Monday, October 30, 2017
Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie, was a difficult book for me. My problem was not the exotic locale or unfamiliar names but the kind of story-telling employed.
If I cannot help comparing Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, that’s only in part because both novels are set in India and focus on the time of the country’s independence. Other similarities lie in the novels’ daunting number of pages and a stunning number of characters and settings. In the end, however (and “in the end” here can be taken literally as well as figuratively), although Rushdie’s novel was less than half as long as Seth’s, with Midnight’s Children I kept looking to see how far along I was in the book—not halfway yet! now at the halfway mark! still, how slowly it goes!—and over and over again I set it down and picked up something less demanding for the remainder of the evening, returning to Rushdie the next morning with a sigh and a sense of determination.
In other words, this reading experience was completely different from my happy immersion in A Suitable Boy, a book that captured me on the first page and held me in its steady thrall, although it took me nearly a month to get through its 1400 or so pages. I’ll go so far as to say the length was essential to the spell it cast, because I lived in that book for the time I was reading it.
The truth (about me) is that in film, on the stage, and in the pages of fiction, I gravitate towards the various forms of realism. Material may be romantic, comedic, serious, or tragic, as long as its fictional world is coherent with reality as I know it. By the same token, the further the story moves away from a plausible (if new-to-me) reality, the higher my resistance, which I think is why most works of science fiction and fantasy fail to hold my attention. I tried and tried, for instance, to read The Hobbit, for my son’s sake (at a certain age, it was his favorite book), but while my eyes went dutifully over the book’s lines of type, my mind kept wandering. I never did get very far with it. Station Eleven, on the other hand—yeah, I could see that happening.
The way I see it, at least in Midnight’s Children (I confess to never having tried The Satanic Verses), Rushie is not a modern realistic novelist at all but a fabulist. In addition, he has quite a bit of the early teen bad-boy, Almodovár-like scatalogist in his sensibility, and for me a little of that goes a long way. All of which is to explain why it was that I did not really “get into” Midnight’s Children, a 533-page book in Penguin paperback, until I’d read over 300 pages.
But I did, finally, enter into the fable, falling in with the narrator’s pretense that his own life and its events, from his birth in the same moment as that of India’s independence, were tied to Indian politics and, in fact, brought about the events that befell the country, its leaders, and everyone whose life he touched, which was, of course, everyone! Yes, it’s a lot to swallow! Now imagine (if you haven’t read the book) swallowing not only that basic premise but a world-flood of details large and small, reminders and repetitions, revelations of what has not yet been and will not for sometimes many pages ultimately be revealed (in its own good time and in all its detail), and perhaps you begin to see the challenge a reader is given to get through this book.
I’m glad that I read Midnight’s Children, and I really enjoyed the last 150 pages. Things went better for me then because I at last stopped struggling against where the author was trying to take me.
I’ve always thought it was unfair to criticize an author for not writing a different book than the one he or she wrote. The question to be asked, rather, in this case of Rushdie, is whether or not he succeeded in the task he set himself, and as I closed the book on the last page I thought that he had.
In a way, I thought, as I was finally starting to enjoy the story, Midnight’s Children is reminiscent of Don Quixote. Rushdie, like Cervantes, asks us to believe unbelievable events, and both writers drag readers through numerous passages detailing excretory functions and unlikely mishaps to body parts. I also remember a member of our reading circle saying that she would have liked Don Quixote twice as much if it had been only half as long.
Would I have had a more positive impression of Midnight’s Children had it been only 300 pages long? I don’t think so. Since it took me over that many pages to enter the author’s world, I would have finished a shorter version more quickly but probably have closed the book shaking my head and dismissing the work as sophomoric.
N.B. What I have written today is not a book review! It is not a critical analysis! You might call it a literary confession. But most of us as readers, I think, have personal limitations that affect our reading—style prejudices, genre preferences, interest or lack or interest in certain topics, etc. I’m not talking only about “comfort zones,” but that’s part of it, I guess. Whatever you want to call my resistance in this case, I feel that pushing myself to read Midnight’s Children was the right thing for me to do, and reading all the way to the last page was, for me, its own reward.
Friday, October 27, 2017
In most places and most of the time, liberty is not a product of military action. Rather, it is something alive that grows or diminishes every day, in how we think and communicate, how we treat each other in our public discourse, in what we value and reward as a society, and how we do that.
- Thomas E. Ricks, Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom
Coming to this book on Churchill and Orwell, it didn’t hurt that I had read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia not long ago and still had that story pretty fresh in my mind. Orwell identified as a Leftist all his life, but Catalonia opened his eyes to the true nature of the Communist Party. He quickly realized that the Communists were every bit as totalitarian in their approaches and their aims as were the Fascists and that his real enemy, therefore, wherever it reared its ugly head, was totalitarianism.
He would leave Spain resolved to oppose the abuse of power at both ends of the political spectrum. After Spain, observed the literary critic Hugh Kenner, he would be “a leftist at odds with the official left.” “It is unfortunate that so few people in England have yet caught up with the fact that Communism is now a counter-revolutionary force,” Orwell wrote in 1937.
Churchill, in a strange way, was more a presence in my life as far back as I can remember. “Winston Churchill without the cigar” is how my parents described their first baby (me). But I had never studied his life, so Churchill’s many political setbacks and disappointments (both before and after WWII), as recounted by author Ricks, gave me a new perspective on the British leader’s startling tenacity. Before England’s declaration of war against Germany, Churchill had been unpopular both personally and for his belligerent views.
The leaders of the Tory Party felt [in the 1930s] that as part of keeping Hitler mollified, Churchill must be excluded from a position of leadership.
But in 1940 Hitler began his invasion of Holland and Belgium, bringing Parliament at last to a realization that Chamberlain must go. So Chamberlain would resign, but who would replace him? Lord Halifax, the king’s first choice? Lord Halifax who had requested that the British soccer team give the Nazi salute when playing against the German team in Berlin? No, said Chamberlain, Churchill is the man you want. And so Churchill was appointed rather than elected to serve as Prime Minister.
“I hope that it is not too late. I am very much afraid that it is. We can only do our best.”
Churchill never sugar-coated the truth when he spoke to the English people, and they trusted him for that, almost instinctively it would seem. Neither Churchill nor Orwell was willing to forsake truth for a party line, and both at times suffered for their inflexibility when it came to truth-telling. For instance, largely because the U.S.S.R. had been an important wartime ally of Britain and the United States, Orwell had a hard time finding a publisher for Animal Farm -- surprising difficulty considering publishing track record up to that time.
Both men also had strong opinions and made sure they had facts to back up their viewpoints. Orwell especially proved a ready willingness to change his mind when faced with facts repudiating his earlier position. It must be admitted, however, that either would have been a difficult life companion.
Churchill was as relentless as a terrier in his pursuit of facts but at dinner parties would launch into monologue, showing so little interest in other people’s lives and stories that he would even recite memorized poems to ensure his ability to hold the floor. He always knew more than anyone else about the topics that interested him, and he had no patience for any other topics. Then there was the drinking. All in all, difficult!
Orwell, unpretentious in dress and manner, comfortable with and sympathetic in general to common people, was overly sensitive to smells, but worse – the real deal-breaker for me – was the lack of self-awareness he showed in what Ricks calls his quick and casual prejudice against the Jews.
The fact of the matter is that Orwell was always tin eared about Jews. During World War II, Orwell would write extensively against anti-Semitism, but in the course of doing so he failed to reexamine his own writings of the previous decade. After the war, he had surprisingly little to say about the Holocaust....”
It is easier to find excuses for his anti-Zionism, since he was suspicious of all nationalisms, but was this particular nationalism more distasteful to him than others? One cannot help but wonder.
Churchill’s genius lay in seeing the Nazi threat for the world danger it was; his virtue was believing in the courage and perseverance of the English people, despite the many strikes against them at the outset of the war. Heaven only knows where Western civilization – and one uses the word with some trepidation in this context – might have gone without Churchill holding out against Hitler and against all the appeasers in the British aristocracy and government.
Orwell’s intellectual gift was his ability to see through party propaganda and cant to the dangers of totalitarianism on both ends of the political spectrum, and his artistic gift, in a spare style very different from Churchill’s oratorical writing, enabled him to bring that clear-sightedness to life in dramatic popular fiction.
What would Orwell make of our world today? Ricks notes that the question is often asked. Notably, individuals living under repressive regimes the world over recognize in 1984 the way their governments twist truth and relentlessly curtail freedom. Also, ironically, apologists from both the right and left eager to claim him as their own.
In 1984, protagonist Winston Smith lives under constant state surveillance. Fear of Big Brother and Communist repression of individuals dominated political discussions in the United States throughout the second half of the twentieth century, explaining why so many agreed with the slogan, “Better dead than Red.” Big government, regardless of party, was the enemy to be feared. Ricks points out that today’s surveillance in our own country is done more often by business than by government. It is not “the State” but “the Corporation” that follows Americans through every step of their day, noting what products they buy and use, which entertainments they most enjoy, and how they interact with family and friends.
Orwell saw that people might become slaves of the state, but he did not foresee that they might also become something else that would horrify him—products of corporations, data resources to be endlessly mined and peddled elsewhere. He would no doubt have been a powerful critic of such things.
And so, once again, two political extremes face Americans. This time the dilemma popularly posed (i.e., in misleadingly simplistic terms) is not between Fascism and Communism but between unrestrained “predatory capitalism” (the leftist view) and what has been called a “nanny state” (the rightist view). But as was the case with the twentieth-century dilemma posed between Fascism and Communism, I would argue that today’s debate too begins with a false premise. There are avenues and choices beyond simply a “nanny state” and unrestrained “predatory capitalism”), and we should, in the name of freedom, reject both extremes.
Unhappily for the present moment in our country, the State and the Corporation have joined forces, with the State holding onto its authority over citizens at the same time that it grants the Corporation, now legally recognized as a “person,” huge unfair advantage over us. Our own Congress! Over and over, they purport to be “saving” us from a "nanny state" by stripping us of legal, environmental, and other health protections rightly the role and responsibility of government. (We may be moving toward a “police state,” but at the moment we are definitely galloping away from anything that could remotely be called a “nanny state”!) At the federal level (and in many states), executive, legislative, and judicial branches appear to have agreed to sacrifice the interests of American citizen to rich and powerful corporate interests. The latest such legislative move protects financial institutions against citizens’ class-action suits. Anyone who is surprised, however, hasn't been paying attention. Farmers have had to pay attention, because their oxen are being gored, outrageously, on a regular basis.
This is a fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into! Where is an Orwell to show clearly of the dangers we face? Where is a Churchill to lead us back toward freedom?
Wednesday, October 25, 2017
It was big news recently when Norton Publishing announced it would increase its whole discount to bookstores from 40% to 50%. That discount applies to ordering directly from the publisher, not through a distributor (which is often easier for small bookstores not buying caseloads of single titles), but applies to both frontlist and backlist titles, and it’s heartening news. One California bookseller (quoted in "Shelf Awareness") sees Norton as recognizing a presently unsustainable business model in independent bookselling and offering a solution.
Norton Publishing itself is an independent outlier in the book (you should excuse the term) “industry,” in that they are employee-owned, and I can’t help thinking the “rigorously anti-corporate style” of the house must have a lot to do with their feeling for independent booksellers. For them, as for us, there is more at stake than a bottom line, though neither they nor we can afford to neglect that bottom line. It’s a balancing act. It demands attention to both principles and details.
Employee-owned workplaces are nothing new in the United States. In our early history, they were known as “cooperatives.”
Not only food-buying, but many other forms of business were carried on by workers and buyers banding together for mutual advantage, and in my opinion this aspect of American history is too often neglected in classrooms in favor of a “rugged individualism” that would never have carried us forward alone.
Here’s a question then: Should ESOPs be considered socialism (workers owning the means of production) or simply a more responsible form of capitalism? "False dilemma!" I want to cry out. Argument over how to categorize the model in terms of current American political divisions is a waste of energy. Who cares? Call it what you will – and follow both preceding links to read more – ESOPs have a lot going for them.
One of my favorite employee-owned companies outside the book business is Bob’s Red Mill, which I touted last winter on my long-neglected (no new post since May!) kitchen blog, but today I'm thinking more about farm cooperatives and the book business. Agriculture and the book world may appear to have little in common on the surface, but I’ve always been attuned to similarities: the stubborn independence of practitioners, search for sustainability in a fast-changing world, devotion to time-tested values, etc. And employee-owned companies, I’m thinking now -- whatever their product, like farmers and booksellers -- have their eyes on the long haul. They are not day-traders, making money with money, minute by minute. The deal in value, and they are invested in their work.
Norton, I salute you! And I'm so glad you are Bonnie Jo Campbell's publisher!
Monday, October 23, 2017
Down by a couple of ponds outside Willcox, Arizona, back in early 2015, I pursued a flash of brilliant red with my camera and captured, to my great delight and excitement, an image of a vermilion flycatcher, a bird I had never expected to see. I am hardly what might be called a “birder,” serious or otherwise, but even my aviphobic husband, the Artist, became somewhat interested in the birds of Arizona. We went out of our way, for instance, to pilgrimage to the western wintering grounds of sandhill cranes. But that solitary vermilion flycatcher was more a private triumph for me, one I could hardly wait to share. “Is it a big deal?” David asked. Not excited. So when we planned a trip from our Cochise County home base to Santa Cruz County to visit old friends, I was eager to share my sighting, knowing they would appreciate what a big deal it was. And that was a lovely evening we had in Patagonia, sitting outdoors outside the restaurant (so Jim could smoke) long after dinner was finished and darkness fallen. I hoped for many more such evenings, but that was our last with Jim and Linda, as she died the following fall and Jim less than half a year later.
Saturday evening at the Opera House in Traverse City we attended an event billed as “A Really Big Tribute: An Evening of Life, Art, and Stories,” the event taking its name from a posthumous collection of Jim’s essays on food (and life and art and stories) titled A Really Big Lunch. We had no idea what to expect. Also, while I had taken my camera in the car, I decided against taking it in with me for the evening (though I’m sure other people will be posting pictures on Facebook and elsewhere), so my report will be idiosyncratic and sketchy at best.
Okay, here goes.
In the course of the evening, various people from Jim’s life spoke of their friendships with him and their work with him, and they read from his work and from work that he had found meaningful. I cannot attempt to capture the overwhelming flood of detailed memories, but here are the speakers, in order of their appearance:
Joseph Bednarik, co-publisher of Copper Canyon Press
Michael Delp, Traverse City poet
John Evans, bookseller, Lemuria Bookstore, Jackson, Mississippi
Andrew Harrington Bahle, family friend
Lucy Fisher & Douglas Wick, American film producers
Robert DeMott, Montana poet
Will Hearst, chairman, Hearst Corporation
Anne-Marie Ooman, Leelanau County poet and essayist
Les ValMadre, Australian architect & yachtsman and former Leelanau County resident
Norm Wheeler, retired teacher, Leelanau School
Judy Hottensen, associate publisher, Grove Atlantic
J. Stephen Sheppard, New York attorney and Jim’s literary agent since 2005
Chris Walton & Steve Byrne, co-directors and co-producers of the evening’s video presentation
Doug Stanton, bestselling nonfiction author from Traverse City and founder of the National Writers Series
Amy Reynolds, sales manager, Horizon Books, Traverse City
Colum McCann, novelist and short fiction writer and National Book Award winner, born in Ireland, now residing in New York
Ray Zepeda, award-winning poet and professor of English at California State University, Long Beach
Michael Ondaatje, acclaimed writer of fiction and nonfiction, born in Sri Lanka and now residing in Toronto
Gary Snyder, poet, environmental activist, Pulitzer Prize winner
Joyce Harrington Bahle, Jim’s aide-de-camp and personal assistant since 1979
Gary Wilson, event planner and “silent partner” in planning the evening of tribute
I am serious when I say that the deluge of personal memories presented by this cast of participants was overwhelming. So many people, so many stories, so many different perspectives on a man and writer so many of us loved! All the words continue to roil and tumble in my heart and mind, but certain phrases struck deeply in the moments they were uttered:
- Colum McCann noted that Jim had created, in all of us, a community, “a community of feeling.”
- In the video presentation, one clip caught Jim saying to an interviewer that a poet’s job is “to bring the gods back to life.”
- And then Joyce, at the end, using a phrase David and I often use as an accolade of someone we admire who has passed on, stated simply that Jim “got his work done.”
Afterward, old friends were gathering here and there in Traverse City to continue the evening, but David said if we went anywhere at all, he would be most inclined to stop at the Blue Bird in Leland for a drink, “for old times’ sake,” since in many ways that's where it all used to happen. We wondered a bit what we would find there and if the bar would be filled with rowdy young strangers up for fall color. "If it looks impossible, we just won't go in." Fine.
Happily, not so. There were half a dozen or so people seated at the bar, one of them old friend Cris Telgard (who had been at the "Tribute," too), and the atmosphere calm and welcoming. We were happy to “belly up to the bar” with Cris and have him introduce us to a couple of new Leland residents -- with ties of blood, as it turned out, to old Leland friends. David was soon engrossed in conversation with the new couple, and Cris and I fell into Arizona talk. Then --
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I have to run out and get something from my car.”
It was a magazine.
About a year earlier, he had bought an old copy of Arizona Highways from September 1951, the month of his birth, in near-mint condition, with the entire issue devoted to cattle ranching and cowboys. Cris didn’t find much in the issue that spoke directly to him, but there was one feature he knew would speak to me, and so he had been carrying the magazine around in his car for months, waiting for our paths to cross. Never mind that we live only about 7 miles from one another – all of us tend to become very busy with our own lives, especially when we have businesses to run.
Cris encouraged me to open the magazine and look for the reason he was giving it to me. “Keep going,” he said – and there it was! “My little cow town!”
I’m sure the residents of Willcox would be taken aback to hear their town called “little” and particularly to have someone who spent only three months there – and not even in Willcox but out in the ghost town beyond the playa – using a possessive pronoun in connection with it. I wrote down “Red Rock West” and the name Nicholas Cage on a bar napkin for Cris so he wouldn’t forget to look for a film I love because of its Cochise County setting, and Cris urged us to stop overnight in Mesilla on our way West this winter. Because – yes – after three years of wondering if I would ever see the ghost town again, we will be returning to Dos Cabezas.
There will be bittersweet moments, I know. For one thing, we will not have the happy thoughts of Jim and Linda over in Patagonia, an easy day trip away. But we will once again have cows in the yard and coyotes yipping and howling and singing in the mountains at night (as they do here at home in the woods and fields of northern Michigan). We will have Arizona’s winter birds and the dry mountain air that lets me breathe so easily. We will have yellow legal pads (I have already bought a pack) for our winter’s writing, along with David’s paints and canvases and my sketchbooks and pencils. And we will have, besides memories of our first sojourn on the frontera, time for new experiences to form new memories, attached to the former like a new layer of sediment on older solid rock.
When we finally got home on Saturday night, we were shocked to discover that it was already Sunday morning, 1:45 a.m. to be precise. In the old days, that would have been no reason for a party to end, but these days are different. We couldn’t remember the last time we had been out so late.
It was more than worth it. The memories, the old friends, the stories -- then wrapping up the evening with Cris at the Bird to bring it all back home again. Perfect.
And it was 2 a.m. before we went to bed! In the old days, that would have been nothing, but nowadays that spells a really big evening.
Wednesday, October 18, 2017
I’m not going to be garrulous and repeat myself. If you missed or have forgotten the reasons I’ve given before for admiring French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), you can find those longer remarks here. In brief, for today, I'll say only that Bergson is a philosopher I admire not only for his ideas and his beautiful writing but above all because he did not allow himself to be bought. That he was also a man of deep feelings (which you would not guess from his conventional appearance) can also be found in his writings:
How do you become aware of a deep passion, once it has taken hold of you, if not by perceiving that the same objects no longer impress you in the same manner? All your sensations and all your ideas seem to brighten up: it is like childhood back again.
Bergson was born on this day in 1859. He died at the age of 82, but his spirit lives on.
Monday, October 16, 2017
Physical illness, depression, and normal aging can all sap one’s energy, but those sources aren’t the ones on my mind today. I’m thinking about what has come to be called “compassion fatigue” and the more recent tag, “outrage fatigue,” a phrase I only ran across last Friday for the first time but instantly recognized as a diagnosis I could claim. “Outrage fatigue,” I noted on Facebook. “Yep. That about sums it up.”
[Until correcting the paragraph above on 10/31, I had typed--but not intended--to say that compassion fatigue "about summed it up." I meant "outrage fatigue," and that's what I had posted on Facebook. I find outrage infinitely more tiring than compassion.]
[Until correcting the paragraph above on 10/31, I had typed--but not intended--to say that compassion fatigue "about summed it up." I meant "outrage fatigue," and that's what I had posted on Facebook. I find outrage infinitely more tiring than compassion.]
A friend quickly cautioned that they are counting on our fatigue. (Aren’t these sides fatiguing in themselves? Sadly, they are very real, and that’s discouraging, too.) So, the outragers and their staunch supporters are confident that the rest of us will eventually turn our backs on the struggle for justice: that is my friend’s very important reminder to me.
When I diagnose myself as fatigued by outrage, however, I don’t prescribe for myself or anyone else a permanent flight from reality. Just a break! An evening away from the news, at the very least, because let’s face it – every day there is news to outrage the ideals of civility, decency, and fairness, to use a few simple, old-fashioned terms.
After I’ve had a little break, however, I go back to dig deeper into the idea of compassion and outrage fatigue, and, underneath both, what I find is a despair bred of feelings of helplessness.
If we are called upon, day after day, to feel compassion but feel we can do nothing to ease suffering, we feel helpless, and helplessness is only one step away from despair. If we are outraged, over and over, but feel powerless, we are vulnerable to despair, too. And the horrid thing about despair is that it paralyzes – and when we allow paralysis to get a grip on us, we truly are helpless.
Here’s something else I think I see: a connection between outrage and compassion. If we ourselves are not being personally victimized, why should we feel outrage except for the fact that we also feel compassion for those who are?
So what can we do with our compassion and our outrage?
I took Sunday off from the cares and problems of “the world” and spent hours cleaning floors, catching up on laundry, making soup, filing, recycling, and giving the dog a bath. It felt good to address tasks I could accomplish in a single day, with nothing but determination and raw physical energy. An added benefit (in addition to a clean dog and clean house and clothes) is that taking action to address these ordinary little home jobs also energizes me for larger, more difficult tasks, the kind that can’t be accomplished in a day but require dedication over the long haul. Little successes remind me that I am not powerless.
Neither, of course, am I Superwoman. No one is (and no one is Superman, either). Bigger tasks cannot be resolved in a single day. Family, friendship, community, country – whenever human beings are involved, there’s no shortcut to a long relationship, and I fully expect to leave this world with the struggle for justice still going on. Well, so what? Is that an excuse for shrugging off my own responsibility? I don’t think so.
Other people with good, positive, constructive, feasible ideas are pioneers who break trails for the rest of us. Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath, and The Revolution Where You Live: Stories From a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America, by Sarah van Gelder will be books that help me move forward.
One day at a time? It’s the only option on life’s table.
Monday, October 9, 2017
In addition to being a brilliant writer, Leslie Marmon Silko is an unusually, almost miraculously patient writer. I finished my first reading (it will not be my last) of her novel Ceremony and have to say that Sherman Alexie did not exaggerate a bit when he called Ceremony “one of the greatest novels of any time and place.”
By calling her patient, I refer to the way she never rushes through a scene but takes time to note each shifting detail of the natural surroundings, along with details of the main character’s thoughts and memories and feelings and imaginings. She backtracks at least as often as she takes her story patiently forward -- backtracks and circles around and circles back again and again, in wider and wider narrative orbits. Thus the story expands and grows deeper it proceeds, and we acquire background as we gradually get to know the main character.
The main character is Tayo. That his mother “went with white men” and that his own unknown father was white is the earliest burden of his life, compounded when she leaves him with relatives and disappears from his life. Even before she dies, he knows he will never see her again.
Tayo’s Uncle Josiah and cousin Rocky accept him from the beginning, but his Auntie never lets him forget that he is not really Rocky’s brother, not her own child, and that his mother brought shame on the family, shame made visible to their village in his very existence.
Then – I am telling this chronologically, not in the order of the novel’s recounting of events – Tayo and Rocky enlist to fight in World War II. In the Pacific, they are captured by the Japanese, and the horrors of that time haunt Tayo on his return, disturbing not only his sleep but also his waking life. Nightmares, flashbacks, and disturbing visions cripple his spirit. Civil and military authorities, as well as his own people, doubt Tayo’s sanity, and he doubts it himself.
To return from the horrors of war to a previous life of normality – can it ever be easily accomplished? Tayo’s fellow veterans seek relief from their wartime memories in alcohol. Periodically Tayo does also, but he wants more of life than a haze of oblivion. He has inherited, in the time before the war, a dream from his Uncle Josiah. Materially, the dream consists of a herd of cattle -- not helpless Herefords, waiting to be brought food and water in time of scarcity and drought, but rangy Mexican cattle that can fend for themselves, like antelope, in an arid land. As Josiah explained the matter to Tayo:
“Cattle are like any living thing. If you separate them from the land for too long, keep them in barns and corrals, they lose something. Their stomachs get to where they can only eat rolled oats and dry alfalfa. When you turn them loose again, they go running all over. They are scared because the land is unfamiliar, and they are lost. They don’t stop being scared either, even when they look quiet and they quit running. Scared animals die off easily.”
Josiah reads books on the raising and breeding of cattle but is dubious about the practices recommended in the books. He asks Tayo and Rocky to read them and see what they think.
The problem was the books were written by white people who did not think about drought or winter blizzards or dry thistles, which the cattle had to live with.
The books treated cattle as an abstraction, something apart from the land on which they were to live.
To deal with the effects of postwar trauma, Tayo’s family and Tayo himself turn to traditional medicine men. These ceremonies, both specific and metaphorical, form much of the book’s bedrock. I have emphasized the role of the cattle because that dream and that reality dovetail with the ceremonies. It is the land itself – and the cattle, that belong to the land – grounding those who would not fall victim to the destroyers’ sickness.
Spiritual connections, history, and ideas all have their place in the story, and while many of the themes are universal (“one of the greatest novels of any time and place,” to quote Sherman Alexie once again), the physical features of place are present in loving detail, so clear that someone who has never been to the Southwest might almost see and feel and smell it when reading certain passages. I open the book at random and easily fall on a paragraph of place:
He tied the mare in a clearing surrounded by a thicket of scrub oak. He sat under a scrub oak and picked up acorns from the ground around him. The oak leaves were already fading from dark green to light yellow, and within the week they would turn gold and bright red. The acorns were losing their green color too, and the hulls were beginning to dry out. By the time the leaves fell and the acorns dropped, he would be home with the cattle.
And there is so much more. For instance, almost offhandedly, in a single sentence, Silko gives one of the most original and beautiful analogies of lovemaking I have ever encountered in literature.
He eased himself deeper within her and felt the warmth close around him like river sand, softly giving way under foot, then closing firmly around the ankle in cloudy warm water.
I finished my first reading of Ceremony on Saturday morning, and later that day in my bookstore a customer saw it on the counter and said that he was reading it but was afraid of how it might end. I felt the same way as I saw the remaining pages grow fewer in my hand. And as Sherman Alexie said later in his words of praise for the novel, violence is part of the story, from beginning to end. But “You will be surprised” was all I told the apprehensive reader, and it’s all I’m going to tell you.
Neither, here, am I going to get into the issues of race and racism and brown vs. white and how blame is allocated (if you think it is) by the author. I’ll only tell all readers not to be afraid but to keep reading to the end.
Book clubs and discussion groups interested in exploring American history and issues of race in our country’s literature should not neglect this beautiful novel. Lovers of fiction, give yourself a gift. Read this book.
Thursday, October 5, 2017
After nearly a quarter-century in business, I have a pretty good idea who appreciates my bookstore. The appreciative may be regular local browsers or people from far away who visit once or twice a year but never leave empty-handed. (“This is the high point of our trip,” one such customer-friend said to me this past summer.) They may ask me to order something for them when I don’t have in stock what they need, rather than ordering it themselves online. We share news of family and friends and pets and travel. Selling books to my staunch supporters is a lot more than a series of “business transactions.” I don’t take any of this for granted – it still feels quite wonderful, after all these years – but the phenomenon has become familiar to me.
More surprising are first-time visitors who come bearing gifts of appreciation. Why would they? Well, sometimes there is a chain of connections linking my bookstore to strangers coming through the door. That’s what happened last week when Tom Corbett and his wife, Beverly, from Ann Arbor came in with big smiles.
It was a mention of Jim Harrison books in an area magazine that brought the Corbetts to my bookstore in Northport. A poet friend of theirs had known Harrison in Lake Leelanau. I asked their friend’s name and didn’t recognize it, but Tom explained that he, Tom, and his friend, Red Shuttleworth, had both received Western Heritage awards for their work.
“How long did you know Jim Harrison?” one of them asked, and my mind reached back to my first meeting with Jim and Linda. David, wanting to introduce me to them, had taken me over to their old French Road farmhouse (the house’s future remodeling not even a plan back then) when I was up from Kalamazoo on vacation. I remember it as late enough in the summer evening –it would have been August – that the porch light was on. We stumbled in on an unusual scene in the Harrison house, where few dared to stop by without calling first: a traveling poet had come on pilgrimage to meet Jim, accompanied by his wife, their baby, and a very large dog. I described the scene to the Corbetts. “It was an Irish wolfhound,” I recalled. “I’d never seen such a tall dog in my life, and I’ve never forgotten it.”
The faces of my new acquaintance lit up, and they exclaimed excitedly, “That was him! That’s Red Shuttleworth! He’s always has Irish wolfhounds!”
They wanted to show me a picture of Red, but I shook my head and said I had no memory of what the man looked like. I only remembered the dog.
“I think he was teaching high school English,” I offered, and they nodded. Yes, Red had taught English in high school and community college for years.
What were the odds? The Corbetts had never met Jim Harrison themselves, and I had met Red Shuttleworth only once and remembered only his dog, but because of the dog I remembered the incident, and that connected the Tom and Beverly and me. We were all delighted.
“So you’re a poet, too?” I said to Tom, recalling what he’d said about a book award. No, he was a physician, but he and Beverly had lived for a while on a reservation in New Mexico, and Tom had collaborated on a project that extended over many years with Native American photographer Lee Marmon to produce their prize-winning book, Laguna Pueblo: A Photographic History.
Tom went out to their car and returned with a copy of the beautiful book and inscribed a copy to me. Could I buy it? No, it was a gift. I was overwhelmed.
That meeting was over a week ago, and now I have finished reading the text of Marmon and Corbett’s book and have gazed long and carefully at the photographs, and it’s plain to see why the book received a Western Heritage Award. Besides the photographer's stunning images taken over several decades, there are also historical and family photographs, stories taken from written archival records, and recorded oral histories, all documenting life at Laguna Pueblo and how it has changed over the years but also held onto many important traditional ways.
An additional bonus from my meeting with Tom and Beverly was learning about Lee Marmon’s daughter, Leslie Marmon Silko. Sherman Alexie says of her best-known work:
Ceremony is the greatest novel in Native American literature. It is one of the greatest novels of any time and place. I have read this book so many times that I probably have it memorized. I teach it and I learn from it and I am continually in awe of its power, beauty, rage, vision, and violence.
I’m excited about reading the work of this writer and searching out additional Native American voices in our country’s literature.
All these connections, of course, came about by way of years spent in Leelanau County, besides getting to know people through my bookstore. And really, it was Jim who was the catalyst in bringing the rest of us together now, in 2017, reminding me once again that community is more than people living at the same time in the same place. It is many ties that link us over time and across space, sometimes over great distances and in surprising ways.
Tuesday, October 3, 2017
Given a benevolent fortune that lets us keep them, the older we get, the more memories we have. And so I have to confess to laying up treasures on earth – not gold or gems or even a stock portfolio, but memories of family and friends, attached to particular places on earth. When I hear anyone say, by way of condolence, that the deceased is “in a better place,” I have to make an effort not to shake my head. This imperfect world of ours, with all its often tragic flaws (most of them our own creation, I’d say), still strikes me as infinitely miraculous.
Even if I limit my review of memories to a couple of years in the village of Northport, there is plenty of treasure to gladden my heart – for instance, the little building on the corner of Mill and Nagonaba was the second Northport home of Dog Ears Books. A simple, seasonal abode, it had neither plumbing nor heat. Insulation? Nope. Storm windows? Ha! It did have electricity, however, and I had a phone line put in.
Closer to my heart’s memories was the garden I created there on the corner, first digging out sod and grass and weeds, then installing plants (with a narrow pinestraw path so I could get in to weed and prune and deadhead), and finally commissioning David Chrobak to build a trellis against the side of the building.
The trellis lasted for years, though not forever. My beloved viburnum was not beloved of the most recent occupant, so it was cut down (but I notice it struggles to reassert itself). What I always called my “lipstick” roses -- rescued from a garden whose owner wanted to replace them with hybrid teas – those are still blooming.
One summer on the corner I found myself growing increasingly impatient with the public, and anyone who has worked in retail or waited tables or tended bar will be familiar with the phenomenon I called hitting the wall. I hit the wall hard that summer. The impact itself is not a happy memory. I do, however, feel good about what came next, because I gave myself a stern talking-to. Self, I said, you either need to turn this around or get out of the business! You can’t keep going in this direction. Since then, while I am occasionally annoyed by a prying question or a cheapskate who wants a treasure for nothing, such occasions are relatively rare. More importantly, I have learned in general to enjoy people more and more as time goes by.
Owning a small, independent bookstore in a seasonal town at the end of a peninsula is not the easiest way to make a living. Turns out, though, it’s been a good path to making a satisfying life.