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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

I Couldn’t Slow Down With Emily, After All

What I plan to wear on Thursday evening
Summer kicked into high gear early this year, it seems. No sooner did our little reading circle, a.k.a. (originally, years ago) the intrepid Ulysses reading group, choose a date to discuss the poetry of Emily Dickinson than the first member’s conflict arose, to be followed by another, and another, and another…. So while I didn’t have a specific conflict, we were so far from a quorum already that I didn’t feel terrible saying I could ill afford a social evening.

I’m hoping Thursday evening will be cool enough for me to wear my old, worn, thrift shop quilted jacket (see above), the one that looks like someone’s great-grandmother made it (as is probably the case). It is the perfect attire in which to meet Rachel May, author of An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery, and introducing her to my Northport audience. The date is propitious, too, only two days after Juneteenth, the date commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation. And on that subject, let me say that I am concerned with proposed changes to school social studies standards for the State of Michigan.  
Sadly, this year Juneteenth (June 19), as well as my guest author’s appearance (June 21), come at a time when another group is suffering within our borders. As punishment for their attempt to enter the country — even those seeking asylum — parents have had their children taken from them, and children have been put in detention camps. True, this is not an entirely new development, but it seems to be worsening daily. And is it relevant that these camps are run by private companies, profiting from the misery of brown-skinned children? Is anyone else reminded of parents and children of enslaved Black people being separated? Of Native American children being forcibly removed from their families and put in residential schools?

First TEA guest in our summer series
But Rachel May’s story is not one of unrelieved misery. Some of the people whose history she uncovers were able to make the transition to freedom. She is also, besides being a researcher, teacher, and writer, a devoted quilter, as well, and I know she will be happy to talk about her quilting life, what she has learned about quilts and outstanding American quilters, and how her approach to the craft has changed over time. So, crafters and historians and anyone eager to learn, welcome to our first Thursday Evening Author event. We'll begin at 7 p.m., and I hope you’ll be able to join us. 
Random image unrelated to post

Friday, June 15, 2018

Old Dog … New Trick … Hmmmmm

The first Dog Ears dog, 1993-2007

We learned years ago in our household that an old dog is perfectly capable of learning a new trick. Our old dog, Nikki, was not the sharpest tool in the box. No matter. She was a stunning athlete, and she needed me. Then late in life, after many years with us, she accidentally pawed her water dish and flipped it over and was rewarded with having it immediately filled. Imagine our surprise when she took that lesson to heart and began to “flip her dish” whenever it was empty and she wanted to let us know it needed filling. "She flipped her dish! She figured something out!"

Another trick she learned even later was how to open a door. For years, even when a door was ajar, unless it was open wide enough to permit her passage, that dog would simply stand there, patiently, nose pointing in the direction she wanted to go, waiting for someone to push the door open for her. Then one day -- probably accidentally -- she pushed it herself. Hey, it worked! Success went to her head, and she pushed doors open many times in her remaining years. She even, to her dog dad’s dismay, learned to scratch at a door to request admittance. It was to my dismay that one oft-scratched door received a new coat of paint after my sweet girl was gone. 

Nikki and dog mom at Good Harbor, years ago
But this post isn’t really about dogs. It’s about me and my bookselling life. Twenty-five years in the trade, and I’ve never taken credit cards, but today I made my first credit card sale. Sigh! To say I was reluctant would be an understatement. To say I was apprehensive, again, would hardly cover the territory. But today I processed a sale with a credit card. 

So the old dog has learned a new trick. She has been dragged, at last, kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. I’m not done with learning yet.

Me with Dog Ears dog 2, the beautiful Sarah

Monday, June 11, 2018

Seizing the Carp

Summer is a challenge for me, for us, every year. What is more lovely than a day in June — and how often does the grass in June need mowing! Home, yard, and bookstore:  each could use full-time attention and care. But even if I were three people for those jobs, there is no point in living somewhere beautiful and not taking time to soak in its beauty, no point in living surrounded by books and not taking time to read. 

The Artist shares some of my challenges and has a few others of his own. Sarah is neither job or diversion. She is simply Constant Companion, an integral part of our lives, always there, making few demands, providing endless comfort to us both.

Oh, loveliness of dog and books! We humans in the house, even when worn out by long days of work, sometimes find it difficult to sleep, minds chewing over tasks still undone. That’s when I get out of bed and into a book, escaping into someone else's world for a while. And so, overwhelmed recently (can one be “somewhat overwhelmed,” or is that an oxymoron?) by the rising tide of summer’s demands, I turned once again to Ellen Airgood’s South of Superior, reading it through for the fifth time. It’s good to visit that little Upper Peninsula town and spend time with my old friends there as they deal with the challenges in their lives — although these days I identify as much or more with old Gladys than with 35-year-old Madeline! 

No, I’m nowhere near Gladys’s age yet (85) but edging closer to her as the distance increases between me and thirty-five, Gladys and Madeline always 85 and 35, while I continue to age. But fictional Madeline has her challenges, and Gladys has hers, and so do Paul and Randi and little Greyson and everyone else in McAllaster, Michigan, on the shore of Lake Superior. By the time I reach the last page, most of the various characters have come to some kind of peace, but those who have learned the deeper lessons have also the sure knowledge that their peacefulness and ease is only a temporary resting place. More troubles will come and will have to be faced. More joys will also come. Life, that is, will continue to be interesting, always. Contented in a moment of ice-fishing, Madeline’s eyes on the dipping, quivering bobber, she “watched in anticipation for what would happen next.”

And that’s it. Moments of peacefulness. Summer or winter, spring or fall, out on the ice waiting for fish to bite or hanging laundry on the line in bright sunshine or walking in the northern woods or southwestern desert with a dog or sitting outdoors with friends at the end of a long, beautiful day. Carpe diem! Or, as we used to say in Leland (and as other people down the road there doubtless still say), “Seize the carp!”

When I woke at 3 a.m. the following night, I took Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe as my companion. In The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, Mma Ramotswe takes a holiday from work and at first, finding herself at loose ends, she begins to speculate about how a black mamba snake might get into her kitchen and where it might hide.
She replaced the egg and gazed at the food cupboard, trying to remember when it was that she had last tidied it. Never, she thought, I have never tidied the food cupboard. The thought made her smile. How many women were there in Botswana walking about with the guilty knowledge that they had never tidied the food cupboard?
In my case, “never” would be an exaggeration, but “not for quite a while” would not. Should that task be undertaken today? Sigh! Must I?

Mma Ramotswe tidies her cupboard and then decides to meet friends for tea. That occasion is not a great success (too much gossip), but in the hotel parking lot, she encounters a small boy in need of rescue, a young boy living in the backyard of a woman who drinks and beats him and steals the coins he brings home from “watching” people’s cars for them in the parking lot. Such a person must not be allowed to victimize the boy further, and Mma Ramotswe is soon on her trail. The bad woman’s house, Mma Ramotswe discovers, was not well maintained, and 
…the yard was ill kempt, which spoke volumes, as it always did. If you did not keep your yard in reasonable order, then your whole life would be similarly untidy. A messy yard told Mama Ramotswe everything she needed to know about its owner.
One or two piles of cut and stacked invasive

Instantly I feel better! While Bruce was at the bookstore on Friday and I could have been tidying my cupboards (or cleaning out closets or scrubbing floors or washing windows), instead I had been out in the meadow, waging my annual war on autumn olive. I’ll never eradicate it — it is taking over the entire neighborhood, any and all bits of land that are not regularly tilled or mowed — but holding it at bay for as long as I’m here is important to me, and looking out now at the expanse cleared of its unwelcome presence gives me great satisfaction. The job isn’t finished, but another day or two should take care of it until next spring. 

I avoided another opportunity for housework by watering my straw bale garden and weeding and mowing grass in our outdoor dining area and around the straw bales. Our yard is not messy! Well, it has its cluttered corners (mostly in and around the old, dilapidated barns), but the general appearance is neat and welcoming and colorful with pots of flowers, and I would not be ashamed to have Mma Ramotswe drop by. I think she would focus on the bright, well-tended areas and understand that one woman — even one man and one woman, at our ages — cannot do everything we once did.

After rescuing the little boy and installing him in a safer, more congenial living arrangement at her friend Mma Potokwane’s Orphan Farm, Mma Ramotswe sings aloud as she drives her tiny white van back to town. She has met a challenge, it’s a beautiful day, and no matter if people in other cars think she is a lunatic, Mma Ramotswe is happy, and she will sing!
It was not a big change in the overall scale of things; it was not something that would be noted by more than a handful of people — at the most — but it was something to be pleased with, even to sing about.
I was happy to have the rest of the book to look forward to later, after morning housework and time spent with friends in the afternoon and before a full day of errands in town on Monday. 

Sometimes making a “mistake” means a day turns out better. I distinctly heard Sarah Shoemaker say that her letter to the New York Times Book Review would appear in the June 17 issue, so why did I rush down to Lake Leelanau as soon as NJ’s opened on Sunday morning, expecting to read Sarah’s letter on June 10? Well, am I glad for having jumped the gun in this case, for the sake of the book review section, because under the headline “Underrated and Unappreciated” was a review of a new book about President Jimmy Carter, a book the reviewer calls “a measured and compelling account,” one that considers Carter’s weaknesses along with his strengths. 

The author of President Carter: The White House Years, Stuart Eizenstat, and the book reviewer, Peter Baker, both seem to share my own view, which is that Jimmy Carter’s presidency has never been properly evaluated. Instead, policies that might very well have led us to a much better world than we find ourselves occupying today were largely undercut by the tone of his message. President Carter’s unflinching honesty compelled him to deliver bad news, hoping America would see its errors and change its ways, but it was the stick, not the carrot, a call to sacrifice, not “You can do it!” optimism. And so, while almost everyone admires him for his post-presidential work, his accomplishments in the White House are generally forgotten. Now comes President Carter: The White House Years from St. Martin’s Press to correct the national memory. It’s about time.

When President Carter’s energy report came out in the 1970s, I was working in a university office concerned with environmental issues and so had a chance to leaf through that weighty tome in our office library. Before that, while I’d voted for him, I hadn’t been excited by Carter’s presidency. That energy report changed my attitude. I was excited by his ideas for energy independence, even if it meant higher gas and oil prices during a transition, and I began paying closer attention to everything he said and did. When he arranged a Middle East Peace Conference at Camp David, I hoped to see conflict permanently resolved in Israel. In general, I noticed with nothing short of amazement that when President Carter gave a press conference, he actually tried to answer the questions asked rather than wiggle out of answering! Incredible!

Despite the unsettled weather an east wind always brings, Sunday was a lovely day. It brought work, and it brought friends. And at day’s end, tired and happy, I took up again The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine
Normally Mma Ramotswe would be up first and make tea for her still somnolent husband. This she would place on the dresser at the side of the bed before going out into the garden to inspect the plants, savour the crisp morning air, and watch the sun float up over the horizon.
In our house, it is coffee rather than tea in the morning, and Mma Ramotswe has no dog, but otherwise the morning routine in the novel pretty closely mirrors my own. (See above.) Another morning, another day. But first, the restfulness of a sweet, green June evening.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018


Fresh ARC in hand from a writer whose work I have long admired -- always exciting! 

Valerie Trueblood’s new collection, to be released on August 7 of this year, will be a joy to those encountering her work for the first time, as well as to her long-time admirers. To call the book a “joy,” however, is in no way to suggest escapist fiction. Far from it. New stories in the Terrarium section, like those from earlier collections and from her novel, Seven Loves, run the gamut in tone from quixotic to grim, but all are realistic and compelling. This writer’s characters are real people — dreaming, trying, stumbling, falling, and going on as long as they can.

In any collection, it’s difficult not to have favorites, and the story that hit me hardest in this new group was “Crisco.” In only four pages, the author weaves different strands together — the global world of spies and other news, a local high school basketball star, a young reporter, a beautiful killer horse, a baby given up for adoption, losses inflicted by a distant war —  to form a complete world. 
“She did talk about her work,” Madeline told me when I asked. “Who, what, when, where why.” Was that all? “Well, she said you have to do that in her job. Know what the story is. She said that to John when he was shy.” But how, that was my question, how do you know what the story is? And if you do, how do you pull it, like a Slinky in the toy bin, out of the mass of everything else?
The quote above comes from the middle of the story (nearly its geographical center), and the question recurs in the final paragraph, where the narrator suggests possible answers to “What is the story?” That list of possibilities was nearly enough to break this reader’s heart! As always with Trueblood’s writing, however, all remains simplicity, even the all-too-human confusion brought to the question — and this is a paradox, friends, not a contradiction. Again, realistic.

As a terrarium is a small, enclosed world, a miniature portion of earth, just so do many of the Terrarium stories show the author experimenting with more condensed pieces than appeared in her earlier short story collections, Search Party; Marry or Burn, and Criminals: Love Stories. One of the stories in the volume Criminals, “Sleepover,” almost feels like novella, whereas “Harvest,” in the new book, is a single paragraph, and neither, of course, is wrong. A story (like a poem) should be as long as it needs to be and no longer. It is Trueblood’s gift to have such an unerring feel for what is necessary and to pare away the rest.

I’ve been thinking once again in general about short stories, a recurrent subject of my bookseller musings, and it strikes me that the readers who most appreciate the form are other writers. Whether their own work is fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, long or short forms, writers are more aware than any other readers of the level of craft that short fiction (like poetry) demands. A novel may wander or digress, without injury, but the writer of short stories must deny herself that self-indulgent luxury. In a short story, every word has to count.

And here’s something else I noticed in the Terrarium stories. While not every question is answered and many puzzles are left unresolved, at any particular story’s last line I never had the feeling of having been pushed out of a speeding car and left on the side of the highway. I felt satisfied. Not necessarily in every case optimistic or relieved but always, in a literary sense, satisfied

Shall I add that dogs figure into many of the stories? Is that an extraneous, irrelevant detail? I have nothing like Valerie’s gift for writing, but her stories are gifts to all readers.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Piecing Together the Past

After a week of balmy summer, Nature today has carried us back to spring with a second wet morning in a row, this one cool enough for a jacket, though sweater and raincoat may be more appropriate. Yes, rain. Rain means a break from mowing grass — and also encourages the grass to grow all the more lushly. Everything is a double-edged sword.

Yesterday morning I came to the last page of Rachel May’s An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery, and today I feel challenged to get across to male readers, many of whom will have little or no interest in domestic arts (am I stereotyping?), that this is not just a “book about quilts.” It is much more. Though there is plenty of information about quilts and several other examples of quilts made in the early years of the Republic, for author May the 200-year-old quilt tops encountered in the book’s pages are pieces of material culture that first open the door to decades of American history in which she will subsequently immerse herself and her readers. What May pieces together in her book are lives

But here I want to go in another direction for a while, because May will be the best narrator of her own story and I don’t want to pre-empt anyone’s reading and listening of that. Also, my digression has a definite purpose, connected to May's book, so once again I ask you go come with me on a little detour.

Old books. Some people have no use for them, especially old history books, but for me the age of a book, the era in which it was written, is never a reason to pass by without opening the pages. “Outdated” is not a term I usually  recognize. Many of today’s perspectives will surely be discarded in the future, so why should we necessarily valorize them over other views, merely because they are current? For me, the calendar cannot be a yardstick for value. And just as some past views require correction in the present and will require additional correction in the future, surely other perspectives of the past may be resuscitated and one day seen as superior to what is commonly believed today. It has happened before, and it will happen again. 

The “old” book I picked up yesterday afternoon — actually, I initially picked it up months ago and have had it tucked away in the car for an occasion that finally arrived yesterday, an hour when I would be waiting in the car for the Artist and would need something to read — is a book of essays on the philosophy of history, essays gathered together and published in 1959. It is The Philosophy of History in Our Time: An Anthology, selected and edited by Hans Meyerhoff, and in the parking lot of the Suttons Bay library as afternoon segued into evening I had the opportunity to dip into the first essay in the collection to catch my eye, “The Historical Imagination,” by R. G. Collingwood. 

Revisionist history. There is another phrase used as one of depreciation and often uttered with a sneer. The common connotation, nurtured by many who consider themselves lovers — even practitioners — of history, is that to revise history is to falsify it. And of course intentional falsifications have occurred from time to time. But not every revision is a distortion. I would venture to say that most revisions are corrections and clarifications rather than distortions, and here Collingwood comes to my aid, as well as serving to bolster the work of Rachel May, which is the reason for my digression today. 

Collingwood begins by setting forth what he believes is most people’s first “commonsense” theory of history, in which the essential features are memory and authority. According to this view, an authority is someone with memory of an event, and subsequent historians remain true insofar as they rely on facts set forth by authorities. Collingwood challenges this view and insists on the historian’s autonomy, that he or she (for Collingwood, always “he,” but no matter) must always be his or her own authority. 
As natural science finds its proper method when the scientist, in Bacon’s metaphor, puts Nature to the question, tortures her by experiment in order to wring from her answers to his own questions, so history finds its proper method when the historical puts his authorities in the witness-box, and by cross-questioning extorts from them information which in their original statements they have withheld, either because they did not wish to give it or because they did not possess it. 
So much for authority, although I am not giving you every step or every example in Collingwood’s refutation. What about memory? Will that not be essential?
And as history does not depend on authority, so it does not depend upon memory. The historian can rediscover what has been completely forgotten. … He can even discover what, until he discovered it, no one ever knew to have happened at all. 
What, though, about facts? The question of facts, which seemed more or less settled to the commonsense imagination, has once again become contentious, and Collingwood insists that for the historian facts about the past are always contentious, that there are no “bare facts” that can serve as fixed points on which to pin a complete history. No authorities, no fixed points, no data. 

Another philosopher of history in the same old book, Carl Becker, addresses himself to the question of historical facts and takes as his example that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. What of it? he asks. Many people have crossed rivers, many even have undoubtedly crossed the Rubicon, and certainly in saying “Caesar” crossed it we mean that he did so with an army, and when we look at this “simple fact” closely, we see that thousands of other facts must have gone into it and have been left out of the story. Historians are always selecting and omitting.

Back to Collingwood:
All that the historian means, when he describes certain historical facts as his data, is that for the purposes of a particular piece of work there are certain historical problems relevant to that work which for the present he proposes to treat as settled; though, if they are settled, it is only because historical thinking has settled them in the past, and they remain settled only until he or some one else decides to reopen them. 
In the end, Collingwood comes to a coherence theory of historical truth. Any historian will be selecting among bits of evidence to construct a story, but that story cannot be “arbitrary or merely fanciful,” although it will be “essentially something imagined” in the gaps between what is known, and here the work of the imagination is structural, not merely ornamental. Like a novel, history but “make sense.” It must present a “continuous and coherent picture.” But unlike the novel, “the historian’s picture is meant to be true,” and this truth demands that the picture be localized in space and time; consistent with itself; and stand “in a peculiar relation to something called evidence.” Collingwood having rejected authorities and fixed points, i.e., bare facts, you will not be surprised to learn that his attitude toward evidence is not a simple one 
Everything is evidence which the historian can use as evidence. [Emphasis added]
I have italicized that sentence and left it standing alone because for me it shines light on Rachel May’s imaginative reconstruction of nineteenth-century lives, both black and white, beginning with an unfinished quilt. Collingwood goes on.
Everything is evidence which the historian can use as evidence. But what can he so use? I must be something here and now perceptible to him: this written page, this spoken utterance, this building, this finger-print. And of all the things perceptible to him there is not one which he might not conceivably use as evidence on some question, if he came to it with the right question in mind. 
I read: This quilt. This box of letters. These printed images. These houses and the much more simple buildings behind them. Historical markers in certain places, their absence in others. 

History is never finished, once and for all, writes Collingwood, but this is not an argument for skepticism.  History is a process, and the historian is part of that process. 
[E]very new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historian, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise the questions themselves….
And here is the heart of important revision, it seems to me. “Settled” history, that which we learn in grade school, answers a limited set of questions, but as we grow older we realize how many questions were never asked in those books. Could New Englanders have become so wealthy with their cotton mills if not for cheap raw material from the South, its very cheapness made possible only by the institution of slavery? What picture does the word “slave” bring to mind? How might it be possible to give a fuller picture not only of national economics in the nineteenth century but also of individual human lives? How can we possibly imagine what might have been going on in the minds of those who could see other human beings as property, in the minds of those who were considered little more than livestock or chattel? 

Much necessary historical revision is enlargement. It looks to answer questions that previous historians did not ask (or dismissed from consideration), and it looks to give voice to what has hitherto been kept silent. It is not suppression of truth but the bringing to light of more truth than had been made easily available before. 

What historical facts will you accept? What answers?  What stories? Each of us who reads history is a student of it, and the more we read and learn, the more critically we can assess what we read, by putting it in the witness-box of our own imaginations and cross-questioning it. 

Here’s why it matters. Another phrase from Collingwood stood out for me: 
Every present has a past of its own….
It is this truth, in part, that drives Rachel May’s investigations. Just as she asked about Southern slave-owners, how they could come to a comfortable acceptance of owning other human beings, so she also asks of our time, how did we come to be where we are today? What questions have we failed to ask ourselves? What are we not seeing, and whose voices are we not hearing, whether willfully or ignorantly?

Rachel May will be my first Thursday Evening Author, presenting her story of historical reconstruction at Dog Ears Books on June 21, beginning at 7 p.m. She is, I should add for the reassurance of crafters, a serious quilter herself and a student of historical patterns and methods of quilting, as well as a researcher of documents and places, so she will have something to offer every member of the audience, and I hope the audience for her presentation will be numerous.