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Wednesday, April 26, 2017


[For information on the upcoming May 9 book launch for Sarah Shoemaker's Mr. Rochester, click here.]

The protagonist Nurbanu, known also as Valide Sultan, begins her story on Monday, November 7, and finishes it a month later, on December 7. In between she gives us an account of her life, as we travel with her through the sixth century of the Common Era.

The eleven-year-old girl, Cecilia Baffo Veniero, first loses her mother in Venice in the year 1537 and following that trauma, nine weeks and three days later, is abducted by Barbarossa, Admiral of the Fleet for the Sulvan Sulieman of the Ottoman Empire and delivered, after a long sea voyage, to the sultan’s harem. Sulieman does not, however, take the girl for his concubine. He has other plans for Cecilia and begins by giving her a new name: Nurbanu. Her father’s aristocratic background and the girl’s own extensive education give her special status in the sultan’s eyes.

Both readers of history and of fiction will find this novel engrossing. For me it was a plunge into an exotic world of the past. Nurbanu herself makes major transitions -- from Europe to Asia Minor, from Christianity to Islam, from a protected girlhood to a womanhood charged with responsibilities and extreme challenges. An important theme in the novel is that of fratricide, imposed by law on the sultan’s family to create an unambiguous line of succession and obviate civil war.

Less problematic aspects of sixth-century Turkey are nevertheless also fascinating to a modern reader. These include the sultanate itself but also the state of science 1500 years ago. Cecilia’s mother, also highly educated, was a gifted mapmaker, and maps were an important part of science in those times. In the sphere of mechanics, clocks and navigational devices were wonders of the world. Books and libraries were uncommon and highly valued.

This is the author’s first novel, and it is an ambitious one that succeeds. A brief preface on “Historical Context” is helpful in setting the scene, and the Selected Genealogy of key characters was absolutely crucial to my understanding. I referred to it often, particularly in the early chapters when I was still finding my way around in the family generations.

I don’t read many historical novels but am glad this one came my way. It took me to a far distant era and foreign world, shedding light on a very different culture and its ways through compelling characters facing universal human problems: Who am I? Who is my family? What is my place in the world, whom can I trust, and what should I do?

The Mapmaker’s Daughter: The Confessions
       Of Nurbanu Sultan, 1525-1583
by Katherine Nouri Hughes
To be released August 2017
Paper, 368pp

Saturday, April 22, 2017

MR. ROCHESTER Is Coming to Northport!

This coming May 9 may be the first book launch I’ve hosted on the official publisher’s release day. And in the case of Mr. Rochester, by Sarah Shoemaker, we’re launching a novel being simultaneously released in the United States, England, and Australia, so I think I have the right to call this one a world premiere book launch!

I’ve been dying to have this book for sale in my shop (no, it has not arrived yet and will not be for sale before the evening of May 9) ever since first reading it in manuscript three years ago, coming to the last page on June 1, 2014. Sarah, on the other hand, had the original idea for her book on March 28, 2012, so she has had a five-year journey. Is it any wonder we are excited?

We scheduled a 2-hour book signing and then recently decided to move the venue across the street from the bookstore, to Spice World Cafe, due to space considerations. Then, as I was arranging for the space with Angela Dhami of Spice World Cafe, Angela suggested she could do a dinner. Good idea! How about a Jamaican dinner, since Mr. Rochester spends several years – and a good chunk of Shoemaker’s novel – in Jamaica? Angela responded with “Sure!”

People can come to the book launch without coming an hour earlier for dinner, but the few people I’ve talked to already all want to come for dinner, too. Well, it was a mild winter, but it was long, and locals who escaped for a while are now returning, eager to reunite with friends. And Sarah is connected to Northport in many ways. So? Party time!

Sarah Shoemaker, Author

Launch is in only two and a half weeks, so I’m taking reservations for dinner now ($15 per person) to make sure we’re able to feed everyone who wants the dinner option, and I’m also taking prepayment for signed copies of Mr. Rochester ($28.62 with sales tax), though we should have sufficient copies of the book for everyone, including last-minute drop-ins.

Dinner will be served beginning at 6 p.m. on May 9. Then around 7 p.m. I’ll introduce Sarah Shoemaker with a few words, and she will give a short reading and answer a few quick questions before we sit her down to sign and sign and sign and sign. Punch and cake and brownies will be offered along with the book signing at no extra charge.

To make reservations for the 6 p.m. Jamaican dinner, call Dog Ears Books, (231) 386-7209. If you get the machine, please speak slowly and clearly when you leave your name and the number of people in your party. You’ll pay Spice World Cafe, not me, for dinner on the evening of May 9; I’m only taking reservations so Angela will have some idea how many people she’ll be serving.

To prepay for the book or to purchase it on May 9, please remember that Dog Ears Books does not accept plastic. Bring your checkbook (cash also accepted), and all will be well. Or stop by the bookshop when we’re open to prepay or mail a check in the amount of $28.62 (sales tax included), and I’ll put your name on a list of prepaid signed book reservations.

Remember, dinner and book launch both will be held at Spice World Cafe, on the corner of Waukazoo and Nagonaba, in downtown Northport.

There is precious little sleeping going on at our house lately, because after my May season opener extravaganza, we’ll go into high gear to get ready for another exciting Grath event in mid-June. Prepare for more excitement! But more of that anon. One day at a time. I keep reminding myself....

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Very Quick Road Trip

What am I showing you?

We drove down to Kalamazoo on Saturday and back home on Sunday. A “flying visit,” David called it. The occasion was the first birthday of our twin great-grandsons, and fortunately we left the rain behind as we drove south, so the indoor-outdoor birthday open house took place on a beautifully sunny, felt-summery day. Those little boys were good as gold, as well as infinitely more precious!

Boys with their parents

With their mom and great-greandparents!

All the warm sun on Saturday and a little overnight rain meant that things were really starting to pop by Sunday morning. All over southwest Michigan, flowering bulbs and spring ephemerals were up and doing their thing, and trees too were starting to burst into bloom.

Trillium! Flowers not open yet, but still!

But of all the growing things I saw along the way down and back, nothing impressed me more than the pine trees I planted with my first husband about 40 years ago in Barry County. They were big the last time I saw them, but now they appear to my eye as giants! My opening photograph shows me showing them to you, but you need to step back to get the full effect:

We planted five hundred little trees back in the Seventies. I'd have to walk three sides of the 10-acre property to see how many survived and thrived, but how can they be so huge, i.e., how can I be so old?

House and barn look good, but I was disappointed to note that installation of new siding lost the old wide board under the roof overhang that served as an architectural clue to the age of the house, indicating that it was built before the Civil War. 

barn and garage


This might be the first trip, road or otherwise, that I’ve ever taken without bringing at least one book along, but I knew the hours away would be more than full and that I would be very tired come bedtime on Saturday. Back home Sunday I finished Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (was close to the end night before travel) and returned to an ARC (The Mapmaker's Daughter, by Katherine Nouri Hughes) I’d barely started before the trip, but my mind is also very full with ideas for our evening on May 9 with Sarah Shoemaker. Big plans are taking shape! Here's a hint: Think about showing up as early as 6 p.m. for the 7-9 book event. What's up? You'll hear all about it very soon!

Ah, spring! Exhausting but wonderful! And a very big season coming up, too.

A tired dog is a good dog!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Why Don't All Americans Trust Science?

The end of a robin's life -- why?

What Is Science?

The scare quotes around “science” are intentional, because – think about it – it’s such a vague term, isn’t it? What’s behind it, or, to use a different image, under its umbrella? I thought I’d start by doing a search for “what is science” and see what popped up, and this is the first site my search yielded: “Understanding How Science Really Works.”

The first screen begins with a broad statement: “Science is both a body of knowledge and a process.” Okay, good beginning. Facts and a way of gathering them? The site goes on to say that science is “exciting,” “useful,” “ongoing,” and “a global human endeavor,” but we could say that about many human activities, couldn’t we? We have to click to get to other screens and more specific answers to the original question. Pursuing the question, then, we are told that scientists seek explanations of phenomena in the natural world by means of observation, analysis of evidence, and the testing of hypotheses.

I appreciate the way this site lays out the limits of science, acknowledging that science cannot make moral or aesthetic judgments, cannot deal with the “supernatural” (not a big concern of mine), nor can it tell human beings how scientific knowledge should be used. The first and third limitations are ones I take very seriously. As philosophers say, “’Should’ implies ‘can,’ but ‘can’ does not imply ‘should.’” I.e., we are not obligated beyond what is possible for us; at the same time, a possible course of action isn’t necessarily one that’s good for us to follow. And while we may look to science for certain relevant facts, we can’t turn to it for decisions about how we should live.

For a shorter definition of science, look hereWhat do you think of the definition? Did you read what is included under “methodology”? I’ll come back to this shortly, but first there is the question of public fear and mistrust of science.

So What’s the Problem?

Is it only ignorance and superstition that explain so many people these days backing away from science like nervous, trailer-shy horses? Many scientific issues are so complex, it’s true, that only the most advanced practitioners in their very narrow fields even understand the questions posed. I once worked in an office that had a “Science for Citizens” program among its many projects, but there is a limit to how far such a program can go.

Does human irrationality come into the picture? Doubtless, on some issues it does. Give me statistics until the cows come home about how much safer I am in an airplane than in a car, and I’ll continue to approach commercial flight with trepidation that rarely assails me on the road.

The way we’ve always done things, what we’re used to, what we learned back in school, etc.—all these can get in the way of our accepting new scientific knowledge. But I can’t help thinking there’s a lot more than that going on and that “science” and its would-be defenders have made some very serious public relations problems for themselves. Claiming intellectual superiority over the whole world is not a way to win hearts and minds.

For some people, “science” has become a religion. Again I use scare quotes intentionally, because if there’s anything science should never be, it’s religion. When “science” is used to cut short inquiry rather than to respond to it respectfuly, it isn’t science at all. It’s dogma.

Science gives provisional truths, not eternal verities. Received scientific knowledge must always be open to question. But all too often doubts and arguments are dismissed if and when  they contradict “scientific research.” Please, tell me more! Who funded the research? Over what length of time was it conducted? Has it been replicated? What long-term consequences might we expect? People for whom “science” is a religion have a tendency to speak and behave as if anything coming out of a laboratory is above and beyond question. I repeat: this is not a scientific attitude.

And yet, the science-as-religion crowd (and they would never label themselves as such) take themselves to be defending rationality against ignorance and superstition. How’s that for a conversation stopper?

I want to go back now and pick up the Science Council’s definition of science, for which I only gave the link above. For those who didn’t follow the link, here's the definition:
Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.
Further down the screen, the first item included in scientific methodology is objective observation. Repetition, verification, testing, peer review and assessment are also included. (Follow the link for the entire list.)

It is no secret any longer that conflicts of interest rage in academic and medical circles and infect much that is published in the most respected journals. This is not trivial. Read about it if you haven’t already.

Conflicts of interest, fueled by financial considerations or career advancement or both, easily lead to bad “research.”  How can a researcher be objective if his or her income or career hangs in the balance? For example, what kind of studies would be necessary to demonstrate safety for human beings of a given drug (or herbicide or hormone or industrial process)? One corporate-funded study? Six weeks of unaffected health in a couple hundred mice?

Here’s something else that has become common knowledge: all human beings are prone to a host of irrational biases. Note that uneducated lay people are not the only human beings to be so afflicted. Scientists are human, too. Go down the list of biases and see how many might affect scientific research, not forgetting for a minute that big money is usually involved, too. Once you get started, it’s pretty easy to see where problems can arise. 

A surgeon naturally looks for surgical solutions. A researcher funded by a pharmaceutical company is going to see big benefits in prescription drugs, probably the ones the funding company makes. Engineers seek to solve problems within their realm of expertise; they don't look to other fields. Confirmation bias assures each expert of the superiority of her or his professional approach; ingroup bias strengthens that conviction; etc., etc.

When an established researcher writes a paper on how published research findings are more likely to be false than true, is it any wonder the public doubts the latest pronouncements of scientific truth?

Science in a World Where Everything Is For Sale

Oddly, perhaps, it was a book on economics that put the question of scientific objectivity in my head again this morning--that and (here I digress briefly) the fact that I posted a link on Facebook and got jumped on because not because of the information given (at least not directly) but because of the source of the information. The criticism was legitimate and prompted me to seek out better sources (which are easily found), but once again the question that emerged, for me, was: Who gets to wear the mantle of “science,” and who doesn’t? And the corollary question: How much respect should the mantle confer?

Joseph Schumpeter’s thesis back in 1942 was that capitalism was not headed for failure but that its very successes would be the death of it. I’m only about a third of the way through Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy but find it fascinating. Here, for instance, is a very strong, unqualified statement:
I have no hesitation in saying that all logic is derived from the pattern of the economic decision or, to use a pet phrase of mine, that the economic pattern is the matrix of logic.
Economic logic, he goes, beats magic in being both definite and quantitative, and due to its successes it readily spreads,
...spreads under the pedagogic influence of favorable experiences to other spheres and there also opens eyes to that amazing thing, the Fact.
Human beings were self-interested, even greedy, before capitalism, Schumpeter says, but capitalism exalted the unit of money, leading the way to cost-profit calculations (what we know as cost/benefit analysis), and that attitude, or method—well, let him tell you in his own words—
...this type of logic or attitude or method then starts upon its conqueror’s career, subjugating—rationalizing—man’s tools and philosophies, his medical practice, his picture of the cosmos, his outlook on life, everything in fact including his concepts of beauty and justice and his spiritual ambitions.

[Facts! I am reminded of the Gradgrinds in the novel by Charles Dickens, Hard Times. Wealth and poverty feature in most, if not all, of the Dickens oeuvre, but in Hard Times, Schumpeter’s “matrix of logic” really comes to the foreground.]

Schumpeter thinks capitalism destroys its own support system. As capitalism “chases away” metaphysical beliefs and all kinds of mystic and romantic ideas, and as the capitalist world becomes more and more depersonalized and automated (what would he say in 2017!), and nothing is any longer sacred, everything can be questioned and held up for criticism, including capitalism itself. Rationalism, then, capitalism's motive force, is also its undoing.

If he is right—and his argument stretches over 400-plus closely argued pages, to which I have by no means even begun to do justice—then science too, as a natural outgrowth of capitalistic logic, is a self-cannibalizing proposition. Teach people to reject undemonstrated truths, and they will have no truck with your new shibboleths. Tell them to question authority, and they will question yours. Start down this road, and there is no turning back. But it was--and here's the paradox--the only road along which science could develop!

What about the money that built the road? When the project of “science” seems to have become primarily, in far too many cases, only another avenue for seeking profit at the expense of truth, when it comes to be seen, along with politics, as simply a tool to deliver increased wealth to those at the top by denying self-determination* to those at the bottom, is it any wonder there is growing public mistrust? Science, like politics, has sold out too many times to expect universal unquestioning admiration.

[* "For mankind is not free to choose. ... Things economic and social move by their own momentum and the ensuing situations compel individuals and groups to behave in certain ways whatever they may wish to do—not indeed by destroying their freedom of choice but by shaping the choosing mentalities and by narrowing the list of possibilities from which to choose."]

Here I would close with the old saw, “Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas,” except that I consider it a terrible libel on the nature of dogs. Also, I probably need to say straight out that I am not taking an anti-science stance, nor am I opposing rationality. It's simply that I don’t regard scientists as gods, nor do I trust blindly in “scientific” pronouncements that come from behind locked doors of corporate secrecy. If you do, you are being neither “scientific” nor “rational.”

Returning to earth

Saturday, April 8, 2017

What’s on the Nightstand?

Even with cloud-white snowdrops and sunshiny winter aconite showing their beautiful cheery heads near the piles of last fall’s dead leaves, I find time for reading. After the yard work, of course--after all, as a friend remarked, the sun goes down each evening, giving the signal to pick up a book. Though it’s seldom I’m reading only one book at a time. More commonly, I have three, four, or five going at once, so the question is, which one to pick up when?

Among the recent selections, the one I finished first (because it was so hard to put down) was The Beautiful Struggle, a memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and much of the experience recounted in that book came back to me as David and I made our way through the HBO series “Treme.” I recommend both the book and the series (we just finished watching the first season on DVD), each with its joyful discoveries along with challenging tragedies.

Friday morning I came to the final, stirring page of A Tale of Two Cities, the Charles Dickens classic our reading circle chose for this month’s discussion. I found the novel’s characters underdeveloped, that is, not fully dimensional compared to today’s complex, nuanced fictional portraits, but perhaps it is fairer to call them romantic rather than realistic. But the descriptions! Dickens puts the reader right in the scene – toward the end of the book, in Chapter 13 of Book the Third, he does it directly and with tremendous impact.

I’m reading a 1993 anthology, Growing Up Native American, with contributions from twenty-two Native American writers. Most are nonfiction, and some from the distant past, but at least one piece so far has been fiction (a selection from Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich), and the variety and period of time covered allow for many different kinds of stories and personalities to emerge.

A volume that is slower going is Life in a Mexican Village: Tepoztlán Restudied, by Oscar Lewis. I am unclear on the distinction between anthropology and sociology, for starters. Why would a “complete, detailed picture and analysis of the culture and personality of” a people, detailing “their work, play, politics, quarrels, superstitions, economic life, marriage customs, male-female relationships, etc.” not be sociology? I guess I need to look that up somewhere. Okay, I did--and I still don’t see why the book I’m reading is anthropology, do you?

Then, dipping even further back into the academic archives, I found a book on economics by Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, first published in 1942. How’s this for a pithy truism? “Political criticisms cannot be met effectively by rational argument.” Meaning, I think, not that we should rush into craziness but that our appeals must touch people’s hearts if we are to move them at all.

And then an advance reading copy (ARC) arrives in the mail, another new novel that looks promising, so I’ll be starting that soon--doubtless before I finish the anthropology and economics tomes. Because after an hour of vigorous work in the yard, my brain and body are almost equally tired.

No, these were not blooming outdoors!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Read With Your Eyes Closed (with Variation for Non-Readers)

If you never have trouble going to sleep, this post is not for you. This post is for friends and strangers who have trouble letting go of consciousness – who find sleep elusive – or who wake up in the middle of the night in the clutches of anxiety, wide-eyed – or face morning in a weary state, due to insomnia. The treatment I propose cure costs nothing to try, and I will exact no future royalties, if you need help losing yourself in sleep, for whatever reason, what have you got to lose?

First, a little background: Warm milk? Maybe, if it works for you, but the most obvious way for me, a reader, to get to sleep is to read myself into oblivion, and it usually works. That is, it works unless the story is too exciting, and I have been known, on occasion, to stay up all night over a book rather than fall asleep. That’s a potential problem. Another is the necessity, brief though it is, of rousing myself from the desired drowsy state to turn out my reading light.

We sleep with our eyes closed. Open eyes, then, are not the intuitive way to court sleep.

My ideal is to have my sweetheart read me to sleep or tell me a story until I drift off. Snuggling is a nice bonus to this method. “Tell me about when you were a little boy in Detroit” is my first ploy, but I usually have to prime the pump by asking more specific questions about that Detroit neighborhood and its characters.

But maybe you’re alone. Or maybe your bed partner isn’t in the mood to tell you a story or read to you or is already asleep. Sometimes self-care is not just an option but a necessity.

And here’s where my free, bookish sleeplessness cure comes to the rescue. If any of my blog readers are not book readers, however, fear not. I have a non-reading variation for you.

But first, for the readers --

Reading With Eyes Closed

Get as comfortable as you possibly can. Close your eyes, snuggle down in the dark, well under the covers, and tell yourself a story from a book you’ve read, either one you’ve been reading recently or a familiar book re-read many times. You know the story: someone else wrote it, and you read it, so start on the first page and picture the opening sentences. Picture the scene as well. What is the setting? Who was there? What happened? See it all, in as much detail as possible, and recall, in paraphrase, the sentences from the story’s first pages.

If the story you choose is a book you’ve read over and over, you may see the book’s pages vividly in your mind, and that can work for you. In which paragraph, for instance, on which side of the book, does his father tell Marcel of the plan to travel to Italy in the spring? What are the boy’s associations with the various Italian towns? Picture the pages, and recreate the movement of their lines, as well as the movement of the story, in your mind.

If instead you choose a book you’ve been reading for the first time, you’ll be strengthening your memory of the story as you rehearse your initial reading, retelling the story to yourself in the dark. Maybe you’ve only read a few chapters of the book so far, but that’s no problem. Start with the first action scene. The horses are toiling up the hill, the passengers trudging along beside the carriage in the dark. Who are the characters in the scene? What happens?

The first important feature of this way of inducing sleep is that the destination (sleep) is not the end (of the story). You don’t want to reach the end. You want to fall asleep long before the end. So include as much detail as you can recall, and if you realize you’ve skipped over something, go back and pick up the story with the skipped passage, retracing your mental steps. Should you reach the end (I never do), simply begin again at the beginning or start with a different story.

The second important feature is to stay with the story. As with meditation, if your mind strays onto the morrow’s to-do list, bring it back to the story. Begin again. (No scolding yourself.) The object is to lull yourself to sleep. The story is your lullaby....

Walking With Eyes Closed

My suggested alternative for non-readers – or those who want a change from reading -- is to take a walk or a drive. Either one, but take it in your mind, with your eyes closed, in the dark, under the covers. Choose a walk or a drive that is familiar, interesting, beautiful if possible but definitely peaceful.

Walking to school, long ago, might be a pleasant memory exercise, but if your walk to grade school was made fearsome by bullies, don’t take that walk! My drive to work is heavenly, but if yours is a stressful commute, don’t take that drive! What you want to do is slow down your mind, take yourself somewhere peaceful, and take in the sights along the way as if you have all the time in the world.

I like to recall my walk to grade school, leaving my backyard and cutting across a vacant lot to the narrow, shady, secret path between garages where an alley would have been, if our neighborhood had had alleys. I peer into the neighbors’ gardens, greet their cats, watch for birds....

Time is not of the essence. You are in no hurry. Picture as much detail as you can recall and see the trees and houses along the way, the dips and curves in the road. Is there a dog that always barks at a certain point? A place where roses bloom? Busy intersections to cross? Familiar faces and billboards along the way? See it all, beginning with walking out the door.

When I set out to picture my drive from home to Northport, I seldom get beyond the end of the driveway (sometimes not that far) and never more than a mile down the road. There is too much to see along the way, and it is so pleasant to dawdle at a leisurely pace, looking all around at everything along the way. Other times, when I set out to drive from the ghost town cabin in Dos Cabezas to the town of Willcox fourteen miles away, I seldom reach the playa, let alone Willcox. The sun feels so good, and the mountains and clouds are so beautiful....

Sweet Spot Words for Today

Lull: to soothe or quiet

Dawdle: to do something very slowly, as if you do not want to finish it 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Happy In My Work

I’ll be honest. There are times I envy retired friends with all their leisure time to travel, to socialize, to hike and garden and volunteer and keep their houses clean and host dinner parties. It isn’t that I can’t do all those things, but every single one of us is limited to 24 hours in a day, a third of those hours (for those not Twitter-addicted) pass in sleep, and, even awake, I don't have the energy or stamina I had a couple of decades ago. When I read my farming magazines, I daydream about spending entire days out in the field but then wonder how soon and how often I would need to take work breaks—not being the spring chicken I was when Dog Ears Books was a pup, back in 1993.

A spring thaw, however, brings fresh energy, in the bookstore as well as outdoors. My friend Sarah Shoemaker’s novel, Mr. Rochester, is due out on May 9, and we’ll be having a party! A posthumous collection of food essays by Jim Harrison is here now, and Jamie Harrison, Jim’s daughter, has a new novel coming out in June. The author of a new work on John James Audubon, Gregory Nobles, will be here to do a summer presentation at the bookstore. Exciting plans put new life into an old dog. Besides plans, bookstore life also brings surprises, almost every day, and this quiet, rainy March Friday was no exception. There were visits with friends, bookstore newcomers from Traverse City and Lake Ann, and a beautiful bouquet of birthday flowers, arriving a week early from dear friends in Pennsylvania. 

Where else would I rather have been today? It has been a good day in Northport and a very cheery day in my bookstore!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

What Does It Take to Crack Open a Heart?

Some people, it seems, grow older without much change. With an unchanging personality, there is no epiphany along the way. Others change by hardening up and growing a shell. Chuck Collins belongs in neither group. His heart has been cracked open more than once, and new growth results every time. Born on Third Base is much more than his personal life story—we don’t even get his whole life story, but that’s all right. Chuck’s raison d’être has become working to reduce wealth inequality in America, and he makes his case in this book.

The great-grandson of Oscar Meyer was born into what we have begun to call the “one percent,” the wealthiest Americans. Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, calls a society governed by huge inherited wealth and power “patrimonial capitalism,” and Collins openly acknowledges that he had to do nothing personally to be wealthy. He quotes Edgar Bronfman, Seagrams heir, who said, “To turn $100 into $110 is work. To turn $100 million into $110 million is inevitable.”

At age 26, Collins made the decision to give away his inheritance but acknowledges that he still had the advantages of American citizenship, education, freedom from debt, white privilege, and a supportive family.

Touring the country in 2003 with billionaire Bill Gates to clarify the federal estate tax and why the wealthy should pay it gratefully, Collins and Gates told their audiences that even first-generation American entrepreneurs are not “self-made” because they had the benefits of our economic system, laws, roads, other transportation and communication systems, education systems, public libraries, and public investment in new technology. Collins gives the key moment of one talk to Gates, who spins a tale in which God’s heavenly treasury is running low, and She [this is the way Gates told the story; I am not editorializing] came up with a plan: the next two spirits to be born could bid on the country in which they would be born. The winner of the auction would be born in the United States, the loser “in an impoverished nation in the global south.” Gates then asked the audience what is had been worth, to them, to be born in the United States—and, so, how much of their net worth they were willing to pledge to leave behind for the common good.

Paying the estate tax (which applies only to households with wealth of $10.8 million and so has little or nothing to do with small family farms, though lobbyists and advertising against the tax would have the public believe otherwise), Collins and Gates proposed to their audiences, is a way of showing gratitude for social benefits received. It is a way to pass benefits they received along to future generations.

Booksellers, authors, and others are often asked, from one administration to the next, “If you could have the president read just one book, which one would it be?” Born on Third Base is my answer to the question today. Hmmm. I wonder if I could get our new U.S. Representative to Congress to read it? That would be a start....

But this is a book for every American, rich or poor, influential or left behind, for a couple of important reasons.

Why should you read this book?

First, one change of heart Collins had involved the language of class warfare, the “bottom-up antagonism expressed in rhetorical attacks against the rich....” He had used it himself in his early campaigns for social justice, but no one, Collins realized, likes to be hated,  and hating the wealthy will never turn them into allies. So it’s a losing game. He goes further in the other direction. In the same way he invites the rich to get to know their financially less fortunate fellow citizens, Collins invites members of the “99 percent” to reach out to the wealthy—not with a hand out but with the empathy and respect every individual deserves. A lot of rich people, he says, are very isolated socially, and they, too, whether they should or not, have financial fears. Empathy is a theme that runs through every chapter of the book.

Second, this is not just another book telling you what’s wrong in our country and the world and how it got to be wrong, because another important theme is change. Collins tells stories, gives examples, and offers concrete, specific suggestions. If you’ve been downhearted lately about the unleashing, once again, of predatory, extractive capitalism, this is the book you need to read. You’ll find in it steps you can take, beyond protest, to help bring about the changes you want to see.

Empathy and change. Change begins with empathy. We’re all in this together. Yes, we can!!!

Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good
by Chuck Collins
Chelsea Green, softcover, 267pp w/ index

Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Ten Years Came and Went"

November 2007
My headline today is a quote from a Jim Harrison novel. David always gets a kick out of that line, the way Jim disposed so easily of an entire decade in the life of a character. In retrospect, though, a decade does pass quickly, and so, while my decennial year of blogging has not yet passed, it has arrived, rather unbelievably to me. Nine years came and went!

My first post on Books in Northport appeared in September 2007. I remember that easily, because David and I were “between dogs” at the time, and I have always measured my years at least in part in terms of dogs. Still, ten years???  Est-ce possible?

It was brief, that first post, setting out my reasons for and intentions in creating a blog. Back then my biggest challenges, including figuring out how to upload photos, came from a slow dial-up connection: I would sit near the phone, plugged in, but always with a book close at hand, since there was plenty of reading time (the benefit of a slow connection!) while waiting for photos to upload, even after they had been, necessarily, reduced in size to make the uploading possible at all. 

Blogging opened to me the world of a Leland Township resident I hadn’t yet met in person at that time; introduced me to a young woman in China, a graduate student in French who blogged for years under the name “Neige”; and reconnected me to my dear, geographically distant friend Helen, with whom I’d lost contact for years. It also brought me new friends and readers from as far away as Idaho and the state of Washington and New South Wales, Australia, and, significantly, it brought writers Bonnie Jo Campbell and Benjamin Busch (his first visit, before his book was published, was a joint event with Anne Marie Oomen) to Northport. And this is only a sample, barely skimming the surface of connections made possible.

In the beginning I tried to write a post every day. Many had nothing to do with books but dealt with goings-on in the village of Northport, Michigan, my country life, and soon, in early 2008, adventures with our new puppy, whose face is now grey, though she can still run and romp like a kid.

Puppy Sarah
Nowadays posting once or twice a week seems sufficient. I’ve also become more book-focused on this  blog, giving quicker glimpses into specific books, usually new ones, on Northport Bookstore News and relegating other topics (well, usually!) to subsidiary blogs, primarily Lacking a Clear Focus (which runs the gamut from silly humor to raging rants) and From My Paris Kitchen (tiny farmhouse kitchen musings and fooling around)But Books in Northport is still my main effort. It’s the place online where my bookstore’s heart beats most strongly and where I hope readers from anywhere in the world can get some sense that they are visiting my bookshop on Waukazoo Street.

The shop itself started down the block in a different Waukazoo Street location in 1993. Yes, Dog Ears Books will be 24 years old this summer, and Books in Northport will be 10 in the fall. “I’m in it for the long haul,” I told a former landlord back in 1997, and so I have been, thanks to readers and customers and friends who love not only books but are also loyally devoted to bookstores. 

And so, old friends, thanks for sticking with me, and new readers, thanks for coming aboard. The future's not ours to see, but we're here now!

Monday, March 13, 2017


In the classic English novel Jane Eyre, written in 1847 by Charlotte Brontë, we meet the protagonist narrator as a child on the book’s first page. Both her parents having died, she was taken in by an uncle, but when he also passed away, responsibility for the orphan girl had fallen to his widow, Jane’s aunt by marriage, who finds the child a terrible burden. Her three cousins bear her no love, either. The boy particularly delights in tormenting her, knowing his mother will always take his side.

The resentful aunt unburdens herself by sending ten-year-old Jane away to a residential charity school. Lowood School is a harsh environment at first, and the girl has no vacations away from it, but she does make one close friend and finds a kind and sympathetic teacher. In time, life at the school improves. Eventually, at age 16, Jane becomes a teacher there herself.

Having achieved through education the means to be independent—and longing for a world beyond Lowood, which is all the world she has known other than the home of her unloving aunt—at age 18 Jane advertises for a governess position with a private family. Her ad brings in a single response, and so Jane travels to Thornfield Hall for an interview and gets the job. After her first quiet, introductory weeks, the master returns to his residence. Life at Thornfield grows much more interesting! The master is, of course, the enigmatic Mr. Rochester, one of English literature’s most mysterious and compelling male characters.

This is the story we all know. Jane and Rochester meet in the twelfth chapter of Jane Eyre, when he is 35 years old to her 18. So much for background.

But what was Rochester’s life before Jane Eyre came along? How different was his childhood and youth from hers? Why did Jane appeal to him so strongly? What were his motives and inward thoughts and feelings as he fell in love with and courted the plain, solemn governess while concealing from her a prior, still-binding marriage? And what allowed him in the first place to think himself justified in locking his wife away, keeping her very existence hidden from the world?

One reader, Sarah Shoemaker, kept asking herself, “What kind of man does such things?” Of all these matters, Charlotte Brontë has told us next to nothing, because her story all comes to us through the eyes and ears and from the heart of Jane, leaving Rochester a tantalizing mystery.

Shoemaker, however, probably because she is a writer as well as a reader, could not silence the questions in her mind. The mystery of Rochester’s earlier life would not let her go. And because she felt compelled to imagine a past for the man who, by the end of Charlotte Brontë’s book, finally marries the literary world’s beloved Jane Eyre, we now have a companion novel to the nineteenth-century classic. That is, we will have it very soon, for Sarah Shoemaker’s Mr. Rochester, from Grand Central Press in New York, is due for release this coming May 9.

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As Brontë did in giving us Jane Eyre’s childhood and girlhood, Shoemaker gives us Edward Rochester as a boy and young man. In the end we are brought to Brontë’s familiar conclusion but from a very different starting point and along a very different, much more exotic path of adventure and misadventure.

We meet Jane first as a poor orphan, while Edward is to the manor born. But his mother is dead and his father so cold and so seldom at home that Edward’s boyhood is mostly solitary until he is sent away to school at the age of eight. Informed that he is to be sent away, rather than tutored at home as was his older brother, the boy is shocked. Schooling, however, turns out to be one of the happiest periods of Edward’s young life. The friends he makes in the course of his studies, the freedom the boys enjoy, and the eccentric teaching of their master, Mr. Lincoln, who loves maps and battle strategy, combine to make this part of Shoemaker’s story a sheer delight. Edward’s only sorrow while at Mr. Lincoln’s establishment is that, unlike the other boys, he never goes home over vacations. In that, his experience mirrors Jane’s at Lowood, although it is different in almost every other respect.

Edward’s father has business interests in Jamaica and spends much of his time there, so it is not entirely surprising that the boy becomes obsessed with the island, anticipating the day he will join his father and brother there. “Jam,” the other boys and Mr. Lincoln take to calling him. (All the boys go by nicknames.) But when Edward leaves school, he is neither summoned home to Thornfield nor abroad to Jamaica: instead his father has arranged an apprenticeship for him in a mill where broadcloth is made. He is not to work on the floor himself but to learn the ways of the “counting house,” in preparation for his future. From there he goes off to university and earns a degree.

(In both novels, social class plays an important role. Jane’s parents had “nothing,” she attends a charity school, and as a governess, she lives on the uncertain middle ground between servants and gentility. Edward’s father, though titled, chose the active life of business, but because Edward’s older brother will inherit Thornfield and all his father’s properties in England, Edward must follow in his father’s footsteps in Jamaica and make his own way in the world. The head start his father gives him is education, experience in running a business, and a going concern, his sugar cane plantation in Jamaica. In both books, unlike those of the receding century, the servants are given names and have visible presence in the stories.)

Part Two of Mr. Rochester, then, is set in Jamaica, where Edward finds he has inherited slaves as well as land. His marriage to the beautiful Bertha is all but arranged for him, and he knows little of her beforehand other than her beauty. The only other Brontë spinoff I know is The Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. Also made into a movie, the Rhys novel tells the story from Bertha’s perspective but was not, for me, anywhere as satisfying or convincing as I found Mr. Rochester. (Maybe I should read it again, too?)

--But don’t look for a spoiler here! I have no intention of detailing the Jamaica section, which sets the stage for so much of what follows. No, you must wait for the book to come out and read every word for yourself, but you wouldn’t have it any other way, would you?

Then there are the years that Rochester leaves the running of his plantation to an estate manager and allows himself a licentious, rootless life in Europe. Again, details await your reading. The child Adèle, I’ll mention, Jane Eyre’s charge, is one consequence of the European sojourn. Another, planted in Jamaica and afterward expanded in Europe, is Rochester’s suspicious attitude toward women, his belief that they are not to be trusted.

In Part Three we are on familiar ground, back at Thornfield Hall, where Jane is ensconced as governess to Adèle, and there unfold the events familiar to us from Jane Eyre--but different now, because we are seeing them through new eyes. In the older novel, we had access to Jane’s heart and saw the world through her eyes; in Sarah Shoemaker’s new novel, we see the world through the eyes of Rochester, and are privy to the secrets of his heart.

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I first read Mr. Rochester in manuscript almost three years ago, and before opening my advance reading copy this winter, I re-read Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Still, despite knowing that all would come right in the end, I found myself spellbound. I was gripped with anxiety through all Rochester’s turmoil! His many trials and setbacks, one after another, and the series of wrenching discoveries that are not over until almost the last page of the book all made any happy ending seem wildly improbable, even though I already knew the ending! This, of course, was the author’s challenge from the beginning: since all who have read Brontë’s noel remember Jane’s closing, “Reader, I married him,” how can the story be retold in such a way as to create suspense? Simple. All the writer has to do is to create a story that will fully engage the reader from start to finish, as if what is happening on the page is happening in the very moment of (or the moment just before) the reading. That’s all. Simple! Simple???

Sarah Shoemaker does much more than imagine Rochester from the inside. She imagines and lays before us entire worlds, notably Mr. Lincoln’s school, the broadcloth mill, and life on the island of Jamaica. To be believable and keep us immersed in the story, these worlds must be historically accurate and, at the same time, come across as immediate experiences to readers, not as history lessons. Shoemaker succeeds on both counts.

Then there are her original characters, individuals who people these other worlds of Rochester’s. You did not meet them in Jane Eyre, but you will not soon forget the boys Touch and Carrot at the school, Mr. Wilson at the mill and his motherly wife, the worker called Shap, and others.

When Dog Ears Books hosts the party to launch Mr. Rochester and to celebrate author Sarah Shoemaker, it will be almost three years since I first gained entrance to this mesmerizing story. It was on the morning of June 1, 2014, that I read the last manuscript page, and since then I never doubted for a minute that this book would eventually be made available to a world audience. Now, the time is almost here!

So mark your calendar! It’s Tuesday, May 9, and the time is 7 to 9 p.m. I’m giddy just thinking about it!