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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Surprisingly, Back in the High Desert

Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in. Just when I think my head and heart have fully returned to Michigan, the Southwest borderland re-exerts its tug.

Last night it was a movie we’d seen before that I watched with new, Western-wise eyes. The opening shot was all it took. It looked like the road through Dos Cabezas to the Chiricahua Mountains – that ribbon of two-lane through golden grassland. The story was set in Wyoming, which set me to musing how many places in the West might look like Cochise County, Arizona. We watched on, caught up in the story, but I continued to eye background mountain ranges carefully.

Then it came – a sequence with Nicolas Cage driving the car, Dennis Hopper in the front passenger seat, and two other actors in the backseat: the luckless, unemployed veteran, the hired killer, the shady sheriff, and the sheriff’s wife. The car approaches a railroad crossing at high speed. Along comes a train. The driver, ordered to keep accelerating by the killer with a gun in his hand, swerves at the last minute, bumping and bouncing along parallel to the tracks and the speeding train before, overtaking it in a burst of speed, catapulting over the tracks in front of the train for a hard landing and getaway.

I come from a railroad family. Railroad safety was the gospel in our house. Scenes like this in movies always trouble me, as I think about impressionable young people seeing only excitement and not their own wrecked bodies. That’s my background.

But this time, watching the sequence, all I could think about was where it was being shot. It looked so much like Willcox, Arizona, that the make-believe of the story was suddenly secondary. There! The depot! But a big semitrailer truck strategically parked on Maley Street hide the WILLCOX sign at the end of the depot (now City Hall) from sight. And too soon the action moved to another location.

At the end of the movie, I wanted to see all the credits. Sure enough! Thanks to Willcox, Arizona! “I knew it!” I exclaimed in triumph. “I knew it was my little cow town!” Patiently, David searched back through the movie for the car-train sequence, and, like a pair of detectives carefully screening film from a surveillance camera, we watched it all again, frame by frame.

There! This scene I photographed after a rainstorm are in the movie! Even more exciting, in two different shots the twin peaks of Dos Cabezas can be clearly seen by anyone familiar with them and looking for them, as I certainly was. And finally, a local sign not hidden from camera view: Maid-Rite Feeds! The wonderful feed store east of the railroad tracks!

“Red Rock West” was made in the 1990s. The sculpture of Rex Allen was not yet in place in Railroad Park, but the park itself was recognizable, with its enormous trees, as was the block of old buildings facing the tracks. “Where’s Rodney’s?” we asked each other and were disappointed that while we could spot the tiny building in an out-of-focus background, the identifying sign was never visible. COMMERCIAL BUILDING on a corner was the only store sign we could see on the strip. But there! The sheriff’s office in the film had used the interior of one of the buildings, Railroad Park and its trees visible through the front windows!

All photographs above are mine, from our winter near Willcox. To take my tour through the ordinary little town (and to see Rodney and his place), click here. Below are some shots from early in the movie.

In the morning we returned once more to the opening sequence, certain now that it was not Wyoming and not WY 487 but my own beloved AZ 186. How could I have doubted for a moment? I took the shots of the opening scenes this morning but did not go all the way through to the car-train sequence. 

Opening shot: "Red Rock West"

Name that road!

Not its real name!

To see all the shots of old historic Willcox, you need to rent the movie, “Red Rock West.” (Roger Ebert loved it.) It will be an action-packed visit to my little cow town! And be sure to watch for the twin peaks of Dos Cabezas in the background.

Dos Cabezas, Willcox, Cochise County -- the movie made me "homesick."

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Is Self-Publishing For You? Sign up for my NMC workshop and find out

EECO 341: Get introduced to the challenging experience of selling a self-published book to bookstore owners and managers. Through a series of hands-on writing exercises and group discussion led by Pamela Grath, an independent bookstore owner, you’ll explore the complex business venture of self-publishing and decide it it’s the right course for you to pursue. Arm yourself with a real-world experience perspective and be much better prepared for what lies ahead if you decide to move forward with self-publishing.

If you're considering the question, you can't afford not to explore further.

To enroll, go to NMC’s continuing education classes for spring. The workshop is scheduled for June 10, 6 to 9 p.m., at the University Center in Traverse City. 

Cost is $45.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Beautiful Landscape in Human Scale

We went downstate on Friday for a family wedding on Saturday and spent two nights in rural Van Buren County, stopping in Plainwell (Allegan County) on our way and then taking D Avenue west to Van Buren Youth Camp, the setting for the weekend wedding party. Although there were plenty of cows and horses in the neighborhood, it was nothing like our past winter's digs, and we observed once again how human is the scale of Michigan landscape. Lake Michigan, of course, is magnificent in scope and grandeur, as are the Sleeping Bear Dunes, but most of what lies inland -- woods and fields or meadows bordered by woods -- has a quieter, more ordinary kind of beauty that speaks to us of home.

In the Southwest, geology on a vast scale of time and space obsessed us. Not so Michigan. "The four ice ages that we define as Pleistocene are relative recent geologic events," writes Thomas H. Hooker in his new book, The Last Ice Age and the Leelanau Peninsula: Pleistocene and Lake Michigan. Glaciers and dunes, moraines, old Lake Nipissing, the ancient Algonquin shoreline -- it's all here in this little book, itself presenting a story in manageable scale. The glossary brings back to me memories of misty, long-ago high school earth science classes, as do helpful charts and tables, while color photographs make clear that this is the story of our very own Up North neighborhood.

The Last Ice Age and the Leelanau Peninsula beautifully complements Dennis Albert's Born of the Wind: Michigan Sand Dunes, along with The Lake Michigan Rock Picker's Guide, a perennial favorite and must-have northern Michigan cottage title. Yes, it's good to be home again.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Read This Book!

Cory Oldweiler of Leland, Michigan, has written and self-published a magnificent debut novel. (He also designed the striking book cover.) Beautifully and powerfully written, this tragic story of a young man’s search for truth and for a place in the world is compelling and transporting.

The novel begins with the first-person narrator near the end of his story, looking back over the path that led him to the cafe in Croatia where he is searching both paper maps and his own memory. As he recalls images from the past, he tells us that his entire life’s structure was prefigured years before his birth in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 in E Minor, and so the symphony provides the novel’s structure, beginning with the Adagio of earliest memories and proceeding to the Rondo-Finale at an allegro tempo accelerating mercilessly in the book’s last pages.

Emilio is an only child who grew up in a neighborhood of Italian immigrants in Corona, Queens, New York. Told from earliest childhood that his father was killed by a hit-and-run driver five months before his own birth, Emilo -- later to become Milo and eventually Miles -- made no close friends during his years in school. He and his mother had an apartment, but it was more dormitory than home, while his paternal grandparents’ bakery and their apartment upstairs formed the early emotional limits of the boy’s fatherless world.
For the first six and a half years of my life, Mamma and I were never physically far apart. Most mornings began before dawn when she would gently shake awake Caro Emilio, mio carino and moments later carry him (me), still benighted, somewhere between swaddled and smothered in nightshirt and sweatpants, feet stuck hastily into socks and boots, down the stairs and out onto the still slumbering streets. Once outside she would set me down and, in a somnolent haze huddled beneath the folds of her heavy woolen cloak, one arm wrapped tightly around her leg, I would blindly make the four-block walk to Due G’s, the bakery....
While helping out in the bakery, Milo makes the acquaintance of Jerzi, an older man, a symphony violinist with a passion for opera. For a time Jerzi becomes for the boy a strong and important father figure and dispenser of wisdom. It is Jerzi who introduces Milo to the language of music, where notes can name feelings too deep for words. But eventually Milo discovers Jerzi in a series of falsehoods he cannot forgive.

Following what he perceives as a terrible betrayal by his mentor, on his seventeenth birthday Milo learns that his father is alive. He was not killed: that was all a lie, too. With the shock of discovering he has been deceived by everyone he trusted, Milo erupts in rage. His rage propels him out into the world, first as an aimless and desperate runaway and later on a somewhat random, haphazard but very emotionally focused search for the runaway father who abandoned him before he was born.

The author’s knowledge and deep love of music permeates Testimony of the Senses. Another kind of structure is provided by classic literature, specifically Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when the narrator discovers a two-volume bilingual Loeb Classics edition that had accompanied his father to the battlefields of Europe. The father, Carlo, was seventeen when a member of the U.S. 163rd Signal Photographic Corps during the Second World War, and he tucked into the pages of Ovid a series of photographs bearing written descriptions testifying to the horrors of war.
Most of the notes are inscribed on the backs of photos, mainly black-and-white four-by-fives taken with his Speed Graphic, although several smaller prints made with another camera or taken by another photographer are included as well. The pictures are filed throughout the compact hardcovers, whose pages are not much larger than the photos themselves, usually at specific spots that Carlo felt were relevant to what he wanted to say, either in his shot or in his words or in the combination of the two. The volumes are robust and, despite the added thickness, only bulge slightly, as if they have adapted to the task of telling Carlo’s tale. 
There is also a neatly pressed dead lizard midway through Book V, where various words are covered with what, to my untrained eye, appears to be blood....
By coming to know the photographer’s point of view through the photographs and notations and passages from Ovid, Milo learns to recognize his father’s continuing journalistic work in contemporary newspaper stories that provide clues to where in the world his father might be found.

No synopsis or selection of excerpts can ever do complete justice to a book, but I feel the inadequacy more than ever in the case of this stunning novel. It is original and erudite and at the same time lyrical and passionate. Strong background in music history or opera or Latin classics will add layers of appreciation, but readers with none of that background will still be spellbound by the characters and their stories.

All I really want to say is – Buy it! Read it! Then tell me if you think I have praised it too highly. I’ll be amazed if anyone does.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Intrepid We Are Still and Tilting at Windmills

In short, our gentleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, and with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind. -      Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Our intrepid Ulysses group met at the home of our Fearless Leader the other evening for the first time this season to discuss the first 400 pages of Cervantes’ masterpiece. Our FL had persuaded us last winter that we could cover the work in only three sessions rather than four, biting off almost half at our first meeting, since “we’ll have all winter to read it.” Well, intrepid we may be, but most of us did not join Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for their adventures until well into April, and most found 400 pages daunting. The book is funny, pace a quick tempo, the many stories in it amusing – and yet, as one group member said, “there are too many words.” Too many pages. The writer rambled on and on far too long.

I defended Cervantes. He had, after all, written much of the book in prison, and what else did he have to do? Another group member strengthened the defense: Since another writer had published what purported to be a continuation of Don Quixote, the true author was no doubt at pains to bring his version to the public as expeditiously as possible, putting editing very low on his list of priorities.

This morning I’m rethinking the whole business of the book’s length. For those with leisure to read in the early seventeenth century, it is probable that no book could be too long. At this time in history, didn’t people pay “visits” to one another that lasted for months or even years? That, anyway, is something for me to ponder further; meanwhile, a couple group members have settled the question by giving themselves permission to read some bits and skip other bits. That way, they can enjoy the writing and the characters without turning the reading into a chore.
The truth is that when his mind was completely gone, he had the strangest thought any lunatic in the world ever had, which was that it seemed reasonable and necessary to him, both for the sake of his honor and as a service to the nation, to become a knight errant and travel the world with his armor and his horse to seek adventures and engage in everything he had read that knights errant engaged in, righting all manner of wrongs and, by seizing the opportunity and placing himself in danger and ending those wrongs, winning eternal renown and everlasting fame.
A word of truth from my own life: Until beginning the reading of this book (we are reading the Edith Grossman translation, by the way), my only acquaintance of the character of Don Quixote came from cartoon depictions, the phrase “tilting at windmills,” and that song “The Impossible Dream” from the musical version of the story, “Man of La Mancha.” And I never saw or heard or read the musical libretto, either, so my acquaintance of the stage character comes only from the song.

Thus I was taken aback by Don Quixote’s desire for fame, as if public acclaim were the only reason to go about righting wrongs. He has quite a temper, too. Even when not enraged, he can be surprisingly irritable. That is, I was surprised at this trait in his character. Sancho Panza’s motive is more common. He agrees to be the squire of the Knight of the Sorrowful Face in hopes of becoming wealthy, and he endures many beatings and other indignities with this end always in mind.

Sancho is not, however, a complete patsy. One of my favorite parts of the story so far came in Chapter XXV, where he protests against the embargo Don Quixote put on his speech. Deciding that the relationship had become more familiar than was proper, Don Quixote had forbidden Sancho to talk, and for a while the squire held his peace, but finally the restriction was too much for him.
“Señor Don Quixote, our grace should give me your blessing and let me leave, because now I want to go back to my house and my wife and children, for with them, at least, I’ll talk and speak all I want; your grace wanting me to go with you through these deserted places by day and by night without talking whenever I feel like it is like burying me alive....”
His master relents, and the two return to familiarity, shared delusion, and occasional verbal abuse of one another when things go wrong.

One important feature of this work of literature is its stories-within-stories structure. The main narrative tells the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, but other characters they encounter along the way have stories of their own to tell, and the main narrative is set aside time after time, often for several chapters, while a secondary character’s story is recounted. At first it seems that both the adventures and the secondary stories will simply follow one another in an endless, unrelated series. Mercifully, such is not the case. Characters from earlier adventures and stories reappear in later chapters, joining the main narrative as the two adventurers collect more and more fellow travelers. Fellow travelers but not fellow believers. Except for Sancho, the others are so far from buying into the knight’s vision that they have plotted together to return him safely home.

And there we left them last night, with a little over half the book to read and two more meetings in which to discuss the story, the author, and how to read this work and others.

David and I watched a documentary recently about a man attempting to right what he saw as the world’s most dangerous wrong. “The Island President” is a movie I recommend, both for its central figure and for the fight he waged. P.S. 5/9: At the end of the movie, we learn that the president resigned. I wanted to know what he did and what happened to him after his presidency, and here is the answer I found. 

I’m not nearly as convinced by the Texas blogger who claims that her cause is the defense of free speech. From what little I’ve heard of the story, her way of mounting a “defense” was clearly inflammatory. Was it also a bid for public attention, attention more for her than for her avowed cause? I’ll have to look into this further, but right now I’m just sorry that lives were put at risk and that simple respect and good manners have come to be seen by too many around the world as enemies of free speech. It doesn’t have to be this way. That I truly believe.

At the same time, it's spring, and the woodland wildflowers are in bloom, and they are beautiful. But can I help it if reading Don Quixote has influenced even how I see the flowers?

Monday, May 4, 2015

Back to the Blue

A good friend here in Leelanau County commented that she didn’t care much for the Arizona high desert, all that “brown landscape.” It’s true, there is not a lot of color in the prismatic sense. I found, however, a lot of local color, to use the term in something other than its literal sense, and I loved being immersed in a culture so different from what I’ve known for most of my life. But it’s good to be home, too.

Home. Michigan. Coming home to Michigan from Arizona feels much more different from years-ago homecomings from Florida, the Southwest itself much more different, mostly in the absence of greenery and blue water (both of which are abundant in Florida), so that what strikes me most this spring on re-entry is seeing Lake Michigan again, Grand Traverse Bay, Lake Leelanau, even the little creeks running everywhere through the county. We were driving a few days ago on a road down by Cedar, and I remarked to David, commenting on a ditch running with fresh, clear water, “In Arizona, that would be considered a river.” More than that, in the Southwest I oriented myself by mountain ranges, whereas now, back home, I have returned to orienting by bodies of water.

Another friend reminded me, when I was rhapsodizing online about Arizona horses, that we have horses here, too. Indeed we do, and also cows, and I have been seeking them out in the landscape. To make sure I see horses every day is one of my personal "goals" for 2015. Cows are good, too. Horses: exciting. Cows: calming.

For yet another friend, who mentioned that I hadn’t posted any photos of the outside of our winter getaway cabin, here's one for Joanne, though it has nothing to do with anything else in this post.

Returning to the land of blue water has also brought me back to new books by Michigan authors, another refreshing source of joy. I have come home to In Pursuit of Birds, by Ladislav Hanka of Kalamazoo, and Testimony of the Senses, by Cory Oldweiler of Leland, to mention only two outstanding examples. There are many more, and I’ll be writing about some of them soon in this space.

My hours for May are Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for Memorial Day weekend, when we will be --unthinkably! -- closed to attend a family wedding. Stop by soon when we're open to put your name on the reservations list for the Hanka book, which I will have in stock later this month.

Books are alive and well in Northport, I am happy to report. The first day of the Dog Ears Books season, Saturday, May 2, was filled with friends and customers, hugs and sales. It is a rich life here in the Upper Midwest, on our peninsula on a peninsula in the Great Lakes.

Friday, May 1, 2015

To Welcome YOU Back!

Saturday is Indie Bookstore Day across the country. For me here in Northport, it’s also the day of my Spring Re-Opening. December 31st, my last open day at my bookshop, seems a very long time ago, and I have missed my loyal customer friends-- though I must confess I loved the freedom of not being bound to a schedule.

On Saturday, May 2, the schedule is 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and in honor of Indie Bookstore Day and to welcome you back to Dog Ears Books, I will be holding a special sale, that day only, 50% off on most new books in stock. (That is below my cost, so don’t expect this to happen again for a long, long time!) Come see Sarah again and take advantage of the sale offer (cash or check only, please) as a treat for yourself or a friend or family member.

Also on Saturday, while supplies last, I will have very nice (free) gifts (because if they weren’t free, they wouldn’t be gifts, would they?) for book purchasers. What kind of gifts? Come and be surprised! I look forward to seeing each and every one of you!

P.S. I will also have La Frontera here for anyone who would like to rent it for a week, and I'll also be taking advance orders for Ladislav Hanka's In Pursuit of Birds (my copy will be available so you can see how badly you're going to want your own).