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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Whose “Good Old Days” Are You Talking About?

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” said the character Stephen Daedalus in the novel Ulysses, by James Joyce. True for the Irish, and it should have been true for the English, also, but was it? An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is a difficult book to read, because the facts themselves are brutal, but for that very reason it is also an important corrective to U.S. history as generally taught. I’ve made my way through it slowly so as not to skip over any of the unbelievably horrible but horribly real — and horribly repetitive — details. The awful repetition of horrors is important because it shows that, rather than being something that can be brushed aside today as anomalies, all were part of systematic, government-sanctioned and often (though not always) government-led racism and genocide in our country’s history. 

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz did not grow up on a reservation but “in the midst of,” as she puts it, Native communities in rural Oklahoma, her father a cowboy, her mother “ashamed of being part Indian.” She became involved in political movements in the Sixties — antiwar, civil rights, anti-apartheid, women’s lib — and eventually with the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the International Indian Treaty Council. She earned her doctorate in 1974 with a dissertation on land tenure in New Mexico. It’s easier to tell you about the author’s background than about what’s in her book, though, because even white people know, after all, that the history of the frontier was not a happy one for Native Americans. We have all heard and read that the westward movement was made possible by a series of broken treaties and bloody encounters. But what about colonial days? Weren’t we taught in grade school about a peaceful “First Thanksgiving” between Native Americans and English colonists?

One point the author makes repeatedly is that the “Indian Wars” did not begin in the Wild West but right there in the beginning on the Atlantic Coast. From England’s invasion and subjugation of Ireland (that nightmare history) came the practice of scalping, with bounties paid and few if any questions asked about sex or age of the murdered and mutilated. Thus immigrant men without property in the colonies and new United States, organized into volunteer militias, might better themselves financially as scalping and land-taking practices accompanied immigration to the North America.

European justification for seizure of Native lands can be traced back to the 15th century, when the pope promulgated and clarified the Doctrine of Discovery, cited in 1792 by Thomas Jefferson and reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1823. According to this doctrine, which came to be enshrined in international law, “discoverers” of a land could claim it as territory for their own country, thus jumping the property rights claims of all other European countries. Prior inhabitants (called “First Nations” in Canada) were not considered to have any property rights in their own homeland. In their religion, land was too sacred to be bought and sold — and so they were sold out by invaders with a different set of values and customs.

Another theme Dunbar-Ortiz presents is the idea that “total war” — i.e., war fought not only between armies but waged against an entire population, with villages and crops burned and game slaughtered so that, facing starvation and “scorched earth,” no choice is left but to take to what was called, in the case of the Cherokees, the “Trail of Tears” — is nothing new to the U.S. military. Used first against Native Americans, it was national and military policy at the highest levels of American government, as the author demonstrates with quotations from governors, generals, and U.S. presidents. Military experience in dealing with Native Americans was subsequently taken overseas to the Philippines and, later, to Vietnam. The first U.S. invasion of Iraq was promised to bring speedy victory of U.S. forces over Iraqi “Indian country.” The phrase “Indian country” came from the Vietnam era but has come to be abbreviated as “In Country,” disguising the origins of the term designating “behind enemy lines,” the change, though at best only cosmetic, perhaps due in part to a protest from the National Congress of American Indians in 1991.

I’m refraining from incorporating very many quoted passages, but here’s one that encapsulates all the rest. The author writes that Dee Brown’s 1970 account of a 19th-century massacre, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, became a “surprise best seller,

so the name Wounded Knee resonated with a broad public by 1973. On the front page of one newspaper, editors placed two photographs side by side, each of a pile of bloody, mutilated bodies in a ditch. One was from My Lai in 1968, the other from the Wounded Knee army massacre of the Lakota in 1890. Had they not been captioned, it would have been impossible to tell the difference in time and place.  
- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States
Dunbar-Ortiz, however, does more than bust myths and document genocide. Equally important to her story is Indigenous resistance and survival, from the beginning to modern times, including legal battles ongoing today. Here’s one that may surprise you:

…In the first land restitution to any Indigenous nation, President Richard M. Nixon signed into effect Public Law 91-550, which had been approved with bipartisan majorities in Congress [my amazed emphasis added]. President Nixon stated, “This is a bill that represents justice, because in 1906 an injustice was done, in which land involved in this bill — 48,000 acres — was taken from the Taos Pueblo Indians. The Congress of the United States now returns that land to whom it belongs.”
Yet today, even as I was working on this expanded version of my review of the Dunbar-Ortiz book (a shorter version was written for another publication), a young man from Leelanau County, Zhaabadiis Biidaasige, whom I knew when he was a little boy as Johnny Petoskey, was standing before the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous People, representing the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Kitchiwikwedongsing Anishinaabak, and speaking to the issue of unfulfilled treaty promises made by the State of Michigan to the Anishnabe people. 

Survival. Resistance. Renewal.

A special edition for young people of this book is due for release in late July. How will the story be told there? And what do we want American children of any skin color or ethnic background to know about American history? How do we tell them the truth and still inculcate in them a love of their country? Perhaps that depends not only on how we teach about the past but even more on how we conduct ourselves in the present and into the future. 

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), paperback, 296 pages with index, $16

Saturday, July 13, 2019

“How Doth the Busy Little Bee…”?

Can you believe it’s practically the middle of July already? Is summer half-over? Vacation just starting or still a few weeks in the future? Anyway, the marsh marigolds have given way to daisies, yarrow, and sweet peas along the roadsides, and while coreopsis and St. Johnswort were a little late this year they're now making quite a showing, as are garden roses, making up for the iris performance that's over for the season. Cherries are ripening. Hay is being cut and baled and transported from the fields.

It was another very busy week in your Up North bookseller’s life (making hay while the sun shines) -- so busy I’ve already forgotten what happened on Monday. Tuesday, I know, brought Barbara Stark-Nemon to the library with her new novel, Hard Cider; Wednesday our little reading circle escaped vicariously to Vienna for a couple of hours (with the help of a couple book and three special guests); and Thursday, of course, Kathleen Stocking was my Thursday Evening Author at Dog Ears Books, where we had, as I had anticipated, standing room only in the Artist’s gallery, with audience spilling over into studio and bookstore. I have to thank the versatile Artist, David Grath, not only for letting us use the space but also for setting up chairs and for his beautiful painting on the cover of the guest author’s book! Sorry I don't have better photos -- I mean, really, sorry I don't have good, illustrative photos at all of the evening. There was just no room to maneuver.

As it was, I had to elbow my way past the overflow crowd to get the above.

Kathleen Stocking is, to resort to a word I generally consider overused but one very appropriate in this case, iconic Leelanau. On this particular occasion (she seems to have a different twist for every appearance) she brought along children of a friend to perform a skit illustrating the history of the universe! Who would have expected that? And after her talk, copies From the Place of the Gathering Light: Leelanau Pieces flew off the sales counter. 

Whenever I’m tempted to say the weather is or was “hot,” as it was on Wednesday, I am always reminded of a friend (you are gone but not forgotten, Chris) who forbade the use of that word in northern Michigan. He would allow his friends to say “warm,” when summer finally came after a long northern winter, but no complaining, ever! Whatever you call temperatures in the 90s, I was relieved when a cold front moved in Wednesday evening, so that the Artist’s gallery space on Thursday, even filled to overflowing, remained comfortable. 

If you missed the event, a few signed copies are still available, along with signed copies of Stocking's previous book (her third of four), The Long Arc of the Universe—Travels Beyond the Pale, which I highly recommend you read, also. In short, it was a glorious evening!

[Note on refreshments (skip if not interested): The event series is still called TEA, but I’ve switched to punch this summer. We had “library punch” for Jennifer Clark (Vernor’s and white grape juice — always good), and for Kathleen I modified a punch recipe that is so good that it needs a name of its own. Nancy Giles makes her punch with frozen orange juice, frozen lemonade, pineapple juice, 7-Up, water, vanilla extract, and almond extract. My modification was the substitution of Vernor’s for 7-Up, and because of that change I omitted the almond extract. Sorry not to include measurements here, but I kind of winged it on those, reducing the amount of Vernor’s and water and trusting on melting ice to make up for it. Tip on Note: Don’t add all the carbonated liquid at once, but add a more gradually as the ice melts to keep the kick in the punch.]

Friday morning was beautiful, too, and, with Bruce opening the bookstore for me, I treated myself to a leisurely late rising and unrushed garden-watering session. Forget Shakespeare’s sonnet about June — it’s July that is bringing perfect days to northern Michigan this year. Perfect morning for farmers market on Friday. Perfect evening for Music in the Park. Perfect all day long for strolling around the village to admire garden blooms.

Perfect days for relaxing with good books, too, so steal the time, one way or another. I look forward to these future TEA guests at my bookstore in Northport.

Authors and books still to come this summer

P.S. Today's title was taken from this poem

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Novel Worth Reading, Physical Copy NOT Incredibly Valuable

Where are we?
Whoever wrote the entry on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in Merriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature offers a pretty opinionated view of the writer’s work: 
Rawlings took her material from the people and land around her, and her books are less fiction than vivid factual reporting.
Really? Is that shocking? Did F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway not take their material from people and places familiar to them? Willa Cather and Eudora Welty? Marcel Proust? John Steinbeck? I could go on and on, but so could you, I’m sure. 

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was born in 1896, and her first novel, South Moon Under, written from her rural home in Cross Creek in interior northern Florida, was published 1933. The writer of the Encyclopedia of Literature piece acknowledges the author’s “magical description of the landscape” of the area in and around Cross Creek, brought to the attention of other Americans in her most famous novel, The Yearling. But it’s South Moon Under I’ve been reading — for the first time — and on the very first page the Florida scrub habitat springs to life:
Light still hung raggedly above the hammock west of the cleared acres. Here and there a palm shook its head against the faint orange of the sky, or the varnished small leaves of a live oak were for a moment luminous. There was an instant when the hammock reared back against the west; when the outline of each tree-top was distinct; when the clearing gathered about it the shreds of twilight. Then there was no longer scrub or clearing or hammock. Blackness obliterated them with a great velvet paw and crouched like a panther on the cabin doorstep.  
- Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, South Moon Under
I can see the palm tree shaking its head and then the black velvet paw of the panther blotting out the trees and everything else. Rawlings does indeed capture the uniqueness of the scrub habitat, its moods and effects on moods as well as its flora and fauna. 

But her artistry does not end there. All the while as you are reading along, lulled by scenery and character and dialect and the small events that form the society of the Florida scrub, a world completely different from the one most of us inhabit (and all the more so in that she was describing it as it was over eight decades ago), Rawlings is building a subtle, almost invisible narrative arc. My opinion is that this surprising first novel has been terribly underrated and deserves far more serious attention. 

I want to turn my attention now, however, to the physical book in my hands and ask you to look at it with me. How can this possibly be a first edition, although the Scribner’s “A” is there on the copyright page?

Look carefully at the pages. The type is not crisp and clear. The binding, however, is in excellent condition, though, isn’t it? For a book from 1933, without a dust jacket, to look so good is -- or would be, if it were that old -- astonishing. Sure enough, when we search online we find that the cloth binding of the first edition was light green, not dark blue, thus the volume that came into my hands is a modern reprint masquerading as a first edition. What individual or company is responsible for its production? There is no hint in or on the book. 

Book piracy is rampant online, and there are few protections against it. Know your book dealer!

Coming soon: Thoughts about literary regionalism. Do you have questions about it?

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Who Doesn’t Love a Mirror?

Christine threw the library books on the bed with a slam. According to Cousin Henrietta, there lay the cause of the whole trouble.  
“Books! Why don’t you take an interest in something else for a change?” 
- Stairway to the Sky, by Marguerite Dickson

It’s hard to tell much about a very old hardcover library book without a dust jacket, especially one with an unfamiliar title, but this time I recognized the author’s name, so I looked inside, where — luckily for me — some librarian in the mid-20th century had pasted onto the half-title page the front flyleaf of the original dust jacket, giving this tantalizing information about the story: Stairway to the Sky was a book recommended for (presumably girls) ages 12-18, and the central character a young woman, gone to live with cousins in Brooklyn, who wants nothing more than to be a writer. When she has the good fortune to be offered a job in a small Brooklyn bookshop, her Cousin Retta is not pleased! Here’s a bit of dialogue from the second chapter:

“Ruffles,” she said. “Dinky little ruffles. It’s not my idea of suitability, since you ask me. What kind of place is this you are going to work in, anyway? And haven’t you got a proper blouse to wear?” 
“Oh, it’s just a bookshop, a little bookshop, tucked into a corner of one of those old brick buildings on Fulton Street just before you get down to Borough Hall….”

-- “Just a bookshop, a little bookshop, tucked into a corner”!

Only last week I re-read once again Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop, a novel set in Brooklyn and published just after World War I, a story I’ve been reading and re-reading ever since my parents received it, along with its predecessor and companion novel, Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels, as Book-of-the-Month Club selections when they were reprinted in the 1950s. Every proprietor of every shop that deals in secondhand books has read Morley, I’ll wager, and I sometimes suspect he bears heavy responsibility in the afterlife for getting us all into this business in the first place. That is not to cast blame, of course. More like expressing gratitude.

Authors love bookstores, too!
Going back now, though, to Marguerite Dickson’s Stairway to the Sky, published in 1950 and also set in Brooklyn, I wonder — were the Fifties a Golden Age of Bookstores in America? Of Brooklyn bookshops? 

Mid-century was certainly some kind of golden age of books for teens, both boys and girls. Adolescent novels back then did not plunge their young readers into dystopic realms — a dark future just around the corner — but kept to the mundane, fascinating, burning questions of school, dating and career dreams, always with a satisfyingly happy resolution by the time the last page was reached. In the case of this novel of Dickson’s, surely our heroine, Christine, will get a grip on her emotions (and her hormones, unmentioned in the book) and realize that she can never be happy with take-over Hugo, who keeps insisting that she give up not only her bookstore job but also her writing dreams to settle down in the suburbs as his stay-at-home wife! 

I suppose it’s only natural that so many women who have written books for girls often wrote about girls who wanted to grow up and write books. Think of Jo in Little Women as the prime example. (Was she the first?) Remember how she tells Laurie she cannot marry him because he would come to hate her “scribbling”? Writing girls are plentiful in teen stories, while writing boys seem concentrated more in adult-level coming-of-age novels. Bookstore girls and boys, on the other hand — how many of those do you remember? I was surprised and delighted the other day to discover Dickson’s Christine!

And is it only my imagination, or has there been a recent resurgence of novels set in bookshops, movies with bookstore themes or at least key scenes set in bookshops? Any number of nonfiction books about small town bookstores around the world? Can it be, as the Age of Terror induced by the Online Behemoth dies down somewhat and people rediscover their neighborhoods again and the treasures right in their own backyards, that we are entering a new Golden Age of Independent Bookstores? 

Naturally, I’d love to think so. Be that as it may, happy Independence Day to you!
P.S. As for that fabled bookstore aroma, you can find the explanation here in a post by my good friend, retired bookseller Helen Selzer — I wish Helen would return to writing her blog. I miss her thoughts on books and movies. Helen?

(Thank you, Bill Coohon!!!)

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Allow Me to Recommend a Book For Your Consideration

I have never asked a bookseller for a book recommendation. Disclosing desires and expectations to a stranger whose only connection to me is, in abstract, the book, seems too much like Catholic confession, if only a more intellectualized version of it. Dear bookseller, I would like to read a novel about the banal pursuit of carnal desire, which ultimately brings unhappiness to the ones who pursue it, and to everyone else around them. A novel about a couple trying to rid themselves of each other, and at the same time trying to save the little tribe they have so carefully, lovingly, and painstakingly created. They are desperate and confused, dear bookseller; don’t judge them. I need a novel about two people who simply stop understanding each other…. 
- Valerie Luiselli, Lost Children Archive

As a bookseller myself, I am perhaps oddly cautious about recommending books. I absolutely never tell anyone they should or, worse — God forbid! must read something, but my reticence goes further than that. Even when directly asked for to make a recommendation, I counter gently with a general question of my own, such as, “What kind of books do you like to read?” Because there’s no point in recommending a tome on history or economics to someone looking for light fiction or vice versa. And I cannot think of a single book, no matter how extraordinarily wonderful, that would do as a recommendation for anyone and everyone. Often I’ll go so far as to say that I enjoyed or even loved a particular book and to suggest that the person looking for something to read might also enjoy or even love it because, giving a few of my reasons, which might or not be reasons for that other person, but I never insist. There is no better way, I believe, to put someone off a book by trying to trap or shame them into reading it. Years ago, a man visiting my bookstore who learned I had not, at that time, yet read Kristin Lavransdatter told me, in these very words, actually (I kid you not!) shaking his finger as he scolded, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Rather than rushing to mend this fault in my character, I avoided reading the book for years, seeing that horrible man’s scolding face whenever the title came up in conversation or a copy of the novel came, briefly, into my hands. 

No, no, there are books I wish more people would read, but I refuse to present reading them as a duty.

I will, however, if asked — and occasionally without being asked, as I do in today’s post — recommend a book for someone’s consideration on the basis of my own fascination with it. So if your interests and reading tastes preferences are similar to mine, you might be moved to try it, and if it’s not up your alley at all, for whatever reason, you’ve saved time by finding that out, too. Although I’m not sure, now that I think about that…. Maybe if it sounds like something you wouldn’t care for, I’ve somehow misrepresented it? I certainly hope that won’t be the case today!

…We order four hamburgers and four pink lemonades and spread our map out on the table while we wait for the food. We follow yellow and red highway lines with the tips of our index fingers, like a troupe of gypsies reading an enormous open palm. We look into our past and future: a departure, a change, long life, short life, hard circumstances, here you will head south, here you will encounter doubt and uncertainty, a crossroads ahead.

Brief digression: Years ago I sat at a table in a bar with a group of other graduate students in philosophy, and one of the group, a student from another country (the young man from Spain or Otto from Finland?) asked innocently, of a song playing on the jukebox just then, what "City of New Orleans" was about. Well, ask eight philosophers what anything in this world is about and prepare yourself for a perfect storm of disputation! 

I think of that evening and the philosophical discussion that ensued because Lost Children Archive could be characterized in so many ways. In the most basic and simple sense, it is the story of a road trip, as a couple married for four years, his young son, and her even younger daughter set out on a cross-country road trip from New York to the American Southwest. They travel first in a southerly direction, then in South Carolina begin their westward trek. Their progress is unhurried, as they take time to sight-see along the way. In the car they listen to audiobooks and music but always remain attuned to towns and landscapes they are passing through, parts of the country they have never seen before. Road trip. That’s the simplest, shortest way to describe the book.

Of course, there’s much, much more to it.

Right at the beginning we learn that the man and woman share an unusual career. She is a sound “documentarian” (her word), he a “documentarist” (his word). Both record and assemble documentary soundscapes. They first met on a project in New York, where their assignment was to go about the city and record as many of the world’s spoken languages as they could find. The different names they give to what they do, however, indicate differences in both background experience and what kind of projects they want to take on in the future, differences that put their future as a couple in doubt. Will they remain together or part to go in different directions? That is one of the relationship questions posed by the novel.

At Chiricahua National Monument
Their travel destination is one the man has chosen for a new project he has conceived on “echoes” of the Apaches who lived in the Chiricahua Mountains in southeast Arizona, and the woman has realized that she can expand new work she began with immigrant children in New York to an exploration of the situation of undocumented children along the border with Mexico. In that way, their separate projects can be pursued in parallel, at least for a while, once the family reaches the Southwest. As they makes its way toward what they mistakenly believe to be Fort Still, Oklahoma — learning of their error only when they arrive, which seems strange, because wouldn’t they have seen it written as Fort Sill on their maps? Yet we often see what we expect to see rather than what is before our eyes — the woman begins to see a way in which the separate projects may actually overlap, at least for her. As the man tells the children about the Indian Removal Act,
I don’t interrupt his story to say so out loud, but the word “removal” is still used today as a euphemism for “deportation.” I read somewhere, though I don’t remember where, that removal is to deportation what sex is to rape. When an “illegal” immigrant is deported nowadays, he or she is, in written history, “removed.” I take my recorder from the glove compartment and start recording my husband, without him or anyone noticing. His stories are not directly linked to the piece I’m working on, but the more I listen to the stories he tells about this country’s past, the more it seems like he’s talking about the present. 

art on border wall at Douglas, AZ
And so, the novel is also about American history and American current events, Apache history, history of the Western frontier (and the myth of the frontier and the vanished frontier), about U.S.-Mexican history, the current situation on the border, immigration, and more. With makers of sound documentaries at its center, documents and documentation and archives form another general theme of the book, specific needed documents also being what the immigrant children, at risk of being “removed,” too often lack. And it is about what makes families and what holds them together. There are also two very specific "lost children," two girls, undocumented, that the woman has been asked by their mother to look for in New Mexico or Arizona. 

The main characters are referred to simply as “the man,” “the woman,” “the boy,” and “the girl” throughout the novel. We are never given their names. The woman tells the story -- thus we have more physical descriptions of the other three, more of the woman’s thoughts as they travel -- but we see and hear them all as they interact. The boy, ten years old, is learning to use a camera, undertaking his own documentation of their trip. The five-year-old girl, full of life, brings a fresh perspective to many moments. [Later note: Halfway through the book, the boy takes over for a while as narrator, and later still voices mingle, in ways and for reasons I leave you to discover for yourself.]

All this “about” talk, though, tells you nothing of the spellbinding narrator’s voice. Indeed, it tells you nothing of the spell cast by the the story of the trip itself, deepening with every mile as we learn more of what has brought these people to where they are and what propels them forward into their uncertain future, as we share their experiences along the road. 

For a reader without deep concerns about immigration or border security or lost children (though I ask myself, who could that reader possibly be?), Luiselli’s novel can/could be read for the innovative and yet somehow timeless beauty of the writing. That would be reading at the level of enjoyment. Deeper still, one can read the story (as I’m sure most will) for both its contemporary and historical context. 

Finally, then, a personal note, one that comes very early on in the novel:

Finally, one night, my husband spread the big map out on our bed and called the children and me into our room. He swiped the tip of his index finger from New York all the way down to Arizona, and then tapped twice on a point, a tiny dot in the southeastern corner of the state. He said:
Here, what? the boy asked.
Here are the Chiricahua Mountains, he said.
And? the boy asked.
And that is the heart of Apacheria, he answered.

There it is, you see, for me. It all comes together for me, as it seems to be coming together (I am as yet not halfway through the novel) for the woman telling the story: the Chiricahuas (Echo Canyon), the Dos Cabezas, the Dragoons (Cochise Stronghold); Cochise and Geronimo and Lozen and U.S. policy with Native Americans from the beginning of our country's history; the U.S. border with Mexico; immigration and immigrants without documents and the lost immigrant children; where we’ve been as a nation, where we are now, and where we’re going; the sights and sounds and roads and small towns and big cities across this land. It’s all here. It’s all in this book.

north of border

south of border

You might want to think about reading Lost Children Archive. If you love it only half as much as I do, it will be well worth your time.

July 1 postscriptThe only part of the book that really bothered me was reading about Cochise being buried at Fort Sill. He wasn't. His grave is not there and never was. Cochise died in Arizona and was buried somewhere in the Stronghold, by Apaches, in an unmarked grave. When the fictional family in the book is on the road, on their way west, they think they are going to Fort Still — they have the name wrong — and that took me aback, but it’s their mistake, and when they see the sign they realize their error, so I kept thinking they would correct the part about where Cochise was buried, too, but apparently the author is the one who misinformed her characters on that score. Did she visit Fort Sill? I’d say not. There is so much Apache history in the book, how did she miss the fact that Cochise died before Geronimo and the others were “relocated” by train to Florida? In biographical/historical terms, it’s a serious error. In literary terms, in terms of the length of a book’s life span, maybe it doesn’t matter quite as much. Who am I to say? Historians, as well as living descendants of Cochise today, cannot have the viewpoint of possible heirs of world literature centuries in the future — if civilization lasts that long.

The thing is, I haven't even begun to describe for you the lyrical beauty and the interweaving of life, literature, and documentation that make this book worth your consideration. Please give it a try!

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Recent Reading Serendipity

There as many kinds of readers as there are kinds of people and as many different ways to sort them into groups, too. Today I’m thinking of the preferences readers exhibit when it comes to new vs. old books. Some want only new releases and disdain anything old, while others restrict their reading to works on “classics” list, the older the better, and find nothing worthwhile in current literature. Some seek only books fresh and crisp from publisher or distributor, while others may prefer rich leather-bound volumes or even content themselves with dog-eared paperbacks, as long as they can find a book that has passed through the hands of various owners. Many are the happy approaches to building a personal library!

Personally, I can never rule out a book simply on the basis of its age or even its condition. That beat-up paperback volume of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle that accompanied me across the Great Plains and prairies of the continent on our spring odyssey home to Michigan from the Southwest conveniently broke along its spine into two separate pieces, halving the bulk I needed to carry — first the first half, and then the second as I progressed through the book — in and out of the car and at various stopping places along our route. A large, handsomely bound Voyage would not have suited my traveling needs nearly as well. When at last, home again, I finished with the story, I made the two halves fast together with a rubber band and set the whole aside for a friend, having promised it to her as a hand-me-down. I hope she appreciates its condition suits her as well as it suited me. 

On the other hand, every year sees the advent of wonderful new titles, and I wouldn’t want to miss a treasure simply because it wasn’t available in an old form. It’s always a holiday when Dan the UPS man arrives with a new book order from my distributor. A box of books to open! Though I made out the order myself, when the box arrives I am as excited as if I hadn’t been expecting it. And then, sometimes, a new book comes “over the transom,” as it were. Do you know that expression? Does it bring an image to your mind?

Two recent book discoveries have brightened my reading life, if I can call “discoveries” what it was my good fortune to encounter when not even searching. One was a new book, the other old.

Flesh and Stones: Field Notes From a Finite World, by Jan Shoemaker, came to me as an inscribed gift from the author after she visited my bookstore for the first time. Ms. Shoemaker (coincidentally, the same last name as a writer friend I have known for several years now) writes personal essays, and as essays are a favorite genre of mine, and as the book came to me as an unexpected gift, I was eager to begin reading, and her book, I’m happy to say, pleasantly exceeded my hopes and expectations. Many of the the writer’s experiences will be familiar to other women in our general age range, but she brings a depth of reflection and a writerly sensibility such that every piece is gracefully and thoughtfully achieved. A trip to shop for bras with and for her aging mother, who in need of constant care due to Alzheimer’s, offers Shoemaker a startling vision:

I glimpsed the web of my future in the straps and clasps of that impossible bra. Who is less capable than I am of working any apparatus? I have never walked, by my own wits, through a turnstile in any city subway. Where does the token go? I can’t replace an ink cartridge, hang a picture evenly, or reset the clock in my car to daylight saving time. I can just barely manage a bra myself. All those loops and hooks — it’s like playing cat’s cradle just getting dressed. It was no wonder I was crabby when my mom asked where her parents were, why I winced when she whispered, “Am I an orphan?” 
- Jan Shoemaker, Flesh and Stones: Field Notes From a Finite World
Will you be surprised to learn that I ordered copies of Flesh and Stones for my bookstore? Icing on the cake: Shoemaker lives in Okemos, so she’s another Michigan writer I can happily support.

On one of my bookshelves at home I found a slim little paperback I’d apparently begun long ago and set aside during a busy season, so long ago that I had no memory of the pages leading up to my bookmark. So it was fortuitous, this second coming into my life of Where Nests the Water Hen, by the Canadian writer Gabrielle Roy, the author’s charming story of the Tousignants, a large, happy French Canadian family residing on an island in northern Manitoba. The mother is a particularly engaging personality. Here is Luzina coming home from a trip she makes away from home roughly once a year, happy with the success of her journey and grateful to the driver carrying her toward home:

When they were tired of talking, they rested by reflecting on the pleasant things that had been said. Her life, at the only times when she could give it much thought, while she was jolting along on her travels, seemed truly wonderful…. 
Abe Zlutkin [her driver] took advantage of an interval when the road was a trifle less slippery to show her a photo of his wife. It portrayed a plump young Jewish woman of dark complexion. Abe bethought himself that he loved her dearly. For a moment the business he was in such a hurry to transact ceased tormenting him. Such was Luzina’s power. She disposed people to become aware that they had reasons for being happy. 
- Gabrielle Roy, Where Nests the Water Hen

It is not at all irrelevant to my delight in these two books that both authors describe settings in detail, Shoemaker her natural surroundings wherever she travels as well as at home, Roy the familiar habitat of her native Manitoba. That means a lot to me in much of my reading for pleasure. 

Here is another snippet from Jan Shoemaker:
…If you climb behind Olson Waterfall in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you hear the brash staccato of water vaulting before your glistening face into a big half-kettle hollowed from shelves of sandstone. Later, retracing your steps below fifty-foot ledges of mossy rock, you pick up the slippery vowels of its creek, chuckling over pebbles and fallen limbs.

And from the wilds of northern Manitoba, in the words of Gabrielle Roy:
Hippolyte … went off to take a stroll along the shore of the Big Water Hen. At its middle the river ran free; outside the current it was encumbered with sedges. They spread everywhere, gaining ground from year to year, just as did the crops elsewhere, the tilth, the forest — a country really made for the birds. Each year they came from the depths of Florida, two thousand miles as a bird flies, hastening and following a cunning course in order to reach this sure asylum! Perhaps more than two thousand miles! The mother birds must have remembered the water which came halfway up the length of the rushes. Here were the finest hiding-places in the world in which to have their ducklings when they first began to swim….
Two very different books -- one fiction, one nonfiction -- set in two different north American countries, one in Manitoba’s remote North, the other in Michigan’s most populated corner. Both beautifully written by women with a strong sense of character and of place, and it was only by serendipity that their paths crossed as they came into my early summer reading life this year. 

May you have similar good reading fortune! And remember that the best way to find these surprises is to put yourself in a promising environment....

Monday, June 17, 2019

A Bookish Look Back: In Defense of Lists

Seems like just yesterday that Sarah was a pup
Conversation in the bookstore occasionally turns to the question of lists. The question, more specifically, is: “Do you keep lists of the books you’ve read?” I did not always do so but have now for quite a while, because it’s just too embarrassing to be a bookseller and be unable to remember the title of a book or name of an author one wants to recommend! This morning I looked back at my first list and see that I began the practice in 2009, about 15 months after my first post on “Books in Northport.” 

Bonnie Jo Campbell and me
Since I have been a re-reader almost as long as I’ve been a reader, there are old, familiar names of favorite authors on that list from 2009: Alexander McCall Smith, Farley Mowat, Georges Simenon, Louis Slobodkin, Elizabeth Enright, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Barbara Ehrenreich, Alfred Kazin, and Annie Dillard are there, and so are Michigan’s Mardi Link and Jim Harrison and Bonnie Jo Campbell. James Joyce’s Ulysses is on the list, telling me that 2009 must have been the inaugural year of a little reading circle that will discuss pre-World War I Vienna this July. 

Trudy, Steve, me at one (raucous?) reading circle meeting
Novels Forever Island and Allapatah, by Patrick Smith, remind me that we spent a couple of late winter months that year in Aripeka, Florida. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, is on the list, and I recall my grudging reluctance before that thick volume with the forbidding title — taken on only at the bidding of another book group to which I belonged for a couple of years — and my subsequent delight in the story and gratitude to the friend who had urged it on the group. U.P. Hedrick’s Land of the Crooked Tree was a book the Artist and I read aloud to each other, transporting ourselves nightly from the Florida Gulf Coast to the America’s other “Third Coast,” that of the Great Lakes. Which is third and which is fourth? I’ll leave that quarrel to others. 

It was in 2009 that I read Lisa Genova’s brilliant novel, Still Alice, a book I have not (yet) re-read but one that remains vivid in my mind for the way the author manages to convey the confusions of Alzheimer’s disease from the viewpoint not of a family member but of the sufferer herself. I also read Doug Stanton’s extraordinary Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, the images Doug’s writing conjured up in my head much clearer still, at ten years remove, from the movie version of the book. 

I read Harrison’s In Search of Small Gods, which came out that year. There would be still more poetry from Jim following that collection, for we had Jim among us (in a literary sense, although he no longer lived in Michigan) for several more years.

A few classics stand out: Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons; The Count of Monte Cristo, by Dumas (the Artist’s favorite story when he was a young man); Stendahl’s Le Rouge et Le Noir (not at all what I expected), all first readings for me; as well as the careful group re-reading of Joyce’s Ulysses. There were several books about dogs, both fiction and nonfiction (Sarah was still very much a puppy then), and one about a woman’s pioneer experience in the American West, a theme that has recurred in subsequent lists. I read Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks — and went on to read three more novels by Brooks in subsequent years. I read J. B. Priestley’s English Journey (1934) for the first time and have re-read it since. I rediscovered with great pleasure a favorite from my adolescence, Mrs. Mike

Besides serving as a record, my “Books Read” lists for each year take me back to where I was at that time in my life, vicarious experiences from books, always, blending with the experiences of my “real” life. Thus titles from 2009 take me back to Aripeka, Florida; to Sarah’s young-dog days; to the beginnings of one book group and the memory of another no longer active; to first acquaintances and deepening friendships with various Michigan writers; and to Sunny Schwartz with her Dreams from the Monster Factory and Rebecca K. O’Connor’s Lift: A Memoir. With Schwartz I met incarcerated men looking for redemption; with O’Connor I flew hawks! And there was Gustav Niebuhr, who urged me (and other readers, of course) to go Beyond Tolerance in building bridges with Americans of different faiths and opinions. 

Most of the titles on my list from ten years ago stir memories. A few, I admit, leave me blank. I see a certain title and ask myself what the book was about, and I may never remember, but it’s also possible that I’ll run across the book again someday and a little light will turn on to illuminate some dark corridor of memory. 

In general, my life is not organized enough to qualify as compulsive, and much of what I thought of (or tried to ingrain in myself) as habit has fallen away over the years, but my “Books Read” lists have acquired increased value to me as time has gone by, and I am very glad to have them. They are like photo albums or like physical books lined up on my shelves, a harvest of pleasure and learning it would be painful to lose.