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Monday, November 8, 2021

Escaping the Most Beautiful Autumn?

The hills are alive with gorgeous color.

It’s official: my seasonal retirement is underway, now that Saturday, October 30, my last official bookstore of 2021, is in the rearview mirror. It was a fantastic season, both in the bookstore and the gallery, we are deeply grateful to everyone who made it so, and now we’ve been getting at projects long postponed -- such as, for me, my “blackstraw” jam (a mix of black raspberries and strawberries, fruit from earlier months that’s been in the freezer all this time) and, with the remaining raspberries, a fruit syrup that will be delicious in Italian sodas as well as on ice cream and waffles.

Tamarack in wetland woods glows gold.

As beautiful as was October and as lovely as November yet continues to be, however -- and is this not one of the mildest and most colorful fall seasons northern Michigan has ever seen, or is only Leelanau County so blessed? Gaylord, over in the middle of the northern mitten, had almost a foot of snow last Tuesday! -- my days have not been all light-hearted bliss.  Social strife and politics afford sufficient fuel for anxiety and heartache, but quite honestly it’s my dog whose fate occupies my nighttime waking hours. We have met with a special trainer and consulted our vet about medication and hope to hear soon what vet and trainer together think about Peasy’s chances at rehabilitation. I have minimized his problems here in my blog, but believe me, it has been and continues to be a difficult path forward, involving many sleepless nights. Little guy has no idea how many people he's never met are pulling for him! If only he could be as sweet with the rest of the world as he is with me!

My boy loves his outdoor world.

Each of us is the center of her or his experience. There is no getting around that fact. For me, the social and political climate of the last decade have been such a source of agony that I explain my obsessive focus on one little stray dog against this larger background. How can I not take refuge from intractable national and global problems in one very personal issue that will – perhaps -- with all my determination and a wide, winning smile from Lady Luck -- show itself to be meliorable (and did I just make up that word?). The other side of the coin is that it's no wonder to me at all that a dear friend with Stage IV cancer has no emotional energy whatsoever to worry about politics. But what a wonderful example of positivity she is, and how we have enjoyed our five fabulous "special Sundays" together this fall! Love you, Mel!

Precious times together with human friends!

At any rate, these nights in the wee dark hours my coping strategy is frequently a retreat from insomnia into the world of fiction, and here are the books I've read since my last post:  


Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (#151 on my list of books read this year) furnished our old reading circle with plenty of food for discussion, and those new to the novel were very glad to have read it, while I was glad to have read it again.


The Music Shop, by Rachel Joyce (#152), was a lighter novel but more than I expected. 

Then there was Paradise (#153), a work by this year’s Nobel prize winner, Abdulrazak Gurnah, and I’m still trying to figure out what to make of the ending. Have any of you read it? What did you think?


For several of the early chapters of Jay McInerney’s The Good Life (#154), I wondered why I was reading the book at all. Was it a roman à clef, and should I have been picking up on all kinds of Manhattan gossip? Either the book deepened as it went along, or the time I invested in it heightened my appreciation.


Women Talking (#155), by the Canadian writer Miriam Toews, was a story the author imagined after reading of an actual event. True to its title, the novel was almost exclusively conversation among illiterate women in an isolated rural religious community trying to make the biggest decision of their lives.

Anne Lamott's Blue Shoe (#156) was my first foray into her fiction, but I couldn't help wondering how autobiographical the story was, although the central character was not a writer....


After all that, seeking cuddly comfort, I turned to Elizabeth Enright’s Gone-Away Lake (#157), a children’s story, with illustrations by Beth and Joe Krush, who also illustrated my beloved books about the Borrowers. Elizabeth Enright, Eleanor Estes, Palmer Brown -- I always find comfort in these children's books, which are also books from my own childhood.


-- Then came Mary Elizabeth Pope’s The Gods of Green County (my 158th book read in 2021), a truly spell-binding experience and an early reason, already, for me to look forward to re-opening in May 2022, when I can press this book into the hands of customers looking for a fiction recommendation. 


That the evil manipulations and outright brutality of the novel’s villain (I think it’s fair to call the sheriff that) take place almost exclusively “offstage,” reported only second- or third-hand by other characters, seems altogether appropriate. It keeps the story's focus on Big Earl and Coralee, Leroy and Cole, and the young boys, Little Earl and Caleb. Other characters who seem minor early in the novel, come into their own as the fictional years go by. And always we are surrounded by the flat cotton fields and woods of Arkansas. Here, for instance, is Coralee:

...Sometimes I felt like I lived in a world of fields and trees and spirits when everyone else lived in a world of bricks and clapboard and bodies. Maybe that is why I never could make conversation. There were rules about who talks first, and for how long, and about what, and also when it was your turn to say something funny. I never could get the knack of it. 

Coralee and Big and Little Earl will insinuate themselves into your heart, I guarantee.

Nearing the last few short chapters of The Gods of Green County, I almost succumbed to disappointment (will not say why, because I don't do spoilers!), but the remaining pages did away with any incipient negative judgment, and I closed the book with deep satisfaction. Not only can Mary Elizabeth Pope “tell a story,” she has shaped her novel in such a way that everything that happens in her characters’ lives seems inevitable – and it all brings us home in the end. Catharsis achieved -- something rare so far in 21st century literature.


Pope did a reading at Dog Ears Books years ago from her collection of short stories, Divining Venus, and a memoir essay, “Downshifting, included in Peninsula: Essays and Memoirs from Michigan, edited by Michael Steinberg, tells of her summer job at Barb’s Bakery in Northport, so perhaps you met her at the bakery or the bookstore or both. Whether or not you did then, you will not want to miss The Gods of Green County. Really!

Friends past and present gathered together

So even in “escape,” you see, I have not been wasting my time. I’ve been getting out in the sunshine and under cloudy skies, too, as much as possible, enjoying the beautiful Michigan autumn and the companionship of a dog who doesn’t love the whole world (as did Sarah) but who does, at least, demonstrably love the Artist and me. And I am doing the best I can to deserve the love of them both.

That clueless heartbreaker!


Angie said...

But that Peasy is such a beautiful boy. Such a hard place to be for you and the Artist...I have been raising 3 kittens all of this year since May(?) much to Marlee's dismay. She doesn't like them AT ALL and wishes Mom would find someone to offer them a forever home. Alas, Marlee, it seems they are here to stay. :/

P. J. Grath said...

Angie, with regard to Peasy's undeniable beauty, I quote Rick Bragg from his book SPECKLED BEAUTY, talking about his own bad boy: "Looks ain't his problem."

Are you really planning to keep all three kittens? You will have three CATS! Isn't three the outer limit before you official become -- oh, I won't say it, but you know where I'm going here. Ogden Nash said put it like this:

The trouble with a kitten is that
Eventually it becomes a cat.

When I was a girl, though, I always had one cat or another.

Now it's Peasy, and we'll see where that goes. I'm giving it my all!

Dawn said...

Ahhhhh Peasy-boy. You mind your people and have a wonderful winter in your other place.

When I'm stressed, which seems to be far more often than I think any retiree should have to be, I can't concentrate enough to read. I appear to have stopped reading at all these past few months. Maybe it's not the stress. Maybe it's just me. I don't know.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, I am so sorry that you are too stressed to read! I'm sorry you are stressed at all! Glad your band is back together -- that's right, isn't it? A smaller group? Anyway, I know that music is a big part of your life and that a focus on music is good medicine.

The good Peasy news for now, halfway through our trek west, is that he is a good traveler. He doesn't fuss about long days in the car and takes new motel rooms in stride. Being with us is all he asks.