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Saturday, December 30, 2017

A Look Around a Bookstore at Year’s End

Where are we going? Are we crazy to be out here?

Today will be my last day of 2017 in my bookshop. Dog Ears Books will be closed for the winter, as it was three years ago, re-opening sometime in May of the year almost upon us. For three months this winter, the Artist and I will be living in the ghost town cabin we occupied three years ago in southeast Arizona. 

Three years ago I was very insistent that we were not taking a vacation but a sabbatical. This time around, for me, I don’t know what it will be.

I’m reading a recently published novel, originally written in German, translated into English. Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck, is set in what was for much of my lifetime — and the lifetime of the central character, a just-retired professor of philology — East Berlin. Germany has been unified since the Berlin Wall came down, but as this central character makes his way through the streets, through his life, he encounters change everywhere.
Now that the Wall is down, he no longer knows his way around. Now that the Wall is gone, the city is twice as big and has changed so much that he often doesn’t recognize the intersections. Once he’d known all the city’s bombed-out gaps, first with rubble, then without. Later still there might be a sausage stand or Christmas trees for sale, or often nothing at all. But recently all these gaps have been filled with buildings….
He is at loose ends in other ways. His wife having died, he lives alone now, and retirement from university teaching has removed the old, basic structural framework from his life. 
He can’t even comprehend that his departure is just a part of everyday life for all the others—only for him is it an ending. 
What is he to do with himself now? It is his own problem to solve, no one else’s.

Into this empty, unstructured, solitary life comes a new situation. He becomes aware of a group of refugees in Berlin from Nigeria, Ghana, Niger, Sierra Leone, and Burkina Faso, and since his entire scholarly life was organized around projects, he now conceives a research project involving the refugees. He knows next to nothing about the African continent and so begins the new project by reading about the refugees’ countries of origin and about refugees in general. He draws up a list of questions to ask them in conversations he imagines having. Here it seems, at the outset, he is on familiar ground.
Often when he was starting a new project, he didn’t know what was driving him, as if his thoughts had developed an independent life and a will of their own, as if they were merely waiting for him to finally think them, as if an investigation he was about to begin already existed before he had started working on it, and the path leading through everything he knew and saw, everything he encountered and experienced, already lay there waiting for him to venture down it. And probably that’s just how it was, given that you could only ever find what was already there. Because everything is always already there. 
The words “always already” stand out for me, an echo of my graduate school classes — “toujours deja,” the delicious phrase of the French deconstructionists. (And I'm sorry I don't have accent programs on my current word processing program.) Maybe I will think more about that later. For now, staying with the novel, by page 48 (where I find myself in the dark of this December morning, one day from the end of the year) it is clear that the professor’s questions were already his own before he encountered the refugees. 

“What do you do all day long?” he asks. The refugees want to work but have no papers that allow them to be employed in Germany, while the professor’s working life, his professional life, has reached its end. “One day is just the same as another,” one of the refugees tells him. We have already seen, before this encounter, how the professor shops and prepares his little meals, every day the same salad and sandwiches, the same slices of cheese and head of lettuce. The problems of the refugees are certainly more acute than those of the professor. His, after all, essentially come down to what everyone faces in old age, while their cultural and geographic dislocation was sudden and desperate, a flight which many failed to survive at all. Still, there are parallels. All face the question:
When an entire world you don’t know crashes down on you, how do you start sorting it all out?
The retired professor, his days no longer ordered by a schedule, has finally begun to sort through the boxes of books from his former university office and to find room for them on the shelves of his home. He has no children. He imagines a dealer in used books carting away his library after he dies, with all the objects that belonged together in his life being dispersed to new homes and to landfills. Nothing, it seems, will hold them together any longer. While he is still alive, what is to hold his life together?

“What will you do in Arizona?” people ask me. The Artist did very little painting there three years ago but says he intends to work this winter, now that he has the beginnings of familiarity with a landscape so vastly different from that of Michigan. As for myself, three years ago I had a sabbatical project. While still in Michigan, I had begun writing a novel and was eager to concentrate on it for an entire winter. 

There in the ghost town I would wake early, in the dark, and rise to begin my work. It was absorbing and satisfying and made me happy. Our afternoons exploring a new country (it seemed that foreign to me) were also absorbing and satisfying and made me happy. All in all, for me, it was an idyllic time.

This year I lack that sharp, clear focus. Will I work again on the novel? Some other writing project? Get back to drawing? Write regular blog posts on our travels and explorations for friends back in Michigan and elsewhere? Right now I feel at loose ends but look forward, anyway, to being without a schedule. Unstructured time is my friend, not my enemy. It is something I crave as much as I crave adventure, which that first winter in Arizona also gave me.

In part I crave unstructured time because my usual world, my structured world, is altering, is altered, has been altered, in so many ways. Alterity, my old friend Annie’s thesis topic, sometimes feels to me the only continuous thread in life — a paradox, that, in more ways than one. How much weight, I wonder, can be assigned to various possible factors that come together as constraints on one’s life? How much, for example, does a hostile political climate shape day-to-day affect, as opposed to (or does it reinforce?) response to the inevitable losses that come with age? 

Ah, but why go down a sad road this morning? Better to look back on the sunny hours….

The best part of the year coming to a close, for me, was the success of the Artist, my darling, the love of my life. The Artist had a museum show in 2017, every artist’s dream, and he was this very month interviewed and photographed for a major magazine feature to come out in spring of 2018. Perhaps my role for the rest of my life will be what I have called myself in jest for so many years: “handmaiden to the arts.”

In my own chosen line of work, among the many alterations in my world for some time now have been those in the ever-changing bookselling world. Never the same for two years in a row since I got into it in 1993, the world of print books — their publishing, their selling — has been rocked and disrupted and transformed again and again in the course of the last quarter-century. “You can’t compete with Borders, can you?” someone remarked to me in a mournful voice sometime during those twenty-five years, but Borders came and Borders went, and Dog Ears Books has not died yet, despite massive world-wide efforts by the online behemoth to crush the rest of us. So far we have survived. So far the entire world has not come crashing down at once, and what has crashed or crumbled in one corner has been quickly shored up in another, though what the coming year will bring is anyone’s guess.

In September I reached the ten-year mark for this blog, Books in Northport. Time always passes quickly in retrospect. Now today is my last bookstore business day for 2017 is upon me. My intention is to re-open by mid-May and then to celebrate the 25-year anniversary of Dog Ears Books over the course of the summer — another milestone, achieved over much more difficult obstacles than those faced by a blog. If I am able fulfill my intention for a quarter-century anniversary celebration, details will follow as the coming year unfolds. 

This morning my only hope is that as many people as can will come to visit on Waukazoo Street to take advantage of our year-end sale. Parting is such sweet sorrow!

Perhaps part of my ghost town winter will be sorting through the various pieces of my ever-changing world to see how they might fit together into some new and satisfying whole.

And so today I say — 

Happy sorting to you, my friends! May your hopes live on another year, your dreams expand buoyantly, and may you find life absorbing and satisfying in the coming year! May it bring you happiness and peace of mind! If not peaceful contentment, then energy and resolve and passion. Or — maybe all those aspects of being alive, each in turn, one day at a time?

July 1993

Friday, December 22, 2017

Memoirs, False and True

Hanukkah, Solstice, Christmas, New Year — the time of holidays, these various festivals of light, can seem to place upon one a heavy obligation to rejoice. During this particular year’s holiday season, one friend has lost his oldest friend in life, our son-in-law his father and a sister-in-law, and yet another sits day after day by the hospital bedside of his wife, looking for hopeful signs of improvement. 

The holidays can be a difficult time even without Death (or sad reminders of it) at the door. For other people there are other wolves — unemployment, insufficient income, poverty, and all manner of fears for the future, financial and otherwise. The news brings grim stories daily.

I seek refuge in reading. The three books I’ve been reading this week are all written as first-person narratives. Though only one is a memoir, the two novels take on aspects of memoir, and in one the author’s own voice breaks through his tale on more than one occasion. Other people’s lives! How do other people come through difficult patches? One reason for reading memoir, even for reading fiction, is to seek an answer to that question. Recently, for example, I read and reviewed a memoir written by my own cousin (our fathers were brothers), and my sisters and I have not done yet sorting through memories brought to light by that book. But a stranger’s memoir may just as easily strike a reader’s heart.

In one of the later chapters of her memoir, Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home, Jessica Fechtor writes of the time in her recovery from brain aneurysm and subsequent surgeries when she started writing a food blog and happened upon How to Cook a Wolf, by M.F.K. Fisher. 
With the war in full swing, the wolf at the door was hunger, the literal hunger that people faced on a rationed existence, but also the hunger for peace, for simple pleasures, and the authority to determine the nature of one’s own appetite and feed it accordingly. 

Government agencies encouraged the public to think scientifically about how they might cobble together their recommended vitamins and nutrients each day. M.F.K. Fisher urged her readers to take a different approach…. The key, she believed, was approaching the stove with all the powers of one’s mind and one’s heart….

And so, How to Cook a Wolf is a book about cooking with courage and faith. It’s about granting oneself permission to feast, really feast, on whatever scraps you have before you, despite the wolf nearby—in fact, because of him. 
And this is what Jessica Fechtor’s book is about, too. She is a lovely writer, and from the way she explains her recipes it’s clear that she is also a lovely cook. By “lovely” I mean gracious, heartfelt, with a sure, knowledgeable, loving touch. One finishes her book wishing to be part of her life but happy to realize that the author’s life is complete as it is, that the wolf has retreated and that even before his retreat, in the darkest hours love was never absent.

About Where the Sea Used to Be, a novel by Rick Bass, I cannot say as much, as I’m only 68 pages into the 445-page book. The main character appears in the third person, but another character, who has yet to appear directly onstage (though constantly present in the thoughts of the two before us) appears in quoted passages from a journal he wrote years before. We are in a remote valley of Montana, in deepest, coldest winter. Maintaining sanity is as crucial as maintaining physical life. The author has his character, Wallis, dreaming of the earth far below the snow-buried surface, and I am reminded of a nonfiction book by Bass, Oil Notes, one of a handful of books (see here for others) that captures the allure of geology, the romance of rock. 
In Where the Sea Used to Be, Bass gives his own love of geology to his character, Wallis, and seduces a reader into Wallis’s underground dreams, but there is another layer, historical and personal rather than geological and abstract, to my reading of this book, as so many sentences make me think of the late Jim Harrison. How I hope he read this book! (Surely he must have!) I can turn to almost any page and find a passage that puts Jim reading it in my mind. Here, for example, is one:
…It was hard for him to imagine the specific processes that had given rise to those individual cementings below; hard to imagine the specific processes that had held an ancient land in place; but that night, in his dreams, he imagined that perhaps those old lands were held in place by a quietness and enduringness—a smoothness of fit. The way rain falls, the way snow falls. The way birds sleep. The way lichens grow in red and blue mosaics across damp boulders and old stone walls. The way a log rots.  

The slow moths that emerge from the log’s orange rot.

If the wolves howled that night, he didn’t hear them. The snow absorbed everything.
My third book of the week has been Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a book I’ve been avoiding for almost as many years as I avoided Kristin Lavransdatter, and one that, finally immersed in the pages of first the latter and now the former, I am enjoying equally. What a romp! The introduction of the Wordsworth Editions paperback by Cedric Watts is very helpful. Still, it took a while—many pages—for me to enter the book’s spirit, which is the only way to enjoy reading Tristram Shandy.

It occurs to me this morning, having begun M.F.K. Fisher’s wolves at the door, summoned up again by Jessica Fechtor, and having continued through the Montana wolves of Rick Bass, that Sterne gives us a long meal designed to take our minds off life’s metaphorical wolves. The book itself (in its many volumes) is the hobby-horse of the fictional narrator, Tristram, as recreating the siege in which he received his wound is Uncle Toby’s hobby-horse, and Tristram says of his: 
For my hobby-horse, if you recollect a little, is no way a vicious beast; he has scarce one hair or lineament of the ass about him — ’Tis the sporting little filly-folly which carries you out for the present hour — a maggot, a butterfly, a picture, a fiddlestick — an Uncle Toby’s siege — or an anything, which a man makes a shift to get astride on, to canter it away from the cares and solicitudes of life — ’Tis as useful a beast as is in the whole creation — nor do I really see how the world could do without it —

In an earlier passage, Tristram mused on what kind of subjects would suit him, if he were a monarch—and I’ll never find that passage again this morning, but what he wanted was that his subjects would be merry. And so Sterne, as author, and Tristram Shandy, as character-narrator, do all in their power to make readers merry, to carry us on their pages out of the present weary hour and “away from the cares and solicitudes of life.” 

Exchanging our own concerns for those of another when reading a memoir, taking temporary leave of reality altogether to lose ourselves in a novel — I do not see that either form of reading is irresponsible escape. There are lessons to be learned from others’ lives, even from the lives of fictional characters, and laughter does us good, too.

Around our old farmhouse, the howls come from coyotes rather than wolves, actual rather than metaphorical, and to our ears they are the sound of home, but, as Tristram would say, that is another story entirely, and let us not get sidetracked onto that now.

Courage and faith. Imagination. Joy and merriment. Those are my themes today. And I wish you happy reading for the quiet hours of your holiday, and if you have no quiet hours, I wish you joy of merry noise! 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Timely Holiday Message to All Americans

Are the geese getting fat? What’s sauce for the goose, ’tis said, is sauce for the gander, as well, and therefore every transgender bird too must get happily sauced, to be able to stomach the holiday table in our nation’s capital. If, that is, we would stick — like cliched glue, like old-fashioned loyalty, like clear-sighted honesty — to science-based evidence rather than falling back (with suicidal determination) on ignorance and superstition, falling backward like fetuses returning to the womb and from thence (in at least a few wild-eyed theories), orbiting back to the beginning of Time, as Time runs backward, and falling at last down a dense black hole, an educated populace scurrying (like a thunder of terrified rabbits) for cover, fleeing the hare-brained politicos determined to stop their mouths and paralyze their brains. 

A pox on morons and idiots! Yes, I call them out! ’Tis mincemeat they make of our merry holiday season, the scoundrels! And so ’tis mincemeat I make of a handful of figures of speech, mixing geese and rabbits and black holes, for who can do less (or more) when threatened with the loss of clear language? 

“Use your words,” parents say to their little children, encouraging direct and clear communication. In the current harsh political climate, we adults must say it to one another, every day, encouraging each other and reinforcing courage in ourselves. Courage and encourage. That is to say, take and give heart. 

Keep calm, carry on -- but keep using your words, too! Perhaps a sign on the bathroom mirror, to read as you brush your teeth each morning:


And do not let your joy be stolen any more than you would let anyone steal your words. Keep the faith! Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

To Replace or Re-Invent Myself, That Is the Question

We were all younger once.

One day this past September I received an unsolicited e-mail offer that I read with very mixed feelings. I’ll quote the bulk of it here verbatim (omitting the company name and link at the end but including a few editorial comments) so you can see what I mean:

Pamela - If you’re not 100% happy with your blog, you may want to consider trying a new writer!  

The key is to find a great writer that [sic] also has a deep understanding of your industry [!]

The problem is, finding these writers [now we are looking for more than one?] can be a real challenge. 

To solve this problem, we use our award-winning _____ platform [I omit the name here, as it is no doubt trademarked) to search over 70,000 pro [sic] writers to find a handful of writers that [sic] we think will be a good match for your specific needs. Then, we have each writer write you [awk] the same sample article (title of your choosing). 

This makes it super easy [ugh!] for you to see which writer you like the best.

If this sounds like something you might be interested in, just click below to schedule a time so we can talk.

Interesting, eh? Here’s some of what raced through my brain in response: 

Why would I not be happy with my blog? Should I be unhappy with it? Is the sender implying that the writing is substandard? There are certainly writers in the world more talented than I am, but I doubt they want to work for me without compensation! Because I can’t afford to pay a writer to write for me, and I can’t afford to hire a company to find a writer to write for me!

And let me just say that I am repelled by the term “industry” applied to the world of books! Anyone who (who, not that) would apply the term “industry” to the world of writers and publishers and booksellers would probably also refer to the books in my store as “product.” 

Finally, who among these 70,000 “pro” writers for hire knows my life and the books I read and stock and my bookstore better than I do? My blog is not about some abstract “industry,” but about my very personal world!

Lest you think, however, that I was sputtering in outrage over this e-mail, I assure you I was more amused than offended. Did a “pro” writer compose the e-mail? My inner editor (who always slumbers lightly with one eye open) would have taken “that” out of “writers that we think would be a good match” and maybe moved “that” up to the previous one-sentence paragraph, using it place of the awkward comma, and that “super easy” claim did not impress me, either. Overall, I found the entire message uninspired and uninspiring.

Okay, I understand it was a sales pitch. But the message I received (besides envisioning a writer reaching way over her head) was that the sender had not spent any time at all reading my blog before trying to sell me her (I’ll use the detested word here) product. Know thyself and know thy market!

On the other hand, I’m sympathetic, I really am. It’s a dog-eat-dog world [No offense, Sarah!], and everyone is seeking an audience, making a pitch, feeling around for a footing and a handhold — in short, trying to survive. And I’m no different. I’m just (and this is probably my Achilles heel rather than any excellence of character) not single-minded about it. My little stories and snippets, travelogues, tirades, and vignettes are all offered at the same price I am paid to write them, and if they help my Dog Ears Books business in any way, so much the better. If not, I’ve had the pleasure of the writing and the occasional pleasure of a kind and/or thoughtful word in response.

Self-invention and self-promotion are touted as what we should all be about these days, and as wages race to an ever-lower and lower global “bottom” (for those jobs not yet lost to drones and robots), there are more and more people of all ages trying to figure out their next moves. I give a lot of thought to the question myself. What next? What if I’ve nearly run out my string with this bookselling gig? 

One thing is sure. I won’t be hiring anyone else to do my writing for me. So if you’re not satisfied with what you find on Books in Northport, you'll have to look elsewhere. At least you’ll have no trouble finding (here comes another buzz word I despise) “content” all over the place. It’s a big, wide, wonderful world out there, and, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s overflowing with words.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Old Book, New Questions

Did my mother’s high school class not have a yearbook, or could family simply not afford to buy a yearbook for her? These are questions I need to ask soon (my mother is 95), and they arise from the endpapers of what appears to be a surviving textbook from her senior year. “This book belongs to Joan Bryant,” is written at the top of the front-facing endpaper, with Joan’s address underneath, but then beneath the address is the inscription “To Nora from Joan. 12-24-’39.” 

Christmas Eve, that was. A Christmas present? All over the endpapers then are signatures of 11 other classmates from the class of 1940. Perhaps Essays Then and Now was never a school textbook? Or was it a text from the first semester of that senior year, one Joan’s parents purchased for her and that she passed along to Nora, my mother?

I took the book down from its place on the shelf one morning this December and turned to an essay by Washington Irving (1783-1859) called “Christmas Eve.” It seemed fitting both to the season and to the book’s inscription, and perhaps it would help me get into the spirit of the season.
It was a brilliant moonlight night, but extremely cold; our chaise whirled rapidly over the frozen ground; the postboy smacked his whip incessantly, and a part of the time his horses were on a gallop.
Irving was going to spend the holiday with an English friend whose father ran his inherited country estate according to the mores of two centuries earlier. 
“My father … used to direct and superintend our games with the strictness that some parents do the studies of their children. He was very particular that we should play the old English games according to their original form; and consulted old books for precedent and authority for every ‘merrie disport’; yet I assure you there never was pedantry so delightful.”
The two young men descend from their conveyance and proceed on foot through the park to the hall, 
…through a noble avenue of trees, among the naked branches of which the moon glittered as she rolled through the deep vault of a cloudless sky….
to arrive at the “old family mansion,” where they find the friend’s relatives of every age assembled and an enormous “Yule clog” ablaze in the fireplace. A festive dinner is followed by music and dancing until the company retires for the evening, while the separate party in the servants’ hall continues later into the night.

What did my mother make of this story when she was a girl of seventeen? There’s another question to put to her at the next opportunity. The daughter of an Irish immigrant father she never knew, she and her mother and stepfather and half-brother and -sister scraped through the Depression years. No landed country estate with servants for her family, and yet I remember my hardworking grandparents as affectionate and cheerful. The rundown dirt road neighborhood where they lived and where I visited as a child, a neighborhood of too many children and not enough money, where no one had indoor plumbing and few of the children had shoes, felt like the heaven of freedom to me.

It’s lovely to me that horses provided motive power in Washington Irving’s day. I’d have liked that. But in my grandparents’ neighborhood too the occasional horse or pony or mule could be found, and there were plenty of trees to climb and chickens to feed and eggs to gather and berries to pick. Barefoot from morning to night, I played with neighbor children, helped with chores, and delighted in being close to my grandmother, “Gram” to me, “Mums” to my mother.

No, if offered the choice, to travel back in time either with Washington Irving or to visit my grandmother again, I would not hesitate. No English manor house for me. I’d rather be the barefoot girl again.

*. *. *. *. *

Postscript, same day: I just had word that my Aunt Diane, widow of my mother's brother, died yesterday, leaving my mother now the oldest family member of her generation on both sides, siblings and in-laws. I'll need to call her with my questions tonight and also to share memories of my dear aunt and uncle.

Post-Postscript Dec. 12: Well, here is the scoop. My mother says she has a high school yearbook (Why don’t I remember ever seeing it? Have I seen it and forgotten?) She didn’t remember the book but said, when I described it, that it sounded like a textbook. She recognized many of the names as being those of students with whom she graduated (hers was a class of 416) but said that Joan graduated mid-year. “So maybe that’s why she gave me the book – because she was done with it and I would be needing it.” And now you can bet that when I’m at my mother’s house toward the end of January, I’ll be wanting to see her high school yearbook!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Difficult Family Matters

The book I want to highlight for your consideration today was written by a woman close to my own age. She is, unlike me, an avowed and devoted Christian with an intense focus on the Gospels. She is a college-educated wife, mother, and grandmother, deeply appreciative of her life on this earth but with heaven never far from her mind. She also practices yoga and does volunteer work (not proselytizing) with young people caught up in the life of street prostitution in Seattle. Her husband was always the gregarious half of the couple, and for years she felt invisible beside him. As it turned out, though, she discovered that her journey to visibility had more to do with freeing herself from her own demons than with quieting or competing with her more vocal, outgoing spouse. 

The book is Hidden in Plain Sight: One Woman’s Search for Identity, Intimacy and Calling, by Becky Allender, and from the title you might suspect that you have read this book before, in numerous other versions, by various American writers, male and female, but I think you will be surprised. I know I was.

It was a picture-perfect, materially comfortable existence from the outside — the side people saw — but that smooth surface hid a surprising degree of pain: the legacy of a cold, unloving mother; an unpredictable, bipolar father; and a startling rape during her undergraduate college years. Even within a mostly fulfilling marriage there was the pain, physical and emotional, of three miscarriages basically suffered alone and silently — because Becky had learned as a child not to ask for attention but to keep quiet, lest others become upset and angry with her.

Becky’s book is not about religion, per se: it is about her life in all its myriad aspects, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Her religion is clearly very important to her, even central to the woman she has become, but don’t look for preaching in these pages. Hidden in Plain Sight is, basically, the kind of full and honest account that Becky would have loved to have had of her own parents’ lives, in order to understand them better — and love them better — while they were alive. 

Since we all have parents, and since no one goes through life without accumulating scars, I think that whether or not you belong to a faith community or engage in anything that could be called spiritual practice, you will find Becky Allender’s story engrossing and compelling, and you will be — yes, inspired by her search for understanding and forgiveness, as well as by her dedication to going beyond her comfort zone for strangers. 

This is a beautiful, professional, and very moving work. If you happen to be, as is the author, a practicing Christian, your experience of the book will have added depth as you work through the questions and suggested writing exercises included at the end of each chapter. The layout and organization are very reader-friendly, and the frankness of the story is matched by the quality of the writing and presentation. 

Full disclosure: Hidden in Plain Sight would most likely never have come to my attention at all, except that Becky Allender is my first cousin. Our fathers were brothers, and we were thrown together from time to time when my parents and sisters and I made the summer trek back to Ohio to visit extended family. We cousins lived two states apart when growing up, however, and I left my family home for good at age 18, so we cousins never knew really each other well, even as children, and as adults we have had (up until now) almost no contact whatsoever. I owe my reading of cousin Becky’s book to my sister Deborah.

Twenty and thirty years ago, everyone was writing screenplays, and now it seems everyone is writing books, whether novels or memoirs. That being the case, one cannot help approaching cautiously a book by a friend or relative! But my cousin Becky Allender has written a beautiful book, and I am proud to be able to recommend it without hesitation. Because the Artist picked it up and began reading and I had to demand its return so I could finish it first, I know that men as well as women can find themselves caught up in this very frank and well-written account of one woman’s continuing struggles and joys. 

Yes, “continuing” — because we are all “works in progress,” for as long as we live, aren’t we? And I especially love what Becky says near the end of her book, after sharing an anecdote about one of her granddaughters. Echoing the little girl, the 65-year-old writer declares, “I am not finished!” — and how glad I am that she is not! 

Perhaps Becky and her sister and my sisters and I can have a girl cousins reunion one of these years soon and finally get to know each other. That would mean a lot to me.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Falling in Love Again

A man married to a reader must learn to tolerate other men in his wife’s life, so when I told the Artist I was in love with Adam Gopnik, he took it pretty well. It was Gopnik’s dispatches from Paris in the New Yorker that first brought his name to my attention (and let me just say, as a word of explanation, that fashion is no part of my life, dream or reality, so when I found myself reading every word of an article on the Paris fashion shows and looked to see who had written a such compelling story, I never forgot the name), but it was “Man Goes to See a Doctor,” a piece I read in bed in the middle of the night after the Artist had fallen asleep, that I recall as my first unforgettable Gopnik story. So as not to wake the Artist, I tried very hard not to laugh out loud. The bed, however, shook violently with my silent mirth. Gopnik tells his analyst he is suffering from writer’s block. The analyst tells him that no one cares. I was in hysterics. You just have to read it!

Does anyone else remember when the New Yorker went from having no table of contents to having one for the first time? I do, because Adam Gopnik was writing regular features right about then, and while I had been content for many, many years with the magazine as it had always been, once the table of contents was added I opened each new issue to that page, looking for Gopnik’s name. If it was there, I looked for the page number of his piece and went there next.

Then came the books. I had read each dispatch from Paris hungrily as it initially appeared, feeding my own desire for the City of Light, and then all those wonderful episodes in the Gopnik family’s Paris life were collected into a book. A book! What a gift! Other books followed, including Through the Children’s Gate (which included my beloved “Man Goes to See a Doctor”).

Now there is another New York memoir, At the Stranger’s Gate: Arrivals in New York, telling of Adam and Martha Gopnik’s first years in Manhattan in the 1980s, a decade for which Gopnik is already nostalgic. Well, who wouldn’t be in his place? Preparing French dinners in a tiny, one-room basement flat (cockroaches looking on), being taken under the wing of Richard Avedon, moving to a flat in (as it was then known) SoHo — if New York rather than Paris is your dream city, this book is for you. If Paris is your dream city (as it is mine) but you are a writer in your dream life, this is also the book for you. But really, it could be the book for you in so many ways and for so many reasons that it would be silly of me to go on in this vein. Instead I will give a sampling from a few representative pages, and I can vouch for their being representative because anything Adam Gopnik writes is pure Adam Gopnik.

Okay, he lands “a job, sort of,” giving lectures to visitors at the Museum of Modern Art. He had no stage fright, and here is his explanation:
The person who isn’t afraid of public speaking hasn’t overcome his fear of being ridiculed. He just likes being heard so much that he doesn’t notice how ridiculous he is. 

Explaining his reluctance (which clearly he overcame) for writing about his mentor Richard Avedon, he admits he still feels a twinge of regret:
To remember is to keep alive, they say piously. But to remember is actually to entomb, to inter emotion, at least a little. At least, I have never committed a vital memory, a moment of bliss or confusion, to paper or pixels without seeing it dim a little in my own recall, even to evaporate entirely. The living emotion seeps into the page, where it fossilizes.

And here is a lovely analogy, which I will put down without its context (so you will just have to read the book for the figurative meaning), because it is a perfect little parable just as these three sentences stand:
The moon tugs on the waters, and the little boats struggle with the tides even as they admire the shining silver object above their heads. If they knew that the moon made the tides, the boats would be angry at the moon. But they blame the water, or each other, and the moon shines on. 

Finally, one last quotation, this one for my writer and artist friends and readers:
The voice we search for is the voice we have, but cannot hear for all those other voices in our heads.

How about it? Are you ready to fall in love with this writer? I promise not to be jealous.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Where Does It Come From, and Where Does It Go?

Money, money, money! Wouldn’t it be great not to have to think about it? Well, we’re all thinking about it these days, as Congress flounders around in the dark on what promises to be the worst tax bill ever fobbed off on the American people, but even in sunnier times most of us are curious about other people’s financial situations. So here is my basic story.

My income derives from the sale of books old and new. In the past I’ve worked a variety of additional part-time jobs, from teaching and tutoring and freelance editing to picking apples and doing garden maintenance, but more recently I have focused exclusively on my retail business. And it is a business, not a hobby. I don’t have a trust fund or a pension from some earlier career, and if I didn’t need the income, I would stay home and garden and write and raise chickens and feeder calves.

As to where the money goes, that’s simple, too. Monthly business expenses get paid and groceries bought before money goes anywhere else, and then the Artist and I have all the usual expenses of any other household, with the exception of frills like television (we watch DVDs and listen to radio and, of course, read!), air conditioning (we have window screens), and dishwasher (washing dishes is my kitchen meditation time). If we stay home all winter, there is fuel oil and plowing the driveway to pay for; if we go elsewhere, there are frugal travel costs. 

Still, charitable giving is something I take seriously. It’s on my mind now because Facebook reminded everyone this week about “Giving Tuesday” (I give in my own way and in my own time) and because December is when I make my largest annual donations. 

I’ve made adjustments to priorities in recent years, but, as it stands now, the five organizations to which I contribute on an annual basis are the ACLU; Save the Children; the Carter Center; Foods Resource Bank; and the Southern Poverty Law Center. I started years back with the first two and added the third, fourth, and fifth more recently (and in that order). FRB and Save the Children do primarily community work (FRB focused on food security), both in the U.S. and overseas; the Carter Center focuses on do-able health projects in Africa; and ACLU and SPLC are concerned with justice and freedom here in our own country. Healthy, food-secure, and just communities are the goals I have chosen to support.

Leelanau County hosts many worthy organizations — charitable, cultural, environmental — but what I’ve finally come around to with those here at home is that, instead of sending a set amount to the same few every year and ignoring the rest, I give to whichever groups people have chosen for memorial gifts, whenever appropriate. One person’s obituary might list the Leelanau Children’s Choir and Saving Birds Through Habitat. Another might name a church or the League of Women Voters or the Leelanau Foundation. Whatever their priorities, when I send a check with a sympathy card, I honor those wishes and in that way give locally.

The Artist and I take a standard deduction (we have thus far been fortunate in not having sufficient medical expenses to make itemizing advantageous), so our income tax situation is not benefited by donations to charities and other nonprofits. Giving is simply what I decided long ago that I wanted to do, and it is my good fortune that I am able, thanks to my bookstore customers, local and visiting, who buy books on Waukazoo Street in Northport. 

So thank you for your support of Dog Ears Books, and please know that your support goes further than you may have realized. You are not only keeping a little bookstore alive in Northport but helping strangers, in very important ways, far from northern Michigan. It all adds up.

For details and to see if you want to contribute to any of the organizations I support, please follow the links up in the fifth paragraph of this post. And thanks again! Being in a position to give is one of the gifts I have received over and over again along the path of my life, and I am grateful.