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Friday, November 30, 2007

Cozy in the Bookstore

"Oh, the weather outside is frightful," indeed! Bitter, cold wind, sloppy roads, treacherous footing. No need to look at the calendar to know what time of year it is. Stephanie next door at Funky Mama's consignment shop is decorating her tree, and I'm trying to settle on exactly what I'll prepare and serve at our joint open house tomorrow (5-9 p.m., in case you haven't gotten the message for the last two days!), and both of us are trying not to freak out over the forecast of a possible storm tomorrow afternoon. Do we need a "snow date"? Right now I'm just hoping for the best. After all, weather forecasts have been wrong before (within the past week, in fact), and as the last person through the door reminded me, "People up here are used to winter." We are Up North, in all seasons! I type these words as blowing snow is almost horizontal, with the occasional swirling funnel....

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Village OPEN!

Sewer work, which will go forward for another week, then resume in the spring, won’t get in the way of Saturday evening’s open house at Funky Mama’s and Dog Ears Books (5-9 p.m.). The crews knocked off early today (Thursday) and won’t be back on the job until Monday. Even when streets have been temporarily closed, the inconvenience has been minimal, progress encouraging.

The Christmas tree lights were on today at the T-intersection of Waukazoo and Nagonaba. Presumably they will be unplugged prior to the formal “lighting” at 5 p.m. on Saturday, but making sure ahead of time that all were in working order was a good idea on someone’s part.

My guilty pleasure today (aside from the last of last weekend’s Christmas cookies) is THE WOMAN IN THE DUNES, by Kobo Abe, my intermittent reward for small tasks accomplished. Hailed on the back cover of my Penguin edition as “one of the “premier Japanese novels of the twentieth century,” the novel is certainly Kafkaesque, as has often been noted. The protagonist sets out on holiday and becomes an unwitting prisoner and slave. Because of a stupid letter he left behind and a ridiculous insistence on being mysterious about his destination, no one will know where to look for him or even realize that foul play must have been involved in his disappearance. He has done nothing wrong. His rights have been outrageously violated. Nothing makes any sense. He protests, he struggles, he plots his escape. There is no avoiding the fact, however, that he must dig sand or die.

The sand is omnipresent:

“Because winds and water currents flow over the land, the formation of sand is unavoidable. As long as the winds blew, the rivers flowed, and the seas stirred, sand would be born grain by grain from the earth, and like a living being it would creep everywhere. The sands never rested. Gently but surely they invaded and destroyed the surface of the earth.”

Like an ant-lion waiting in its trap for heedless ants, the woman at the bottom of the sand pit into which the amateur entomologist is lowered (for what he thinks will be one night’s lodging) greets his arrival with scarcely disguised pleasure, but he soon realizes that the sand itself is their captor, the woman as helplessly trapped as he, both of them dependant on villagers above the pit for the very water that keeps them alive.

More than in the writings of Kafka or Camus, physicality plays an unrelenting role in the story. I am reminded of the repugnance Sartre felt for the physical world: Abe’s awareness is as keen, without the nauseated rejection. Perspiration, urination, skin rashes, itching, mucous, saliva, skin (“soft, downlike bandage for the soul”) appear on almost every page.

Is Niki Jumpei an Everyman, the author’s message that we are all hapless insects trapped in a demeaning struggle for our brief, meaningless existence? One reviewer, David Mitchell, puts the question this way: Is this a story of salvation or damnation? I am two-thirds of the way through the book and not about to skip to the last page, but I doubt the last sentence would give a clear answer to the question, anyway.

Over and over, too, our Michigan dunes come into my mind--the difficulty of the dune climb at Sleeping Bear, the sand’s “angle of repose,” the “ghost forests” of giant buried trees, ant-lions and wolf spiders, Pitcher’s thistles, the fragility of dunes (despite the strength of sand and wind) and their vulnerability to erosion. What would Abe’s images of migrating dunes mean to me if I had lived my whole life in forested hills deep in the continent, away from the Great Lakes shore?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Most of my mental energy today is going toward making up book order lists and planning for Saturday evening’s open house here at Dog Ears (and next door at Funky Mama’s) from 5-9 p.m., planning that involves lots of cookbook reading and the making of grocery lists. Lists, lists! Naughty or nice? One customer told me this morning that their family decided to give only books for Christmas, “no more junk!” Books are good! Cookies are nice, too, though!

Anyway, here are a couple of short items for today:

First, according to Franklin D.Martini’s book, THE MEANING OF DREAMS, the answer to my question this past fall, “Why Elephants?” is that “To dream that you see an elephant is a happy omen; it tells of peace and prosperity. To dream of many means you will gain fame and fortune. To feed one denotes a job change.” Fine! Peace and prosperity appeal to me more than fame and fortune, which would bring as many problems as they would solve, I’m thinking.

Then, you might want to take a brief look at the dizzying World Clock site. (Thanks, sister BJ, for calling this to my attention.) I could only watch the figures race upwards for a couple of minutes before becoming overwhelmed and turning back to printed paper pages, but the question stays in my head: What kind of world will we leave to our grandchildren?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Books, 'Books,' and Non-Books

That heading seems to include about everything under the sun, doesn’t it? I read Anna Quindlen’s yesterday afternoon (the one with the title that complicates punctuation of any sentence one drops aforesaid title into) and browsed again, appreciatively, in EIGHT DOGS NAMED JACK, Joe Borri’s short story collection just out this summer, reflecting again how fortunate I am to have work that I love. Then I started another new order list, sold a few books, moved others around, and finally—because it was Monday, and the UPS delivery was the big event of the day—went home early to begin reading a manuscript.

There’s more to having a bookstore than reading books, however, and late evening found me catching up on bookkeeping, a job that brought on a very different set of reflections, such as, “Why do they call accounts ‘books,’ anyway? What a libel on the pleasures of men and women!” I did think of the ancient Egyptians, though, and their careful record-keeping, and that reminded me once again of how easily we remember the alphabet, thanks to the little song, but how difficult it is to put the multiplication tables to music, hence the necessity of writing numbers down. ‘Books’ before literature, in other words. (Sigh!)

My use of the category ‘non-books’ means different things on different occasions. Since Sunday breakfast with Chicago ‘outsider art’ collector Susann, I keep thinking of the artist she introduced us to, Stella Waitzkin, and Waitzkin's shelves of what appear to be books but are actually sculpted polymer resin pieces, innocent of words. ”Words are lies,” the artist said. Her non-book constructions were lovely on the shelf, but what, I ask myself, did she do for stories?

The books in the photograph above are real and were not harmed in the making of the image.

Wild and bitterly cold gusts of snow-bearing wind are blowing untethered Christmas trees down the streets of Northport. Don't you wish you were here?

Monday, November 26, 2007

This Time of Year

It’s beginning—the time of decorations and shopping and parties and cookies, of wrapping gifts and trying new recipes and never having enough time and the time one does have going by much too fast. It’s the time of year for a bookseller when new book orders are coming in one right after another, and the question comes up sometimes, “Who was it who ordered this, anyway?” And if I don’t remember, will the customer call or stop in to see if his or her book is here (I hope)?

As thoughts turn to food, it’s a good time of year for cookbooks (not that there’s ever a bad time, other than—for me—September, when all I want to do is go on vacation to recuperate from summer), but it’s just the best time of all for children’s books! As someone who started in used titles and added new later, I’ve hit on what I consider a pretty good strategy for ordering children’s classics: I look for an “anniversary edition” whenever one is available through my distributor. THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT… THE LITTLE PRINCE… THE WIZARD OF OZ, etc. Who doesn’t want the original illustrations? When it comes to something like THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, published in countless editions and the dream of countless illustrators, I look for tried-and-true artists, such as Tasha Tudor.

And this is neither a cookbook nor a children’s book, but I can’t help being happy that Anna Quindlen’s GOOD DOG. STAY is out in time for Christmas and that it’s in hardcover with a paperback price. That is the perfect combination!

This morning, digging through a closet in search of a certain set of tree ornaments, I found our little Nikki’s Christmas scarf from last year. David had the same idea I did, which was to tie the scarf around her framed portrait here at Dog Ears Books. The words to a contemporary seasonal song drift through my mind: “This is how I see you / in the snow on Christmas morning.” Good dog! Christmas won’t be the same without you!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Closing Time

When dark comes on at the end of day this time of year, the bright, cheery lights indoors seem all the brighter and cheerier, and it’s hard to turn the sign from OPEN to CLOSED, lock the door and leave the bookstore to walk out into the slush (underfoot) and chilly wind (head to toe). On the other hand, it was wonderful to walk into the house tonight, where the lamps and fire were already lit and David offering to fix dinner.

Having finished DINNER AT ANTOINE’S (and even having guessed the murderer, though not from putting together clues, at which task I am hopeless), I turn again tonight to my economics shelf here at home (which is in no way a “home economics” shelf), opening ONE MARKET UNDER GOD to the last page bookmarked, about three-quarters through the book. The topic is brands and the new “discipline” of account planning, evolutionary successor to what we used to call simply advertising. A Ph.D. in anthropology is the recruiter’s new dream candidate, as long as the degree-holder in question brings along no “values” baggage.

As usual with a book of this kind in my hands, this one bristles like a hedgehog with gummed tags (brand name omitted). Here’s the beginning of a paragraph where the author steps forward from his dispassionate reporting stance and makes it personal:

“I confess: The way the word is used in marketing literature, I am an extremely ‘cynical’ person. I doubt advertising. I scoff at brands. I do not believe that Macintoshes make you ‘think different’ or that Virginia Slims help you ‘find your voice.’”

Author Thomas Frank goes on from there to explore--with appropriate, rational cynicism--Nike’s search for ‘authenticity,’ that is, an approach to advertising that won’t seem like advertising because its ‘stars’ come not from Hollywood but from the working class or even the ghetto. Frank “can’t help but marvel at the effort it would require to achieve a comparable level of visibility for the actual concerns, not just the authenticity, of working-class life.” The desperate search for what he calls “redemption through sport,” that search exploited by the commercials in question, is the flipside of the coin whose face is “starvation wages in Indonesia.”

It’s morning on the other side of the world. The sun and moon are impartial.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Sticking with This One

One of these moon images was yesterday’s, taken in the late afternoon on Thanksgiving Day through our friends’ east-facing living room window. The other is the same moon this early evening, caught in the branches of an ash tree along our own driveway.

My resolve to read DINNER AT ANTOINE’S (which I keep wanting to call MY DINNER WITH ANTOINE, confusing the book title with the title of an unrelated movie) was tested severely early on in the story. So many characters introduced, the writing so relentlessly expository! Then the black servants appeared on the scene, selflessly devoted and speaking almost incomprehensible dialect! It was all a bit much, and I was slogging half-heartedly along, thinking how like a soap opera the story was, wondering how much I could stand, when an unexpected suicide caught me by surprise. Well, that’s different! And then an enterprising young police detective announced to a startled family that the death was no suicide but murder! Murder most foul! So then I was hooked and am now halfway through the book.

Turns out my browsing turned up the best Frances Parkinson Keyes title for me. The author wrote many other novels set in New Orleans, all of which make at least passing reference to the restaurant, and all doubtless full of rich local color and fashion, but DINNER AT ANTOINE’S is the only murder mystery she wrote. It’s good light reading for the holidays. Next week will be soon enough to get back to heavier stuff.

Pleasantly busy day at the bookstore today, with lighted, decorated Christmas tree in the window and a cookie table in the corner to welcome friends and shoppers.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Work-in-Progress Report #1: Jerry Dennis

Jerry Dennis’s most recent book, THE LIVING GREAT LAKES, explored a subject he can’t leave behind. Here’s what this Traverse City writer has to say about what he’s working on now:


“I’m well along on a new book, A WATCHER ON THE SHORE, which I expect to send to my publisher about a year from now. The shore of the title is both literal and figurative: the one ringing the five Great Lakes; and the one we’re born onto, where we’ve erected our cities and composed our philosophies, where we spend our lives telling stories around campfires at the edge of the unknown.

“For most of the past year I’ve been living in houses on the five Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, staying for a week to a month at a time in places that interest me, including Northport’s own Cathead Point, where I stayed in a beautiful house all of last January. The other places I’ve stayed have varied from a two-room log cabin on Lake Superior to a 20-million-dollar mansion on Lake Michigan—a dozen or so in all, each drenched with character and each offering a widely different view of the lakes. My usual routine was to spend the evenings reading, the afternoons out in the world exploring, and the mornings writing, using as a guide the ancient Japanese essay genre called zuihitsu, or ‘following the brush.’ (The ‘brush’ in my case is a Sarasa Zebra 0.7 black pen.) It’s been a new way for me to compose, and has opened up many possibilities for surprise. When I started writing about stones on the beach, for example, I found myself meditating on randomness and beauty. Waves during a storm suggested the myths in almost every culture that created order out of the primordial chaos. The death of loons from botulism led to an inquiry into our place in nature and how our attitudes about it are changing.

“As with all my books (and, for that matter, my life), I’ve proceeded without much planning, following my instincts and trusting to serendipity. Along the way I’ve been fortunate to receive a great deal of assistance, starting with the generous people who invited me to stay in their houses. I’m also nearly speechless with gratitude to the Kellogg Foundation, Wege Foundation, and Great Lakes Fishery Trust, which have provided grants to support me while writing the book, and for Tim Ervin, Becky Ewing, and others at the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute and Northwestern Michigan College, who facilitated the grants. They’ve given me a wonderful gift, the result of which, I hope, will be a rich and deeply textured work.

“Now I’m home for the winter, writing every day in my studio/sanctuary in the loft of our stone barn, and spending evenings by the fireplace with Gail, reading novels and playing cribbage.”


Thank you, Jerry, for this window into your writing world, for all the books you have written, and for those yet to come.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

In Town and Beyond

It’s cozy today at the bookstore, with jazz on the CD player and boxes of decorations and holiday books to unpack. Even the bank was cozy this morning, where the view toward the harbor through the Thanksgiving-themed window also shows the Christmas “Toys for Tots” collection sign and heavy construction equipment parked on the street. Everything is going on in town at once: the sewer project, Thanksgiving dinner shopping, Christmas decorating, last-minute gardening. The weather is mild, making everything easier for a while.

Yesterday’s big news item in the book world was also on the regular evening news on NPR. It was the new report from the National Endowment for the Arts saying that while “reading scores among elementary school students have been improving, scores are flat among middle school students and slightly declining among high school seniors." Also, "the percentage of adults who are proficient in reading prose has fallen at the same time that the proportion of people who read regularly for pleasure has declined.” There was a bit about time spent reading vs. watching TV, but I haven’t seen a statistic yet for being online. Does what you’re doing now count as reading? Maybe you should get offline and pick up a book!

But if you’re looking to entertain yourself online for a few minutes a day, try feeding the hungry while testing your vocabulary. For every correct answer, you’ll be donating ten grains of rice to the needy. I checked this out on Snopes, where the status of the rice donation “legend” is given as TRUE. Donations are paid for by advertisers whose banners appear on the page. Once--the word was ‘malinger’--I wanted to choose NONE OF THE ABOVE for my answer, but that choice was not available. That’s a minor quibble.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Through a Glass, Dreamily

My morning drive to Northport was made interesting by virtue of light rain. Traffic was nonexistent. I was able to stay under 40 mph and leave the wiper speed on low. Pulling off the road for a minute, I captured this impressionistic view of Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern through the rain-streaked windshield.

Now, unprepared with new thoughts this evening, I’m pleased to have rediscovered the commentary on Kipling I thought was lost forever, and here it is:


Another family member writes, “What's up with those people who read the last page of the book first? I know lots of people who do, but it wouldn't occur to me in a million years to want to do that.” Me, either, Maiya. What’s up with that, indeed? But, well….

When I couldn’t sleep the other night, I got up to read for a while and picked up a strange little novel by Rudyard Kipling. In childhood I loved The Jungle Books (which my father and I read together over and over), but how different an author can appear at different stages of a reader’s life and when a different book is in question! THE LIGHT THAT FAILED is a rather horrid little story, I must say.

It begins with two unhappy children, unrelated orphans being raised by the same dreadful woman. The children buy a handgun, and the reader thinks murder is at hand, but no…. Then we skip ahead many years and find the young man on the banks of the Nile, determined to make his way as an artist by first becoming a wartime newspaper illustrator.

Later, back in London, Dick finally recognizes at last that he must be true to Art and not sell his soul for easy popularity. How does he come to see this? By running into Maisie, the companion of his childhood, also determined to be a painter, also focused blindly (as it were) on Success, as he was up to that point.

Well, Dick and Maisie do not make a pair, because she will not. When he goes literally blind, however, a friend of his travels to France, where Maisie has gone to study painting, and brings her back to nurse the man who loves her. But that doesn’t work, either. She is too selfish and runs off without even bidding him a proper farewell.

Backtrack to another woman, hired as Dick’s model, who set her cap for the artist’s best friend and mentor/benefactor. Dick foils the plan, but the woman reappears later to destroy the last masterpiece Dick paints before his eyes give out!

Thus both wickedly selfish women are booted offstage by the author, and Dick dies in his friend’s arms, off on a battlefield somewhere.

Was it a battlefield? Where? I can’t say because, while I did not read the last page of this book first, I did lose patience and skipped several chapters, turning to the last page out of curiosity. Enough!

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Yesterday morning on the way to Northport, I had in mind a picture of the beech tree at the 90-degree corner where M-201 comes downhill and turns left onto Waukazoo. Turning onto Waukazoo myself, I parked the car and walked around the corner and back up the hill, but the shot I’d mentally visualized wasn’t there. The sidewalk was snow-covered and slippery, footing precarious. I walked carefully, watching every inch of pavement I had to traverse. The image above was my reward. If I’m not too stubbornly focused on what I think I want to see—if I can be open to whatever presents itself--walking with a camera opens my eyes to ephemeral beauties like these cottonwood leaves visible under wet snow in the street.

This is the way I usually approach a library or a bookstore, too. I may go in with a title in mind, but if that book isn’t available, I won’t leave empty-handed, any more than I would leave a potluck dinner hungry because no one had brought, say, Southern fried chicken. Spending as much time as I do in my own bookstore world, there are still days when I browse the shelves and come upon something that wouldn’t have leapt to my mind without the visual stimulus.

Yesterday in the drama section, my browsing turned up “Playboy of the Western World, by Synge. I'd seen the play in high school, but how much could it mean to me then? Now, on the heels of having read THE WILD IRISH (Robin Maxwell) and MY DREAM OF YOU (Nuala O’Faolain), and with documentation of the birth in Fermoy, County Cork, on December 13, 1886, of the grandfather I never met, the play fair jumps into my hand! I begin reading and now, even without actors on a stage in front of me, this place and these people are familiar. I wouldn’t have thought to look for it, but it was a happy accident.

Another book that called my name as my eyes scanned the shelves yesterday afternoon was DINNER AT ANTOINE’S, by Frances Parkinson Keyes. A popular writer from another era, Keyes is an author I know well by name. Seeing her name on a book spine, I told myself I should know her better than that, and here’s the moment come. (One Louisiana book scout comes around every few years, always looking for DINNER AT ANTOINE’S. He says that in New Orleans the demand for this title is constant. Reading it in New Orleans would be, I suppose, like reading ANATOMY OF A MURDER in the U.P.) The story opens in January of 1948. Almost sixty years ago! No time to lose!

Richard Wiseman, author of THE LUCK FACTOR, says his research shows that being open to the world, to whatever is there, to whatever happens, to whomever crosses our path, is an important aspect making up “luck.” He did an experiment to confirm this hunch. He left a 5-pound note (he would have used a $5 bill if he’d been in this country) on the sidewalk outside a cafĂ© where he’d arranged to meet his subjects, already self-described as either “lucky” or “unlucky.” You might think that the "unlucky" people, trudging along with their heads down and feeling blue, would have been the ones to see the money and pick it up, but not so. Considering oneself “unlucky,” it seems, is not compatible with being open to positive possibilities. The subjects who considered themselves “lucky” were the ones who spotted the note on the ground, time after time.

Good news, both for those who consider themselves “unlucky” and for those of us who need reminders from time to time that good things as well as bad happen in the world, is that learning to be “lucky” is possible. At the end of his book Wiseman gives instructions to his “unlucky” subjects, and sure enough, they come back and report to him that their luck has miraculously changed! What did he have them do? I’ll have to refresh my memory with the book on Monday, but I do recall that one of their assignments was to talk to strangers.

People we don’t know, books we’ve never heard of, and lovely, ephemeral configurations of the natural world have a lot in common, it turns out. At least that’s true from one bookseller’s perspective.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

First Things First, One Step at a Time--Usually

Well, the long account I'd written about skipping chapters to get to the end of a horrid book somehow got deleted before I could paste it in. Just as well, I guess. If a novel becomes so tedious that one turns impatiently to the last page, rather than reading more and more slowly to make the story last, why write paragraphs and paragraphs about it? The novel, in case you're wondering, was one of Rudyard Kiplings decidedly lesser works, THE LIGHT THAT FAILED. My advice is to read the JUNGLE BOOKS instead.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Good Women, Good Works

That’s Donna Brown in the red apron from Leelanau Christian Neighbors (LCN), all set to pour coffee at the Treasure Chest, Northport’s new (and presently the only) place for a good, hot breakfast. Donna and her son and business partner Chris plan to stay open all winter, which means that when Barb’s Bakery closes, the morning gang will migrate over to Waukazoo Street. (Dog Ears Books hosted coffee for two months last winter, but for me it meant hauling water in jugs from home. Donna and Chris have a kitchen!)

It’s fitting that Donna will be wearing the LCN apron when she serves Thanksgiving dinner at the Treasure Chest next week because she isn’t open for “business” that day: dinner is on the house, for anyone in the community who won’t be with family and wants to share the holiday spirit. Donna says it’s her family’s way of saying thank you to Northport. Homebound residents can have turkey dinner delivered, compliments of the Treasure Chest and volunteer drivers. Donna has received many donations of food and money for the dinner and is telling donors that everything above and beyond her costs for the day she will send on to the Food Pantry.

This is where Leelanau Christian Neighbors comes in. LCN is a coalition of county churches that operates two community food pantries and an emergency family assistance program. This year resources are already strained, in Leelanau as elsewhere in the country. Enter the apron project. Brainchild of Marilyn Zimmerman, member of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Northport, an LCN affiliate, the apron is available in red, black, blue or khaki, with logo of contrasting color. Orders are being taken now. All proceeds beyond cost will go to LCN services: there are no administrative costs.

Marilyn hopes that by next summer LCN aprons will be worn by volunteers at all sorts of community events. Neighbors helping neighbors—that’s the idea. To request an apron order form that can be downloaded and printed, e-mail, or you can write to LCN at P.O. Box 32, Suttons Bay, MI 49682 to request one or more order forms.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Worth Waitiing For

Yesterday while David and I were in Traverse City and Bruce was minding the bookstore, Woody came to take the awnings down for the winter and—yes! to put up the new sign! It’s been eleven months since Dog Ears Books moved from Nagonaba Street to Waukazoo, and somehow we got through an entire summer and fall season without a real store sign, but oh, what a joy it is to drive into town and see this elegant addition. “It’s just like London!” exclaimed one friend and loyal customer. But it’s Northport! It’s another step in the Waukazoo Revival!

Monday, November 12, 2007

More Horse Stories

Saturday morning brought unexpected sunshine on bright fallen leaves, and we had more of the same today. Oak trees along Grand Traverse Bay looked as delicious as buttered toast. The cherry orchards have too many colors to name, all mingling richly together.

Meanwhile, indoors, I’ve discovered a contemporary series of horse stories for young girls. The appeal of “Heartland” is both modern and timeless. Characters use cell phones and computers, and the young horse trainers use techniques like T-touch massage and “joining up” to bring traumatized animals back into trusting relationships, but central plots still involve humans and horses and the age-old bond between them. OUT OF THE DARKNESS (Heartland #7), for example, tells the story of a racehorse injured in a stable fire, sent to Heartland as a last resort. Gallant Prince is a prisoner of his fear, locked in a dark past and so unmanageable that he is dangerous to those trying to help him. Moreover, his nervous restlessness quickly spreads to the rest of the horses at Heartland.

Can Gallant Prince be saved? What of the threat of bad publicity for Heartland if this rescue mission fails? And where is the stable boy who loved this horse but locked himself away emotionally after the fire? The happy ending is not a surprise but doesn’t feel contrived. Amy is often discouraged and fearful herself and has to through her own self-doubt (when others would have had her give up), along with Prince’s terror, but even that is only part of the story. Only 15 years old, Amy’s life is full of challenging physical work, school and homework, personal and social questions and uncertainties.

I found this young people’s novel so thoroughly engrossing that David couldn’t help laughing. I didn’t care. I was 15 years old last night, training horses in Virginia!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Book People

Rose Hollander, publisher of her late husband’s book, SAVING THE FAMILY COTTAGE, and Lynne Rae Perkins, author/illustrator of many children’s books and winner of the 2006 Newbery Award for CRISS CROSS, wanted to do something in return for local booksellers and librarians, so they invited a group of us to dinner at Rose’s house, after which we all walked the length of Suttons Bay (almost) to Lynn’s for dessert and a visit to her studio. The entire evening was a rare treat. Dinner, dessert and the studio were all outstanding. We also enjoyed the chance to spend time with Rose and Lynne and with each other.

Most days I see Deb Stannard of the Leelanau Township Library after we’ve both finished our work days: there we are, standing in the grocery store aisles, gazing at vegetables and hoping for dinner idea inspiration! I may run into Sylvia Merz of the Leland Township Library once or twice a year, usually only for a few minutes. Barbara Siepker’s Cottage Bookstore in Glen Arbor is a long way from my Dog Ears Books in Northport, as are the fantastic public library in Traverse City and the iconic Horizon Books on Front Street. An opportunity to enjoy wine and hors-d’oeuvres, relax over dinner and stroll the quiet, dark street of a small town with other book people, sharing news of our latest author and book “finds,” was a little bit of heaven. Thank you, Rose and Lynne! What a gracious and memorable gift you gave us all!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Great Story

This morning's e-mail brought my daily "Shelf Awareness" newsletter, with a story so wonderful I asked the editor for permission to quote it here in full. Read on:

"Why Not Catch 21?: The Stories Behind the Titles

"The following is in essence the title chapter from Why Not Catch 21?: The Stories Behind the Titles by Gary Dexter (Frances Lincoln, $16.95, 9780711227965/0711227969), an expansion of the author's Sunday Telegraph column that tells the origins of the titles of 50 great works of literature. This excerpt, the story of the title Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, published in 1961, is in the British English of the book, a situation Yossarian might call fubar:

"'Catch-22' has passed into the language as a description of the impossible bind:

"Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. 'Is Orr crazy?'
"'He sure is,' Doc Daneeka said.
"'Can you ground him?'
"'I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That's part of the rule.'
"'Then why doesn't he ask you to?'
"'Because he's crazy,' Doc Daneeka said. 'He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he's had. Sure, I can ground him. But first he has to ask me to.'
"'That's all he has to do to be grounded?'
"'That's all. Let him ask me.'
"'And then you can ground him?' Yossarian asked.
"'No. Then I can't ground him.'
"'You mean there's a catch?'
"'Sure there's a catch,' Doe Daneeka replied. 'Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy.'
"Orr is crazy, and can be grounded, but if he asks to be grounded he is sane--and he can only be grounded if he asks. Joseph Heller complained that the phrase 'a Catch-22 situation' was often used by people who did not seem to understand what it meant. Given the mental contortions of the catch, this is not surprising. He even described receiving a letter from a Finnish translator, which said (in Heller's paraphrase): 'I am translating your novel Catch-22 into Finnish. Would you please explain me one thing: What means Catch-22? I didn't find it in any vocabulary. Even assistant air attaché of the USA here in Helsinki could not explain exactly.' Heller added: 'I suspect the book lost a great deal in its Finnish translation.'

"There are no catches 1 to 21, or 23 onwards, in the book. 'There was only one catch and that was Catch-22.' Like the final commandment left at the end of Animal Farm, Catch-22 is an entire rule-book distilled into one lunatic decree. Its very uniqueness meant that Heller had to think carefully before naming, or numbering it. And his choice was--'Catch-18'.

"In World War II Heller was a bombardier with the 12th Air Force, based on Corsica, and flew 60 missions over Italy and France. Yossarian in Catch-22 is a bombardier flying the same missions. Rotated home in 1945 and discharged as a First Lieutenant with an Air Medal with Five Oak Leaf Clusters, Heller took a degree at New York University, then an MA at Columbia, before working in New York as an advertising copy-writer. In 1953 he began writing a book called Catch-18, the first chapter of which was published in the magazine New World Writing in 1955. When, three years later, he submitted the first large chunk of it to Simon & Schuster, it was quickly accepted for publication, and Heller worked on it steadily--all the time thinking of it as Catch-18--until its completion in 1961. Shortly before publication, however, the blockbuster novelist Leon Uris produced a novel entitled Mila 18 (also about the Second World War). It was thought advisable that Heller, the first-time novelist, should be the one to blink, and the title was changed. Heller said in an interview with Playboy in 1975: 'I was heartbroken. I thought 18 was the only number.' The first suggestion for a replacement was Catch-14, but Robert Gottlieb, Heller's editor, felt it didn't have the right ring. 'I thought 22 was a funnier number than 14', Gottlieb told the New York Times Review of Books in 1967. Heller took two weeks to persuade.

"But the journey from 18 to 22, although tortuous, was worth making. The reason is this: 22 has a thematic significance that 18 or 14 do not.

"The doubling of the digits emphasizes a major theme of the book: duplication and reduplication. When the book was first published, critics objected to its monotony and repetition. 'Heller's talent is impressive,' said Time magazine, 'but it is also undisciplined, sometimes luring him into bogs of boring repetition. Nearly every episode in Catch-22 is told and retold.'

"This is true. In Catch-22 everything is doubled. Yossarian flies over the bridge at Ferrara twice, his food is poisoned twice, there is a chapter devoted to 'The Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice', the chaplain has the sensation of having experienced everything twice, Yossarian can name two things to be miserable about for every one to be thankful for, all Yossarian can say to the dying Snowden is 'There, there', all Snowden can say is 'I'm cold, I'm cold', Yossarian overhears a woman repeatedly begging 'please don't, please don't', and Major Major is actually Major Major Major Major. The critic JP Stern identified a pairing approach to the characters:

"Most figures in Catch-22 are arranged in pairs; e.g., the medical orderlies Gus and Wes; the HR clerk Wintergreen and the Chaplain's orderly--both nasty characters; the two CID stooges; Major Major and Captain Flume--both persecuted; Generals Dreedle and Peckem--both harshly satirized; Snowden and Mudd--both dead; Piltchard and Wren--both enjoy combat missions; Aarfy and Black--men without feeling; Nately and Clevinger--upper-class college boys, both get killed; the nurses, Duckett and Kramer.

"The mad pairing reaches its apotheosis in the catch itself. As the novel says: 'Yossarian saw it clearly in all its spinning reasonableness. There was an elliptical precision about its perfect pairs of parts that was graceful and shocking, like good modern art, and at times Yossarian wasn't quite sure that he saw it at all, just the way he was never quite sure about good modern art...'

"Doubling is thus a stylistic device suggestive of the qualified nature of reality. Nothing is singular, unblurred or unambiguous. The title, with its doubled digits (2 representing duality, itself doubled to make 22) conveys this in a way that Catch-18 could not.

"It seems clear therefore that what happened when Simon & Schuster found out about Leon Uris's book was a piece of great good luck."

[Many thanks to Gary Dexter and Frances Lincoln!]

Thursday, November 8, 2007

While It's on My Mind (i.e., before I forget)

In A SHORT HISTORY OF MYTH, as Karen Armstrong traces the history of humanity’s search for transcendental meaning, one of her early claims is that Paleolithic man, a hunter, developed myth to assuage his discomfort over having to kill animals to survive. (Would this same power of myth to accommodate the spilling of animals’ blood not be available also as a force to allow men to slay one another? The question is not raised.) Myths, Armstrong says (and this would be true in any age) give meaning to human life by expressing the inexpressible. Some legendary or historic event, thanks to having been mythologized, recurs in present time, and within the context of ritual re-enactment, participants experience its truth first-hand. Participants are also called by the myth to ethical action--broadly construed, I would add, ethos being what it can be from one culture and time to another.

Armstrong's historical survey traces the widening Western rift between mythos and logos, beginning with Greek rationalism but widening greatly with the rise of experimental science in the 16th century. Today, she notes, the very word ‘myth’ is generally taken to signify ‘not-true.’ At the same time, our need for myth has not disappeared. Hence some of the “very destructive modern myths … [that] ended in massacre and genocide.” Human beings cannot live without meaning, even if that meaning brings death. Reason alone “cannot deal with … [our] deep-rooted, unexorcized fears, desires and neuroses.” Neither can reason alone move us to compassion for one another or concern for the earth and its resources. For those reasons, Armstrong says, we stlll need myth, but we need to create new myths for our modern selves.

The survey is illuminating, but I wonder at the idea that self-consciously created myth can take the place of that which grew up organically within a culture. Armstrong’s concluding suggestion is that we turn to art and literature in general, novels in particular, to fill this spiritual void. I am unconvinced.

Even without the bleakness of her fictional examples, there is no communal experience, no ritual practice, in the reading of novels. Moreover, each novel is its own world, none giving the experience of mythic recurrence, and while it is true that the “exercise of make-believe … breaks down barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies,” it does not necessarily follow that we are renewed or uplifted or that our hearts are made glad by this journey out of ourselves. One of John Updike’s novels, IN THE BEAUTY OF THE LILIES, brilliantly captures the American 20th-century zeitgeist in three generations and deserves to be considered a classic, but my overwhelming feeling upon reaching the last page of that book was relief. A myth needs to empower, not paralyze the spirit.

Singing in a choir, playing an instrument in a group with others, preparing and serving a holiday meal, planting and caring for a garden—any of these activities, it seems to me, is more likely than novel-reading to fill the void left by absconded myth.

“Only a novel”? No, that’s not what I’m saying. (How could I reject Jane Austen that stupidly?) No, certainly a good novel is art and worthy of our time and our attentive response, including discussion with others. Fiction can challenge, give new perspectives, open minds. But its lingering effect is more like a series of penetrating questions than a list of comforting answers.

Religion cannot do the work of science, science cannot do the work of religion, and fiction does not do the work of either. It has its own realm and its own virtues. We overburden it at our peril.

Snowy Morning

Woke up to our first real snow on the ground this morning. Yesterday’s barest dusting on the walk was too faint to count, and there was none of grass or trees, whereas today’s, as you see, was lovely. It was also the perfect medicine for getting me in the mood to plan with other Chamber members for our holiday events in Northport (all of which will be listed on my regular website any minute now).

One of my first delightful tasks at the bookstore this morning was to put in another new book order, the third this week. I’m stocking up on board books for young children; had to have TAP DANCING ON THE ROOF and RUNAWAY GARDEN (also children’s books, the latter a National Best Books 2007 award-winner); couldn’t leave out GHOST MOUNTAIN BOYS, a new book on World War II featured in this week’s Leelanau County Enterprise. This time of year I have new-new books arriving every week, and it’s fun and exciting.

Last night I finished HILLBILLY WOMEN, by Kathy Kahn, an out-of-print book I was reading in ragged paperback months ago and mislaid somewhere far from home, replacing it recently with hardcover. The women are smart, tough, hard-working, resilient and canny. They know the odds are stacked against them, but they’re not about to give up. I look at their pictures and wonder (copyright date 1972) where they are now. My grandmother was one of them except for geography. I miss her.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

When to Hold 'Em, When to Fold 'Em

“Do you ever leave a book half finished? What are your criteria for picking up a book and deciding to read it? Do you plug on, even if it isn't immediately engrossing, waiting for it to get good?”

These questions come to me by e-mail from a family member in Kalamazoo, and they’re good questions. Not long ago I quoted Robert Gray and will quote him here again, this time on the sheer volume of books inundating a bookseller’s life: “You open one after another and the magic just doesn't happen, and then you open one and it does.” In other words, no bookseller can finish every book opened, so you go with those that offer magic, in whatever form.

I am often reading more than one book at a time. In one period of my life, I kept one book going in the bedroom, a second in the living room, a third in the bathroom. Life since 1993, the birth of Dog Ears Books, has been more complicated. Now there are books coming to work with me in the morning and going home with me at night…books on or under the counter with bookmarks in them…books piled on the dining table and next to the bed. It’s been so long since I started NOTES OF AN UNREPENTANT FIELD GEOLOGIST that I recently started over at the beginning after unearthing that magical (to me) story. Not everyone would be charmed and transported by memories of someone else’s academic career, but in this case I’m hooked, however long it takes me to finish the book. Why did I pick it up in the first place? What intrigued me? Rocks, of course! See posting for September 26.

COLD MOUNTAIN, by Ian Frasier, was a novel that wouldn’t catch fire for me on the first, second or even third attempt. I just couldn’t get into it. I don’t feel guilty about setting books aside, either temporarily or permanently, but for some reason I picked this one up for a fourth time, and that was the charm. We were traveling through Tennessee at the time, and the moment was ripe. Bingo!

THE CRYING OF LOT 49, by Thomas Pynchon, was one that involved me in several false starts. Once I got into it, I was in for the long haul. Toni Morrison’s BELOVED had me thoroughly confused at the beginning, and it might have been a sense of duty that kept me at the task, but the effort more than paid off.

Proust, though--. Have I admitted that I got thoroughly bored with the second volume and ditched it halfway through? After loving SWANN’S WAY? Eventually I picked up the last volume, TIME RECAPTURED, and found that magical, but I have never read the middle volumes. The friend of a friend, the former a Proust scholar, tells me that this is a common pattern, that many people read only the first and last volumes of REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST.

When do I bail on a novel? If I don’t care about the characters, I won’t keep reading, no matter how technically flawless the writing. A novel is a big time commitment. THE DA VINCI CODE was one of those for me. It wasn’t badly written, and it wasn’t boring—it really moved along—but I just didn’t care. What’s magic for enough people to make a best-seller won’t be magic for everyone.

Really bad editing bothers me. “It suddenly donned on him.” Donned? I beg your pardon? What do you think that means? On the other hand, I’ll overlook some roughness around the edges for the sake of original, exciting writing.

A lot of nonfiction can, in whole or in part, be profitably skimmed. Here ideas or information are what counts; we’re asked to examine the world from a particular perspective but don’t have to enter the psyche of various invented characters. By contrast, in my opinion, any novel that begs to be skimmed is a novel not worth reading.

The best nonfiction books read like a series of essays. The first chapter of Thomas Wolfe’s THE PAINTED WORD seemed complete in itself, and I wondered what on earth succeeding chapters could add. Each one amplified the original chapter, taking the argument up a notch. Brilliant! The opposite are those books that would have been better as magazine articles but were for some reason inflated to book length. With those, you get the point early on, and the rest is filling. Skim! Skim fast! Or throw it down and pick up something else!

Sometimes a book doesn’t strike me as “immediately engrossing,” but there is some elusive something about it that holds out promise. One friend told me about the “Rule of 50.” According to this rule, you give a book 50 pages to grab you if you are under the age of 50, and after that you subtract a page for every year. At the age of 60, in other words, you’re only obligated to read 40 pages before calling “Game over!” If you want a rule, this one is probably as good as any. My own way is much more casual, not reducible to a formula.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Winds of Change

There was a lot of fall color left this past weekend. Most of the brilliant reds and oranges were gone—only an occasional bright maple, most sumac stripped of its leaves—but yellow and gold and bronze and brown and brown-edged butternut yellow were everywhere. The air scarcely stirred. Even after clouds hid the sun, beech and birch and popple seemed lit from within, brightening the day with their own self-generated energy. We had company over the weekend, and that meant less reading time, but it also meant more socializing and more time spent outdoors, which was a healthy and energizing change for all concerned.

As if Sunday’s calm had been only a reprieve, all day yesterday and last night the cold winds roared. Returning to indoor home life, with snow in the forecast, I finished Karen Armstrong’s A SHORT HISTORY OF MYTH and picked up again MEMOIRS OF AN UNREPENTANT FIELD GEOLOGIST, by Pettijohn, cozy by the fire.

Now today at Dog Ears Books, planning for next summer’s Friends of the Library summer series, ordering new books for customers, breezing through the New York Times Book Review, I enjoy my bright, warm little world while the wind bangs away at the awnings over the window and knocks my sidewalk sign over time and time again.

Friday, November 2, 2007

New Dog in Town

Visualize Waukazoo Street in Northport as the upright of a T, with Nagonaba Street as the crossbar. Now head up north past Dog Ears Books and hang a right. There! On your left is the Northport Bay Dog and Cat Company, where Jamie Covert will happily groom your Fido or Fifi and where you’ll also find pet products for sale. About time the home of the dog parade (and many pet-friendly businesses) had its own business catering to our furry friends. Jamie, welcome to downtown!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Company I Keep

How’d you like to hang out with this guy? His face looks a little mournful, but Bonnie and Woody felt we needed something to attract trick-or-treaters to our candy lair. By 7:30, when the gale-force winds had laid Hat Rack Man prone on the sidewalk, he looked even creepier, but he had done his job, luring the children in for Reese's peanut butter cups and the grown-ups in for Kilcherman's fresh apple cider, made just up the road at Christmas Cove Farm.

Robert Gray wrote in the booksellers’ daily newsletter, “Shelf Awareness,” on October 4:

"I thought about how I choose the next book I'm going to read, a ceremony that has a lot to do with 'voice.' In the first few pages of a book, I consider two important questions: Is this is a special place? Do I want to stay here for awhile?"

The authors whose works we read and the characters who inhabit those works are, after all, part of the daily company we keep. I’ve thought about that a lot this past week as I moved from May Thielgaard Watts to Robin Maxwell to Valerie Trueblood.

READING THE LANDSCAPE proclaimed itself a special place, calling me to visit, from the moment I opened the book and saw the wonderful line drawings illustrating the text, and the text did not disappoint, either. I loved walking the woods and dunes with Ms. Watts. Being with her also meant being with her teachers and mentors, so the likes of native-born Michiganian Asa Gray were my companions, too, in the special place of this book.

As far as “historical novels” go, I’m never sure what any particular reader means by that category. One thing that frequently puts me off even the best period novels is their length. Dipping into THE WILD IRISH, however, I was almost instantly hooked. Yes, this was a special place, and I wanted to stay there a while! The characters were alive! I found the “end” immensely satisfying, too, because--though I imagine some would find it inconclusive--it was the truth.

SEVEN LOVES, by Valerie Trueblood, a contemporary novel, likewise grabbed me right away with the truth of its characters, and I am glued to it every time I pick it up. The quality of the writing is poetic, the sense of characters interior, given more through their impressions rather than their actions. Nothing less than sleep could have taken me out of that world last night, and nothing less than duty will keep me from it today. But at the end of the day, when the time comes again to enter a special book place and stay there a while, I will be returning to this novel, sad to see the number of pages diminishing as I near its end.