Search This Blog

Monday, February 28, 2011

Just Little Bits, No One Big Story

It’s Monday evening. After a celebratory shared birthday dinner at our house on Friday, a Saturday full of work and noise and hubbub, and a happy, exhausted Sunday of R&R, we treated ourselves to a day trip today, a drive to nearby Traverse City. We lunched at our favorite Chinese buffet restaurant, where my fortune cookie yielded up this gem: “Sing and rejoice. Fortune is smiling on you.” Isn't that wonderful? Wouldn't that make you smile from ear to ear?

There was snow in the air on and off all day.

Now tomorrow, Tuesday, is the first day of March. It’s also the first day of autumn in Australia (where it is already today rather than tomorrow), while in the United Kingdom, Denmark and Ireland, it’s the first day of spring. Those countries all do as the Romans--that is, they change seasons according to the Roman calendar--while we in the U.S. steer by the stars, changing at solstices and equinoxes. I only know this because I have a new friend in Australia, and I’m still finding the information quite mind-boggling.

And now Kathy writes to me that March 1st is also the Feast of St. David, as observed in Wales. Question: If I tell the household David about St. David’s Day, will I have to prepare a whole feast, or can we get by with a mess o’ leeks and a pot of daffodils?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Gumbo Stuff

What a lot of nerve I have, blogging about gumbo when I’ve never lived in Louisiana or Texas and have not a drop (as far as I know) of Cajun or Creole blood! But gumbo is what I wanted to make for David and Michael’s combined birthday dinner the night before Phase 2 of the kitchen remodeling project was kicked into high gear. Only after making my own chicken-sausage-shrimp gumbo, very slightly modified from Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Cookbook, did I seek out other versions.

When it comes to recipes for gumbo, the variety is infinite, but two themes are always present: (1) The roux made with browned flour is essential, as are (2) celery, onion and green pepper. The rest, as far as I can see, is up for grabs.

Paul Prudhomme, in his Louisiana Kitchen cookbook, starts by coating chicken pieces in flour, salt, garlic powder and red pepper and frying the chicken, adding more flour and oil to the bits left in the pan to make his roux. He recommends high heat and constant whisking. The lower the heat, the longer the cooking time.

If you brown the flour in the oven (as I did, the night before making the gumbo), how long should it brown? Different cooks’ opinions and experience call for anywhere from 35 minutes to 2 hours. Some say to stir; others say “Don’t touch it!” But however you brown the flour, attention à la roux! “If the roux is underdone, the gumbo will have a kind of floury taste and texture, whereas if you burn the oil, it will taste like burnt oil.” The site giving this important advice looks very authentic and has recipes for catfish gumbo and crawfish gumbo, too.

Some people use tomatoes, others omit them. If you’re using sausage in your gumbo, what kind of sausage should it be? Andouille is held in high regard. Smoked sausage, in general, gets big votes. I had (organic) chorizo in the freezer but then, at the last minute, worried that its spiciness would overpower the chicken and shrimp I had set my heart on. Turned out it was not a good day for sausage shopping at our local grocery store, and I didn’t have time to go anywhere else, so summer sausage got the nod.

Then—well, I’ll give you some links to a few recipes I found online, then tell you how I made mine, which as I say started from a cookbook, one on my shelf at home. If you have a good cookbook library, see what you can find. As for online recipes, there are many, and what I’m giving here is only the tip of the iceberg. Gumbo is good eatin’ on an Up North winter evening.

Let’s start with a recipe from south Louisiana. Looks good. In another, the flour is not browned. Can it be for real? I’m dubious.

From New Jersey comes a recipe that instructs the cook to brown the flour in pot. Many recipes use this method. The ingredient list from this Texas recipe leaves out the okra, with this note: “And while the word gumbo stems from the Bantu term for okra, kingombo, I didn’t add that as well even though it’s quite common to include it for both flavor and its thickening power.” Personally, I cannot conceive of gumbo without okra. But then, I am only a damn Yankee, doin’ the best I can. Anyway, I’ll be trying variations in future, but here’s what I did this February:

Chicken, Sausage and Shrimp Gumbo

First, the night before, I browned flour in the oven in a shallow pan, "roasting" it for 45 minutes and stirring 15 and 30 minutes along. The aroma is strange. I was glad I got that smell out of the way the night before.

Late Friday afternoon, I cooked chicken pieces in a big cast iron pot with lots of water for 45 minutes to create a good, rich broth and then removed the chicken pieces to cool in a colander.

I chopped celery, chopped green pepper (excuse me, bell pepper), chopped onion and garlic and sliced green onions (scallions) and tossed these into a second big pot with olive oil and sauteed the vegetables, turning often with a spatula as they cooked.

To the sauteed vegetable mixture I added the browned flour and, a bit at a time, some of the chicken broth, stirring as it thickened.

Skinning chicken pieces, I took meat off the bones, cut it into small pieces, and added chicken pieces and sauteed vegetables with flour thickener to the broth, along with a can of diced tomatoes oregano, salt and pepper. Unfortunately I was out of bay leaves (at least, I couldn't find them in the confusion of the kitchen project, with boxes of ingredients and piles of dishes all over the house), so I added a very small amount of chopped sage (three small leaves, chopped fine), harvested from outdoors at the last minute. Summer sausage, diced large, was added at this point, also, and then everything simmered for another 45 minutes. While this was simmering and smelling better and better, I had plenty of time to shell and devein the shrimp.

About 20 minutes before dinner I added a bag of chopped okra, and, ten minutes later, the shrimp.

At the very end, I added the filé gumbo powder (which is ground thyme and powdered sassafras leaves).

I served the gumbo in big flat bowls with a pile of steaming rice on top (some people ladle the gumbo over the rice), with hot sauce on the side, an option for diners. Delicious, if I do say so myself!

Sorry I didn’t photograph the gumbo and rice in the bowls. It was beautiful, but we were very focused on digging in.

The next morning, the kitchen was half-gutted again (not the sink and new countertop side), old flooring taken up so new tile could go down. It will be a couple of days before we’ll be cooking in the kitchen again, but--lunch for the remodeling crew? Where’s that pot of gumbo?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

THE HELP Discussion (and Disagreement) Continues

I’ve decided to begin a new post to continue discussion on discussion (yes, that’s what I mean) of The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. I did go back and add into my last post a link (here it is again) to a review of the book, not only for the review itself but, much more, for the very lengthy train of comments that follows the review, comments left by American and British readers, native-born and immigrant Americans, black and white readers, women (mostly), men (a significant number), Northerners and Southerners both, and that’s where I want to begin today. Reading these comments held me enthralled for hours on Thursday morning, and I recommend the experience, especially if you are ever tempted to think that any one group of people, however that group is defined, will respond en bloc to any book written. If you visit the site and have the time and patience to read through all the comments (which I cannot recommend strongly enough), eventually you’ll come to a point where commentators are coming back to respond to comments made in response to their earlier comments, and that’s where the conversation becomes more difficult but, I believe, all the more worth pursuing for that reason. One of the black women who became a major voice in the conversation has her own website.

Whatever you thought of the book (if you read it), in my opinion the cross-racial, cross-gender, cross-generational, etc. conversation is much more riveting. We do need to talk to each other, to people who have had different experiences from ours, to people whose opinions do not agree with ours. Only if we can stay in the conversation, even when tempers flare, voices rise and tears start up--we can’t control others and can’t always control ourselves--is there hope for our country and for our world. I believe that.

So now, having opened up the can of worms with the question in my previous post (Can this white author portray the experience of black women?), I’ll stick my neck out and put my opinion of the book on the line, first making clear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying writers of fiction can only succeed in offering the experience of their own lives, i.e., that fiction should be given up and only autobiography written and published. Neither am I saying that a writer has no “right” to imagine a character of the opposite gender, of a different race or ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation or what-have-you. But just as freedom of expression exists for writers, it exists for readers, too. Not only reviewers and critics and academics but every ordinary reader, too, has a right to evaluate the success of a work of fiction according to her or his standards, however personal those standards may be.

Now, backtracking:

I approached the book with trepidation. I was wary. My defenses were up. I wondered (this is a point several people made in comments and reviews) why the black characters’ dialogue was spelled out in dialect but not that of the white characters, and all I could think was that maybe a white Southerner like the author doesn’t hear herself as speaking with an accent. A minor point, but it kept my defenses up, so that I questioned other authorial decisions all the way along, and by the time I reached the end of the book I still wasn’t sure what to think about it. I had entered into the story to a degree but not completely. The fate of the characters concerned me, but at the same time there were plot devices I could not fully buy. My resistance, not overcome by the novel itself, was not overcome by the library discussion group, either. Am I just stubborn, or what?

Then I found the California Literary Review site and realized I was not alone and that opinions about this book range all over the map! Reading those comments helped. They also took me into a much larger world of literary and social discussion, and I was moved and enlightened and encouraged by the willingness of readers to share their opinions and to disagree.

So here’s where my thoughts have taken me so far (for convenience and clarity I’ll number the few points I want to make):

1. In general, any writer attempting the point of view of a character with experience way outside the writer’s own has greatly multiplied the difficulties, already considerable, of producing believable fiction. No writer—in our country, at this time in history, at least—is barred from making the attempt. It does take chutzpah and invites more than the average amount of criticism. I have often heard it said of a male novelist, “His women characters aren’t real,” and certain novels by female writers are dismissed by men, either without comment or with a disparaging remark that “Men don’t talk like that.” It isn’t that men are not allowed to create female characters or that women aren’t permitted to create male characters, but that whenever we know the gender of the author we subject the characters of the opposite gender to closer scrutiny in the work. Hence the many female mystery writers who use initials rather than first names. (Fascinating studies have been done with subjects reading short pieces and not knowing the gender of the writers; when gender was revealed, most felt they should have been able to pick up clues to gender, even where they failed miserably. I don’t know if similar race-blind reading/writing studies have been done but would like to know of any out there.)

2. Anyone can say, or any work of fiction, “I don’t believe it.” Years ago I had an acting teacher who told our class that just as we didn’t have to be hens to recognize rotten eggs, anyone could criticize acting, simply by saying it didn’t ring true. The same holds for fiction. If you believe it, it succeeded for you; if not, it didn’t.

3. So what does it take for fiction to succeed, for characters to be believable to readers? As far as I’m concerned, the characters I’m reading about don’t have to be “like me” (how much would I learn if that were the case?), but I do need to feel that the writer has gotten inside the characters, so that I have at least the illusion that I am encountering a person rather than a type. Here the standard I keep coming back to over the years, because my first reading of this novel was such a watershed experience for me as a reader, is James Baldwin’s Another Country. I maintain that anyone coming to this book with no knowledge of the author’s identity would not be able to say with certainty that the writer was black or white, male or female, gay or straight, because Baldwin was able to inhabit all of his characters with sympathy. They were not simple characters, either. Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, working with the material of her own life, had a similar ability. You don’t necessarily fall in love with all of Baldwin’s or Smith’s characters, but because of the depth given them by their authors (and here the word ‘author’ takes on its great creative power!), you realize at least part of why they are the way they are, and you grow in understanding.

4. So, finally, I’ll allow that I was disappointed in Stockett’s novel. Characters were recognizable, yes, but for me the third and fourth dimensions were lacking. Why did Minnie put up with physical abuse from her husband? James Baldwin would have given us some insight. Why was Miss Leefolt so cold to her own little daughter? Betty Smith would have let us see a little way into the mother’s hard heart and how it had gotten that way. I can imagine Minnie understanding how demoralizing life is for a black man and knowing that only at home can he have any power, and I can imagine that Mae Mobley’s mother might be unhappy in her marriage or doesn’t have pride in anything she herself has ever done, but I have to do all this imagining on my own, because the author hasn’t done it for me. These are limitations in characterization, and most of the characters are similarly limited. Besides this flaw, along with the very believable general circumstances (historical fact, many of them), there were other plot contrivances that I found unbelievable and/or forced.

So that’s what I think of the book. I’m not arguing with anyone who enjoyed reading it. I enjoyed parts of it myself. It isn’t a book I would recommend, however, given all the other, much better novels that deserve to be read.

What I think of the discussions it has sparked is something else again. The discussions I’ve found online I find very exciting! I left my own comment, saying that this, all these different people from different backgrounds with different opinions—this is the movie (probably documentary) that I want to see, not a film version of the book. “But if there is so much deep discussion because of it, doesn’t that mean the book had to be pretty good?” Someone posed this question to me, and it’s a good question, but my answer is no, I don’t think the quality of discussion depends on the quality of the catalyst.

I can, however, be grateful to the catalyst. Kathryn Stockett had a lot of chutzpah to write the book she did. She is a successful story-teller, with a best-seller under her belt, and now she will have a lifetime to grow as a writer. Meanwhile, for now, the controversy continues.

One Book, Many Different Views

Yesterday the book discussion group from the Leelanau Township Library met at Dog Ears Books, due to the fact that the library remodeling project is almost but not quite finished. The book to be discussed was Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. The librarian and I admitted—and discovered that we were the only ones who felt this way—approaching the novel with some trepidation. Could the white author truly portray black women’s experiences? I won’t give my answer to the question (quite honestly, I’m still mulling it over), but this morning I found a review online which is followed by a very long and completely fascinating series of comments which cover a wide variety of responses. There are comments by both black and white respondents, those who loved the book and those who hated it, mostly women but a few men. I haven’t finished reading all the comments yet but have been struck by many and recommend reading them all, as I intend to do. Whatever you do, don’t miss Malathy’s response. Okay, I’m going back now to read the rest....

I’m coming back to say more about these comments, in hopes that a lot of people will go read them. What is most striking to me is that there is no uniform opinion in any one group, divide the respondents up how you will. Southern white women: different opinions. Southern black women: different opinions. Northern blacks: different opinions. Northern whites: different opinions. Men vs. women: no clear-cut agreement within gender. Educational level: did not determine reaction positively or negatively, as far as I can see.

Thinking further about this, I guess what I love about the diversity of comments is that it completely explodes any notion that a particular group of American readers will fall into a monolithic response, based on gender or race or geographic region or any other way anyone might be tempted to draw the lines. This alone should tell us something, although I’m not sure exactly how to put that “something” into words.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Winter Wednesday Postcard Promenade #3: Up the West Coast of Michigan

It's that time of the week again, Wednesday, and time for more of my old postcards. Today we begin down in southwest Michigan, in St. Joseph, and will tour north along the Lake Michigan shore. Hey, you guys! Turn those cars around and head north!

Doesn't this simple trail of a road down by Douglas, Michigan, look inviting? The next two views are of long-ago Saugatuck:

Then it's on to Grand Haven, where I would swear there was an Atlantic City-style boardwalk and carnival rides in the Sixties, even saltwater taffy. Did I dream that visit to the shore with my sister and our respective boyfriends? This Grand Haven scene obviously predates whatever experience I had or didn't have there.

Ludington comes next. Doesn't this reminder make you want to jump in the car and drive to Ludington--or, if you're over in Wisconsin, drive your car onto the ferry to ride across the Lake?

And now we come to Sleeping Bear! The dune climb is still part of the National Lakeshore, but there are no more dunesmobiles, either the original or these later models.

(The ominous shadow over the dunes is not that of a UFO but only me with my camera, looming over the postcard.)

Between Glen Arbor and Leland, in the not-so-distant old days, at the intersection of M-22 and one of the roads back around Little Traverse Lake, you used to be able to take a stroll through Lund's Scenic Gardens, where scenes from the New Testament were displayed as life-size paintings. In the latter days of this attraction, when admission was free to any wanderer, coming upon one of these scenes in the tangled jungle of woods and weeds was particularly eerie.

Finally, here's Fishtown--

Fishtown in Leland. Who doesn't recognize Fishtown? Most of the shacks are still there, housing summer retail businesses. Carlson's Fisheries still sells fresh and smoked fish and smoked fish sausage. They go out themselves and catch the fish.

Where shall we go next week? To a big Michigan city? Which one? Detroit? Grand Rapids? Lansing? Or to the U.P.? Mackinac Island? The Keewanaw? Or to a few little inland towns here in the lower peninsula? I'm open to suggestions.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Far Corners of Home

Kamloops. The name won’t leave my head, and I can’t help pronouncing it aloud every few minutes. (Try it. It's very satisfying to say aloud.) Sarah can’t figure what I’m talking about. David hasn’t asked—yet. The Kamloops on my mind has nothing to do with British Columbia. No, it was a ship—and is, still, a shipwreck. The 1923-built ‘Kamloops’ went down in 1927 off the coast of Isle Royale, and it’s on my mind because I just finished Nevada Barr’s A Superior Death. (What a story!) And now, ever so slightly obsessed with Nevada Barr, I was intrigued to find her on a website of Mississippi writers, although she was born in Nevada and grew up in California. Since she lived a while in Mississippi...also in New York...and currently lives in New Orleans, by the unwritten rules of bookselling this makes her a Nevada writer, California writer, Mississippi writer, and Louisiana writer, at the very least. (Whether or not New York booksellers claim her as belonging to the Big Apple, I know not. NYC is its own universe.) How many states, after all, claim Hemingway as one of their own? Illinois (birthplace) and Michigan (family summer home) are among the number but hardly form an exhaustive list.

In my bookstore, Dog Ears Books, as in others I know in northern Michigan, there is a section called “Michigan.” All my used and out-of-print Michigan fiction is there, followed by used and OP nonfiction—history, natural history, memoir, essays, etc. On the bookshelves holding new books, there is also a section for books Michigan.

Deciding what counts as a Michigan book is a little more straightforward than identifying Michigan authors. A Superior Death takes place on Isle Royale in Lake Superior within the boundaries of the state of Michigan. The story is clearly set in Michigan. If a Michigan historian wrote a history of Georgia, I would shelve that book in Southern history and travel. (I collapsed travel and history sections some years back, frustrated by such questions as, “Do you have any books on China?” and the confusing directions involved in the answers.) But on the Michigan fiction shelves there are always, besides stories set in Michigan, others set elsewhere but written by Michigan writers--for example, Alaskan Gold Rush adventure stories by James B. Hendryx of Suttons Bay and James Oliver Curwood of Owosso and Western literary fiction by Jim Harrison.

Now that I’ve been immersed—submerged—in Michigan fiction for a couple of days, I've turned back to The Honey Trail, by Australian travel writer Grace Pundyk, where, in the chapter on Borneo, I’ve just traveled five hours upriver to an isolated, roadless river village. I’m not in Michigan any more—until I put down the book and walk outdoors again.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Postal Holiday Writing Challenge

When I was growing up in Illinois, we schoolchildren had Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, as a holiday. Washington’s birthday, February 22--did we get that day off school, too? I honestly don't remember, but naturally our grade school classrooms were full of lessons about the Father of Our Country in February. Every state has a few holidays that other states don’t have, and Chicago and suburban schools still get the day off for the birthday of the Polish hero of the American Civil War, Casimir Pulaski, whom you can learn about here. No, he was never a president. I digressed, thinking about regional holiday differences in the U.S.

In 1971 President Richard Nixon decided we would have one national holiday to honor all American presidents. I suppose it makes some sense, as holidays could otherwise proliferate like the feast days of saints, but honoring “presidents” rather than Lincoln seems like rather a bowl of thin gruel to someone who grew up (though was not born) in the Land of Lincoln. And really, don’t we all believe, whether or not we would agree on a list, that some American presidents have been more deserving of honor than others? There’s potential for another digression, but I won’t take that particular side road today.

What does Presidents Day, or Presidents’ Day, if you prefer (but please, not President’s Day, the whole point being that it’s not just about one president!) mean to those not in a classroom? That’s what I’m really wondering. What does it mean, and what could it mean? Another day for big retail sales? When did that notion get started, anyway? “BIG WASHINGTON’S DAY SALE!” Somewhat bizarre, don’t you think? I never could understand it, much less get into it.

Here’s my proposal. Since this Monday is a holiday for all federal employees, the post office is closed, and there is no mail delivery—making this the perfect day to sit down and write a letter! Why? To give pleasure to someone you love and, at the same time, to salute and support the United States Postal System. I’m talking about tangible support, not just lip service. Go to the post office tomorrow, buy stamps and send mail!

Some Americans think we don’t need a government postal service and that all mail and shipping services should be privatized. I disagree. Mail service guaranteed to everyone in the country, at reasonable cost, is part of the bedrock of democracy, every bit as important as public education, in my book. As for the reliability of the post office, I have shipped books USPS since my career as a bookseller began in 1993, and never once has one of my book packages gone astray. Not once. I know other people have less happy anecdotes to share, but over 18 years’ experience as a business shipper has to count for something.

Mine was a family of letter writers, as I’ve written here before, a family for whom the arrival of the mail was the high point of every day. Going to the post office once a week to pick up mail from a special box, my father’s job as officer in some organization at the time, and to send out letters and packages was such a special treat that my sisters and I had to take turns. The sound of the metal mailbox lid (Clink!) beside the front porch door, the impressive way my little footsteps echoed on the marble floor of the downtown post office, the beauty and variety of postage stamps and the possibility (remote back then) that something very special might come in the mail for me was all part of the thrill. My father smoked an occasional pipe, you see, and every year as a girl he and I solemnly entered the Kentucky Club contest. The prize was a racehorse, and to enter we sent in empty tobacco wrappers and a form with the name we would give the horse. Who knew? A girl could dream, and maybe one year....

We never won the racehorse, but I never lost those early feelings of pleasure I associate with the U.S. mail. The time it takes, the non-instantaneous aspect of the mail, the anticipation, is part of what makes it delicious, although through the course of history the time lag between a letter leaving one place and arriving at its destination has progressively shortened. Recently I sent a small package to Australia, imagining it might take months to arrive. How delightful to hear that the book and newspaper were only about a week and a half in transit—and now my new Australian friend has put something in the mail to me! I am so excited!

Last week the mail brought me a letter from a local friend spending the winter out West, a valentine from old graduate school pals, a mystery package of treats from the U.P., and a thank-you note from another friend right here in Leelanau. Pleasure, pleasure, pleasure!

Stamps are still beautiful, and while the price has gone up I maintain it is still a howling bargain—compared to prices of postage in other countries, compared to slow mail delivery in other countries, and given the lasting pleasure and treasure one lightweight stamped envelope carries with it.

Last year my mother sent me a package containing letters and postcards my father had written her when I was a baby in South Dakota. That’s another thing that makes it delicious: the enjoyment of reading one’s mail can be repeated, if desired, for a lifetime. Of how many pleasures can that be said?

Here are a couple of ideas. One is to make a commitment—yes, I’ll step up first in line—to mail a note or letter to someone you love at least once a week (different someones okay) from now to Memorial Day. The other idea, an additional option, is to mail a book to someone you love once a month in March, April and May.

Note that books can go “media mail,” the new name for the old “book rate” (thank Benjamin Franklin, too, every time you mail a book), but please, if you include a letter or note, don’t cheat! Personal messages included with books mean the whole package needs first-class postage. Sometimes I send the letter and the book separately. Other times I figure it’s worth the extra cost to tuck that letter inside the book. It’s still a bargain when you imagine the joy on the recipient’s face.

Mail at least one letter a week from now to Memorial Day. Optional: Mail a book once a month from now to Memorial Day. That’s my personal commitment this season and my challenge to you.

Finally, thanks to Gerry Sell for prompting this commitment and challenge.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Little Random Reading

Here at week’s end, I’m sorry to report that February has brought illness to many Up North residents—colds, flu, what-have-you. The only way I can think to turn the sad fact of illness in a happier direction is by telling you of a children’s book that has won both the Caldecott Medal and the award for Best Illustrated Children’s Book from the New York Times. Here it is, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, written by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin E. Stead.

Amos the zookeeper loves his job at the zoo and always manages to spend “quality” time with his animal friends. What will the animals do when Amos has to stay home sick? You might make a general guess, but you’ll want to investigate more closely so as not to miss each engaging encounter.

Making this an even better story, I can report to you that the Sneads divide their time between NYC and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

I’m in Part VI (of VIII parts) of Anna Karenina, and things are not going well with Anna and Vronsky, which is no surprise to anyone who has read the book before, as I have, but would probably not surprise anyone coming to it for the first time, either. I set Tolstoy aside to read yet another delightful book by Oliver Sacks, this one his memoir, Uncle Tungsten, which allowed me to live a vicarious boyhood in London. Then it was off for a trip to New York City during Prohibition with Archy and Mehitabel, the irrepressible cockroach and alley cat duo created by Don Marquis. Everyone should make the acquaintance of Archy. It’s difficult, though, as the fictional bookseller in The Haunted Bookshop learned when his wife objected to his taste, to find excerpts to convey that adequately convey Archy’s charm.
i heard a
couple of fleas
talking the other
day says one come
to lunch with
me i can lead you
to a pedigreed
dog says the
other one
i do not care
what a dog s
pedigree may be
safety first
is my motto what
i want to know
is whether he
has got a
muzzle on
millionaires and
bums taste
about alike to me

That was the cockroach talking, but it’s Archy’s pal, the alley cat named Mehitabel, the free spirit claiming to be “always a lady,” who is the star.
i look back on my life
and it seems to me to be
just one damned kitten
after another
i am a dancer archy
and my only prayer
is to be allowed
to give my best to my art
but just as i feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens

I want to go back a couple of weeks to say a word about Allen Shawn’s memoir, Twin. Well, two words. First, it is called a memoir, so I’m not sure why I expected it to be more about his autistic sister than about his own life; once I got over my faulty preconception, however, I enjoyed the book much more. Second, the audience I expect to be most fascinated and moved by this book is not parents or siblings of autistic children or memoir readers in general but people interested in what goes on in musical composition. Shaw is a composer, you see, and the way he writes of composition and how he grew into it is unlike anything else I’ve read. Musicians and music lovers, here is a book for you, though actually it will interest anyone interested in odd “corners” of the world and the human psyche.

Finally, you could do worse this week than to pick up a copy of the New Yorker magazine, the Feb. 14 & 21 issue. An Adam Gopnik essay begins on page 124 and is, as always, worth several times the cover price of the magazine. Bear with me while I quote just a fragment (and I promise to do so briefly, despite all the many underlined sentences and bracketed paragraphs in the magazine in front of me). He has introduced “cognitive entanglement” and the ways spouses’ memories intertwine, and then comes the Gopnik arabesque:
Google is really the world’s Thurber wife: smiling patiently and smugly as she explains what the difference is between eulogy and elegy and what the best route is to that little diner outside Hackensack. The new age is one in which we all have a know-it-all spouse at our fingertips.

I happen to have in stock, right now, a new paperback copy of Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon and have no hesitation in saying that this writer is a treasure of our time. If Don Marquis hadn’t created Archy the cockroach, Adam Gopnik might have.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Winter Wednesday Postcard Promenade #2

First, as promised, a couple postcards for Gerry Sell, who wanted to see Spike Horn Meyers of Harrison, Michigan. We are told on the front of one postcard that the man in the photograph is 84 years old. The back of the other card is simply titled “Bear Den.” What is the man feeding that bear cub, and what is the Spike Horn story? Gerry, do you know?

Our second stop on week’s promenade is the “Old Club” on the Ste. Claire [sic] Flats.

Detroiters know all the suburbs beginning with St. Clair (Shores, etc.), but David graduated from high school in the little town of St. Clair, up toward Port Huron, and at least once, on a trip to visit his mother, we explored the Flats, including Harsen’s Island. (Take the tour yourself. You’ll be glad you did.) The St. Clair is a magical, mysterious river, and the architecture of this old shingled building has a lot of romance, to my eye. I remember buildings like this along the river, where now it’s all condos.

Dear little Paw Paw! Down in southeast Michigan, in Van Buren County, this sweet town was the object of many pleasant weekend “country cruises” when we lived in nearby Kalamazoo. From spring through autumn the chief enticements (besides friends who lived there) were a couple of flea markets west of Paw Paw. Once I took my son and a friend of his to the flea market, and we came home with a kitten; luckily for the kitten, the other boy’s mother said he could keep it, and the cat had a happy home for many years. There was always something wonderful waiting at the flea market. Once it was the world's ugliest boat, which turned out to be the most-used boat of our lives--another story for another time. But downtown Paw Paw was interesting, too. The Dyckman House on the left in this photograph was an old hotel featuring an incredibly cheap dining room. How could they serve meals that cheap? Well, yes, it was pretty shabby in those days, too.... A smaller cafe down the street to the west (behind the photographer), went through many incarnations and was briefly called the Gnomes Inn. A friend worked there as a waitress in the Gnomes Inn phase. I seem to remember a “Smiling G” (Goodwill) store, and there was a wonderful, old-style Ben Franklin, back when BF still had all manner of merchandise, not just craft stuff. Paw Paw is memorable for David and me, also, in what no one else can see, either in this postcard or right there in person: it was the home of one of our first imaginary bookstores! Which building would you choose to house a bookstore?

Have you visited Harbor Springs lately? Pretty chichi, isn’t it? No one looking at the present-day marina would picture the waterfront looking like this.

Small, simple boats, an obviously much-used railroad, horse-drawn buggies and carriages, but I don’t see any traffic jams, although judging from the green leaves on the trees, this must be the height of the season.

I’m including the Kellogg postcard below for my Australian friends because--look! On this card the cereal company’s Sydney, Australia, plant is featured front and center! Snap, crackle, pop!

Now back to the “Sunrise Side” (as people on Lake Huron and the St. Clair River call the eastern Michigan shore) to visit Port Huron as shown in four different cards. The first is the oldest, obviously, and I don't know the locale. The other three, from only about half a century ago, judging by the cars, are downtown scenes. View #2 is looking south, views #3 and #4 (see the same large building on the right in both?) looking north. I strain my eyes in that night scene for Diana’s, the fabulous dreamlike sweetshop, on the left-hand side of the street but can’t make it out. Oh, those polished wood booths! The tiled floor! The jukeboxes and the mechanical instruments in glass cases! The hot fudge sundae with gobs of real whipped cream! Can you believe what I'm going to tell you next? Diana’s was bought, disassembled, moved and reassembled in Nashville, Tennessee! “You can still go there,” my informant told me. “You just have to go to Nashville.” Nothing against Nashville, but oh, I wish Diana’s were still in Port Huron! The Eiffel Tower belongs in Paris, and London Bridge belongs in London! Too late, too late!

It’s a little late for Christmas and New Year’s greetings, too, but a winter scene on my last card for today is not inappropriate for February Up North, even though we're having a stretch of warm, sunny days that feel like spring, and snow and ice are melting fast!

Next week, back to Leelanau--and what other surprises might I unearth?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Midway Through the Shortest Month

Rick Bass writes of winter depression (in The Wild Marsh) as “the February effect,” even while he acknowledges that it may come as early as October (as colorful leaves are blown from branches to ground and days begin later and end earlier, I muse) or as late as March (which here in Leelanau vies with April for the crown of “Cruelest Month”). He writes of having come (“The older I get...”) to deny a connection between seasonal moods and character. I have been working for over 20 years to see blue moods as weather, something to be endured rather than a cause for meta-depression (“What’s wrong with me, feeling this way?”). Bass has a more poetical, metaphysical way of expressing the matter, postulating “some hand-from-above, or some wave-from-below,” and he describes the hesitation with which he approaches February days, even in “good” years:
...I sense those distant swells below, & venture forth into the world cautiously, not cockily. I advance in the manner of some ground-hugging, upland bird, a grouse or quail, that pauses and then freezes anytime the shadow of a hawk passes overhead.

A friend of ours with an indoor job this year (retail) spent a lot of winters past on an orchard crew, and he told us recently that the two sunniest months of the year in our part of northern Michigan are July and February. He had no scientific evidence to back up his claim, he said, almost apologetically, but here was the telling detail in his personal observations: Many February afternoons, he said, between one and three o’clock, the sun would be warm enough (and reflecting off the snow, don’t forget) that the guys pruning trees could shed one layer of clothing after another until they were working bare-chested, “and that way,” he concluded, “we could avoid ‘pruner’s tan.’”

Do you know about ‘pruner’s tan’? Unlike ‘farmer tan,’ it does not involve a bronzing of neck and forearms, only face, so you might see a guy from a pruning crew all bundled up in his winter jacket and scarf and gloves and think he’d just returned from a vacation in Jamaica—until he came indoors and shed his outerwear, when you’d see that only his face was brown. Pruner’s tan. Add it to your Up North vocabulary.

Tan or no tan, regardless of layers of clothing required, February holds fewer terrors for me and much less angst now that I can think of it as a rival to July in terms of sunny days. (We’ve had a few lately, too, and what a difference they make!) I suspect that what is true for us may not be true of Montana, but the bright golds and yellows of the willow trees that Bass greets with such enthusiasm in February brighten the Great Lakes winter, too. That’s what caught my eye when I photographed the scene that opens today’s post.

Finally, while we’re not big in our household on greeting card holidays, I have no intention of ignoring Valentine’s Day completely. From feelings frivolous to commitment enduring, the world can always use more love, and we in northern climes can always use more ways to brighten a month fraught with potential for morbid thoughts. So here are my three cheers for February 14:

1. Northern Michigan small town:

The restaurant is closed for the winter, but the owners have decorated their windows for passers-by. That OPEN sign you see if facing in; the side facing out says CLOSED. The valentines' message is obvious and unequivocal.

2. Québec:

Joyeux jour ou joyeuse fête? Canadians are divided. Either way, it's a greeting brimming with goodwill.

3. Together a long time:

Me: “Am I your soul-mate?”

Him: “I’m afraid so.”

We both laugh.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Grand Marais; Seed Time; Mark Twain; Reading and Gender

Grand Marais, Michigan

Yes, it’s another day of potpourri rather than an extended theme, and I’ll open with the news that Grand Marais, Michigan, our favorite little town in the Upper Peninsula, is the winner of a Reader’s Digest contest in which anyone could vote, and anyone could vote any number of times. Given that latitude and the monetary incentive, little Grand Marais turned up the heat and beat the drums and managed to accumulate 1,281,724 votes--not bad for a town with a population of 350, eh? The good news is that the town will receive $40,000 for the civic project of their choice. The not-quite-as-good news is that estimated costs for needed work on the harbor run into the millions. Anyone have grant money available for a good Up North cause? Harbors of refuge are few and far between on Lake Superior. A book on Grand Marais published by Arcadia in their “Images of America” service is available at Dog Ears Books, for those who want to explore from the comfort of an easy chair until snowmobile season gives way to black fly season. GM, you know I’m teasing! You know I love you dearly!

Seeds of Dreams

Indeed, it is that time of year, the time when a northern gardener’s thoughts turn to spring and the planting of this year’s garden. It will be many weeks until the soil is clear of snow and ready to be turned, and I never plant anything “tender,” such as tomato plants, outside until Memorial Day, no matter how warm the weather in May, but gardens are made as much of faith and hope as of sweat and toil, and before the time for hard labor arrives it’s glorious to revel in seed catalogs like these gorgeous beauties!

When I take a break from the catalogs, I turn to books, and one I’m discovering for the first time this year (a “classic” in its field, I’m told by those who are way ahead of me) is Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners. General chapters begin the book: “Botanical Classifications”; “Pollination and Flower Structure”; “Maintaining Varietal Purity”; “Seed Cleaning Methods”; and “Seed Storage Techniques.” I should say, perhaps, though the subtitle already said as much, that this book is not a technical treatise for botanists but is a truly practical guide. Where in your home will you find a spot that provides “constant warmth at a specific temperature”? Ashworth suggests the top of a refrigerator, warning against trying to germinate seeds from the Solanaceae family (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers) near a gas stove or water heater, as natural gas can inhibit germination. Who would have known or guessed that? Germination rates over years of storage for different vegetable seeds is another example of a handy tip. For example, half of the onion seeds you save, if properly dried and stored, will be viable two years later.

The bulk of the pages of Seed to Seed deal not with generalities but with specifics—families and species of vegetables, the families arranged alphabetically, beginning with Amaryllidaceae, the onions, leeks and chives, and proceeding through Valerianaceae, Indian corn salad, with all your common favorites in between and a few you might never have tried before. For instance, I’m keen on attempting to grow okra this year (“Okra seeds will maintain 50% germination for five years when stored under ideal conditions”), and while I knew the plant came from West Africa, I am surprised and oddly delighted to see that it is a member of the Malvacea family, a relative of the humble and lovely old-fashioned farm hollyhock.

Supplementing my garden, whatever I end up planting and growing, will be the summer farm market in Northport, and a book to help me with new ideas for the tables will be Fast, Fresh & Green: More than 90 Delicious Recipes for Veggie Lovers, by Susie Middleton. Oh, boy, sweet potato fries!!!

Mark Twain’s Meanderings

First, my confession: I’m not a huge fan of Mark Twain. When I finally got around to reading Huckleberry Finn, I was astounded and dismayed by the last few chapters of the book and the way the whole story fell apart. It reminded me of movies where the people making them started with a good idea and then didn’t know how to wrap it up. I mentioned here in the blog a while back that David and I were reading Life on the Mississippi at bedtime. For quite a while we were thoroughly engrossed and entertained; disappointment came when the narrative (to use the word loosely) jumped a large chunk of years, skipping from the author’s days as a pilot to a later pleasure trip he made down the river with a friend. Those later chapters weren’t nearly as good as the ones that had gone before.

Now a review by Andrew Delbanco in the New York Review of Books of the new Twain autobiography (the first of three volumes came out this winter) confirms my feeling about Twain’s writing, while offering the reviewer’s positive assessment of what he calls “incoherence” in Twain’s books. Delbanco quotes from a 1895 essay by Twain, “How to Tell a Story,” in which the author admits (boasts?) that “to string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and purposeless way” is his way of going about the task. Well, that explains that, doesn’t it? (Does it?)

I was particularly struck by Twain’s complaints about writing, as opposed to talking, which was his real talent. Another passage quoting the famous story-teller was this:
“With pen in the hand,” he said, “the narrative stream is a canal: it moves slowly, smoothly, decorously, sleepily, it has no blemish except that it is all blemish. It is a little too literary, too prim, too nice.”

What would Mark Twain have to say about writing on a laptop computer, with AutoFormat and spelling and grammar checking programs second-guessing the writer at every turn, all this in addition to the neatness of typeface on a screen, which seems to shout at the writer to produce finished, blemish-free prose or poetry? On the other hand, the speed of typing on a keyboard (as evidenced by sloppy and/or fiery, spontaneous e-mails from friends who hit “Send” in the heat of emotion without saving to a “Draft” folder for later, calmer revision) would seem to bring writing closer to speech, and thus closer to the “wandering and purposeless” style, the unpolished spontaneity favored by Twain.

So here’s one question for today: Is the computer keyboard or the yellow pad and pen more likely to prime the writing pump and make a story flow?

Did Reading Change Her Life? Yours? Mine?

Going through boxes under my desk at home (same place I found the treasure box of postcards), I ran across a book loaned to me by a friend with a “Please return” Post-It note inside. The book was How Reading Changed My Life, by Anna Quindlen. It’s a very small book, and I enjoyed reading it but commented to David that I didn’t see how reading had changed the author’s life at all: She began as a reader and has remained a reader, to the extent that she prefers reading to all other activities, including travel and outdoor recreation. (Hmmm, always? I’m a book-lover but can’t go that far.) What I want to get into today, however briefly, is Quindlen’s speculation that women read differently from men, men for information and women for “connection,” and this, she thinks, explains why so many women are in book clubs, while so few men are. Do women more often than men share books with friends? Is reading more often part of a basis for friendship between women than it is constitutive of friendship between men? My own experience is that we readers, male or female, often form relationships with other readers, and these relationships often involve the sharing of books, but I don’t see the gender difference Quindlen finds. How do you see it? Sarah awaits your comments!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Why Do I Get So Excited About These Things?

Maybe you thought that headline signaled another post about books, and it’s no secret that books excite me, but today I’m fixated on old postcards. I’m giddy over them, to tell the truth.

In the midst of our kitchen remodeling, lots of things are currently out of place, and finding temporary storage for displaced dishes and pans and cans reminds me, forcibly, that lots of things are always out of place in certain corners of my life, corners that cry out for attention they very seldom receive. Facing those areas can be overwhelming. What to trash, what to recycle, what to keep? But it’s surprising how quickly I can make decisions once I finally tear into the mountain, and then there are the rewards, such as today unearthing, among many other less exciting forgotten items, an overflowing box holding my completely unorganized but beloved “collection” of old postcards. (Is it a collection if it is not organized?) As soon as I started taking cards out of the box, a handful at a time, I got all excited, thrilled to rediscover my very own treasures! Florida and Georgia (winter travels), South Dakota (where I was born), Illinois (where I grew up), Indiana (traversed many times over the years), Ohio (home of grandparents), but my favorites are the postcards from Michigan.

Here is a quartet from Kalamazoo, including the courthouse where David and I got married the first time around. (Second time was in Paris, Illinois.) You can see from the 4-card shot that I was much too excited to pay proper attention to lighting and focus. The single shot of the courthouse is better.

I have a lot of postcards from the U.P., from Mackinac Island and the Bridge clear up through the Keewanaw peninsula—lake and boat and bridge pictures, mines and mining, small U.P. towns, and more.

Lots of my postcards show main downtown streets of Michigan towns in both peninsulas. Towns range from built-to-last Calumet (its entire downtown now a historic district) to little, off-the-main-road Paradise. Every single one of these towns has me tingling for travel. Some of them have changed hardly at all over the years, and it's fun to look at places of towns we know and recognize streets and buildings.

Between Kalamazoo and the U.P. lies the northwest peninsula, with Leelanau County the mitten’s little finger. “Mittens don’t have fingers,” my former logic professor pointed out when I explained Michigan geography to him. No one else has ever made that objection. Sorry, Steve, the Little Finger is my home!

Below Leelanau, however, lies Traverse City, which is the way most people get to us unless they’re arriving by boat. (Long ago summer tourists arrived by boat from Traverse City, coming up from the south end of Lake Leelanau by steam launch to Leland and Northport, but that’s another story.) One feature of historic Traverse City that I remember from 1970 was the miniature replica of the town at Clinch Park. It was a popular postcard subject. From the photo that includes the children (top left of the four), you can get an idea of the scale of the buildings. My son probably does not remember the miniature Traverse City, though he was pushed through it in his stroller many times.

And here is a really old postcard showing the Traverse City State Hospital, now coming back to life as the Grand Traverse Commons.

One branch of M-22 comes north from Grand Traverse County, the other from Benzie County. The two branches join just south of the village of Northport. Do you recognize (or can you guess) which is which?

Now we come to old Omena:

And this is Gull Island, offshore from Northport in Grand Traverse Bay:

I can’t go on, I can’t! I’m too excited to think straight! Another day, or on various days, we’ll have Leland’s Fishtown, Sleeping Bear “Dunesmobiles,” 84-year-old “Spike Horn” Meyer from Harrison, Michigan, the Club on the Ste. Claire Flats, a look at mid-20th-century Port Huron and all kinds of other fun peeks backward in time--because this post, my friends, is merely the tip of the iceberg. Is anyone else as goony about this stuff as I am? I hope so. And think about this, those of you spending the winter Up North: it's mighty cozy to sit indoors and shuffle through stacks of postcards when the wind chill is below zero.