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Saturday, August 24, 2019

One Season Follows Another....

Canada geese are a-gathering already in flocks, though heaven knows most of them won’t be starting south any time soon. Do wild geese and turkeys seek the company of other adults once their season’s young are raised? Does the empty nest give them freedom to socialize with their own age group again, or is it simply preparation for the togetherness of those long flights to warmer climes?

Is it still summer now, as the end of August approaches? Mornings and evenings are crisp and cool, and every day, it seems, someone comes to say good-by, to urge us to have a “good winter,” and to assure us that they will see us again next summer. Some exclaim, “Oh, no!” when they hear the word “September” uttered, but the truth is that September can be summer-warm, just as June can be spring-cool or August fall-nippy. Not only do Michigan seasons interpenetrate (making it impossible to fix a particular, precise day when one ends and another begins), but they frequently vacillate, also, with uncertain inching or lurching back and forth. 

We see the passage of time more clearly when we focus on the length of light each day (diminishing now) and mark the progress of the seasons by where the sun appears and disappears each day on our eastern and western horizons. And our community social calendars are clearcut, also. The 4th of July, fly-in at Woolsey Airport, Northport Dog Parade, wine festivals in various venues, and Peshawbestown Pow-wow — all are behind us for 2019. Leelanau Uncaged, Northport’s wonderful street fair of art, dance, food, crafts, and music — that still lies ahead, of course. And between events past and events to come is Labor Day weekend, the latterday traditional bookend of summer, signaling the end of what began with Memorial Day, whatever the weather or calendar try to persuade us to believe.

Summer for this Northport bookseller, my 26th bookstore summer, was a good one. For the first time, I decided to keep the bookstore “dark” on Sundays, even in July. It was hard at first not to keep second-guessing the decision, haunted as I was at first by visions of disappointed tourists outside the shop, but the other side of the coin was the wonderful holiday feeling of carefree summer Sundays. Even if the Artist and I spent a good part of the day doing laundry and mowing grass, it felt good to be off the clock. On Sundays, we were on vacation!

Another good decision from the standpoint of sanity was to limit my Thursday Evening Author events to five and to schedule them every other week. Compared to having TEA every week for 11 consecutive weeks, as I did in 2018 for my bookstore’s 25th anniversary year — a frantic pace! — this year, with an off-week between every two events, I was much better able to relax and enjoy more fully each author’s visit, from Kalamazoo poet Jennifer Clark to Leelanau essayist and seer Kathleen Stocking, on to fiction with Detroit writers Dorene O’Brien and Michael Zadoorian, and wrapping up with former journalist and university prof Charles Eisendrath.

And now, with only one week of August remaining, even my reading has taken on a more relaxed feel. Our little reading circle, convened lo these many years ago now to wrestle together through James Joyce’s Ulysses, will get together post-Labor Day to discuss Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Not altogether, I’m thinking as I read, a complete departure from Ulysses, both the unwinding of both stories limited to a single day, with characters’ stream-of-consciousness thoughts enriching the passing hours and swelling them to a fullness most of us experience in our own lives only infrequently. 

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Back From the Brink of Extinction

Schafer illustrations of "vanished" Michigan mammals
The fisher, also called pekan, is remarkable for its size — length about two feet, plus another foot of tail.
The quote above is from Michigan Wildlife Sketches: The Native Mammals of Michigan’s Forests, Fields and Marshes, with text by G.W. Bradt and illustrations by Charles E. Schafer, published in September 1972 by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. It goes on to describe the fisher (Martes pennanti) as “just a big marten, living more on the ground than in the trees,” and weighing from eight up to eighteen pounds. Reading on, we learn that a fisher can and will attack a porcupine — successfully! That is impressive! But next, for someone seeking to make a positive identification of the stranger chased by her dog on an otherwise calm and quiet Sunday morning, come more discouraging words: 
Fishers formerly were found over most of Michigan, retreating before the axe and trap until they probably disappeared entirely, although there was the possibility a few stragglers might still be present in remote parts of the Upper Peninsula. 
In fact, however, a few fishers were imported from Minnesota and released in Ontonagon County in 1961, so might some have reached the lower peninsula by now? That is, are they "vanished," or aren't they? I asked around among friends, and several reported fisher sightings here in northern Leelanau Township in the last few years.

I consulted another reference, Michigan Mammals, by Rollin H. Baker, published in 1983 by Michigan State University. Baker notes that the fisher was reported in the late 1920s by the Michigan Department of Conservation as “nearly exterminated, with no chance to make a ‘comeback,” then as “practically extinct” in the department's 1933-34 report. Both trapping and habitat destruction combined to bring about the devastation of the Michigan fisher population until the U.S. Forest Service helped in the rehabilitation of their populations, desirable as a check on porcupine numbers.

Baker calls the fisher’s life “rather antisocial,” the males solitary except during courtship and mating. (Is the fisher’s life also “brutish and short”? One wonders.) “There is some evidence that fisher may associate with gray wolves” (scavenging wolf kills is the extent of their “associating”), but the fisher seems to have found interesting primarily for its role as a killer of porcupines:
Most noteworthy is the predator-prey association developed between the fisher and the porcupine. In fact, Powell and Brander (1977) suggest that their adaptive relationships have been environmentally selected in order that successful coexistence occurs, with depressed porcupine populations causing fisher to depend on other food sources….
Meat forms most of the diet of this “formidable … woodland carnivore.” And any mammal that can tackle and kill a porcupine definitely deserves to be called “formidable,” we can probably all agree.

Schafer shows fisher with its eye on a porcupine

My fisher sighting was startling, as the large, dark grey mammal streaked across open ground with my old dog in hot pursuit. (Luckily, Sarah obeys very well the “Leave it!” command. I would not want her tangling with a fisher! ) I didn’t get a good look at the stranger’s face but had time to take in the size of the animal and its beautiful coat — “thick, luxuriant, glossy but fairly coarse compared to that of the marten,” according to Baker. But no photograph! I was sitting quietly with morning coffee and book when fisher and dog hove into view. 

So there it was — my first and possibly only lifetime sighting of a fisher in the wild, exciting enough that a coyote in the driveway six days later seems barely worth mentioning. But now the Artist proposes a name for a character, one I envision as a meat-eating loner detective: Martin Fischer. I mean, we have to disguise the name a little bit, don’t we?

As for my old reference books, they may underestimate today's fisher population, but they still offer a wealth of information. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Who Is Regional, and Who Is American?

She swung her horse about and cantered him to where Johnny waited. When she came up, he grinned at her. “What do you think?” 
“I think,” she said, “you would either die miserably in this place or learn to love it very much.” 
His face sobered and he searched her eyes. Then he smiled. “You won’t die.” 
She smiled back at him. “No, I won’t die.”
The lines above come near the end of Voyage to Santa Fe, by Janice Holt Giles, published in 1962. How have I missed this wonderful American novelist for so long, only now stumbling on her (serendipity again!) and looking forward eagerly to reading much more of her work? The headstone on her grave reads “Kentucky Writer,” although three of her novels have the great American West as their setting, and others are set in her native Arkansas. 

It’s odd, I think, that her Western novels did not break Giles out of the “regional” category. They did it for Jim Harrison. As long as his stories had Michigan for their setting, his work was considered regional, but when Jim and his novels moved out to Montana he became “American.” Is Montana more American than Michigan? The West more American than the Midwest? But even if the West is so all-American, so much more American than the Midwest (which I deny accept momentarily for the sake of argument), why did Voyage to Santa Fe, the story of an epic wagon train traveling from Three Forks in the Arkansas Territory to Santa Fe, a city in Mexico only just freed from Spanish dominion, not establish an already popular novelist as an American writer?

(Is it more difficult for a woman than a man to break out of the regional category? Knowing male writers who have chafed being geographically segregated, I’m not sure. The question was raised by one of my bookstore customers, who cited the case of Willa Cather, but we agreed that in recent decades that writer’s work has become much more highly regarded and widely known.) 

New York, Boston, Baltimore … Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle … New Orleans, Savannah — among American cities, these have their shining places in national literature, while the Midwest and Great Plains seem, with the exception of Chicago, to present themselves to literary criticism as one large, blank expanse, with here and there a small regional twinkle. Ah, yes, Detroit! St. Louis! Kansas City! But the small towns, the woods and farms and lakes and prairies? Where are they? Are they not as much America as places fronting Atlantic, Pacific, or Gulf of Mexico?

Nor is the question of literary regionalism limited to fiction. Essayists — whether working in large themes or small; with nature, human nature, or the inevitable combination  of the two — are also hampered not by a glass ceiling but by glass walls that keep them within their own geographical regions. Eastern, Western, and Southern writers seem to break through. No one would think Wendell Berry’s work applicable only to Kentucky or that of Edward Abbey only to Utah. Kathleen Norris has brought Dakota to national awareness, and Terry Tempest Williams has done the same for the Great Salt Lake. But of all the Great Lakes writers, fiction and nonfiction, writing here today in America’s heartland, how many names are recognized on the East and West coasts? 

It is baffling (and frustrating) to me. Does not the best writing take us out of ourselves and usher us into a different world, and to do this must it not provide all manner of sensual detail — sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and textures? In other words, is not the specific place where a story is set as important as the characters living there? After all, we are shaped as much by the places we inhabit as by our times.

What do you think?

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Speeding Blur That Is Summer

When I reply to the “How’s summer” question with my standard answer — “It’s a blur!” — many of my friends nod in ready agreement. Business owners, workers, locals entertaining family visitors, and hosts of volunteers staging events are all feeling the pressure as the second week of August nips at our heels.

My next-to-last Thursday Evening Author event was an absolute delight. We had an excellent turnout for Michael Zadoorian, and he won over the audience completely, including the Artist, who is immersed at present in Second Hand (Zadoorian’s first novel) and eager to read all of the author’s work. Now, only one more TEA to go this season, Charles Eisendrath on August 22nd. Seems only yesterday I was lining up the season's guest list of authors….

Spring and early summer rains have dried up, and thirsty gardens are panting in the sun. Cherry festival is a month past, tart cherry harvest finally underway. Very late this year. Ah, the relentless festival season! It sometimes seems that everything is happening at once, but the Northport Wine and Craft Beverage Festival, formerly (as Leelanau Food and Wine Festival) held the same Saturday as Northport’s dog parade, has been moved to the following week. Seems like a good idea — one weekend much more family-oriented than the other. See township event calendar for dates. 

Even in the most blurred, most swiftly flying days of late summer, by neglecting certain household and yard chores I am managing to carve out some morning and evening reading time. Top of the stack at present is the late Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: “He closed his eyes and threw his arm over his face to keep the light from overexposing his thoughts.” How did she do it? Genius.

And oh, yes, don't forget to look for meteors in the sky this coming Sunday and Monday nights. 

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Lines From Life and Lines From Fiction

The sandhill crane stalks, strides, runs, flies. Fawns are dropped and, granted good fortune, grow. Garden delphinium blooms, goes to seed; bee balm flowers and fades. Coreopsis gives way to black-eyed Susans. August is here. “Summer’s almost over!” a cashier in town exclaims. During the midafternoon lull at the bookstore, I pick up a novel and begin to read.
…[A]nd the two occupants of the subdued little room managed the slight grimace of politeness that Canadians reserve for moments when they cannot, realistically, go on pretending they are not in the company of another human being.

Day after summer day, keys, glasses, and phones are each in their turn misplaced and eventually rediscovered, right where they were left. The grass grows, we mow the grass.

He wondered idly, as he had always idly wondered at Sunday school, what Abraham and Isaac could have talked about on their way home. 

People ask, “How is your summer going?” I tell them, It’s a blur. But once in a while there are quiet, still, sunlit moments. A moment in which to watch a chipmunk that is watching back with shining, bright-dark eyes.

It wasn’t the objects. It wasn’t Northern style. It was the way memory curved back through time, the way hope reached forward, that made summer seem enduring. It was the steady accumulation of summers past and summers yet to come that saved the present from being over as soon as it began.

The lines in black are from my life. Those in blue are from Summer Gone, a novel by David MacFarlane. 

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Who Doesn't Love a Bestseller?

A poet and fiction writer in the Upper Peninsula, Ron Riekki, collects from Michigan booksellers every month their lists of top-selling titles by Michigan authors and then puts it all together for the state as a whole. It’s been interesting for me over the past three years to keep track of and contribute, month by month, my bestselling titles from Dog Ears Books in Northport. So it occurred to me this morning that other people might find it interesting, too, and here's the result -- July's hot books out here at the tip of the Leelanau peninsula!

Note: Not all books are pictured because they are on re-order.

Leading the pack once again — no surprise — is Kathleen Stocking’s From the Place of the Gathering Light: Leelanau Pieces. Gathering Light is Stocking’s fourth book but the first since her Letters From the Leelanau (1990) that stays right here at home, with the people and places of our home county. Themes of geologic time and democracy on the ground are the threads with which these pieces are woven. I’ve sold 37 copies of this book in July, almost 70 since May 15, and there’s no end in sight, which makes sense because — truly — if you haven’t read Kathleen Stocking, you don’t know Leelanau.

It’s no surprise, either, to find Hard Cider, by Barbara Stark-Nemon, in the #2 position on my July list. The numbers for this title would have been higher still if we hadn’t sold out of available copies at her library event and if the book hadn’t been out of stock at my distributor’s warehouse. (I hope to have more copies soon.) This book seems to be catching fire elsewhere, too (hence the wait for restocking!), but it’s especially popular here because Northport and Leelanau Township are the setting. Locals and visitors alike will recognize familiar places (and a few people, e.g., Sally at Dolls and More) in this engaging novel featuring a mature woman reinventing herself as a cider maker in northern Michigan. Family complications and secrets add suspense to the plot.

The Trails of M-22, by Jim DuFresne, certainly deserves its third-place position on my July bestseller list in Northport. As I’ve mentioned before when writing about this book, the author did not simply loop around the highway south of Northport but made it clear to the tip of Leelanau Township (M-22 and Beyond?). Each trail in the book is shown with a detailed map, with level of difficulty clearly indicated, so beginning hikers can enjoy choosing their first trails, while I’ve heard a couple of avid and dedicated couples say they plan to hike every trail in the book. 

And fourth place goes to Dorene O’Brien, my Thursday Evening Author from July 25, with her short story collection, What It Might Feel Like to Hope. I’ve often remarked that most short stories seem darker in tone than most novels, and that was the case with O’Brien’s first collection, but this new book, while still introducing us to characters with difficult lives, does seem to offer hope on the horizon. Dorene’s bookstore presentation was delightful, too, giving us what one audience member later called “a magical evening.” More people should try reading short stories. I enjoyed this collection so much I've already read it twice this year!

Fifth place was a tie between Stark-Nemon’s Even in Darkness and Jim Harrison: The Essential Poems. I’m happy that Barbara’s first novel continues to find new readers and that the lovely small new Harrison anthology of poetry (posthumous) by the late Jim Harrison is also selling well. Since many of the early collections from which these poems have been selected are now out of print, Jim Harrison: The Essential Poems belongs in the library of long-time Harrison aficionados, as well as with readers only now discovering his work. A few of Jim’s novels were made into movies, his essays on food were published widely during his lifetime, but at heart Jim was always, first and foremost, a poet, and I believe his poetry will be his most enduring legacy. 

Finally, another tie for sixth place: The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne, and Beautiful Music, by Michael Zadoorian. Translated into twenty-five foreign languages, with a movie now in development, The Marsh King’s Daughter, set in Michigan’s wild Upper Peninsula, has taken the world by storm. Who would have predicted it? The author’s deep knowledge of northern natural terrain is what drew me to the novel. Readers unfamiliar with Michigan, off in Sweden or Korea, may read it more simply for the thrilling suspense. And I anticipate Zadoorian’s Beautiful Music to soar this month, with the author’s guest appearance as my Thursday Evening Author on August 8. A coming-of-age novel set in 1970s Detroit, Beautiful Music tells a story of a loner adolescent who finds salvation in rock-n-roll. Yeah!!! I have also restocked Zadoorian’s previous novel, The Leisure Seeker (made into a movie with Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren) as well as his dynamite collection of short stories, The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit

And there you have it — just a few of the “must” reads of summer 2019 in Northport, Michigan. Time to get started, if you haven’t already! And please join us on Thursday, August 8, 7 p.m. to hear and meet Michael Zadoorian!

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

I Said, He Said

The little notice at the top of today's post is something I taped outside my bookstore door a couple weeks ago. Originally I had it inside on the bulletin board, but my helper, Bruce, thought it needed to be bigger, so Bill Coohon made me a full-size printed sheet (now on bulletin board), and the little original moved to its current location, where people see it as they reach to open the door. 

Another small notice on the door itself provides information on when the bookstore is open. I list my hours as 11-5, though I’ve generally been open by 10 this summer and often don’t get away right at 5, either, if the store is full of (ahem!) browsers. (No one minds when a store opens early and closes late. They do mind if it opens late or closes early!) As for those Mondays, I've been open regularly on Mondays, but yes, my bookstore is closed on Sundays this year. Having a day off preserves my sanity and helps me be happier in my work.

This morning I got to town earlier than usual, because Wednesday’s early morning errands get me on the road before 8 a.m. I wasn’t all that surprised to see a note taped beside my door: sometimes a friend stops by before I get here or a delivery person makes an unexpected early morning stop, or maybe someone I don’t know is leaving greetings from a mutual friend faraway. Today’s note was different, however. The writer, though I’m not sure why, seemed to take exception to my browsing instructions. Here’s what I found:

I admit I was puzzled. Could the writer not see through the windows that the space inside was furnished and stocked? Did the writer expect the bookstore to open before 8 a.m.? I have been serving my Up North market — locals, summer people, tourists — since 1993. Had the writer ever seen me crying over online shoppers? No one has ever seen that, because it doesn’t happen.

While my own note beside the door does not bear my name, people generally make the correct assumption that I am its author, and if they ask I say, yes, of course. The note left for me, on the other hand, was anonymous. (Wouldn’t you know?) Without a clue to the anonymous writer’s identity, therefore, other than handwriting (very neat printing, actually, using good ink) and the kind of blue masking tape used by painters, I’m going to hazard a guess. 

I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that Anonymous is male. I’m guessing further that he is relatively young. As I say, I could be wrong. 

Here is the background assumption behind my guess: Young people, and particularly young men, often think they have figured the world out much better than their elders. They are eager to proffer sage advice — and yet, not always eager to enter in dialogue. Those seeking the last word prefer the exit line zinger. Better yet, the anonymous message.

I wonder if Anonymous has ever read Nietzsche. Poor Nietzsche! He was so eager to have the last word that he larded his later writings with off-putting remarks about how no one alive could possibly understand him, how he was speaking to the future when, presumably, humans would have evolved the higher intelligence he himself already possessed. Ah, the Myth of the Elusive Last Word! The world has not yet ceased interpreting Nietzsche, and it never will as long as his works persists, so he didn’t have the last word, after all, and neither will Anonymous -- and neither will I, for that matter. The world spins on, opinions multiply. Whatever we say, however carefully we say it, someone will find a way to object. 

Well, sorry! I digress.

Anonymous left a second note written in black magic market on his blue masking tape. Or maybe this was his first note, the inked list his second? Anyway, here's the shorter message:

I don’t know if you can read that. What it says is, “Also, Respect Your Customer.” Then below that it says, “WTF? Nice Joke,” with an arrow that pointed down (before I removed it) to my browsing instructions. 

My first response to “WTF” was “NVN!” (By that I mean Not Very Nice.) But it’s so hard to interpret the rest without context or facial expression. By “Nice Joke,” was he saying he appreciated my humor (as do most people coming through the door)? Or was he being sarcastic? Well, no way to know, is there? As far as respecting the customer goes, though, I’m proud to say I have an excellent track record, but don’t take my word for it. Ask around. I'm not hiding behind anonymity. 

And now, enough of that nonsense. It was fun for a while and good for a laugh to start the day, but let’s not get completely distracted by anonymous note-writers or bullying tweeters, because the more we can talk to each other face-to-face, the better our lives will be. 

Also, whatever you do, do not lose track of my Thursday Evening Author series, with two more events to go this summer! Next week, Michael Zadoorian! Read about his new novel here, and come meet him on August 8! 

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Where Did YOU Go to High School -- and When?

“I don’t think I want to go to high school,” I finally confess to my mother as we sit at the kitchen table two nights before school starts. She’s in a pretty good mood, so it seems like the right time to bring it up.  
My mother stubs out an L&M 100 in the hubcap-sized ashtray we keep in the kitchen. I make a note that it’s due to be emptied. She looks at me, exhaling the last pull of smoke almost away from me, but not really. “Excuse me, what did you say?” 
- Michael Zadoorian, Beautiful Music

Literary critics call a novel like Beautiful Music a Bildungsroman. The term a combination of the German word Bildung, meaning "education," and Roman, meaning "novel." So a "bildungsroman" is a novel that deals with the main character’s formative years, especially psychological development and moral education. Here in the U.S. we generally call these books “coming-of-age” novels. 

In Beautiful Music we meet Danny Yzemski and his parents shortly before Danny begins high school (didn’t you know he wouldn’t get out of it that easily?), and as we read we travel with him along his particular, sometimes frightening and occasionally exhilarating, path through 1970s urban adolescence.

Danny has not been looking forward to high school. He’s not even excited about learning to drive and would have postponed getting behind the wheel indefinitely, if not for his father’s insistence. In fact, Danny might have been content to hide away in the basement forever building his model cars, if he’d had his way. High school — well, that’s an obstacle course of dangers and pitfalls.

At school, I master the art of not being seen. Even though I’m not so tall and slightly wide, I’m very good at working my way through all the different kids in the hallways without making any contact. While I’m weaving through the halls, the other kids are only blurs to me — white blurs, black blurs (more every day), pretty blurs who see right through me, smart blurs who I work the hardest to avoid. I bend my body, weave and wiggle between them, like walking between raindrops, taking care to never touch or look at anyone. If I brush anyone at all, that’s a point against me in my head. Touching or being seen also makes me more vulnerable to the mean blurs who torment kids like me. That’s why it’s best to keep moving. The faster I walk, the less they see of me. I’m a bat, flying low through the halls, using my sonar to find the spaces between the other kids….

Danny’s parents do not have the happiest marriage in Detroit, but they are together, and his father looks after his pretty obviously depressed and alcoholic wife as best he can. And both of them love Danny, which is a big plus. But it’s the boy and his father who are close buddies, without having to put their closeness into sentimental words — and that makes his father’s sudden and unexpected death all the more traumatic for Danny, already feeling at sea in his transition from boy to man.

What saves his life, basically, is music, though I’ll leave the what and how of it for you to discover in reading the novel. And seventies rock doesn’t solve every problem or answer every question. It certainly make Danny’s mother stop drinking or bring his father back to life. But it does give him a reason to get out of the basement. Something to hang onto. Eventually, it opens a few doors for him into the larger world. 

Sometimes Danny uses music to stop thinking, but he’s too smart to cut off his thoughts altogether, and one of the theories he develops has to do with bad dreams. Parents, he reasons, “build a bubble around you” and tell you that a bad dream is “just a bad dream, nothing to worry about…,” instead of what he now thinks it is, “your own creeping awareness that you … are going to die.” He wonders how childhood might be different if adults didn’t distract kids with “tooth fairies and Easter Bunnies and Santa Clauses” but told them the real truth about the world.

That people do bad things. They beat you up. They say horrible mean words to each other, even when there doesn’t seem to be much difference between them. That dads don’t wake up and moms stop taking care of you and start going crazy. That nothing is going to turn out like you think. 

Even if a young person were told these truths, though, hearing the statements would not be living the experiences — surviving, becoming stronger, and finding a way through to a reasonably happy and fulfilling adulthood in an imperfect world. At the end of Beautiful Music, although for his sake we wish his path were easier, we think Danny is going to do all right. 

The music of the Seventies grounds and surrounds the story. It is the friendliest part, for him, of the world Danny inhabits. More than that, it is his salvation. The uneasiness of race relations in that decade of Detroit’s history is mostly in the background, except for a few incidents, but then, Danny’s life has been very quiet and protected and narrow until his father’s death — he has never had a date and doesn’t hang out with a “crowd” — so for me the fact that he doesn’t dwell more deeply on racial issues is just part and parcel of where he is in his growing up. He’s an adolescent white male, a loner who has lost his father, and he is naturally preoccupied with his own personal problems.

Only once time did the narrator’s language depart from what I thought a high school boy like Danny would naturally use. The use of the term “cross-stitching” (or was it “cross-stitched”?) stuck out in one sentence. But that was all. On every other page I believed every word came from a teenage boy, albeit it one who is something of a “nerd.” 

Beautiful Music is a novel for adults, but I can also see it being read and enjoyed by teen readers, especially those interested in “what the Seventies were like.” It wasn’t even my era (I was a Sixties teen) and have never lived in Detroit, but Zadoorian made the era and the protagonist come alive for me. 

Michael Zadoorian will be my Thursday Evening Author on August 8, when I look forward to meeting him and hope you will be able to join us. 

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Generation Gaps

Was the phrase ‘generation gap’ invented in the Sixties? I suspected so and found confirmation online. I had started wondering about that and other, more complicated questions after a brief but unusual conversation a few mornings ago in my bookstore, when a man younger than my son remarked to me, after we had found we had similar views on many current issues, that he thought, “no offense, but I think your generation screwed up our country.” I didn’t argue but have been reflecting on his opinion since our encounter. 

First, it’s important to remember that my generation, that of the 1960s, felt our parents’ generation and those before it had screwed up the country! We didn’t want to grow up to be men and women in grey flannel suits, selling our souls for big, shiny automobiles and houses in the suburbs and turning away from problems that didn’t affect us personally. We certainly didn’t want to see our world destroyed in senseless atomic war, a possibility the “Greatest Generation” invented and we inherited.

So hippies followed postwar existentialists in seeking lives of authenticity. Some went “back to the land,” and some sought spiritual enlightenment in music and/or meditation and/or drugs. Many fell for the dream of “free love,” finding that idea more honest than unhappy marriages they saw their parents suffering through and imagining foolishly that jealousy could be overcome with reason (a lesson it seems every generation has to learn for itself). But there was much more. Idealistic Peace Corps workers went abroad to other countries, the Black Panthers set up idealistic projects in urban neighborhoods, the American Indian Movement was born, and passionate kids from the North went South to sign up black voters. There were marches and demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, a war we now know was started by accident and criminally pursued for years.  

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” we said, and I still believe that, but then the question is, was our generation part of solving any of the problems we faced? 

Here’s another question: Did our children’s generation do any better? 

And another: How will our grandchildren’s generation do? 

Except for laundry I’m taking a day off today, so I’m going to cut this short and leave my questions hanging. If you have thoughts or answers or opinions or experiences to share, I welcome them right here. You can leave a comment as ‘Anonymous,’ if you like, and that’s fine, too.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Girl on Horseback

Laurie reined in her horse at the place where the hill dropped away. She sat quietly for a moment looking down at the ghost town that was her home. 
Barbara Corcoran, The Long Journey
As you can see by the cover, the little paperback book shows a girl on horseback, so it merited a closer look. Published in 1970, it said inside. Then the first two sentences pulled me in, and the next paragraph began in a similarly promising way:
Off to the right on another hillside were a dozen little shacks where the miners had lived, and to the left was the long building they had used for a dining and reception hall. 
Really! Well, the little ghost town in the book is in Montana, so there are many differences between the settings of Hawkins Dry Diggings, Montana, and Dos Cabezas, Arizona. No adobe in Montana, of course. Instead, summer snow on the high mountaintops, trees on the slopes and across the land, and creeks running with clear water as Laurie heads south to find her Uncle Arthur to let him know that her grandfather, growing blind, needs medical attention.

If she were to make the journey by bus, her grandfather reasons, someone might question a girl that young traveling alone, and authorities would be called in, authorities who might think Laurie shouldn’t be living in a ghost town with an old man, even if he was her grandfather, who would probably think she would be better off in an orphanage. So travel by bus is out. 

Couldn’t he just go into their own nearest town and telephone Arthur? 
“No, no,” he said impatiently. “Telephones are no good. Can’t half the time hear what the other fellow is saying. You’d never be able to explain everything like it’s got to be explained. No, there’s nothing to do, but go there.” He sighed. “I hate to send you on such a long journey and you so young.”
Laurie reminds him that he had plenty of independence and adventures when he was a boy, and her grandfather is reassured. And so he gives Laurie her uncle’s address in Butte, a map, a compass, three gold nuggets, three silver dollars, and sends her off on her horse. 

Laurie has never been to school, never known any society at all other than what she has read in books and in National Geographic magazines, but she knows how to shoot and hunt and live off the land, and she and her grandfather are confident that she can find her way to Butte, no matter how many days the long journey takes. Neither of them anticipated that she would be shot for trespassing while trying to free a colt from barbed wire or that she might meet the devil along the way! Well, maybe not the devil, exactly, but a dangerous and frightening man, all the same, determined to steal her gold nuggets! 

It was confusing to meet so many people, all different kinds of people. Her grandfather taught her that the world was bad, but she finds good people, too — Kicking Horses, the boy who guides her to the trail she needs; Miss Emily, the retired schoolteacher who gives her shelter from the storm; Doc Ashe who tends to her gunshot wound. There is even a much younger girl, lost in the forest, needing Laurie to rescue her. Throughout the book, however, a lurking threat appears and reappears in the form of the crazy man on the mule, devil or not, and the song he mindlessly sings, its refrain disturbing Laurie’s peace of mind even when the man is out of sight. Keeping out of his clutches along her way is essential to reaching her primary goal.

Whatever age the reader, there is something exhilarating and inspiring about a young person setting out alone in the world, and as a female reader I find a girl’s adventures bring me added satisfaction. Among adult novels, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River satisfies in a similar way. Even the dystopic YA novel Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, with the unforgettable Katniss Everdeen, gives 21st-century readers hope that even in the most horrible future society, wild nature beyond towns might offer salvation for young people willing to learn and live its ways. 

But The Long Journey is a simpler story, the motivation for the girl’s setting off on her adventure uncomplicated.

And I needed the uplift of The Long Journey because I’ve been reading a very different kind of book, another difficult book, taking it in small doses but still feeling overwhelmed. The first words of the title, Amity and Prosperity, don’t sound bleak, but the subtitle, One Family and the Fracturing of America, gives a pretty clear warning. Amity and Prosperity, you see, are not what the family will find at the end of the story. They are the names of two desperate towns, and the author of Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, Eliza Griswold, tells the story of one family’s experiences when they and their neighbors sign contracts to allow fracking wells built on their land. I can only read a few pages at a time. What was done to these people — what continues to be done in countries that still allow the process — fills me with rage. I’d love to have people with “Drill, Baby, Drill” bumper stickers trade places with the Appalachian residents who thought their lives would be changed for the better by fracking. People were lied to, deceived, taken advantage of, made horribly ill, wells and land and livestock and children poisoned. What is the hope for the future of these people and their land?

So even while I was enjoying The Long Journey, I couldn’t help having intrusive, skeptical thoughts whenever Laurie and her horse drank from wild Montana creeks. Mining has never been an environmentally friendly way of life, and extraction industries in general rely on dangerously polluting chemical processes. How many rivers and streams in North America are clean enough that one could drink their water even after boiling (which Laurie does only once) or purifying it? What if Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Margo Crane had been on the Kalamazoo River after the oil spill of 2010? Even Katniss Everdeen had only society to fear, not poisoned nature. 

Such a beautiful world! More wondrous than anything ever built by mankind! How can we mistreat it so, fouling our precious, irreplaceable nest?

Blue flag, wetland, Leelanau Township

Postscript, Tuesday afternoon: We were walking around the marina in Suttons Bay on Sunday evening when we happened upon two little girls catching frogs. None of us knew what kind of frogs they were, but now I think maybe these. Anyway, it made me very happy to see little girls catching frogs. They had a big black net and were putting the frogs in a little see-through plastic carrying case. "Do you want to touch one?" I asked if I could pick one up. Very slippery! It tried to escape, but I got it back in the case and asked the girls what they planned to do with the frogs. "Let them go again," they told me. And that made me happy, too. Girls need adventure and freedom in the great outdoors every bit as much as do boys.