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Friday, November 15, 2019

“Snowvember” at the Bookstore in Northport

Front page local news!
Photo of the front page of our local weekly newspaper is at the top of today's post just so you know I didn’t make up the name "Snowvember" for Leelanau’s first month of the 2019-2020 winter. Snow varied from one part of the county to another, but everyone got somewhere between two and three feet. Not what we expect in November, with leaves still on the trees and field corn still on the stalks. No one was ready for it. 

People have been reading and laughing at and saying they love the little sign on the bookstore door that says “Closed Sundays & Mondays are iffy.” (They almost always say aloud what they've just read, "Mondays are iffy," as they come in the door.) Because of the snowstorm that began Sunday night and continued without letup through Tuesday, however, this week it was Wednesday before we could get to Waukazoo Street and shovel our way into Dog Ears Books, but that was okay, because we were on hand Wednesday and Thursday when Dan, Dan, the UPS man, came through the door with boxes of new books. 


Among other titles, that book delivery included a fresh supply of Wintercake for Saturday, when the weather promises to be clear and Lynne Rae Perkins, our favorite young children’s author, will come to Northport to sign books. I can’t think of a better holiday gift for the little ones and the whole family than this newest Perkins charmer. If littlest ones insist on “own books!” to hold while Grandma or Grandpa reads the Wintercake story aloud, we also offer irresistible little board books by Eric Carle, Sandra Boynton, and others. 




So -- one more time -- that's tomorrow, Saturday, beginning at 2 p.m., when you’ll want to come to visit with the always delightful Lynne Rae Perkins and have her inscribe a copy for you of her delightfully delicious new children's book, Wintercake

Also, because the last day of our bookstore season will be Saturday, November 30, the last new book order I’ll be sending in will be next Monday, so if there is anything you want me to order, either for you or for a gift you want to give to someone else, please get that title to me by Saturday, Nov. 16, as well. 

Again, that’s Saturday, Nov. 16, for last book orders of the season and Saturday, Nov. 16, for Lynne Rae Perkins book signing.

And it's Saturday, Nov. 30, for your last book-shopping day on Waukazoo Street!!! Note that we will be open (barring another severe blizzard!) on both Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving Day, so whether you are shopping for holiday gifts or (if you are one of those who eschews holiday gift-giving) simply taking this rich opportunity to treat yourself, we will be most happy to welcome you, help you select books, and wish you a good rest of the winter, wherever you plan to spend the months ahead while your local bookseller takes her annual seasonal retirement in the Southwest. 

But you don't have to hold back on coming today, either. It's Friday, lights are going up on the village tree, the sun is peeking out from the clouds from time to time, and the bookstore is open NOW, so by all means pay us a visit!


Monday, November 11, 2019

Love Takes Many Forms


Never before have I fallen in love with a font, or even thought of so doing, but now that previously unconsidered possibility has become reality. I write not of the font I use to compose these sentences, Bookman Old Style, although I appreciate it and am glad to have fallen upon it after one reader years ago complained gently of another I had been experimenting with using. No, the object of my new but deep regard can be seen in the photograph at the top of this post. The name of the type is Poliphilus. I will quote from the note on the type at the end of the book:
Poliphilus had its origin in the singularly beautiful roman type cut by Francesco da Bologna for the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, issued in 1499 by Aldus Manutius (1450-1515).

Who deserved the greater share of credit for the invention of italic type, Aldus (the printer) or Francesco (the typecutter)? And who was Francesco, anyway? And does the name italic derive from — Italy, its home ground? If these questions intrigue you, let them guide your researches. For now, and for myself, I prefer to remain in the company of these beautiful pages of the illustrated edition (my copy a later printing of the 1927 edition) of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.

The type I am admiring is large and bold and clear. The serifs (and I love a serif) are minimal but not, thank heaven, omitted; letters are uncrowded, words and sentences easily read. At the same time, certain elegances of style make themselves noticed: the 'st' diphthong gracefully conjoined, for example, and the hyphen, rather than a dull horizontal, tipped obliquely upward in the direction of the reader’s progress.

Nor does the beauty end with the font. Every page is visually delightful, honoring the author’s work. Harold Von Schmidt, a California-born painter of Western scenes who was in 1968 awarded the first gold medal given by the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, spent two years on the illustrations for this special edition of Cather’s novel. They were unlike his own more characteristic work (realistic illustrations of cowboys and horses, a world he knew firsthand), but the quiet dignity and peacefulness of the images on these pages are such that the story could not have been better served by any other style.


And the physical pages themselves! Look closely at the quality of the paper — at least, as much as you can detect in a photographic image presented to you on a lighted screen. Can you see the watermark? At the end of the note on type we find —
Composed, printed and bound by The Plimpton Press, Norwood, Mass. Paper made by S. D. Warren Co., Boston.

Ah, well, and of course there is the story itself, the novel some critics have said is not a novel at all (a criticism leveled also at Sarah One Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs). The main character, the fictional Jean Marie Latour, who came from France as a missionary in the Great Lakes region in the mid-nineteenth century, is based on the historical personage of Father Lamy, who with his fellow seminarian Father Macheboeuf spent years in New Mexico. The latter goes by the name of Valiant in the novel. The cathedral  Archbishop Lamy dreamed of building in Santa Fe stands there now, its golden hue fulfilling the fictional French padre’s dream for his flock. 

As was true in My Antonia, the author interrupts the main character’s story with stories of other minor characters, many of these interruptions self-contained and not necessarily adding to anything like a plot — but then, aren’t our lives like that? We remember knowing someone briefly and recalling a story that pinned that person in memory, and that story, unconnected to the ongoing narrative of our life, nevertheless holds its place. As Father Latour, now the retired archbishop, finally lies dying “of having lived,” he relives episodes of his life that stand out as if still present and ongoing. 

It is true, as the critics say, that Latour’s character does not “develop,” in the sense of changing over time. He is more or less himself from beginning to end. At a certain point, doubts of life’s meaning darken his way for a while, but basically he remains the man we meet in the beginning of the novel, and the same is true of his life-long friend, Father Vaillant. The two men are bound by memories of their youth and their homeland, as well as years of work together, but a time of parting finally arrives when Father Vaillant is called north to the rude Gold Rush settlement, and he goes eagerly.
Yes, [Latour] reflected, as he went quietly to his own room, there was a great difference in their natures. Wherever he [Father Vaillant] went, he soon made friends that took the place of country and family. But Jean [Father Latour], who was at ease in any society and always the flower of courtesy, could not form new ties. It had always been so. He was like that even as a boy; gracious to everyone, but known to a very few. 
Vaillant greets every new person he meets with excited enthusiasm, while Latour hides his dismay with impeccable manners. They remind of two little boys I know. Arriving at the playground to find other children there, one grumbles with a frown, “Oh, no! Other people!” while the other rejoices, “Oh, good, we can make new friends!” I imagine these differences will remain in their characters as they grow to manhood.

Cather came along too late in history to meet the historical Lamy and Macheboeuf, but not too late to fall in love with New Mexico, and that love shines through every line of description, whether she is describing a mountain blizzard, cottonwoods along a dry riverbed, apricots in the priest’s garden, or the peace to be found sometimes in his church. In fact, she makes us feel the way the way all these scenes are bound together.
He fitted the great key into its lock, the door swung slowly back on its wooden hinges. The peace without seemed all one with the peace in his own soul. The snow had stopped, the gauzy clouds that had ribbed the arch of heaven were now all sunk into one soft white fog bank over the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The full moon shone high in the blue vault, majestic, lonely, benign. The Bishop stood in the doorway of his church, lost in thought, looking at the line of black footprints his departing visitor had left in the wet scurf of snow.



Friday, November 8, 2019

Book Review: MOON OF THE CRUSTED SNOW

Snow was falling in Northport on Thursday afternoon, sometimes blowing horizontally down Waukazoo Street, with the temperature hovering right around the freezing mark when one of my customers arrived to pick up her special order. The book she had ordered sounded so intriguing that I’d ordered a second copy, and later that afternoon I began reading. 

The central character, Evan Whitesky, up in northern Ontario, is on the trail of a moose.
He had been out since early morning and had been tracking this particular bull since around noon. The fall hunt was drawing to a close, and he still wanted to put more food away. Food from the South was expensive and never so good, or as satisfying, as the meat he could bring in himself.  
- Waubgeshig Rice, Moon of the Crusted Snow
Evan takes pride in providing for his partner and their two young children. An accomplished hunter and fisherman, he has put away enough protein for the winter to have plenty to share with his parents, and when Evan joins his father in cleaning a hide, the two men envision future moccasins. The Whitesky family is better prepared than some others on the reserve for life without hydro power.

A missing satellite signal brings the first hardship: no morning television for the children and no Internet signal for their elders. Electric power lasts a little longer before it too goes out, but people on the remote, isolated reserve have experienced power outages before and know how to cope until the electricity comes back on. They remind each other that the old ones in times past lived without electric lights and television. When there is no signal for their cell phones, some still have landlines — until these, too, fall dead.

It is the beginning of winter, so the Council needs to plan for the future as well as for the immediate situation. Without regular deliveries of fuel and food from the South, they have enough diesel to run a generator until late February, if everyone cooperates in conserving energy, and with foresight they have stockpiled a cache of canned foods for just this sort of emergency, but surviving the immediate emergency is only the first step, and the future is unclear.
Three more cold nights passed. The generator power would only last so long. The chief called another emergency meeting at the band office…. There was still no communication with anyone in the outside world.
The world of the novel is circumscribed from the outset. Its remote backstory is one of displacement — from the Great Lakes region to the south, the people had been forced to the harsher north — the nearer backstory one of dependence on regular deliveries of groceries and fuel. But that was then, and this is now, and the demands of now throw the people back on traditional ways of life and traditional values that some have been practicing all along and others need to learn.

Peshawbestown dancers in Northport

Evan has been going to school, informally, with his elders: learning the people’s language, he and Nicole are teaching it to their children, and, somewhat awkwardly, using the native words he knows interspersed with English, he speaks traditional prayers on the appropriate occasions. His parents’ knowledge of old ways is augmented by stories and lessons given him by the band’s oldest member, a woman in her late eighties. He hunts and shares with those in need, and he is learning to pray.
Aileen brought the flickering orange light under the carefully piled sage in the shell, and the medicine caught fire. She let it burn for a few seconds before blowing it out. Thick grey smoke billowed from the shell….

One-way “contact” with the outside world comes only three times in the novel, in quietly escalating pitch. First, a homecoming: Two young members of the band arrive on snowmobiles, having fled the chaos of the town below, which is also without power or grid infrastructure and where people are panicking and growing violent. Next, an intruder: A large, dangerous-looking white man, Justin Scott, has followed the trail of the returning young men and requests asylum, promising to pull his weight on the hunt. Finally, a while later, four more white refugees turn up and are taken in, nominally by the band, more immediately by Scott. What will the presence of these outsiders, especially the frightening and mysterious Scott, mean in this tight-knit community?

Words and phrases of Anishinaabemowin are a natural fit in Rice’s characters’ speech and are generally translated immediately, so a reader unfamiliar with the language can understand and perhaps learn a little along the way. Dreams are handled naturally, as well, either told by one dreamer to another character or presented without transition but also without confusion. When the legendary windigo enters the story, it does so naturally and quietly at first, without undue drama and literary special effects, so that we are gradually prepared for its full-blown presence.

Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow, like Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, imagines a world suddenly bereft of electricity, electronic and digital devices, and energy systems we take for granted in our daily lives, but the imagined worlds of the two novels are very different. In the Mandel novel, we roam cities and countryside with groups of wandering Shakespearean players, a “family” brought together by interest and necessity rather than inheritance, and in the end the world as we know it is restored. The people in Rice’s world, many of them related to each other by blood, remain in place. We follow their lives in that place through the first hard winter and leave them in the spring following their second winter, the latter — and the longer-term future — left to our imaginations. 

Both novels, you might say, are stories of post-apocalyptic survival, but Rice’s character Aileen dismisses the apocalyptic notion. She has heard of the notion from young people but puts no credence in it.
“Yes, apocalypse! What a silly word. I can tell you there’s no word like that in Ojibwe. Well, I never heard a word like that from my elders, anyway. 
Evan nodded, giving the elder his full attention. 
“The world isn’t ending,” she went on. “Our world isn’t ending. It already ended. It ended when the Zhaagnaash came into our original home down south on that bay and took it from us. That was our world. When the Zhaagnaash cut down all the trees and fished all the fish and forced us out of there, that’s when our world ended. They made us come all the way up here. This is not our homeland! But we had to adapt and luckily we already knew how to hunt and live on the land. We learned to live here.” 
We’ve always survived, and we always will, Aileen tells Evan. 

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States presents the past of the North American continent from a perspective not taught in schools with curricula set in place by whites, and Moon of the Crusted Snow presents a possible future from a non-white point of view — one possible non-white point of view, of course. That Rice’s compelling story is told in beautiful language with sympathetic characters in a setting not difficult to imagine as the first real snow blows into northern Michigan seared it into my brain, and I recommend it for your winter reading, wherever you live and whatever your ethnic background or connection to the virtual world.

Our reading world is enriched as more voices come to be heard in fiction from different cultural, ethnic, and historical perspectives. 





Wednesday, November 6, 2019

A Bookseller Reads a Magazine

[Images unrelated to today's text]

Part I. A Dark Vision!

I’d slipped a slim, aged paperback into my bag before leaving the bookstore that day, but once home a magazine on the table caught my eye. Amazingly — because while I do read a magazine from time to time, it’s as likely to be two or three years old as the book in my bag is to have been published in some long-ago decade — this issue of The Atlantic was current, and the cover story, “What Jeff Bezos Wants,” dark matter with an insulting, impersonal gravity, pulled me into its force field.

Be it here recognized by all my half-dozen readers that when it comes to online shopping, RESIST! is my middle name. That the online behemoth cannot count my household among its far-flung dominion of eager, satisfied vassals. That unsolicited e-mails from the behemoth’s robots are not simply transferred to the very ordinary virtual wastebasket labeled TRASH in my mail program but summarily relegated to the JUNK! file. 

Such is my storm-battered position on a shrinking island which I hold and defend with my very life. Thank heaven the Artist is right there with me! We have chosen to live in the slow lane.

But now I read on. Does anything in the article surprise me? Statistics of the corporation’s market share, internal memos and “Leadership Principles,” punishment of sellers who do not bow to its will, the fact that it pays no federal tax? Infuriating but not either unknown or unsuspected. Thinking of the Pentagon storing all its files in the behemoth’s cloud is alarming in a surreal, nightmarish, downright dystopian way but hardly astonishing. 

For me, though, writer Franklin Foer hits pay dirt when he reveals the ultimate Bezos goal, which is nothing less than the colonization of outer space, made necessary by the ruin and despoliation of earth, that ruin hastened by the glorious, unbounded consumerism encouraged by none other than the behemoth itself. Because, as we all know, earth and its resources are not boundless. Bezos, no fool, recognizes the fact. And so world domination is for him only an intermediate challenge.

Oh, on and on it goes, but read it for yourself: The Atlantic, November 2019, Vol. 324, no. 5, the Tech Issue. Or here it is in paperless form. 

And if steam isn’t coming out of your ears yet, take a look at what this kind of retail does to communities. Yep, huge tax abatements — huge community investments in infrastructure — thousands of tractor trailers a day — roads the towns can’t afford to maintain — millions of dollars of community debt — temp jobs with no security or benefits — until robots replace even the human temp workers. Ask yourself: Do you want to invest in this kind of future? Because our choices will decide the planet's future.




Intermission

That long magazine article brought painful thoughts and memories to mind, but we were meeting friends in town for dinner, so retreating into gloom was not an option. And as we drove through the darkness, my mental clouds lifted. We’re alive. We’re together. We’re here now. Which served as a reminder that everything is temporary and all lives mortal. 


Part II. A Lighter Side

Back home again, later that same evening, I picked up the magazine again and turned to a different article, this time an interview/sketch with and about children’s book author Sandra Boynton, “The Bard of Bedtime.” I’d vaguely heard of Sandra Boynton before but had never focused on her work. Now, however, I learn that she was a student of Maurice Sendak, and I am intrigued. Says the writer of the article, “Boynton’s books oscillate between orders and disarray, wisdom and nonsense.” Boynton addresses her youngest pre-reader children with respect and is not afraid to use a word like “intone” in her minimalist text. She makes every syllable count. Her animals are really people, and not all people or even all kids are the same. 

I read on and on, carefully, skipping not a single word, and long before I reach the end of the article I have resolved to order Sandra Boynton board books the very next day, feeling much better and also feeling confident that I will have appreciative customers for these books in Northport. I can make small contributions in my little world, and this is where I need to put my mental energy.



Intermission

I don’t have anything special to say here but for consistency’s sake another break seemed indicated. Take a deep breath. Look around. What do you think so far? You don’t need to tell me. 


Part III. Everything Ends

The final piece I read in the magazine that night, three narrow columns in length and taking up less than a single page, was about endings, echoing my thoughts up in that first intermission. It was Ben Healy’s “Study of Studies” feature, this one titled “All Good Things …” Yes, all things will come to an end, but “even endings may be better than expected,” Healy finds, and that’s a good reminder, too. Maybe for some among us it’s even more than a reminder. More like a novel insight, one we need to reflect on for a while. 

In the old days, wars used to end, and that was a good thing -- wars ending. I am still curious and still learning but no longer have an obligation to spend my days in a classroom, and I feel good about that. All men are mortal. Socrates was mortal. Socrates died. The biggest ego, the loudest voice, the richest man on earth — all are mortal. As am I. As are you. 

My question (again) is, when our lives end, what kind of world do we want to leave behind?


I could say much more about endings as they relate to books and bookstores and all kinds of businesses, but right now I feel the end of this post approaching. Ah! Here it is! What a relief!


Monday, November 4, 2019

Call Them What You Will

These are not rutabagas.
I’ve been told that one late fall when a boat named the ‘Rising Sun,' a boat that had been carrying a load of rutabagas, went down in Good Harbor in a particularly nasty Lake Michigan storm, rural residents near the shoreline in an area now part of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore lost no time in harvesting the beach.“We ate rutabagas all that winter,” an old-timer reported years later. Lacking variety, certainly, the meals of that lean season were nonetheless filling and nutritious. 

What you call Brassica napobrassica depends on your heritage and where you live. Those Good Harbor foragers called them rutabagas, but the poetically evocative name ‘root of scarcity’ would definitely have been apt, too, as one does not eat rutabagas all winter unless there is not much else available.

Some Finns in the Upper Peninsula call them ‘beggies’ (though I cannot find the nickname online so cannot vouch for the spelling). In the U.P. a pasty is not a pasty without cubed or grated rutabaga added to meat, potatoes, and onions (fruit at one end, for dessert, optional). These are the traditional pasties as the miners’ families brought the recipe from Cornwall. 

Agatha Christie called them mangels in one of her novels, I believe, and if memory serves, Hercule Poirot was hit in the head with one thrown over a fence. I puzzled over that term for years and now find (quickly, online) that the name is short for Mangel-Wurzel. I suppose it’s natural that a German name would transfer to England, imported no doubt by Saxon immigrants. 

Another name for the tuberous root vegetable is swede. Did Norwegians come up with that last? I’ve looked up several details today but am speculating wildly about others. Caveat lector: this blogger has never claimed to be a journalist!

Like winter squash, these large turnip relatives keep well through the winter. Thus in less desperate times, when farm families had plenty of other food put by, stockpiled rutabagas-mangels-swedes, cheap and easy to grow, could be fed to cattle or hogs to get them through the cold season. Hence the name fodder beet. 


Nor are these.



What on earth put rutabagas into my head this morning, when it’s an apple harvest occupying my time away from the bookstore? Procrastination comes in many forms. Why not the form of a rutabaga? Meanwhile, the apple-drying project proceeds in fits and starts, five trays and one day at a time. Little by little wins the race.


Friday, November 1, 2019

Me and Henry Miller and the Michigan Woods

One must come to Eleusis stripped of the barnacles which have accumulated from centuries of lying in stagnant waters. At Eleusis one realizes, if never before, that there is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy. At Eleusis one becomes adapted to the cosmos. Outwardly Eleusis may seem broken, disintegrated with the crumbled past; actually Eleusis is still intact and it is we who are broken, dispersed, crumbling to dust. Eleusis lives, lives eternally in the midst of a dying world. 
- Henry Miller, Colossus of Maroussi
After finally finishing Life in a Mexican Village, by Oscar Lewis, a book I’d begun reading two years ago and set aside for something else and then picked up again -- many times in that long interval -- and then hungrily devouring (though not wanting either to end), one after another, two books I highly recommend, Willa Cather’s My Antonia, written and published over a hundred years ago, and Katey Schultz's just-published and stunning first novel, Still Come Home, I found myself in a somewhat dizzy, head-spinning state of mind (powerful literature can do that to a reader), and I turned for a couple of days to juvenile literature of another era rather in the way one partakes mid-feast of a palate-cleansing sorbet.

I do so love the Moffats! Sometimes I don’t visit them for a few years and then have the joy or discovering them all over again. Dear Janey, the middle Moffat! I am the oldest in my family, not the middle, but I can certainly to Janey’s small but troubling social worries and certainly to her sports cluelessness. I laughed myself silly over the chapter where she “took up” basketball! 

Not long ago a customer in my bookshop was looking for books for a granddaughter, "ten years old but a very good reader, and she likes more old-fashioned stories. Nothing with vampires or the end of the world.” The women shared with me some of the books her granddaughter liked, and I was able to suggest a couple of current children’s books that should fill the bill. After spending some time with Prairie Evers, by Ellen Airgood, and Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea, by Lynne Rae Perkins, the customer happily agreed that they should suit her young reader perfectly. I wonder if that girl has read the Moffat books or others by Eleanor Estes, but she may be aging out of them by now. Well, not that one can ever age out of the Moffats! Once charmed, permanently smitten! And actually, I re-read the books Airgood and Perkins write for young people, too. I find them lots of fun and very good medicine.

The other kid book, Piney Woods, was not a re-read but a first-time read. Like The Middle Moffat, however, it is a story set in a more innocent age, back when a boy could learn to shoot and repair guns and dream of a career as a gunsmith, with absolutely no criminal or terrorist or even political implications implied in the tale. Sigh!

Returning next to grownup books, I didn't focus on a single one and so have been juggling three in the past couple of days and nights: Jim Harrison’s Off to the Side, which I’m enjoying for the second or third time; the Henry Miller quoted above; and Shantyboat by Kent and Margaret Lighty. Note that this last is not the Harlan Hubbard shantyboat story, beginning on the Ohio River across from Cincinnati, but an earlier trip made by a different couple, starting up above St. Paul back in the 1930s. These people, Kent and Margaret Lighty, were more tourists or leisure travelers than the Hubbards, who truly lived off the land and water and bartered along their way and made a whole life of their shantyboat years, but it is pleasant reading, nonetheless. Nothing wrong with simply pleasant reading sometimes, and given the time period of their travels it does offer a window into the history of that era. Shantyboat by Harlan Hubbard, now — that is inspirational reading. But I revisit the Hubbards more frequently so am giving the other couple a turn now at present.

Now, about Henry Miller. Henry Miller is not a member of my personal literary pantheon (though he is a great favorite of the Artist), but in the beginning this particular book had me practically me gasping with admiration for page after page. His descriptions of people he meets in Greece are nothing short of delicious, his long, detailed sentences one mouth-watering course after another! -- Alas! Just as I was ready to elevate this book to favorite status, I reached pages in which the author veered away from description and fell into oracular pronouncement. Page after page, one ringing, tedious declarative statement after another. He was pontificating! Ugh! Luckily, little trick-or-treaters in Northport provided welcome distraction, and I knew that at home there would be apples to peel and slice for the dryer, and that Jim Harrison’s memories and the Lighty couple’s river adventures awaited me again, too. 

The eternity of any particular time or place, I want to say (thinking about the Miller quote again) — perhaps more a subjective phenomenon than a fact of the physical world — never exactly reveals itself but teases each of us from time to time in different places and at different times in our lives. Miller found it in Greece. For me it is in Michigan woods and Arizona mountains.





These old northern Michigan roads have not been here even 200 years, but they have the feeling of history and even eternity about them. Now can you see in the two images below where French immigrant farmers once lived? The lilac bush near the road's edge and that old apple tree are your first clues, and farther back are the two cedars that marked the corners of their old log cabin, long ago rotted back into the earth.




Somewhere in my digital files -- and if only they were logically and consistently organized, I could show you -- are photographs of rocks in the woods used by earlier inhabitants to grind acorns and perhaps corn from their gardens. In the Dragoon Mountains of southeast Arizona are similar grinding stones.

The past is all around us, in every land, still breathing, living on in the stillness or in the noise, whether or not we are paying attention. It's just more obvious in some places than others. As for the broken world part, it's up to us to make what small mending attempts are within our power.






Monday, October 28, 2019

STILL COME HOME: Book Review



The novel opens with a young woman in Afghanistan daydreaming of an apricot:
…She wants the fruit. She wants her freedom. She wants to do everything she shouldn’t. She shoves back her purple headscarf and walks to the open window of her small, second-story apartment. She sticks her torso out and leans, hanging her head upside down. Her hair dangles like a black flag in the breeze. Positioned like this, she won’t have to look up the street at the remains of her family compound. She won’t have to wish she’d died in there three years ago either.  
-- Katey Schultz, Still Come Home

This morning I finished reading Katey Schultz’s new novel, Still Come Home, a story focusing on four main characters: Aaseya, the young Afghani woman in her early 20s; Rahim, her 40-year-old husband; Miller, an American second lieutenant stationed in Afghanistan; and Miller's wife, Tenley, back home in South Carolina. I don’t want to tell you very much about them, because you deserve to meet them as I did, as Schultz introduces them. Let me say only that their worlds and cultures and experiences are light-years apart from each other but that as a reader I was completely pulled into every scene, fully believing in their reality. 

This is a powerful novel. From beginning to end, there is no slackening in the tautness of either the action or dialogue. 
…A headache balls at the base of his skull. He watches the city face into shadows, block by block. Airborne particles of sand catch the sun’s rays, Mother’s Nature’s tracer fire. Within minutes, the horizon appears lit by a throbbing Armageddon. Four tours and it has come to this. The night before Miller’s last mission outside the wife, Chaffen’s voice echoing like a challenge inside Miller’s head: That’s how you’ve got to start thinking, in all directions.
Miller’s mind is fixated on responsibilities to his men and his family back home but tortured also by an earlier mission that went badly. Rahim, hungering for a future with sons of his own, has not escaped his own nightmare boyhood, and his present is confused and cruelly limited. So both men try to focus on tasks at hand and not think or plan or dream too far ahead. Their wives, too, can only meet each day’s immediate challenges and hope, dimly, that the future will be better. 

A poor, scrawny, mute, orphaned or outcast child plays a pivotal role in the story. 
…Flecks of dirt line his closed eyelids, and she can see a few fleas in his shaggy, dark hair. His lips are chapped, his earlobes bitten and red. Scuff marks fall in a line down his torso, likely from belly-crawling over rocks or wriggling through shrubs. At the bottom of his shorts, each leg pokes through the opening of fabric like a tent pole.
Such a frail and unlikely survival — so far! — in this country torn by endless war! We fear for Miller and Rahim and Aaseya but especially for Ghazél as the story’s tension amps up page by page. Does this child have a chance?

Describing the most barren landscape, Schultz’s lyrical sentences convey the love its inhabitants have for their home:
Rahim darts across the road, taking his weapon off safety, then leans his side against the embankments from shoulder to ankle, blending into the land as seamlessly as a scattering of dirt. The desert is amazing like that, the way it stretches and folds across the country like the broad, sloping belly of a giant. The way it holds almost everything a man could ever need, including his shape, until they’re practically one.

But maybe you think you don’t want to read a novel about war in the Middle East. 

Perhaps Afghanistan is the last place you think you want to envision with your mind’s eye. 

It’s too alien, too faraway, too nightmarish. 

What I’m telling you is that those “reasons” count for nothing. It is not only the American soldier and his wife back home with whom you will feel kinship but also with Aaseya (from the book’s very first page), Rahim, and Ghazél, and this story will bring home to you the truth of universal humanity like nothing else I’ve read for a long time. 


*. *. *

Katey Schultz visited Dog Ears Books in 2013 to read from her book of short and short-short stories, Flashes of War. Among her many awards, Schultz was awarded a Gold Medal from the Military Writers Society of America for that earlier work. I’ve been anticipating more from her ever since, and Still Come Home has exceeded my high expectations. Her connection to Michigan, in case you’re wondering, is through Interlochen Center for the Arts.