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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Undercover Thoughts

Thursday afternoon, last day in February: more snow sifting down. Sometimes the wind blows it at an angle, and sometimes it drifts lazily. Half an hour after David left this morning, his tire tracks no longer looked bright and new but like all the other tracks from earlier in the week. Unlike last year at this time, we have a pretty good, deep snow cover.

I’ve spent much of yesterday and today under warmer covers, woven and polar fleece throws, trying not to move too much to set up another round of coughing. It isn’t any horrible flu, just a bad cold, and I think I’m on the recovery side of the upside-down bell-shaped curve. Another upside has been plenty of reading time. Finally, after lo these many years, I’m getting around to reading Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. Before that, I devoured a fascinating memoir, the subject of the remainder of this post:

Avi grew up in an Orthodox family. The basketball team at his yeshiva high school was called the MCATS, as in Medical College Admission Test. Avi quit the MCATs at the age of fourteen to devote himself to the study of Torah and traveled to the West Bank during summer vacation to study more Torah.
Talmud Camp in the ancient Judean heartland, a.k.a. the Occupied Territories -- this was my paradise. Even my parents, who were religious, were concerned about my fervor.
No who knew Avi when he was growing up would have predicted he’d end up in prison.

He didn’t go directly from the schoolhouse to the Big House. For a long time he seemed to be going nowhere. As his classmates from Harvard were establishing themselves in careers as doctors and lawyers, getting married and having children, Avi drifted into part-time work as a free-lance obituary writer.  Even a similarly rudderless friend found this development astonishing, pointing out, “You’re not exactly living the dream.” Something had to change. He saw an ad for a job and decided to apply. He had no background in library science (or in social work) and until he saw the ad hadn’t known that such a job existed, but now he set his sights on the position: prison librarian. For him the choice was clear: “It was either law school or prison.”

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg
NY: Doubleday, 2010

I was offered a loaner copy of this book with only a minimal description of what it might contain, but I accepted the loan eagerly. Our country has the largest percentage of its population behind bars of any country in the world (Russia and Rwanda come in second and third), you don’t have to live in a huge urban area to know people who have been sent to prison, and yet the average white Joe or Jane Doe whose life has not yet been touched by this reality buys into the myth that American prisoners are a privileged class. If facts about prison violence are cited, Joe and Jane shrug and shake their heads. No, no, sorry! Anyone in prison is there for having broken the law, for having violated someone else’s rights? Why should they have any rights at all? That’s the argument I’ve heard in classrooms and around coffee tables. Loss of liberty is seen as insufficient punishment: the horrors of prison life are just what prisoners deserve!

Running the Books starts off as far as possible from being a retributive diatribe. Actually, the book begins with such broad strokes of humor that I kept wondering if the author would ever say anything important, not only for society but for himself, anything that he felt and believed deeply. Was it worth taking the time to read? Would I learn anything? Oh, well, the funny parts were funny. For example, would the author pass the drug test required for employment, or would his hair sample reveal that he had smoked marijuana a few weeks before? Then, no one ever gets his name right. ‘Avi’ is too unfamiliar for inmates and fellow staff. “’What is that, French?’” And so I read on, entertained and curious. I was an unsuspecting fish, and the author was just playing with me. In time he would set the hook, so gently and gradually that I barely noticed.

Naturally, this smart, naive and inexperienced young man who looked years younger than his actual age encountered situations for which he was unprepared. Of course, he made mistakes, as he is the first to admit. On the other hand, he and the more hardened staff members didn’t always agree on what constituted a mistake. Should he, for example, file reports on prisoners he sees leaving notes in books for other prisoners, i.e., using books as illegal mailboxes? He wants to believe both what people tell him and that he can be an agent of change in their lives. Is he in for a rude awakening. Well, yes and no. Mostly yes, but not always in the ways you might expect.

One of Avi’s duties in addition to running the library was teaching writing classes, one to men, another to women prisoners, and one of the women in his class wanted to do nothing but stare out the window. What would the appropriate authoritarian response be to make clear to this prisoner that he was in charge? Jessica was the woman who stared out the window, but I’m not going to tell you why or what Avi did about it or how Jessica’s story ends.

The prison librarian finds himself helping to edit one prisoner’s life story and guiding another inmate through applications to culinary school, and in fact there are as many stories in this book as there are characters. The book is divided into only two parts, Part I and Part II, with only two “chapters” in each part, and these divisions are pretty much irrelevant. Important section divisions begin anywhere on a page, in boldface type, and are signaled by headings such as Job Training, Blueberry Muffin Day, Stopping the Waves, or some other, sometimes surprising title. And so this book contains, besides stories of individual men and women, what I called the other day “essay islands.” The first that stopped me in my tracks was a section headed Prison Doors: A Brief History. It begins like this: “The prison occupies a former dump and incinerator site.” On the following page we read --
It turned out that the common metaphor of prison as a warehouse was actually not a metaphor. South Bay was a warehouse district. There were auto-body shops, mason depots, a methadone clinic, sundry bombed-out buildings, the headquarters of the Boston Fire Department, the Transit Police. But mostly just streets of warehouses and a chorus of beeping, produced by the backing up of delivery trucks. Sometimes it felt as though the entire place was inching backwards.  
And in a way, it was. South Bay is rumored to be sinking into the sea. Although a landmass for generations – having been filled in a century ago – seagulls still swarmed the skies. Perhaps they sensed the rising tide.  
Signs of the End were everywhere.
Steinberg stands in front of the prison one day to study its architecture and compare it to what he has read of the faces of prisons at various times in American history. He sees nothing either uplifting or judgmental. “The structure,” he reports, “repelled all imagination. It was two cereal boxes.” Still less was there any of the symbolism that Nathaniel Hawthorne described in the first chapter of The Scarlet Letter. Has the modern prison abolished dread? Hardly. The true prison door today is found “safely out of public sight,” inside of the building,” and is far gloomier than Hawthorne’s old oak door surrounded by roses could ever have been. Prison Windows is another essay island, standing out nearly self-contained from the text that precedes and follows, and there are others -- yet they draw power, too, from the personal stories of the surrounding text. Without the stories, a reader might be able to shrug at the essays and dismiss them. The essay island titled Delivered, the opening section of Chapter 4, begins with the brief sentence, “There are various reasons to cry in prison” and ends with the prison librarian “initiated into an ancient club: those who cry alone in the darkness of prison.”

“What’s it about?” That is a question often asked when anyone recommends a book. In this case, the subtitle gives big clue clue, but what else can be said to someone wanting a capsule summary? I can say the following, without giving away any of the book’s specifics: Avi learns (and shows) that people inside prisons and people outside are not that different, after all, if you take away the uniforms and rules; he also learns, long after she had died, that his horrible, negative grandmother had been, like many of his inmate library patrons, a prisoner of loneliness; and he concludes, contrary to his predecessors' posted sign reading BOOKS ARE NOT MAILBOXES, that books indeed are mailboxes and that this is one of the functions of a library--to carry messages through space and across time.

This is a book review and a recommendation. Running the Books is now available in paperback for $16 and is in stock at Dog Ears Books.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Essay Islands

The phrase ‘oak openings’ is saturated with romance, its meaning not on the surface of the words but hidden in history, evoking a landscape long ago erased by settlers and farmers. If you visit today what was once the tall grass prairie, you will see only flat, cultivated fields laid out in squares and rectangles, bounded by straight country roads. Before the white man came? It was a sea of grass, grass as tall as a man, a sea extended as far as the eye could reach. The wind played on its rippling, swaying surface as wind plays on the waters of the ocean. Only movement in the grass gave away the presence of animals making their secret ways beneath the surface. And the oak openings were not clearings in a forest but occasional islands of tall trees interrupting the otherwise featureless expanse of grass. The ground stood higher there. The trees soared. The ‘opening,’ reached by myriad secret paths worn by paw and moccasin through the tall grass, provided shelter for many different varieties of prairie life.

Sometimes in a longer book, one of fiction or memoir, islands of essays stand out. This is famously true of Melville’s Moby-Dick, and it is true of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journey to America. The latter work boasts two essay islands rising up following pages of notebook entries alphabetic and nonalphabetic, de Tocqueville’s various American experience told and retold in different forms according to the focus the author was bringing to it at that time. The notebooks are fascinating and well written but workmanlike and repetitious. And then come the very brief “Journey to Lake Oneida” and the longer “A Fortnight in the Wilds,” standing out from the rest and calling unforgettably.

“Journey to Lake Oneida” shows de Tocqueville and Beaumont at the height of their youthful romantic dreams. Years before Alexis had come upon a book called Journey to Lake Oneida, the story of a young French couple who fled early revolution to take refuge on a remote island in America.
There, cut off from the whole world, far from the storms of Europe and rejected by the society that saw them born, these two unfortunates lived for one another, each consoling the other for their unlucky fate.
“The book,” de Tocqueville wrote, “left a deep and lasting impression on my mind.” The story makes a deep impression on readers’ minds--not only the story of the young French couple but the effect it had on Alexis and Gustave who searched for their traces years later. Before they made their journey the two dreamed of searching for this couple on their island.
We often talked about it, and always ended by saying, sometimes laughing, sometimes sadly, ‘The only happiness in the world is on the shores of Lake Oneida.’
It was a place they felt they had known long before they ever saw it.

If “Journey to Lake Oneida” is a romantic island in de Tocqueville’s book of numbered and dated notebook entries, “A Fortnight in the Wilderness” is much, much more. The essay was begun on the first of August, 1831, written in its entirety on the steamboat The Superior, and concerns not the tall grass prairie of lower Michigan but the stands of virgin forest that covered its eastern and northern parts and the native populations of these lands. He notes in beginning that “the further we got to the northwest, the further did the end of our journey seem to flee before us.” Valleys and rivers bore Indian names, and they were told in one place that there had been Indians there ten years before, five years before in another place, but the forest had been felled before their arrival, the Indians disappeared.
Man gets accustomed to everything. To death on the field of battle; to death in hospital; to kill and to suffer. He gets used to every sight. An ancient people, the first and legitimate master of the American continent, is vanishing daily like the snow in sunshine.... In the same spots and in its place another race is increasing.... It fells the forests and drains the marshes.... The wilds become villages, and the villages towns. The American [settler], the daily witness of such wonders, does not see anything astonishing in all this. This incredible destruction, this even more surprising growth, seem to him the usual progress of things in the world. He gets accustomed to it as to the unalterable order of nature.
Searching and wondering, following the forested shores of Lake Erie, Beaumont and de Tocqueville come at last by steamer to bustling Detroit.
So nothing is harder than to find anyone able to understand what you want. You want to see forests, our hosts said smiling, go straight ahead and you will find what you want. They are there all right around the new roads and well-trod paths.
When I expressed my own impossible wish to see the southern Michigan prairie, meaning to see it as it had been, an endless sea of grass punctuated by isolated oak openings, I was told to drive south of Kalamazoo, and there it was. No, that wasn’t what I wanted to see. The two Frenchmen were more fortunate in their wish. When they mention wanting to visit Saginaw, the response tells them they are on the right track, much to their host’s incredulity. Uninhabited wilds! Woods full of Indians! Meant as warnings, the words fall like promises on the ears of the Frenchmen.

Finally the real journey is at last underway, travel into the heart of wild America. At Flint Rock, “fifteen leagues” from Saginaw, the Europeans on horseback entrust themselves to a pair of teenage Indian guides for a sum of two dollars, and now they learn what it is to be utterly dependent on others for their survival. The Indians were at home in the forest, a white man “incapable not only of being his own guide . . . but even of finding the means to sustain life.” The forests too were utterly unlike anything in Europe. Here dead trees were never cleared away, and among the fallen, often half-rotted limbs and trunks all manner of other plants pushed and climbed and twined. “Life and death meet here face to face as if they wished to mingle and confuse their labours.” At midday, when the wind and birds fell silent, the absence of sound filled the immensity, filling the Europeans with a “sense of isolation and of abandonment.” They had at last found the elusive American wilderness.

Reaching Saginaw the next day, they find Indians, French, English, Americans and mixed-blood residents, and de Tocqueville notes that, even in a settlement numbering only thirty souls,
Colour of skin, poverty or affluence, ignorance or enlightenment have already built up indestructible classifications among them; national prejudices, and prejudices of education and birth divide and isolate them.
In separate paragraphs he adds and details the divisions made by religious differences.

The romance of “Journey to Lake Oneida” was certainly touched with tragedy and melancholy, but it was quieter and more remote, more imaginary, existing in the minds of the foreign visitors who knew only the merest outlines of the story. “A Fortnight in the Wilds” tells of more immediate experience, of tragedy unfolding and growing alongside happy and confident progress in what was for Europeans the “New World.” Like another son of civilization, historian Bruce Catton, de Tocqueville sees back into the past and forward into the future to realize the tragic losses that are the cost of progress. Even as he is privileged to see with his own young eyes some of Michigan’s still-trackless forests, he is every moment aware that they will soon be gone.
The facts are as certain as if they had already occurred. In but few years these impenetrable forests will have fallen. The noise of civilisation and of industry will break the silence of the Saginaw. Its echo will be silent. Embankments will imprison its sides, and its waters which today flow unknown and quiet through nameless wilds, will be thrown back in their flow by the prows of ships. . . .
 It is this consciousness of destruction, this arrière-pensée of quick and inevitable change that gives, we feel, so peculiar a character and such a touching beauty to the solitudes of America. One sees them with a melancholy pleasure; one is in some sort of a hurry to admire them. Thoughts of the savage, natural grandeur that is going to come to an end, become mingled with splendid anticipations of the triumphant march of civilisation. One feels proud to be a man, and yet at the same time one experiences I cannot say what bitter regret at the power that God has granted us over nature.
“I cannot say what bitter regret”—these are the words of a sensitive nature combined with piercing vision and range of comprehension.

In my Faber and Faber edition of Journey to America (London, 1959), “A Fortnight in the Wilds” is less than fifty pages long. By itself it would be a small book, but I have long wished that someone would publish it on its own, perhaps with an artist’s illustrations. Nothing else I have read gives such a picture of Michigan’s forests before the days of large-scale lumbering, and nothing else gives, either, the “mixed blessing” sense of civilization come to the wilderness.

We cannot travel today to the tall grass prairie or to the virgin forested expanses of our home state, except in books and imagination, so with this post you must make the pictures in your mind.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Road Trip: Everglades City and Environs

Courthouse, Collier County
I was going to make you guess where the photo above was taken but then decided not to be so coy. It is the courthouse in Everglades City, Florida, and you'd never believe what-all goes on there. Besides trials, that is. Well, if you go in the side door--I think it's on the left, but my memory could have me turned around; it's been a while since our visit--you'll find a little library where the librarian, along with loaning out books, also sells fishing licenses. And what else? Seems there was some other thing you wouldn't expect, but I've forgotten now.

Serious commercial crabbing
When we visited Everglades City (and it might have been over a decade ago), there were already signs that the simple little town had been "discovered." Big, fancy new houses were going up, raised on tall piers in case of hurricanes. Our hostess got a bit frustrated with me for taking pictures of derelict boats and dumpsters and piles of old crab pots, but to me the working docks are the most interesting part of a waterfront--

Vultures on roof
--even when vultures rather than pelicans are gathering. There were many of both and other kinds of birds, as well. And more than birds!

These alligators are not lawn ornaments
One day we made a drive east on the Tamiami Trail to photographer Clyde Butcher's gallery, located on a small piece of high ground surrounded by the Everglades. David thought these alligators were sculptures. They were not. They were real. I was glad I had not tried to pet one.

Across the road
How many kinds of wildlife can you spot in the photo above?

 The Everglades has the fascination of time travel. It is a primeval world. The ferns and cypresses, strangler figs, strange and wonderful bird cries, reflections of light on dark waters, cypress knees (or knobs) and parasitic plants and bromeliads and more and more and more. It isn't hard to see why a photographer would find enough work for an entire lifetime here.

But it can be frightening and hostile, too, if you're unfamiliar with it, and there are no beaches in the Everglades. As is true along more of Florida's coastline than you might imagine, it's often necessary to go offshore in a boat to find a sandy picnic spot. 

Out past the mangrove islands...

...a sandy beach!
Look very closely at the beach, and in the distance you might spot two tiny figures. Those are the captain and first mate of the boat that took us to the beach, the same people who lodged us in town during our stay.

The sun was setting as we turned back toward land. It was another beautiful south Florida sunset, the end of another lovely day with friends.

Friday, February 22, 2013


A Tale For the Time Being
By Ruth Ozeki
NY: Viking, 2013

Do you love wordplay? Are you fascinated by the mysteries of time? Have you ever felt all alone in the world? Hopeless? Do you think the direction of a life can be changed? Have you ever tried meditation, or do you practice it regularly or maybe just thought about it? What about walks on the beach and finding surprising objects washed up by the waves? Do you believe in magic of fiction? Answering ‘yes’ to even one of these questions tells me that you will find this book as absorbing as I did.
For the time being,
 Words scatter . . .
 Are they fallen leaves?
In Ruth Ozeki’s third novel, one of the two protagonists is named Ruth and has much in common with the author. Ozeki says of Ruth the character that she is “semi-fictional,” adding that “if pressed, I would have to call myself semi-fictional, too.” One difference is that Ruth Ozeki the author is a Zen Buddhist priest, as well as an author and filmmaker, while Ruth the character only learns about meditation from Nao.

Nao. Now. Can we ever grasp ‘now’? This is one of the questions that the character Nao brings to the story and brings to Ruth the character (hereafter called simply ‘Ruth’), who finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox protected by a series of plastic bags, the outermost covered with barnacles. There are letters in the package, too, and a Japanese military watch from World War II. Did the plastic bag ride the tides all the way from tsunami-struck Japan to Ruth’s island off the coast of British Columbia?

Ruth is a novelist and has been working on a memoir ever since her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s and is now deceased, came to live with Ruth and Oliver on the island. The memoir isn’t going well, and Ruth worries at times that she herself may be developing Alzheimer’s.
The spring had dried up, the pool was clogged and stagnant. She blamed the Internet. She blamed her hormones. She blamed her DNA. She pored over websites, collecting information on ADD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, parasites, and even sleeping sickness, but her biggest fear was Alzheimer’s. ... Like her mother, Ruth often forgot things. She perseverated. Lost words. Slipped in and out of time.
And now comes the distraction of a diary washed up on the beach, the diary of a Japanese teenager who writes as if addressing an unknown friend, as if she is writing to Ruth.

Nao’s voice begins the novel. She is writing because she has decided to commit suicide and before dying wants to record the life story of her great-grandmother, Jiko, still living, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun. Nao writes with a purple gel pen in a repurposed book—that is, a book in which the original pages have been removed (“hacked,” she says) and replaced with blank pages. She writes in English, having spent most of her girlhood in California before her father lost his job and the family returned to Tokyo. The title on the cover of the diary, the title of the book it used to be, is À la recherche du temps perdu.

The girl’s life has become a nightmare. Her father is unemployed and depressed, suicidal. The family’s savings was lost when the dot-com bubble burst and his American stock options went belly-up. Now back in Tokyo, they live in cramped, miserable housing with the sounds of their neighbors’ sex-for-hire activities coming through the thin walls. Her years in America schools have put Nao behind her classmates in Japanese language and thus in every other subject, and they bully her unmercifully, so severely that it amounts to torture, and her clueless mother (Nao hides her victimhood from her parents), working to support the family, can only suggest that Nao spend more time with her “friends,” maybe participate in some after-school activities. All this Ruth learns gradually as she reads the diary, pacing herself to try to read at the same speed that Nao was living when she wrote the pages.

At first the reader may suspect a deus ex machina when Nao is packed off, against her will, to spend the summer with her great-grandmother in a remote mountainside temple. Will the girl solve all her problems through learning meditation? Her father accompanies her to the temple, and when she sees how happy he is there, it begins to seem like an answer for his unhappiness, too. Nao decides will persuade him to spend the summer there with her. Perfect! But no, when she wakes in the morning he is gone. And while Nao learns much from old Jiko and passes the summer contentedly learning the temple ways, when summer is over she must return to a father still depressed and suicidal and classmates intent on finding ever more ingenious ways to torture Transfer Student Yasutani.

Jiko is an important character in the book, perhaps the central character in a way, although she says less than anyone else, but also important, in their different ways, are Nao’s father, Haruki Yasutani, and Ruth’s husband, Oliver. Oliver is an eccentric botanical artist with visions of enormous, time-dependent, living works that few can understand or appreciate, a fascinating character in his own right. Then there is the cast of the scattered isolated Canadian island community, people such as Muriel, a retired anthropologist who worked on middens and who loves nothing better than sorting through garbage, and Benoit, the  Québécois who runs the local dump. Here is a description of Oliver and Muriel at the kitchen table:
Oliver and Muriel talked on, although it was not quite a conversation they were having, Ruth noticed. Rather, their exchange sounded more like a session at an academic conference, two professors taking turns at the podium presenting information that they both knew, and more or less already agreed with.
Although facts are being presented, the talk is more mutual grooming behavior than any delivery of information. Haven’t we all heard and even been part of such sessions? Ozeki does not write about "social glue" but catches the gluing in process.

Nao’s troubled relationship with her father finds quieter echoes in Ruth and Oliver’s marriage. Ruth shares the diary with her husband, reading aloud to him at bedtime, but is offended and upset when he does not respond in the same way she does to the unfolding story. Does Oliver think Ruth is crazy? Does Ruth see Oliver as a loser?

The dead in this story have a great influence on those who remember or rediscover them, adding their complications to developing plot. Ruth’s mother lives on in island memory and in her daughter’s love and fear, while across the Pacific Nao discovers her great-uncle, Haruki #1, through her great-grandmother, and elevates him to hero status for his suicide death as a patriot kamikaze pilot. When she compares her father to him, she is ashamed of Haruki #2, who cannot even commit suicide successfully.

The living and the dead, the spoken and the written reveal themselves only in and through time. There is no all-at-once but a gradual unfolding. Oliver’s cat, the cat at the temple, the crow that calls to Ruth from a tree in the yard and in her dreams—all these, too, are time beings.

Because you see, on the first page of this novel we are jolted out of an ordinary, unreflective and passive reception of words. “Oh, it’s all right for the time being,” we say casually. For now. Until something better comes along. We put the accent on the first syllable of the word ‘being,’ having given the first three words equal, unstressed status. We are accustomed to the phrase and give it little thought, and so the title does not jar us. Then Nao introduces herself: “My name is Nao, and I am a time being,” and to make sense of this statement we must put the stress on the word ‘time’ and rethink the phrase. And so it continues through the novel, the gentle pressure to rethink what we think we know.

“Together we’ll make magic,” writes Nao to a reader she imagines in the future. Ruth Ozeki has made magic with this novel. I finished it one afternoon and began rereading the same evening.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Storm Forecasts and Storm Realities

Where is the driveway???
A forecast is one thing: “A winter storm may....” “Accumulation could be up to....” Possible blowing and drifting....” Sometimes predictions are fulfilled, and other times not much happens, after all. Then there are the times that quite a lot happens, such as it did last March. And so we prepare. We fill water containers and check the level on the propane tank. Make sure we have food in the house. Arm ourselves with reading material. Check supply of candles and lamp oil. Matches? Check!

Is there a world out there?
Two nights ago the temperature dropped and the wind rose. By morning the scene was wild. We had a wild ride to Northport and back with groceries and mail. -- No, that sounds all wrong. David drove very attentively and carefully, on the highway and through town. 

Northport on Tuesday morning
Road and driveway, village streets and sidewalks, all had been deep in slush that had now turned to ice. Our pack came home in the early afternoon, seeing no reason to hang around town.

As the afternoon wore on, the wind grew ever wilder. “What do you call this?” I kept asking David, and he’d say, “It’s a blizzard,” but there was another word haunting the edges of my mind. Finally it came to me: tempest! The word is not used as often in English, at least in America, as it is in French (la tempête), but that was the word I wanted. “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” That’s King Lear, not Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” but we are hardly on a tropical isle, are we?

Sometimes during a blizzard, if the wind blows hard enough, coming in over Lake Michigan and swooping down on our old farmhouse behind the hill, it will drive a little line of snow under the front porch door. That's a strong wind. This storm? We got a new, cold, white area rug on the cement porch floor. Snow did not fall yesterday, gently or otherwise: no, it was driven horizontal by the wind, and that was in milder moments--the rest of the time it was whirling madly in tornado-like snow devils, with snow devils and waving sheets of snow flying from the top of rapidly rising drifts, like blowing sand from the top of desert dunes in a sandstorm or like spindrift from ocean waves. Sarah and I ventured out a couple of times, but she was not at all reluctant to return to the warm house when I’d had enough of wind and snow and given up on trying to capture reality with my camera.

The barn is no shelter from the wind
It was a good day to be indoors, reading Paul Auster’s Winter Journal, along with a novel I’ll tell you about in a few days. It was a good day to have a chicken braising in the pot, to have soup simmering and cookies baking. It was a marvelous opportunity to do a little trimming on Sarah's shaggy coat. We still had power for an after-dinner movie, and at bedtime David and I read to each other, he to me from Bella Tuscany, I to him from Winter Journal.

The wind howled all night and was still cracking its cheeks at dawn. Will it never be out of breath? It will be good to have lots of snow for Saturday's Winter Carnival in Northport--that's at Braman Hill, 11 to 4--but let's hope the wind takes the day off.

Mice, voles, skunks, bunnies--all snuggled down today

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


In my first summer as a bookseller, I met a local man who was, at that time, investing in older collectible books. I specify “older” because he was by no means interested in Modern Firsts. In fact, regardless of the age of a book, no matter how old and rare it might be, he was not interested in any book he suspected might contain a “made-up story.” No novels, no short stories. One time he brought a book for me to inspect, something he’d bought at an auction. Written in French, published in France, from sometime in the 1800s, if I remember correctly, it was a book he wasn’t sure he wanted to keep. No, he said, in answer to my question, he didn’t read French, but could I please read enough of it to tell him what it was about? If it was a history book, he’d keep it—and it turned out that it was, and he did. Made-up story? He’d have wanted to resell the undesirable item.

Every bookseller, every writer of fiction, and every lover of Jane Austen knows well that author’s opinion on the subject of fiction and its authors, clearly given in her own novel, Northanger Abbey:
Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. And what are you reading Miss --? Oh, it is only a novel! Replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference or momentary shame. It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.
Naturally, I could not love Austen without being in accord with her sentiments on the subject of fiction, and I’ve certainly been reading my share this winter.

Marion, the adult protagonist and narrator of The Memory of Love, by Linda Olsson, lives in a small, cluttered frame house on the New Zealand seacoast and revisits her childhood in Sweden via a series of painful, reluctant flashbacks. Would she have continued to repress the early memories if not for her encounter with a nearly mute and obviously unhappy young boy one day on the beach? Perhaps. But as she and Ika share weekly soup lunches and work together on a gigantic outdoor art assemblage of found objects, Marion realizes that she is growing to depend on the boy’s quiet presence. As a doctor, she wants to help him—or, she wonders apprehensively, does she want him to save her? After all, she is alone here, very alone.
They called me ‘the artist’. And they called me ‘the doctor’. Or just ‘her’ or ‘that foreign woman’. Making it clear that somehow I was not one of them. To them I had no name, just a designation.
Marion’s present isolation and past devils combine with Ika’s troubled, fragmented family and suspected autism (plus the necessary red tape of government services) to keep the final outcome in doubt throughout the novel, and there are other ribbons of mystery to be untangled, too, but this is neither suspense nor social problems fiction. I am almost tempted to call this a “coming of age” story. It isn’t that, in any traditional sense, but the idea makes sense to me. Given that the protagonist is in her early 50s, still, in refusing to recall or share with anyone her painful childhood, Marion has effectively, all these years, doomed Marianne (her original given name) to a stunted and impoverished emotional existence. She has not allowed her(self) a full adult life. Moreover, the two identities, the fearful, self-protective child and the cautious, self-protective adult, are far from integrated. In order to help Ika, then, Marion must reunite with Marianne and bring her to adulthood.

There is also George, a widower who lives not far from Marion, and George has his own grief to overcome. In fact, Marion, Ika, and George are all living isolated lives, each one bearing alone what feels like unbearable grief.

The Memory of Love builds quietly. In the early pages, having expected more “landscape,” I found the interiority of its world somewhat disappointing (though moving between northern Europe and the Antipodes, it is definitely not a travel narrative), but that feeling faded as the story drew me in. Marion and Ika seem almost like wild animals--tentative, guarded, shy—and here they are on this nearly desolate beach, at the mercy of tides and storms, needing shelter. The physical setting works as a metaphor for the emotional aspect, and the parallels between Ika’s and Marianne/Marion’s lives make it impossible for the reader not to identify with the narrator’s challenges.

Episodes from Marianne’s past are at times confusing. The confusions, however, arise from Marianne/Marion’s repression and lack of understanding and integration, not from any incompetence on the part of the author. Quite the contrary! I would say that, as important as is plot to this novel, the clearing away of memory's confusion so that the protagonist can find clarity for the remainder of her life is equally important. What happened in her childhood? Why? Who was responsible? And can she be responsible for another troubled, damaged child?

The closer I got to the end of The Memory of Love, the more involved I found myself in the characters’ lives and the higher my anxiety for them.  But you know I’m not going to give the ending away! Anyway, its meaning can be grasped only after a reader takes the novel’s full journey.

[Note on author: Linda Olsson was born in Stockholm in 1948 and graduated from the University of Stockholm with a degree in law. Since 1986 she has lived in Kenya, Singapore, the U.K., Japan, and New Zealand, now dividing her time between Auckland and Stockholm. Her first novel, Astrid & Veronika, was an international success, and was followed by Sonata for Miriam. The Memory of Love debuts February 26 from Penguin Books.]

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Mouse a Cookie, a Book a Chance

Does the first half of today’s subject heading ring a bell? My nephews had the book, Give a Mouse a Cookie, or I might not have caught the reference in a movie David and I watched not long ago. He didn’t catch it. (I had to explain.) I don’t remember the movie or even if it was any good, but I was intrigued that the theme of a children’s book from the 1980s would be deemed a well-known cultural reference for film-goers. Obviously, the movie must have been aimed at 20-somethings.

This morning I was also wondering how much of a chance other people give books before deciding they don’t want to read further. Does a book have to grab you on the very first page? Some do that, others don’t. I enjoy being hooked at the start but am willing to give a book more of a chance than that. One of my favorite novels, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, started off slowly, with a lot of expository background. Toni Morrison’s Beloved was one that confused me for many pages before I found my way into it. Both of those books were enormously worth reading! If I’d stopped at the first page, how much I would have missed!

Someone told me once about the “Rule of 50,” which I’ve never forgotten. This rule owes its existence to Nancy Pearl. Here’s how it works: Until you are 50 years old, you should read at least 50 pages of a book before deciding against going on. After age 50, you are allowed to subtract one page per year from the required minimum, so that at age 51 you only need to read 49 pages before quitting, etc. At the age of 100 you need only glance at the cover and are then allowed to say, “No, thanks, not for me.” Yes, I can see that centenarians have earned the right of dismissal.

As for how many pages the Rule of 50 mandates for me this year, NOYB! How many pages I actually read before setting aside varies with the book, anyway. With a nonfiction book, I may jump around and try other chapters. Only very, very rarely—almost never!—do I skip to the end. Do you ever read the end of a book first? A few people have told me they do that, and I can’t imagine it as a regular practice. If we could fast-forward through life, and then hit ‘reverse,’ would you?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Could a "Boom" Knock Us Right Out of the Ring?

The London Review of Books had a page-and-a-half “Diary” feature in the 7 February 2013 issue. Rebecca Solnit was the author, and her topic was the Silicon Valley economic boom and how it has affected housing availability and prices in San Francisco and the surrounding area. Where high-paid, high-tech workers (“routinely make six-figure salaries, not necessarily beginning with a 1”) commute 3-1/2 to 4-1/2 hours to work, the corporations they work for provide buses with wifi, so employees can start work before arriving at their offices (and unfortunately undermining community support for improved public transportation).

“Where orchards grew Apple stands.” 

Why does that one sentence make me, an Apple user, so sad? Because I live in orchard country? Because I could live more easily without the Internet than without fruit?  Once wild and creative San Francisco, now a bedroom community for Silicon Valley, is the scene of regular evictions, and prospective home buyers bid up property minute by minute.

It’s a boom.

The story was fascinating enough (to me, it was fascinating in the manner of a disaster story), but then Solnit changed the subject somewhat: “San Francisco’s tech boom has often been compared to the Gold Rush....” In the mining boom, there was a population explosion, runaway inflation, and, while the boom lasted, high wages for the workers flooding in. Booms are like that.
The oil and gas boomtowns of the present, in Wyoming, North Dakota and Alberta, among other places, follow this model. Lots of money sloshes around boomtowns, but everyday life is shaped by scarcity, not abundance. The boom workers are newcomers. They work long hours, earn high wages, drive up the cost of housing for the locals, drive out some locals.... Like a virus, mining destroys its host and then moves on. There are ghost towns across the west full of dying businesses with the landscape around them ground into heaps leaching toxic residue.
Silicon Valley, she writes, returning to her main subject, is different from mining towns in many ways—“clean, quiet work, and here to stay in one form or another.” It’s the similarities that interest her, though—the “mass displacements and the casual erasure of what was here before.” Mining or high-tech, she is saying, there are similar losses for those not in on the boom.

I couldn’t help thinking that there is another connection between the two kinds of booms that Solnit did not explore. This is not criticism: she had a certain focus, certain points she wanted to make, and the piece does that very well. But the truth is that there could be no Silicon Valley industry, no high-tech boom, without nonrenewable mineral resources. Mining is part of San Francisco's boom today.

Okay, I’m not a hermit, and I write this blog on a laptop. I even have a cheap, pay-as-you-go cell phone for emergencies. It’s almost impossible to be an American these days and not be connected. As I've said before, I’m not a Luddite. But neither do I want the electronic devices in my life to proliferate like those animated brooms poor Mickey Mouse, would-be sorcerer, had to deal with in “Fantasia.”

Soil, water, food grown in soil, minerals under the earth—these must be protected and conserved. It doesn’t make sense to pollute water and soil by mining and processing finite, nonrenewable materials. It isn't in California's backyard, but the high-tech industry is not as "clean" as it appears from that one geographical area. We can do better. We can insist that the industry do better.

Does all this seem a long, long way from your backyard? No, it's right at your fingertips!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Love, Love, Love

The Friday following Valentine’s Day is finding me uninspired. Not cranky or gloomy, just short on ideas. And that, for me, is the signal to go to pictures, so what you see here is an old bulletin board that filled up over the course of a few years on Nagonaba and Waukazoo Streets, accompanying me on my move from the former (back) to the latter. I don’t have a good place to display it these days, but digging it out of storage and revisiting for a few days the postcards, photographs, and assorted odds and ends brought back many happy memories.

If you look carefully, you’ll see Nikki, our old dog, relaxing at a sidewalk cafe in Appalachicola, Florida. And there is Martin Melkild, showing some of his carved figures. There are Monopoly cards, and there are postcards showing many fascinating places I’ve never visited (the cards were from friends or correspondents I’ve never met), and there are old family snapshots.

There are friends and family members who are no longer among us, and there are babies and little children, some of them bookstore visitors, now grown up. There’s a lot of dog stuff, too—cards, photos, cartoons. (Why would that be?)

Valentine’s Day was quiet but nice. David got me a decorated cupcake! I talked to my mother on the phone, and a nice new customer visited the bookstore. (I must say, there is nothing like a warm human voice.) In the evening, we watched the first two episodes of the latest “Downton Abbey” on DVD, snug as bugs, while winter raged outside.

How did Sarah take it all? As always, in her stride. She really isn't sulking here, only waiting for her folks to get their act together and head for the door. 

Giving a LOOK!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What Does “Nonfiction” Mean to You?

Marina parking lot, full of snow

In my literary lexicon, there is poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction, so I’m always a little confused when a newcomer to my bookstore asks, “Do you have a nonfiction section?” Nonfiction, in fact, takes up most of the shelf space in my bookstore.

One wall and a small part of another is basically fiction—and then there’s history and travel (which I combined, for the sake of convenience, when I made the move back to Waukazoo Street), biography and memoir, philosophy, religion, self-help, health, sports, law, economics, true crime, foreign language, natural history, physics, astronomy, do-it-yourself, cookbooks, military. There’s even a category for “islands” and another for “adventure.” So the answer to the question is not “Yes, I have a nonfiction section,” but “I have many nonfiction sections.” Still, I couldn’t help wondering, so when I ran into a fellow bookseller the other day, I asked him if I was missing something.

I mean, back in the old days (by which I mean 15+ years ago) we did not say, “Back in the day.” Really! We said, “Back in the old days.” The first time I saw the newer reference to earlier times, it was in print, and my inner editor was highly offended. What the hell did the writer mean by that? But then I started listening for the phrase and hearing it everywhere. I may never hear it without an initial shudder or twinge, but I realize now that it’s a phrase in common usage, clearly (I note with interest) accepted across the generations, and one that has replaced my old way of speaking. (Sigh!)

Life itself has been newly divided into five kingdoms (there were two when I was in school), so who knew what new divisions might have been inaugurated in the world of books? Do you see the source of my unease? Was there, I wondered, a younger, hipper definition, some narrower definition than the one in my mind, for “nonfiction”?

The fellow bookseller I asked, who as it happens is exactly my son’s age, reassured me. No, he said, there is no new boundary for the term, and the people who ask need to be more precise about what they want. What a relief!

But I’m exaggerating my anxiety. What constitutes “nonfiction” for any particular bookstore browser has never been a problem, because I don’t mind asking questions in return to get closer to what a customer wants, I don’t expect everyone who comes into my bookshop to use my vocabulary and intuit my way of categorizing books, and it’s a nice opening for conversation. It’s certainly preferable to “Is there any organization at all to how these books are arranged?” Can you believe someone actually asked me that once? No, I just put those identifying tags on the shelves to encourage false hope!

About half the books I read every year are nonfiction. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking was the first one of this year, and I wrote about it at length in January. Meditations on Hunting was a gift from a dear friend and as much philosophy as sport. Many of my friends would find it morally repugnant, I know, but I was fascinated by the argument Ortega y Gasset makes for hunting (and fishing, he allows, but then does not explore this aspect) as the only true way human beings (and he says “men,” but I see no reason to restrict the argument in that way) can reconnect with the precivilized life we had in common with other, still wild animals. The author makes particularly scathing remarks about “hunting” with a camera but says nothing, I couldn’t help noticing, of drawing or sketching or even tracking without killing, and isn’t “to hunt” to seek, to search for, to follow? In the end, I’m not sure I bought his whole argument, but it was fascinating to follow the trail of his reflective thought through woods and field....

Deadly Spin I've also written about already so won’t say more here, and next in my 2013 nonfiction reading was The Jefferson Bible, something I’d heard about for years but never before read. Jefferson’s purpose was to separate the message of Jesus from other material in the Gospels. Jefferson didn’t care about miracles but about the teachings of Jesus, and I’d say that his idea was that to be a Christian meant to follow the teachings, rather than to get too hung up on belief in miracles.

Solzhenitsyn’s speeches, despite repetitions within them, were fascinating. What would he say today, I wonder, about cordial American business relations with the government of China?

Finally I treated myself to Adam Gopnik’s book of essays on winter. Gopnik never disappoints me. Although this one has been more of an indoor winter for me, as opposed to last year’s outdoor winter, it was satisfying to reflect with the author on Western views of winter born in the modern era and how they have changed over the course of 200 years.

David has been reading nonfiction, too, most recently the Frances Mayes book called Bella Tuscany, which he tells me I’ll love, as she writes quite a lot about gardening. Is he escaping from winter in reading about life in Italy? Nothing wrong with that, is there? He balanced the Italy escape last night with a book about the recent global financial collapse and told me a lot about Iceland and how its economy fell. 

Are we recovering? The president thinks so. Do you? Can afford to indulge yourself with a good new book? I'll have an order arriving in the next couple of days.

Lights on and wear seatbelts, please!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Where Is Benjamin Busch These Days?

It's been three years since Ben appeared on my radar. First came discovery. Then eager anticipation. Finally, reality. For the sake of accuracy, perhaps I should note that Ben preceded his book, when I invited him up before it was even finished to have a conversation in the bookstore with essayist Anne-Marie Oomen in front of a fascinated public. That was when he still had his ponytail. But I digress. 

It's hard to keep track of such an active, creative person as Benjamin Busch. If he isn't making a movie or taking it around to film festivals or exhibiting photographs, he's on a book tour, so I guess my subject heading today was kind of misleading, because I don't know exactly where he is this month. I do know that Dust to Dust was named one of the Top 5 memoirs of 2012 by Library Journal, has been named a Michigan Notable Book for 2013, and received the 2013 GLCA Award for Nonfiction. If you have yet to make the acquaintance of this very memorable, beautifully written memoir, please visit Dog Ears Books and let me introduce you soon. You won’t be sorry.

Take a close look at that Michigan Notable Book list, and you'll also see Michigan authors,  Jeff Vande Zande and  Laurie Sommers, visiting authors at Dog Ears Books now receiving state-wide recognition. Northport is almost at the end of the road, but we don't take a literary back seat. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Georgia Road Trip, January 2003

Yes, you read that subject heading correctly: it was a full decade ago, almost five years before I started this blog, that David and I drove south with our old dog, stopping in many little towns along the way. A couple old photo CDs from that trip surfaced recently, and in response to one of my readers, Bob and Carol’s daughter (who may not even know that her mother told me she, the daughter, missed my road trip posts from other winters), I’ve decided to take one day a week for a while to revisit vacation scenes of years ago. Ready? Let’s go! The year is 2003, and we are making the first of several pilgrimages to Plains, Georgia, home of President Jimmy Carter. Plains is a pretty small town, but for part of the year it is serviced by a short line train from nearby Americus. Here is downtown Plains:

Plains, Georgia
Whenever we go to Plains (most recently in January of 2010), we plan to arrive about midday on Sunday, just in time for a big Sunday Southern dinner at Mom’s Kitchen, a no-frills, cafeteria-style restaurant with some of the best home cooking in the South. Whatever you do, do not miss the sweet potato pie!!! But then, anything you have to eat there will be good. You'll leave clean plates behind....

Mom's Kitchen, Plains, Georgia
Then we visit the Plains Trading Post and walk around the old peanut warehouses. Red clay soil and red bricks—it all makes sense.

Arcade, downtown Plains

Slightly scary old warehouse sign
Nikki had a little trouble on this first trip, and we were terribly worried that she might not even make it out of Plains. What if she died and we had to bury her there? We took pictures of each other with her, and an obliging policewoman took a picture of all three of us. She was an old dog, but she recovered and lasted another four years, bless her heart!

The old pack pauses on the road
President Carter went to high school in this handsome building, now a museum. I would have loved to watch the first Obama inauguration here!

President Jimmy Carter went to high school here

Old Plains High School Auditorium
A short drive through the countryside from Plains takes us to Archery, the little community that was Jimmy Carter’s boyhood home. Here is the house, which is in my favorite Georgia architectural style.

Old Carter home, Archery
And nearby is the store that Carter’s father ran, the store young Jimmy worked in as a boy.

Old country store at Archery

Inside country store
We’re staying home again this winter, but that’s no reason not to do a little armchair traveling. And for follow-up reading, my book recommendation to go with today’s trip is Carter’s engaging memoir, An Hour Before Daylight. It’s a lovely book to read aloud to someone you love on a snowy, cold, Michigan winter night.

[This is the twelve-hundredth post on Books in Northport.]