appeared on the scene, selflessly devoted and speaking almost incomprehensible dialect! It was all a bit much, and I was slogging half-heartedly along, thinking how like a soap opera the story was, wondering how much I could stand, when an unexpected suicide caught me by surprise. Well, that’s different! And then an enterprising young police detective announced to a startled family that the death was no suicide but murder! Murder most foul! So then I was hooked and am now halfway through the book.

Turns out my browsing turned up the best Frances Parkinson Keyes title for me. The author wrote many other novels set in New Orleans, all of which make at least passing reference to the restaurant, and all doubtless full of rich local color and fashion, but DINNER AT ANTOINE’S is the only murder mystery she wrote. It’s good light reading for the holidays. Next week will be soon enough to get back to heavier stuff.

Pleasantly busy day at the bookstore today, with lighted, decorated Christmas tree in the window and a cookie table in the corner to welcome friends and shoppers.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Work-in-Progress Report #1: Jerry Dennis

Jerry Dennis’s most recent book, THE LIVING GREAT LAKES, explored a subject he can’t leave behind. Here’s what this Traverse City writer has to say about what he’s working on now:


“I’m well along on a new book, A WATCHER ON THE SHORE, which I expect to send to my publisher about a year from now. The shore of the title is both literal and figurative: the one ringing the five Great Lakes; and the one we’re born onto, where we’ve erected our cities and composed our philosophies, where we spend our lives telling stories around campfires at the edge of the unknown.

“For most of the past year I’ve been living in houses on the five Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, staying for a week to a month at a time in places that interest me, including Northport’s own Cathead Point, where I stayed in a beautiful house all of last January. The other places I’ve stayed have varied from a two-room log cabin on Lake Superior to a 20-million-dollar mansion on Lake Michigan—a dozen or so in all, each drenched with character and each offering a widely different view of the lakes. My usual routine was to spend the evenings reading, the afternoons out in the world exploring, and the mornings writing, using as a guide the ancient Japanese essay genre called zuihitsu, or ‘following the brush.’ (The ‘brush’ in my case is a Sarasa Zebra 0.7 black pen.) It’s been a new way for me to compose, and has opened up many possibilities for surprise. When I started writing about stones on the beach, for example, I found myself meditating on randomness and beauty. Waves during a storm suggested the myths in almost every culture that created order out of the primordial chaos. The death of loons from botulism led to an inquiry into our place in nature and how our attitudes about it are changing.

“As with all my books (and, for that matter, my life), I’ve proceeded without much planning, following my instincts and trusting to serendipity. Along the way I’ve been fortunate to receive a great deal of assistance, starting with the generous people who invited me to stay in their houses. I’m also nearly speechless with gratitude to the Kellogg Foundation, Wege Foundation, and Great Lakes Fishery Trust, which have provided grants to support me while writing the book, and for Tim Ervin, Becky Ewing, and others at the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute and Northwestern Michigan College, who facilitated the grants. They’ve given me a wonderful gift, the result of which, I hope, will be a rich and deeply textured work.

“Now I’m home for the winter, writing every day in my studio/sanctuary in the loft of our stone barn, and spending evenings by the fireplace with Gail, reading novels and playing cribbage.”


Thank you, Jerry, for this window into your writing world, for all the books you have written, and for those yet to come.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

In Town and Beyond

It’s cozy today at the bookstore, with jazz on the CD player and boxes of decorations and holiday books to unpack. Even the bank was cozy this morning, where the view toward the harbor through the Thanksgiving-themed window also shows the Christmas “Toys for Tots” collection sign and heavy construction equipment parked on the street. Everything is going on in town at once: the sewer project, Thanksgiving dinner shopping, Christmas decorating, last-minute gardening. The weather is mild, making everything easier for a while.

Yesterday’s big news item in the book world was also on the regular evening news on NPR. It was the new report from the National Endowment for the Arts saying that while “reading scores among elementary school students have been improving, scores are flat among middle school students and slightly declining among high school seniors." Also, "the percentage of adults who are proficient in reading prose has fallen at the same time that the proportion of people who read regularly for pleasure has declined.” There was a bit about time spent reading vs. watching TV, but I haven’t seen a statistic yet for being online. Does what you’re doing now count as reading? Maybe you should get offline and pick up a book!

But if you’re looking to entertain yourself online for a few minutes a day, try feeding the hungry while testing your vocabulary. For every correct answer, you’ll be donating ten grains of rice to the needy. I checked this out on Snopes, where the status of the rice donation “legend” is given as TRUE. Donations are paid for by advertisers whose banners appear on the page. Once--the word was ‘malinger’--I wanted to choose NONE OF THE ABOVE for my answer, but that choice was not available. That’s a minor quibble.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Through a Glass, Dreamily

My morning drive to Northport was made interesting by virtue of light rain. Traffic was nonexistent. I was able to stay under 40 mph and leave the wiper speed on low. Pulling off the road for a minute, I captured this impressionistic view of Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern through the rain-streaked windshield.

Now, unprepared with new thoughts this evening, I’m pleased to have rediscovered the commentary on Kipling I thought was lost forever, and here it is:


Another family member writes, “What's up with those people who read the last page of the book first? I know lots of people who do, but it wouldn't occur to me in a million years to want to do that.” Me, either, Maiya. What’s up with that, indeed? But, well….

When I couldn’t sleep the other night, I got up to read for a while and picked up a strange little novel by Rudyard Kipling. In childhood I loved The Jungle Books (which my father and I read together over and over), but how different an author can appear at different stages of a reader’s life and when a different book is in question! THE LIGHT THAT FAILED is a rather horrid little story, I must say.

It begins with two unhappy children, unrelated orphans being raised by the same dreadful woman. The children buy a handgun, and the reader thinks murder is at hand, but no…. Then we skip ahead many years and find the young man on the banks of the Nile, determined to make his way as an artist by first becoming a wartime newspaper illustrator.

Later, back in London, Dick finally recognizes at last that he must be true to Art and not sell his soul for easy popularity. How does he come to see this? By running into Maisie, the companion of his childhood, also determined to be a painter, also focused blindly (as it were) on Success, as he was up to that point.

Well, Dick and Maisie do not make a pair, because she will not. When he goes literally blind, however, a friend of his travels to France, where Maisie has gone to study painting, and brings her back to nurse the man who loves her. But that doesn’t work, either. She is too selfish and runs off without even bidding him a proper farewell.

Backtrack to another woman, hired as Dick’s model, who set her cap for the artist’s best friend and mentor/benefactor. Dick foils the plan, but the woman reappears later to destroy the last masterpiece Dick paints before his eyes give out!

Thus both wickedly selfish women are booted offstage by the author, and Dick dies in his friend’s arms, off on a battlefield somewhere.

Was it a battlefield? Where? I can’t say because, while I did not read the last page of this book first, I did lose patience and skipped several chapters, turning to the last page out of curiosity. Enough!

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Yesterday morning on the way to Northport, I had in mind a picture of the beech tree at the 90-degree corner where M-201 comes downhill and turns left onto Waukazoo. Turning onto Waukazoo myself, I parked the car and walked around the corner and back up the hill, but the shot I’d mentally visualized wasn’t there. The sidewalk was snow-covered and slippery, footing precarious. I walked carefully, watching every inch of pavement I had to traverse. The image above was my reward. If I’m not too stubbornly focused on what I think I want to see—if I can be open to whatever presents itself--walking with a camera opens my eyes to ephemeral beauties like these cottonwood leaves visible under wet snow in the street.

This is the way I usually approach a library or a bookstore, too. I may go in with a title in mind, but if that book isn’t available, I won’t leave empty-handed, any more than I would leave a potluck dinner hungry because no one had brought, say, Southern fried chicken. Spending as much time as I do in my own bookstore world, there are still days when I browse the shelves and come upon something that wouldn’t have leapt to my mind without the visual stimulus.

Yesterday in the drama section, my browsing turned up “Playboy of the Western World, by Synge. I'd seen the play in high school, but how much could it mean to me then? Now, on the heels of having read THE WILD IRISH (Robin Maxwell) and MY DREAM OF YOU (Nuala O’Faolain), and with documentation of the birth in Fermoy, County Cork, on December 13, 1886, of the grandfather I never met, the play fair jumps into my hand! I begin reading and now, even without actors on a stage in front of me, this place and these people are familiar. I wouldn’t have thought to look for it, but it was a happy accident.

Another book that called my name as my eyes scanned the shelves yesterday afternoon was DINNER AT ANTOINE’S, by Frances Parkinson Keyes. A popular writer from another era, Keyes is an author I know well by name. Seeing her name on a book spine, I told myself I should know her better than that, and here’s the moment come. (One Louisiana book scout comes around every few years, always looking for DINNER AT ANTOINE’S. He says that in New Orleans the demand for this title is constant. Reading it in New Orleans would be, I suppose, like reading ANATOMY OF A MURDER in the U.P.) The story opens in January of 1948. Almost sixty years ago! No time to lose!

Richard Wiseman, author of THE LUCK FACTOR, says his research shows that being open to the world, to whatever is there, to whatever happens, to whomever crosses our path, is an important aspect making up “luck.” He did an experiment to confirm this hunch. He left a 5-pound note (he would have used a $5 bill if he’d been in this country) on the sidewalk outside a café where he’d arranged to meet his subjects, already self-described as either “lucky” or “unlucky.” You might think that the "unlucky" people, trudging along with their heads down and feeling blue, would have been the ones to see the money and pick it up, but not so. Considering oneself “unlucky,” it seems, is not compatible with being open to positive possibilities. The subjects who considered themselves “lucky” were the ones who spotted the note on the ground, time after time.

Good news, both for those who consider themselves “unlucky” and for those of us who need reminders from time to time that good things as well as bad happen in the world, is that learning to be “lucky” is possible. At the end of his book Wiseman gives instructions to his “unlucky” subjects, and sure enough, they come back and report to him that their luck has miraculously changed! What did he have them do? I’ll have to refresh my memory with the book on Monday, but I do recall that one of their assignments was to talk to strangers.

People we don’t know, books we’ve never heard of, and lovely, ephemeral configurations of the natural world have a lot in common, it turns out. At least that’s true from one bookseller’s perspective.