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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

We Are All on a Journey

In the nineteenth century, crossing the North American continent became a new adventure and challenge.


Narcissa Whitman was a new woman out there on the plains….


On cool mornings, Narcissa loved galloping sidesaddle ahead of the wagons on her new horse and even briefly losing sight of the party….


‘…I never was so contented and happy before…’


-      Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey


In a book published in 1952 (in England, of all places) with a story set in 19th-century Michigan, we find a fictional female character discovering, like Narcissa Whitman, the joys and freedom of travel.


If only she could feel like this always! If she never had to go back to the narrow streets of houses and the regulations and proprieties that governed every moment of her life at home! If she could stay on the road! The idea was like a burst of light. 

-      Elizabeth Howard, Pedlar’s Girl


But there were always those to whom the travelers seemed more like invaders. 


So came the winter of Plenty Buffaloes, the one the whites called 1861, the year that saw the Holy Road dark with moving men, many going to the places of the yellow metal, many running away to the mountain diggings to keep out of the war parties the whites seemed to be raising against each other. 


-      Mari Sandoz, Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas


 Moving or staying in place, however, life is a journey for us all. 


For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end. …


It’s all a process, steps along a path. Becoming requires equal parts patience and rigor. Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done. 

-      Michelle Obama, Becoming


If you don’t already live in Northport, I hope you’ll find a chance to visit this week before Dog Ears Books closes for the 2020 season. We expect and hope to be back in the spring of 2021 to serve locals and visitors alike, connecting you to books new and old, authors familiar as well as new acquaintances, and to share with you our joy of reading real books.

But we will have a couple of surprises for you in the spring, too --  maybe something you would never expect from us! Because, you see, you never know. That’s what the Artist and I tell each other every day when we wonder what the day will bring, who we might meet along the way, what stories will brighten our hours. And that’s the way I like to keep Books in Northport, too. You never know what I’ll write about next? Neither do I!


Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Trail Beckons


Fall, like spring and summer, is more continuous change than steady state. Maples and birches demand that we monitor their changes with our attention, it seems, while other trees and plants surprise us later, every year: deep carmine osiers, yellow asparagus, scarlet Virginia creeper, golden tamarack, and the buttered-toast-dripping-honey leaves of beeches. 

Colors shout in the sunshine and gleam in the rain before fading almost imperceptibly against the darkening skies and winds that tear foliage from branches to leave them bare against the clouds.

Does autumn bring forth your wanderlust or tempt you indoors with cocoa and blankets and books? Perhaps it does both, and that’s when books of other people’s travels are so welcome. Armchair travel, vicarious adventure! Where would we be without it? 


…Two brothers uprooting themselves to seek adventure or a better life together was a pretty typical Oregon Trail pairing, and our resemblance to the nineteenth-century pioneers was significant. Nick was an injured, unemployed construction worker in the midst of a deep recession in home building in Maine. As a print journalist I typified an American character type that had been familiar since the industrial revolution – the worker with redundant, antiquated skills displaced by technological change. We were going to see the elephant because there wasn’t much else going on for us at home. 


-      Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey


I’ll explain “seeing the elephant” in a minute.

First, though, I have to admit that when I picked this book up just after finishing Crazy Horse, by Mari Sandoz, I wasn’t sure I would find the story congenial. Not only does Buck open his story with some background on the Oregon Trail, but the map also showed me place names I’d encountered in the Sandoz book: Fort Kearney, Fort Laramie, Fort Fetterman. And reading of 400,000 pioneers, many of whom “would never have made it past Kansas” without the assistance of Native American guides, I thought of Crazy Horse and his friends, dismayed by disappearing game (disappearance that brought great hunger) but confident that the pioneers would keep moving, on their way to somewhere faraway. I also took exception to the author’s claim that this was the largest human migration in world history, having read so recently The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, telling of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North, six million people migrating over the period 1916-1970.


Still, the story of two brothers setting out is a story of our time, not history, and such an unlikely and challenging modern journey that I set my doubts to one side and read on.


The phrase “seeing the elephant,” new to me, was apparently one 19th-century pioneers used all the time. The “elephant” in letters and journals of the time seemed at first to refer to the hugeness of the plains, later to the dangers to life that crossing the plains involved, the great American adventure of its time captured and reduced poetically to its lowest terms in the malleable elephant cliché.


In the year 1958, while conventional suburban American children were gyrating with hula hoops in their backyards, Rinker Buck’s father took his family on an epic vacation. The author was only seven years old when the family set out on a 300-mile odyssey in a Mennonite wagon pulled by a team of draft horses, with a saddle horse tied on and following behind, traveling from an old New Jersey farm by way of old roads and historic sites of Pennsylvania and back home again, and that little seven-year-old boy was entrusted with the task of riding on ahead of the wagon in the late afternoon to locate a likely overnight campsite! What a dream! Who else but someone with this childhood memory would come up with a scheme to take a wagon and team of mules from Missouri to Oregon? And who else but a brother from that original trip would be so eager to sign on to such a crazy scheme?


So I know “where the story is going” geographically, but what may happen along the way I have no idea. Anyway, I’m hooked. Nothing like a wacky travel narrative for escape from the daily news cycle....

A busy bookstore is always gratifying to a bookseller, and my next-to-last Saturday in the bookstore was a busy one, but it’s a rare day that doesn’t allow dipping into some as-yet-unread book, and I’d had Michelle Obama’s Becoming set aside for several days. The very first pages of that book then hooked me, and a day later, having set aside the Oregon Trail for the First Lady, I was almost halfway through Michelle Obama’s story. What a refreshingly honest, down-to-earth, and yet thoughtful, absolutely elegant woman!


“They’re Chicago people,” the Artist reminded me (as if I might have forgotten). “They might very well walk into Dog Ears someday.” Wouldn’t that be something? 


But now it’s Sunday, and I’ve come to Dog Ears Books myself for a couple of afternoon hours, because next Saturday, Halloween, October 31, will be my last bookstore of the 2020 season! What a weird, strange year it has been, in the book business as in every other part of American life (as well as life beyond our own shores). Usually open on May 15, this year it was July 1 before the store was open to public browsing and buying for other than special order customers. We have all had to mask up for in-person meetings, with friends and strangers alike. Manufacturing and distribution chains for books were disrupted along with so many others; special summer events were cancelled; some authors had new book releases pushed off until 2021. And yet we persisted! We went forward with what we had, which was (as always) plenty of wonderful old books and lots of wonderful new ones, as well. Everyone behaved very well. It was a good season. 


Already I’ve had forward-thinking customers come in to stock up on winter reading, one man filling two whole grocery bags, others content with tall stacks of books. I welcome, wholeheartedly, all long-time and new customers this coming week! Many books here are calling out to go to new homes as holiday gifts (hint, hint). 

I will miss you all in my bookstore during my months of seasonal retirement, but I’ll remind you now that there are other bookstores here Up North, and while I’m gone I urge you to "shop my 'competition.'” Really? Yes, of course! One thing I have always absolutely loved about being an independent bookseller (one thing among many, of course) is that we booksellers – real indie types -- do not generally regard one another as competition. Customers sometimes make reference to “your competition down the road,” but in our small, fiercely independent shops -- shops that reflect our own personalities and interests as well as the region where we live and work – we see and treat each other as colleagues. It is a collegial line of work. If we don’t have something in stock, we send the customer for that book to someone else’s shop, sometimes even calling ahead to see if the book the customer wants is on hand – which I did only yesterday, in fact. We’re all on a cordial, first-name basis. We know each other, and we like each other. We are real people. And we all want all the others to succeed


So please buy new books from Leelanau Books in Leland, Bay Books in Suttons Bay, Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor, and Horizon Books in Traverse City. If you're a lover of old books, visit Landmark Books in Traverse City, and if Paul doesn’t have what you're looking for and you must shop online, here are some alternatives to the Online Behemoth.


Has the idea of an independent bookstore yet to become important to you? Take a look here. Community, curation, convenience. My place won’t be convenient while it's closed for the winter, but Dog Ears Books has always been about a curated collection, and our community commitment has only grown stronger over the years.


And we certainly expect to re-open Dog Ears Books in 2021 – I hope by May 15th. One thing I can safely say, after over 27 years in business, is that I have lived up to the promise I made an earlier Northport landlord long ago: “I’m in it for the long haul.” And in retrospect 27 years have flown by. -- Someone the other day wished me another 27, which is rather more than I wish for myself, but I do hope and plan to be back in 2021. 

So come down to Waukazoo Street this week! We are here now! And really, isn’t that all that any of us can ever say with certainty?

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Further (Largely Uncomfortable) Meandering


Wednesday morning


The national memory of any people is a mixture of truth and myth. 


-      Madeline Albright, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948


Not what I expected, this book, but in retrospect not surprising. The author, after all, was only born in 1937, and it was only in the following year, ten days after Nazis marched into Prague, that her parents were able to secure necessary papers to exit the country. The papers were necessary for leaving, and leaving was also necessary. A bare two weeks after Czechoslovakia’s future existence had been signed away at Munich, a newly formed Czecho-Slovak [note the difference in name] Defense Ministry asked for the dismissal of Madeline’s father, Joseph Körbel, from the diplomatic service. He had become a political undesirable. Besides his views and public positions, the Defense Ministry noted, “Dr. Körbel and his wife are Jews.” In that ten-day interim, the family slept in friends’ apartments and spent their days on the streets and cafes, to avoid the Nazi dragnet.


The author was a tiny child in the Prague of that time and spirited to safety in England as quickly as her parents could arrange it. She would, however, grow up to earn a doctorate in history, and a visit years later to the place of her birth (Prague: May 15, 1927) would not be complete for her without seeing it in historical context. Thus “Part I: Before March 15, 1939” of the book is not memoir but the product of research and delivers a blow-by-blow account of the history of Czechoslovakia and Prague leading up to March 25, 1939. 


This book is obviously not comfort reading or escape literature. Seeing Germany gobble up more and more of Europe, page by page, is all the more painful since a reader knows what will follow, while at the same time seeing a series of decisions made by leaders and diplomats who did not have a vision of what was to come. 


…The war in Europe was still months away. When it did come, it was expected to be over quickly. Nazi prison camps, such as Dachau, housed dissidents regardless of race.


It was an anxiety-ridden, confusing, depressing, hostile, and saber-rattling “calm” before the storm of the Second World War, a long, drawn-out horror that appeasement did nothing to prevent.


I am also still reading Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas, by Mari Sandoz. About two-thirds of the way through the book, knowing what lies ahead for the principals, I am living vicariously alongside them with a heavy heart.

Wednesday evening


What can be said of a bookstore customer who orders books and then brings them back to loan to the bookseller to read? That’s a reading friend! “I’m just glad you’re interested,” she told me. So this afternoon at the bookstore I started reading Having and Being Had, by Eula Biss. After that I’ll read the same author’s Notes from No Man’s Land, but my reading friend recommended that I start with Having and Being Had, “because it won’t break your heart like the other one.” Forewarned. Although history has been breaking my heart over and over for years, as has politics.


(Notice that I have set aside Crazy Horse and Madeline Albright for a Eula Biss session. This is typical of my reading life.)


Having and Being Had is a book of nonfiction. It is a collection of very short personal essays, often anecdotal in nature, that take us with the author as she explores the role of economics in our everyday lives. You think you know about the game of Monopoly™? Well, I certainly found the story surprising! 


When Biss gets into the question of class, I recall my brother-in-law telling us on Monday, as four of us in masks rode in the Artist’s big Chevrolet station wagon to Traverse City, Empire, Glen Arbor, and back home, “This is the way two lower-class couples ride together: men in front, women in the back.” Middle-class couples, he told us, would sit with their spouses, while an upper-class foursome would mix mates for the length of the drive. Really? I have always just thought that (1) most men have longer legs, so (2) when one man is driving, it makes sense for the other man to be the front-seat passenger. Also, (3) that older people divide up riders this way. I’d never thought of it as a class thing. But author Eula Biss says that her husband can identify from a distance people who grew up in his boyhood neighborhood, not because he knows or ever knew the particular people, but because the fact that you grew up on the South Side is “written on your body.”


Although the foregoing paragraph contains random thoughts, I am not writing down every thought from every short chapter’s essay, because almost every sentence I read generates associations and ideas and speculations that would run into whole paragraphs. 

Thursday morning


Bicycles have the same rights and duties as motor vehicles. But being governed by the same laws doesn’t produce equality.


-Eula Biss, Having and Being Had


Stop and think about that a moment. Then read on. 


A bicycle doesn’t occupy a full lane, is rarely granted the three-foot passing margin required by law, and must use signals not everyone understands. Bicycles belong to a different class and they can’t expect to be treated like cars. And so, bicycles break the rules, riding through stop signs and red lights. Like the people who occupy neighborhoods that are overpoliced and underpoliced, bicycles know that what keeps them safe on the street is not the law, but their own vigilance, quickness, and wit.


I admire the way the writer has personified the modes of transportation, having them stand in for the riders and drivers the law actually covers. I think it makes her point more effectively and facilitates the neighborhood analogy she brings at the end.


The value of art, the artist’s life, the ‘precariat’ as a class – all this I read this morning in the dark. But then, “The Hug”! What a horrible little story that is! I am so sorry she acquiesced! …And yet, in the scale of the world’s horrors, I realize one this small barely registers at all.


Friday morning


I picked up Madeline Albright again last night, joining the family in London:


…As refugees in London that summer, we had plenty of company. Jews and other antifascists arrived from Germany, Austria, Poland and our own Czechoslovakia. The British had quotas that limited the number of adults, but an exception was made for unaccompanied children under seventeen years of age. 


A humanitarian program, the Kindertransport, had begun rescuing Jewish children from Germany and Austria….


Is there a word that jumps out at you in that first quoted paragraph? Maybe more than one, but how about antifascists? The word appears again in subsequent pages, and every time I see it I think of a president of the United States who thinks that being antifascist is a bad thing, and I ask myself how this can be possible in my country. Does he imagine we should support fascism? Remain neutral? Would he have American citizens fleeing for their lives to other, safer countries?


“So long as grass shall grow and water flow,” the treaties with the Native American tribes read. “All men are created equal,” reads the Declaration of Independence. And yet -- a history of broken promises and cruel exceptions, offset by periods of self-conscious and fumbling attempts to do better and to make amends.


Sunday morning


I picked up and brought home last night an old novel from 1909, The Making of Bobby Burnit, by George Randolph Chester. It looked to be a Horatio Alger-type story of the period, but riches-to-riches rather than rags-to-riches. That is, the son of a wealthy merchant inherits the retail business and has to prove himself under strange terms set in his father’s will. 


The story proceeds slowly in the beginning – nice young man, spoiled by life, keeps proposing to nice young woman who won’t give him an answer, etc. Then gradually begins a cascade of bad business decisions and money lost. But the book only really got interesting to me (and I wasn’t looking so much for interest as for relaxation) when Bobby bought a newspaper and resolved to launch a campaign against corruption in his town. (There is a surprising amount of detail on investments and municipal utilities.) The newspaper, too, was a money-losing proposition at first (advertising revenue plummets), but this is a novel, the young man has more of his inheritance in reserve, and all comes right in the end. 


In books from this era, it’s interesting to examine the publisher’s lists of other titles at the end of the story. How many of the listed authors, so popular in 1909, are still read today? Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle stand out from the crowd. Ellen Glasgow’s name, too, I hope rings a bell. Literary fame in general, however, is a fleeting thing for most. We remember many more politicians and fighters, even those who fall into the evil category, than the writers of yesterday. Is there a lesson in that fact?


Tuesday, October 13, 2020

More on Comfort Books

Thank you for exploring with me again --

And please understand that I am not advocating for ostrich behavior, simply acknowledging today, once again, the very real fact that most of us cannot stare reality full in the face for every waking minute of every day. 

I am frequently asked these days in my bookstore to recommend something light, something cheerful, for someone who needs a break from either dark thoughts or hard, determined work or both, and my bookstore customers have found hope in Emita Hill’s Northern Harvest, smiles in Amy Krause Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, and respite in the novels of Alexander McCall Smith, particularly those set in Botswana featuring the oh-so-comforting Mma Ramotswe. But now I am casting my mental net wider, and maybe you can help. 

A perennial favorite of mine

Many of us find vicarious adventures as wildly different as Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” novels to Mary Norton’s “Borrowers” series, and I wish I had all of Chiang Lee’s “Silent Traveler” books on hand, every day, so I could dispense them like multivitamins! Sometimes I am frustrated in my desire to provide the books I find most comforting myself. Either I recommend them so enthusiastically that they fly off the shelves, or they are no longer in print and quickly accessible through my new book distributor. Anyway, here is the beginning of a list of sub-categories of books I find offer respite for the soul:

Long-ago, gently humorous nonfiction: If you can get your hands on Emily Kimbrough or Frank Gilbreth or Clarence Day, you’ll be plunged into pretty innocent representations of the past -- a very narrow, limited perspective but one that can be refreshing at times.

Young people’s books: Here it might be books from your own younger days or new discoveries. For me, the Walter Farley horse stories never fail, but I also love Ellen Airgood’s Prairie Evers and The Education of Ivy BlakeMen, what books carried you away when you were a boy? The Artist recommends – and I include it here, though it is hardly a YA novel -- The Count of Monte Cristo!


Biographies/memoirs “about interesting but not grossly painful lives,” as a friend of mine requested: I have enjoyed so many memoirs and biographies over the years! Right away I thought of Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City and Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life, but of course there are many, many more recent possibilities. I love Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow; Anne-Marie Oomen’s Love, Sex, & 4-H; and Mardi Link’s Drummond Girls (those last two very much alive and active northern Michigan writers). But of course the list here is practically endless.

Historical Fiction: Don’t get me started! Actually, I have gotten started and finally created a category of HF at Dog Ears Books. 


Books about books: Kathleen Hill’s She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons will start an endless association of memories in lifetime readers. We booksellers, of course, never tire of Christopher Morley’s classic tales.

Dogs and Horses: For me, not only fictional dogs and horses but also memoirs and books about training or (as I prefer to think of it) working towards partnership with dogs and horses. So many could go in this category! I hope my reading friends who live with cats will not feel slighted. There are some good cat memoirs, too, but cats are a whole different ball of yarn, aren’t they? Dogs and horses try to please us. Cats tolerate us. In my opinion.


Books about Food: I’m not talking about cookbooks, though if you find comfort in reading cookbooks, go for it. What I have in mind is more memoir or essay or travel – kind of a grab-bag, I guess. For starters (if you’re going to be really serious), there is, of course, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste, but there are also recent gems that include anything by Ruth Reichl, Anthony Bourdain, M.F.K. Fisher, Calvin Trillin, or Roy Andries de Groot. And count yourself fortunate if you have in hand the utterly charming Clementine in the Kitchen, by Samuel Chamberlain. Who wants to add favorites to this list? Be my guest!


More ideas


Anthony Trollope novels

Arctic adventures – or any travel books set in a faraway place you love (for me, Paris; for you???) or someplace that intrigues you that you will probably never visit except in books

First-person back-to-the land tales, if you like those; or city adventures, if you have urban dreams

Poetry – of course!

The Tracker, by Tom Brown, Jr. (one of my favorites)

Long, lose-your-self-in-them novels – Here one friend recently took up Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. For me, Proust fills the bill. I’d also include here Seth Vikram’s A Suitable Boy, 1400 pages, even though I’m losing hope of the promised sequel.

On the other hand, short stories – have a selection of different authors for an at-home literary smorgasbord! 

So now, what are your recommendations for the large, lumpy category I’m calling “comfort books”? What works for you when your spirits need a rest?



Sunday, October 11, 2020

Autumn Vacation Hours


[Late note: This should have been titled "Hours of Autumn Vacation," as the title I gave it sounds like bookstore hours, and that's not what it is. It istime stolen away from bookstore and housework and yard tasks to immerse myself in balmy autumn hours.]

It’s Sunday, and the sun is shining bright, and all over northern Michigan colors are popping. The Artist and I will be working outdoors this afternoon, preparing for a family visit and clearing the deck for visiting on Monday, rain or shine. Actually, the forecast for Monday is rain, with sunshine and clear skies to return on Tuesday. Whatever future days may bring, however, today’s post is a showcase for sunny days and the stunning colors of fall.

Friday, while Bruce manned the bookstore sales counter for me, I took the opportunity to take care of a couple errands down in Suttons Bay and then – oh, sybaritic escape! – took what remained of my New Bohemian Café chai latte and my dog and the novel I was reading down to the beach just north of the marina and sat there reading and looking up from time to time to note a sailboat out on the water or gulls huddled on the sand. Once in a while a gull would take wing and scream or laugh; other than that, the day was quiet and peaceful. 

I drove south and west in the county to see what I could see. Every prospect pleased. Back around the old homestead, asters in their stunning colors put a song in my heart. I was home, but I felt, just then, for a while, as carefree as if I were on vacation.

Not that my ordinary commute to Northport or time in the bookstore is a hardship. Here is some color from Leelanau Township and Dog Ears Books.

This morning, though, I vowed to pay full homage with my camera to the wonders of green ash leaves in autumn. While we have lost many mature ash trees in Leelanau County (perhaps the majority), enough remain to give some idea of the range of their subtle fall colors.


[Second late note: I haven't given you any idea at all of the range of colors of ash leaves. These all look yellow to brown. Where are the reds and purples?]

Going out to photograph ash leaves, I came upon an oddity that might have puzzled a newbie botanizer looking to identify a wild vine. Here is what I saw, and what do you say about it? 

If you realized that the wild grapevine had twined around the scarlet-leafed Virginia creeper, you are correct.

But pictures above show only the beginning of the northern Michigan fall color palette. Everywhere, overall, there is so much! 

Our eyes drink and drink, and still there is more! Lovely, lovely October in Michigan! What good medicine you are for our weary souls!


On Saturday afternoon a friend who dropped by the bookstore remarked on the soft, mild air we had enjoyed on Friday evening. “It reminded me,” he said, “of when I jumped ship in Caligari, Sardinia.” Oh, yes! Oh, yes! Wonderful, the associative leaps memory can make – and the delightful surprise of such a remark to the ear of a listening friend! 


Thank you, October! We needed you!