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Friday, February 29, 2008

All Greek to Me

Before getting into a long philosophical ramble, I want to alert anyone so turned off by yesterday’s probability ramble that you bailed out before the end of the post—go back and scroll down to the “Harbingers of Spring” observations from our friend George Carpenter. I couldn’t wait until today to include his happy news but realized later that I did it a disservice by putting it in where I did. Go! Now! If you didn’t get that far yesterday. You’ll need the reassurance if you’re anywhere near northern Michigan today, where the latest snowstorm (the last one we’ll have in February, one wag noted) has been in progress all day long, sunshine once more a memory.

Okay, for today it’s going to be the ancient Greeks. Proceed then, forewarned, at your own risk.

Socrates always rubbed me the wrong way, from our first meeting, and his mouthpiece, Plato, never made my favorites list, either. I’ll go so far as to say that I’ve never understood why so many intelligent, well-educated, otherwise sensible people (many of my friends in philosophy, which shouldn’t surprise anyone) have been so impressed by this pair for so long. Plato’s REPUBLIC, you say? A totalitarian state in which lying to the governed would be state policy—what’s so great about that? The DIALOGUES? Socrates conducts his smart-aleck interrogations like a prosecuting attorney, reducing hapless witnesses to shreds. Everyone’s a fool but Socrates himself, and none of what anyone else thought they knew stands up to his questioning. It was only in graduate school, encountering deconstruction for the first time, that I saw the Socratic influence for what it was. He was the first deconstructionist! He tore everything apart and offered nothing in its place, and there was no applecart he could not overturn. Learn to live without apples! No, thank you. I’ll keep the apples and live without Socrates. I decided that 20 years ago.

(Every philosopher, I believe, is fundamentally either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. No philosopher cleaves to both in equal measure, and for me the Philosopher will always be Aristotle. One does not get dramatic flair or memorable characters from Aristotle. One does get an appreciation for and keen interest in the natural world, no aspect of nature being below Aristotle’s notice--whereas Socrates disdained anything outside the city gates. Aristotle despised neither the “flesh” of human existence nor the material world in general. His forms made sense, literally, while those of Plato’s were pie in the sky, unreachable and unknowable.)

Now, imagine my unbounded joy to come upon
THE TRIAL OF SOCRATES, by I. F. Stone. (A “National Bestseller,” the front cover says, published in 198, and I ask myself what took me so long. I was even in graduate school then!) Here at last is someone who sees Socrates and Plato as I see them, and he supports his opinion with evidence literary, historical, and philosophical. In a nutshell, Socrates and Plato were reactionaries. Unlike most Western philosophers over the succeeding centuries, who have been defenders of freedom in the face of threats to freedom (Hobbes an exception), Socrates and Plato opposed self-government. The charge against Socrates, “corrupting the youth,” was not brought against him because he was inciting young people to liberate themselves and their city from tyrants. On the contrary, Athens had given up kings for democracy. What S&C wanted was a return to the good old days, with good old boys in charge, handing down laws for the people to obey without question. Strange gods for later philosophers to worship!

The Socratic search for definitions plays a big role in Stone’s elucidation of the overall S&C view. Socrates wanted definitions that would be eternally true and admit of no exceptions; anything less was not pure enough for him. Since he never came up with such definitions himself, he had no claim above any other man to knowledge, except for his faux-modest claim that he alone was wise enough to know that he knew nothing. Stone finds this claim by Socrates boastful, and it’s hard to see it otherwise, since he’s still saying he’s wiser than anyone he knows, despite his lack of knowledge. Knowledge (of anything but the knowledge that one knows nothing), Socrates claimed to show--by shredding all definitions offered to him--was impossible. And if knowledge is impossible, self-government cannot be justified. We can’t have people ruling themselves without knowledge!

Leaving aside the difficulty of finding anyone who could fill a king’s shoes given this standard, an examination of the language claims alone is illuminating, as Stone shows, and this fascinates me because it’s similar to the conclusion I came to in my dissertation on theories of metaphor. In the end, the most hidebound conservatism and the most freewheeling anarchism are not opposites but two sides of the same coin. The search for pure idealism is the road that leads to nihilism: if justice does not exist anywhere in some pure state, there is no such thing as justice, and the word means nothing. Likewise, the dread of meaninglessness and nihilism fuels idealism: the only way to protect meaning from degradation is to hedge it around with rules, laws and barriers, plugging every loophole and exception.

To quote Stone: “The fact that all laws and general propositions have their exceptions does not destroy the value of laws and generalizations as guides to human conduct…. But it does mean that in the agonizing choices with which real life so often confronts men and judges alike, true virtue, humanity, and kindness may call for bending the rules, sometimes considerably. The abstractions alone, no matter how ancient and venerable, sometimes prove insufficient. The law must be preserved but justice must be done. And they are not always the same.”

A rule or law without exception would do away with the need for judging, as an airtight, eternal meaning would do away with the need for interpretation, but to hope that human beings can live without judging and without interpreting, however, is misguided at best. To go further and tell them to leave judgment and interpretation to some other fallible human beings deserves a worse name.

‘Sapere aude.’ Indeed!

I was so excited by Stone’s book this morning that I could not read at my usual slow pace. There is meat enough here to nourish me for years and to bring me back to the table again and again, gnawing the bones for every tasty bit.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Pretzel Recipe

It was a magical, sparkly world out there this morning, one that I traveled with many starts and stops, even backtracking twice. We’ve had an entire week of (mostly) sunshine, and it’s done wonders for people’s spirits. If we change the elements of the game of “rock, paper, scissors” to "cold, light, precipitation," what would beat what? Some things need a period of cold, and there are spells in which we do “need rain,” but when is sunlight unwelcome?

But I promised that brain-twister that has my thinking thing knotted into a pretzel, so here’s the setup: There are three closed doors. Behind one of them is a big prize—say it’s a car—while there’s nothing behind the other two. You get to choose one door, and let’s say you choose Door A. What are your odds of winning the car? One in three, obviously. But all three doors are still closed. All is yet uncertainty and probability. You haven’t won yet.

Now your game show host opens Door C, and you learn that there was nothing behind it. Doors A (your first choice) and B are still closed, and behind one of them is the hot new car. Question to you: Are you better off sticking with your first choice or, when the host gives you the option, switching to Door B? Most people’s intuition is either to stick with A or that it makes no difference, since with only two choices (comparable to heads-or-tails), they reason, they have a 50/50 chance either way.

But probability experts who have worked on this problem say you’re better off switching. They say you initially had one in three odds (granted) but with one door eliminated, your original choice remains at one in three, while the unopened and unchosen door’s odds have jumped to two in three. Scream all you want. They’ll smile at you condescendingly.For a heated, lengthy explanation and discussion of this problem (ultimately humiliating for all the smart people now eating crow), take a look at Marilyn’s claim and subsequent shouting and murmuring.

Being very stubborn (just ask David), I can’t give up yet. Taking a new approach, I imagine a second contestant taking the place of the first at this point. The second contestant's choice is A or B, hence his odds (I think you’ll agree) 50/50. And now my question to the experts is, with two doors still closed, how can the odds be different for two different contestants? What I’m pushing for here (going way out on a limb I have no reason to dare to explore, given my history with math) is that maybe this problem presents a mathematical paradox, as opposed to truth vs. na├»vete. But I’m over my head and need help on this one. Tom? Mark? Steve? Walt? ...Anyone?

Meanwhile, a friend out in Cherry Home (north of town), George Carpenter, writes about "Harbingers of Spring" he's noted in the last few days:

"Sunset on the far shore of Grand Traverse Bay (shadow covering the ridge across the bay from us) about 6:10 pm. Crows doing the 'aerial kiss,' both red bellied and hairy woodpeckers paired up (technically this is a partial cheat since they tend to stay in proximitity of each other year round), about 30 starlings back from the south, and an adult bald eagle carrying nesting material in his talons near Woolsey Airport. I probably shouldn't count the cut daffodils I bought today at Tom's because the label says they came from the UK."

Thank you, George, for that cheery report!

One last note on what I'm calling the paradox of the doors: When I said to David and Al, "Now suppose that Al steps out of the game and lets David take his place," David interrupted with a serious car-guy objection. "Why would he do that? Why would he give up his chance to win the car?" "For the sake of the problem!" I answered, and that made perfect sense to Al. Oh, we have fun here at Dog Ears Books!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Blessedly Brief

In celebration of another two (totally unexpected, at least by me) days of sunshine, here's how that light looked on dry milkweed pods in the meadow. Cold air, warm light! Better than cold, cold.

It's been too long a day for me to write at length tonight. My thoughts are veering toward books I want to order (in the morning), one of them PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL: THE HIDDEN FORCES THAT SHAPE OUR DECISIONS, by Dan Ariely, another the one about memory that has either GLASSES or EYEGLASSES in the title. I forget which.

I was already tired before getting e-mail about a probability problem that's been driving me crazy for a couple of days. I'll put the link in tomorrow for those of you who need your brains twisted into pretzels.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Staff Book Review: THREE CUPS OF TEA

THREE CUPS OF TEA, by Greg Mortenson (Penguin Books, trade paperback, 2006), reviewed by Bruce Balas

Don’t be fooled by the title, guys. This is a real action story with lots of shooting--although it’s not a shoot ‘em up! In essence, it’s the true story of an American mountaineer, Greg Mortenson, who, while climbing in Northern Pakistan, agrees to finance the building of a desperately needed school in a remote village. How he accomplishes this task in the face of serious obstacles, such as the fact that neither he nor the villagers speak the other’s language and he has no funds to work with, is only the beginning of the story.

As he learns more about life in these mountain villages, Mortenson becomes aware that as local young people become educated about the world around them, they also become better prepared to counter the pervading influence of radical anti-US groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. This leads him into what has become a 15-year campaign to promote peace in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan by helping build schools in remote villages. To date he has built 55 schools, and his campaign continues. This is in spite of the opposition of Muslim Mullahs who are afraid he is promoting Christianity, Al-Qaeda who feel he’s promoting “Americanism,” and the Taliban who frequently shoot at him. Even the American government is suspicious of his motives and often hinder his efforts.

THREE CUPS OF TEA is an incredible and inspirational story of what one determined person can do to promote the cause of peace. It should be required reading for all Americans to give us a better understanding of the ordinary Muslim people and the religious and cultural turmoil surrounding the American presence in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

- Bruce Balas, 2/25/2008

Bookseller note: Bruce Balas taught for 25 years at the American School in London. He and his wife, Judy, divide their time between Omena, Michigan, and Sanibel Island, Florida. Bruce has been a steadfast and loyal Dog Ears Books volunteer for more years than we can believe, starting out at one day a week and now on deck starting at 10 a.m. two days a week. Bruce, we salute you!

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Break in the Clouds

The eclipse happened without us, but I did catch the moon Thursday morning about 6:30 a.m. Even partially hidden by clouds, it was bright enough to make visible the remaining black locust trees on the hill destined to be the newest orchard around us.

Now today, a beautiful, sunny morning, after yesterday’s beautiful, sunny afternoon! I just can’t help the exclamation, either: sunshine makes such a difference this time of year. The air is just as cold, but spirits warm in the light. “It’s like Florida!” I exclaim to David, who shakes his head and says, “No, it’s not at all.” And then we reminisce about our time in Weeki Wachee two years ago, when a killing frost hit Hernando County in February and we had to make an emergency space heater purchase to get through our time there.

But this is Leelanau County, Michigan, and tomorrow is Northport’s annual Winter Carnival! Here’s the line-up for the day:

11:00 a.m. Poker Run Registration and Start
11:30 a.m. Curling Tournament Begins
12:00 p.m. Broomball Games Begin
12:00-2:00 p.m. Snowshoe Walk for adults and kids
(Snowshoes available for those without)
12:00-3:00 p.m. Chili Cook-off (judging at 3 p.m.)
12:00-4:00 p.m. Free hog dogs, coffee & hot chocolate
2:00 p.m. Cardboard Sled Races
3:30 p.m. Outhouse Races

Events for kids:
12:00-12:30 Ice Pond Fishing
12:30-1:00 Frisbee Throw
12:30-1:00 Nerf Ball Target Throws
1:00-1:30 Snowball Spoon Race
1:00-2:00 Snowman Building Contest

A day like today would be perfect for all that—sunshine and new snow to make everything clean and beautiful. And of course, anyone who needs to warm up is welcome to pop into the bookstore and work on the sky, the only part of the jigsaw puzzle still remaining undone. (There are books, too.)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

What Should We Teach, and How?

“One of the most common selling points for computers in schools, even in first and second grades, is to prepare youngsters for tomorrow's increasingly high-tech jobs. Strangely, this may be the computer evangels' greatest hoax. When business leaders talk about what they need from new recruits, they hardly mention computer skills, which they find they can teach employees relatively easily on their own. Employers are most interested in what are sometimes called ‘soft’ skills: a deep knowledge base and the ability to listen and communicate; to think critically and imaginatively; to read, write and figure, and other capabilities that schools are increasingly neglecting.” – San Francisco Chronicle, November 30, 2003

Read the whole article at
The article is over three years old, but in classic overdriving-our-headlights fashion, we as communities haven’t caught on yet. Years ago, at an academic party in a university town, a group of computer scientists agreed that banks of computers for public schools didn't make good educational sense; pomoting computers for schools, however, brought grant money to academic departments. Is further comment necessary?

I would be very grateful to anyone who could identify for me a book (title and author’s name forgotten; I think the author was a woman Ph.D. but can’t remember in her field) that I read two to five years back on the subject of reading, writing, thinking and computers. (Googling for this list of terms brings a googleplex of results and is no help whatsoever for anyone without infinite time.) The claim I want to review in the book has to do with reading print on pages vs. reading text on screen. The author cited research to show that while we lump these two activities together as “reading,” our brains are engaged in very dissimilar activities, and that while the first kind of reading strengthens the brain’s ability to follow complex narratives and argument chains, the latter actually erodes that ability. As I recall, this was not a consequence of paragraph vs. bullet style but something basic to do with brain physiology and kinds of light. Perhaps the bullet style even came about as a consequence of decreased ability on the part of screen readers to follow contextualized points of argument.

The other day I assigned my community college students a one-page, 200-word essay. “Can we use bullets?” one of them asked. “You may include them, but don’t use them for the whole essay,” I answered. “I want sentences and paragraphs!” If my blogging style starts showing signs of decaying into unrelated “points” that don’t add up to anything, I hope I’ll be aware enough to notice and call the whole thing off. No doubt one of my friends will be kind enough to let me know?

Meanwhile, to catch up to where I am now with books, I’ll backtrack to remind you that I set aside BEATRIX POTTER: A LIFE IN NATURE to pick up THE RAIN BEFORE IT FALLS, which I loved and finished quickly. Then CRUSADER’S CROSS tempted me, but that lost out (temporarily) to LIBBY: THE ALASKAN DIARIES OF LIBBY BEAMAN, 1879-1880 and Zadie Smith’s ON BEAUTY. LIBBY hooked me until the last page, and then I went back to ON BEAUTY, finishing that book this morning (having taken off some time for David Hume’s TREATISE ON HUMAN NATURE along the way). What can I say of ON BEAUTY? It isn’t a new release—I’m always “behind” on my reading when it comes to new books!—so it’s been sufficiently reviewed and doesn’t need my two cents added. Quite extraordinary. That such a young writer could portray with such depth and sensitivity her older, middle-aged characters is more than impressive: it’s downright frightening. I'll be getting back to BEATRIX POTTER, though, and finishing it long before spring arrives.

Tomorrow I’ll give a detailed activities and contests list for Saturday’s Winter Carnival. Promise!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Long, busy day ahead, so there won't be a long post. Here's a picture, though, from last Sunday morning. This was during the freezing rain, before it stopped freezing and everything melted. I loved the look of these coneflower seedheads encased in ice. This is not the giant purple species but a more delicate coneflower, with a tall, slender seedhead and (when in bloom) delicate, drooping, pale yellow petals. Right now it's all potential, reminding me of Aristotle, who believed with all his heart that the chicken came before the egg.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Country Mouse Dreams of City Life, Then Thinks Better of It

In deepest winter, when skies are grey and spirits tend toward blue, it’s hard for the small-town bookseller not to let her imagination wander to dreams of what a bookselling life would be like in a big, lively city. There would be a line of cars parked at the curb (not just speeding down the street one lonely car at a time) and people constantly passing by, bundled up against the cold in northern cities but eager to escape the confines of their familiar apartments to explore the larger world at their doorstep. Some of these passers-by would pull open the bookshop door and hurry in, stomping snow from their boots.

My imagination, of course, was fired years ago in childhood by THE HAUNTED BOOKSHOP, by Christopher Morley: “He stumbled down the three steps that led into the dwelling of the muses, lowered his overcoat collar, and looked about.”

Back to the dream: Visitors might or might not be in the mood for conversation. Some would gravitate to the jigsaw puzzle (Susan helped so much with that on Saturday) to amuse themselves with it for half an hour, while others would avidly scan the New Arrivals shelves, chatting about the weather with the bookseller while grabbing up attractive volumes to peruse, asking eagerly, “Have you read this one?” or “Do you know what this is about?” Other browsers, shy but serious, would disappear into the stacks to become part of the furniture until, one at a time, emerging at last (blinking like owls) with stacks of treasure.

Morley again: “The shop had a warm and comfortable obscurity, a kind of drowsy dusk, stabbed here and there by bright cones of yellow light from green-shaded electrics.”

Ah, the dream! Every town, of whatever size, deserves a bookstore, I like to say. I believe it, and in general I love having my bookstore in Northport. Luckily, book-lovers from the big cities find me here, especially when they arrive for long summer vacations. From Grand Rapids and Chicago they come, from Ann Arbor and St. Louis, from the East Coast, West Coast and even foreign countries. Not so often at this time of year, though.

On the other hand--. “There will be days when the only person you’ll see will be the mailman,” predicted a friend in business in Traverse City when I moved Dog Ears there from Northport in 1994, and she was right. Bigger isn’t always better, and many of the customers who loved Dog Ears in Traverse City have stayed loyal, trekking all the way out to Northport several times a year. “We’re your best excuse for a beautiful drive” is the motto I’ve used more than once. Northport is mini-vacation territory for Traverse City residents, less than an hour away.

Today traffic is light. Snow plows. School buses. Trucks filled with stacked firewood. I leave a friend watching the shop while Sarah and I go for a walk, returning to take up again a conversation on the history of ideas. When a book order arrives from one of my distributors, I have customers to telephone or e-mail and can look forward to visits from these good friends. Summer feels faraway, like something I dreamed, but it will return. For now there is the peacefulness of winter to savor. Sarah has a rawhide bone, and I have plenty of books.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Borrowing Cold from the Arctic

This picture, looking east through our woodshed window, is from last Sunday, a much colder, wilder day--though who knows what the rest of this Sunday will bring? Again today the wind is from the east, which always feels strange and wrong, and the last time I was outdoors, rain rather than snow wetted my face. East-facing surfaces of tree trunks were already covered with ice, and other objects in the yard, too, wearing a coat of ice like clear shellac. Gerry asked recently how I could read about the Arctic winter at this time of year, commenting that he’d save such books for August. No, it’s always in the coldest part of the year that I want to read about even colder places, but let’s see if I can make sense of that to anyone else.

After Sarah’s first sortie this morning (out into the cold and dark), I made coffee and settled back down with Libby Beaman’s diary. Up in the Pribilof Islands, Libby wrote on February 1, 1880, “The night and the cold have closed in about us…. Today is a warm day, eighteen below!” I read that, and my own winter seems much warmer and easier. Libby had been asked to teach school to the Aleut children, but in the second week of February, the parents asked that school be dismissed until “better weather” returned. “We had all been crawling [to school] on all fours against the winds. Now we cannot even do that, for our breath freezes in our lungs.” There was no daylight, and now there would be no change of scenery, no exchanging lamp-lit house for the lamp-lit school or store and the company of other human beings.

Three weeks later, harsh weather continuing, Libby reported that she and John had been unable to get down to the village at all, nor had anyone been able to get up to their house. “As the days pass in such blackness outside that it is difficult to note their passing, the temperature keeps dropping (today, twenty-eight below), and the ice-laden gales continue to rage around us at more than eighty miles an hour…. We look at each other and wonder how we ever got ourselves into this situation. It looks as though we are going to be housebound a long, long time.” Here in Leelanau County we are sometimes housebound for a day and the two nights book-ending that day, a spell of isolation that is luxury to me, not deprivation. I revel in a housebound winter Sunday. Weeks of isolation? Much less appealing, even in the abstract.

On March 20 Libby noted that their food and fuel were running dangerously low. They had restricted their living to the bedroom and were spending most of their time in bed, out of necessity, conserving and sharing body heat. She composed a letter to her family back home, knowing it would not reach them until August but wanting them to know, if she did not survive her Arctic winter, that she was happy to be with John. She also noted that she was craving dried prunes, a food she had used to reject but which now seemed to her “the ultimate of the unobtainable.” I reflect complacently on our supply of raisins and dark chocolate, honey and apple syrup, of fresh vegetables in the refrigerator and lentils soaking in a pot, and I am inspired to make a batch of cinnamon rolls for breakfast.

John and Libby were supposed to remain on St. Paul Island for two years, and I glance nervously at the diminishing number of pages left in the book. Libby’s letter to her parents closed with the assurance that “if we should not survive, someone will find this letter to you and all our other things. They will send them on, I know. You must know my love for you.” March 27: “We look at each other with a deeper fear in our eyes.” There was some daylight now in the middle of the day (no actual sun), but John and Libby were living on oatmeal and tea. We, by contrast, have tea, coffee, butter, eggs, rolled oats, steel-cut oats, rice, cornmeal, wheat flour, barley and more. They had given up trying to wash and were streaked with soot from the stove, the skin on their hands grimy and cracked. A week later, still no sign of life down in the village, and John was still unable to break through the ice to try to get to the village himself. They asked themselves what they would do if they were to reach the village and find conditions even worse there. “Better to perish here in each other’s arms,” Libby wrote fatalistically.

Why would I want to read such a hair-raising tale in May or August? When spring comes, all I want to do is soak in as much of it as possible, being as aware as I can be of every precious, fleeting moment. By August I’m anticipating a September get-away to the U.P., hoping the water in Sable Lake will still be warm enough for a swim. No, it’s now, when winter has us a bit ground-down, that I like to remind myself how easy we have it. If the worst ice storm were to knock out our power today, we would still have propane for our stoves and oil for our lamps. We would still be able to cook and to read, and we have plenty of food and plenty of books. I take warm comfort in that knowledge.

LIBBY: THE ALASKAN DIARIES OF LIBBY BEAMAN, 1879-1880, were edited and presented by her granddaughter, Betty John. There is much more to the book than winter isolation and hardship. Human relationships and conflict, the economics and harsh reality of seal “harvesting,” along with descriptions of seal life on these rocky, barren islands, make every page a fascination. This book reads so much like a novel that I kept closing it to look at the front and back covers, sure that it was a writer’s invention. Due for a reprint, I’d say.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Fuss and Fun

Yes, it’s Saturday, and Winter Carnival is only a week away! I haven’t heard many people expressing worry that we won’t have enough snow. The contrary, maybe. But if the Big One hits tomorrow, as predicted, people will have plenty of time to dig out and get to Braman Hill seven days from now.

Yesterday was an interesting day in the bookstore. Big Steve and David and I were discussing Rimbaud, and suddenly Steve began reciting several Rimbaud poems by heart, in French. We were impressed! It’s not the kind of scene that takes place every day in little Northport, especially in the dead of winter. Then along came Berkeley and Jen, with Sarah’s (so far) best dog friend, Kesey, and more familiar doggy fun crowded out poetry. (Steve, the dogs needed their social and physical exercise! We’ll get back to you on Rimbaud et al. soon!)

I must confess that I have not (yet) read any of Zadie Smith’s three novels, and maybe in light of that fact, the better part of valor would be to keep my mouth shut about the Willesden brouhaha, but where does valor stop and cowardice begin? Since the news broke, I’ve been surveying writer friends for their opinions, as well as reading online commentaries, and opinions are all over the map. The first reply to my query was this:

“I actually read Smith's letter on the blog yesterday and I just don't understand how in 2006 and 2007 they received a wealth of wonderful stories and suddenly the following year nothing was good enough. I've never heard of this as typically when contests ‘age’ the competition grows stiffer. I mean, a contest with no entry fee, no word count or theme requirements, no age or citizenship status requirements and a $5,000 prize is one to which seasoned and emerging writers alike flock. They did receive 850 entries. Maybe I'm missing the point. Judges are subjective, after all, but perhaps the nature of the undertaking tainted the result as the three initial judges appeared to be overwhelmed.”

Another correspondent had a very different view:

“On the other hand, reading the description of the process, it does sound like the readers tried hard to find ones they could agree were excellent. I just don't know. I do know there's a lot of really bad stuff out there. Once I helped with some screening of poems…, and I couldn't believe how desperately, sadly, comically bad most of the ones in my pile were.”

“What a disservice to other writers, to arrogantly refuse to grant a prize,” wrote one tough writer and sometime judge. “Seems she went a long, long way to get out of reading the stories she had agreed to judge. Not the first bit of arrogance from a writer.”

Well, there you have it. I guess it’s time for me to wrap up my reading of LIBBY (two hours this morning weren’t enough to get me to the end of the book, but not a single minute of the time felt ho-hum, so immediately gripping is this story, which I can hardly believe is a diary and not a novel, and if this parenthetical phrase gets any longer, I deserve--) and begin ON BEAUTY, the second of Smith’s three novels. An observation on Betty John’s edited version of her grandmother’s diary before I close this posting: one website called Libby’s story “plainly told,” and my eyebrows shot up. The suspense is killing me!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Slow News Day

All the news here is quiet stuff at present, but that’s not bad. No deer-vehicle collisions, no power outages, no lots of things that could make life miserable this time of year. Owing to a continuing lack of sunshine, however, I’ve cheated on the orchard picture and colored it warm.

Chris G. and Bonnie B. were here the other day and fell into the jigsaw puzzle temptation, with the result that the top and bottom edges are now complete. Next? Drop in at your own risk!

On the overflow/newly arrived shelves, I took time to separate out and alphabetize the trade fiction. (It would be in the general alphabetized fiction section if there were room for it all there.) This will simplify life for me, for Bruce, and for our customers. Bruce has agreed to write a guest review for THREE CUPS OF TEA, by the way, so watch for that soon.

I did some updating and tidying up to the Dog Ears Books website today and sent another order through to Ingram. One of the books on the list was EXPERIMENTS IN ETHICS, by Kwame Anthony Appiah. (There’s a title to make Immanuel Kant roll over in his grave!) Then, taking a break, I got drawn into LIBBY: THE ALASKAN DIARIES AND LETTERS OF LIBBY BEAMAN, 1879-1880. Gripping story! How will I ever put it aside to finish the other three books I’m halfway through?

And tonight? Alaska or Louisiana? Arctic or steamy? Victorian or contemporary? My after-dinner thoughts turned to Prague, but I’ll put that meditation on the back burner for another time.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Bits and Pieces

For the last two years, I’ve been sticking to the shortest road route from home to Northport, conserving fuel. Last Friday the back roads called my name. This uncharacteristically straight stretch (most of our county roads wind around hills) always reminds me of the U.P. “Up North” depends on your starting point. It’s a state of mind.

Winter Carnival approaches, now only eleven days away, and there’s no fear of a snowless event unless the weather changes drastically between then and now. The question has been raised, will there be an OUTHOUSE RACE again this year? The answer is YES! There’s even a rumor of a women’s team in that event! Stay tuned, and plan to be there!

And from the Great Beyond:

Suze Orman will be on “Oprah” today. WOMEN AND MONEY: OWNING THE POWER TO CONTROL YOUR DESTINY—great title, solid ideas, as always from this financial guru. I’m a believer in her message, though more backslider than practitioner. (What can I say? It’s the truth.)

Tomorrow AM radio from Louisiana (any chance in the universe I could tune in?) will have an interview with Geraldine Brooks, whose new book PEOPLE OF THE BOOK is right up front on the counter at Dog Ears Books, singing its siren song.

Today is the 199th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.

(Thank you, Shelf Awareness, for bringing me these bits of news from the world outside.)

Monday, February 11, 2008

Getting Along

Yesterday’s Arctic blasts were so brutal even the pup didn’t want to play outdoors long. We made brief, utilitarian sorties and returned hastily to shelter. Would classes be cancelled for Monday morning? That was my Sunday night question. This morning the wind was still whipping, snow still gusting, and road visibility highly problematic out here in the county, but the semester marched on, albeit with high absenteeism. David (my hero!) piloted me safely through the dark, and I was happy to reach the haven of my clean, bright little office with plenty of time to spare before class. This office is my one serious perk this semester, and I'm appreciating the dickens out of it. It may never happen again!

A friend remarked the other day that he sensed an almost superstitious bias against science abroad in the land. Okay, he may not have used the word “superstitious,” and he certainly did not say “abroad in the land,” but I’m not a reporter, I’m not presenting my friend’s remark as a direct quote, and I do not think I have misrepresented his meaning. Is there such a bias? In some quarters, certainly, and loud voices come from those quarters. I doubt it is the general public sentiment.

On the other hand, I told my friend, I think the reaction that does exist against science is in part a reaction to what philosophers call “scientism,” a view that would make of science another religion. In the scientistic (a fundamentalist view opposed to the legitimately scientific) worldview, science is the only valuable and meaningful human endeavor, and nothing else deserves to be called knowledge. There is science, and there is superstition, according to this narrow perspective. Superstition here is a straw man designed to stand in for anyone working in the arts or humanities, let alone the “vineyards of the Lord.” (Another friend, an artist, shocked me a couple weeks ago by declaring, “If I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist!” Really? Whose side is she on?)

So, can an intelligent person--not by putting on blinders or sticking his head in the sand but sincerely and honestly--follow both science and religion? Religious and scientistic fundamentalists say no, while less strident American voices have sought a way to reconcile the two paths. I say “American” because, as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, intellectuals in other countries seem not to be troubled by any irresolvable conflict in the first place.

Gould’s own solution was that science and religion are two distinct “nonoverlapping magisteria” (magisterium = teaching authority) and do not conflict because their spheres, or domains, are so very different: “The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.” Gould no doubt agreed with Hume that there is no deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’ and no logical path from fact to value. Science tells us how things work, religion how we should live, and neither is equipped to supplant the other.

A different and very interesting solution comes from Ken Wilber, someone whose work I initially approached with skepticism but have come to respect (if not adore--what is there about Gould, the agnostic scientist, writing usually on impersonal topics related to evolution, that seems so touching, so dear? Is this just me?). In THE MARRIAGE OF SENSE AND SOUL: INTEGRATING SCIENCE AND RELIGION, Wilbur divides knowledge into three fields—science, art and religion—and claims that all three depend on (the same) three essential aspects in their knowledge-building: (1) instrumental injunction (“If you want to know y, do x”); (2) direct apprehension of the data of experience; and (3) communal confirmation or rejection. As for reconciling science and religion, Wilber thinks each has to give a little to make way for the other, and what both have to give up (here is his second surprise move) are their respective myths. The mythologies of religions are obvious. The myth of science, Wilber says, is that it deals only with sensory data, but if this myth were true, there would be no mathematics and no scientific theories to test. The outlawed “interior” world of thought, concept, intentionality, etc. is essential to the scientific enterprise, however much it is denied official reality.

I have already written that I think Karen Armstrong is asking too much of human beings when she says they need to invent “new myths.” If I’m right about that, what are the odds that our species can dispense with myth altogether? Those are my doubts, but Wilber’s solution remains intriguing. To say that scientific experiment, religious contemplation, and aesthetic exploration are approaches to different aspects of human experience using identifiably similar methods—this is a brilliant synthesis, however few disciples it is able to win. It is also a relief from the disdain of atheistic and fundamentalist extremists who can see nothing but stupidity and evil in one another.

Gould's view and Wilber's, as far as I can see, do not rule each other out, either, but seem perfectly compatible. This is a relief to me. I would find it very difficult to give up Stephen Jay Gould.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Winter Orchards

February is National Cherry Month, and while it may look as if the orchards are asleep, things are happening. Snow is insulating the roots and adds moisture to the soil as it melts. Crews are out early in the morning with pruning tools. I'll say more about orchards and cherries later but mustn't let the oatmeal burn!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Demands on the Brain

“Have you read this one yet?” a browser asks, indicating one of the new books on the counter. I must confess: I have not read them all and will never be “caught up.” How would it be possible to keep up with new releases, with the seductive siren song of so many tempting old books calling my name? Some people read only new books, some only old; some find value only in nonfiction, while others read nothing but novels. I’m a book omnivore. The one genre I don’t read is science fiction, but there’s nothing supercilious in this neglect: as is the case with raw oysters, I just don’t get it. Other people get it and love it, and that’s fine.

The book that’s been holding me hostage this week is a novel by James Ramsey Ullman, published back in 1958. THE DAY ON FIRE is “loosely based” on the life of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and last night I rivaled our grandson’s reading intensity, devouring 100 pages. The author names his main character Claude Morel, and without knowing the details of Rimbaud’s life it’s impossible to know how much is invented, but even where it may not be factual, the story feels true. The loneliness of the gifted boy, understood by no one in his small town, is heart-breaking, even as the boy--not understanding much himself about himself and not much interested in understanding others, whom he sees as dull, small-minded and hypocritical--does everything possible to make sure he will be rejected and reviled. It is the pride of Nietzsche, the pride of the unhappy adolescent: “No one can possibly understand or appreciate me!” And yet the genius is real, along with the pain.

The demands of philosophy and art (doing the former, reading about the latter) got me to thinking today that other people besides myself might need some mental R&R. I remembered an old friend who always, this time of year, when sales got slow in her bookstore, put out a big jigsaw puzzle to amuse herself and friends and browsers. The brain is still working, but not in the same way, not (probably) in the same areas. So if you need a break, come on down tomorrow, Saturday, and try to fit a few pieces together. (It’s a farm scene.) I’ll put on the coffee pot when I get here at 10 o’clock.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

What David's Reading These Days

(Have I posted this sunflower picture before? That's Lake Michigan hazy in the center distance.)

Yes, tonight I’m turning the spotlight away from myself and the bookstore to shine on the books next to David’s reading chair. Top of the stack, the book he was reading last night, is THE SECRET LIFE OF THE SEINE, by Mort Rosenblum. I've been entertained with several long passages read aloud from that book, as well as long sections from KAFKA WAS THE RAGE: A GREENWICH VILLAGE MEMOIR, by Anatole Broyard. Paris and New York! The country mice, snug in their winter nest, dream of glamorous, faraway cities! HOUSE DREAMS, by Hugh Howard, is further down the stack, but I have neither read any of it nor had any of it read to me. Then there is a large-format, illustrated book by John Updike entitled STILL LOOKING: ESSAYS ON AMERICAN ART. That one I dipped into, turning one very early morning to an essay on Albert Pinkham Ryder called (the chapter title quotes the artist) “’Better Than Nature.’” Oh, that John Updike! How he can write! That he does is to the great benefit of the rest of us, and these essays on art and artists are of great interest of the painter in this household as well as the painter’s wife. We enjoy Updike’s poetry, too, and I think his IN THE BEAUTY OF THE LILIES an important and sorely neglected novel, deserving of a place in the top 100 of the 1900’s, expressing as it does the zeitgeist of that century.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

"What's New?"

Anyone interested in Michigan public schools should check out “French Road Connections” today (in list at right). After that gets you all filed up, take a few moments to laugh by looking at The weather today is too dismal to describe. I’d rather occupy my mind with books.

“What’s new?” People ask that all the time. It’s kind of like, “How are you?” in that it marks time and acknowledges the other person’s presence but isn’t really a request for information. Often (and maybe in the same vein) people ask me, “How’s the bookstore?” It’s much better, though, when they actually come to the bookstore, ask, “What’s new?” and take off their coats to stay a while. So today I’ll pretend all my blog readers are here in person, and I’ll answer the “What’s new?” question as it relates to books on my new-book shelves. (Don’t forget there are always “new” used books, too, in the rest of the shop.) Here’s a quick sketch of just a few stand-outs, by category, some of them brand-new releases and others excellent books still available new and in stock here in Northport today, i.e., available (if you’re here in Leelanau County) at one (or more) of your LOCAL BOOKSTORES!

First, new books for children:

BE MY VALENTINE, PETER RABBIT, a board book with surprise sound inside;
PIPER, by Emma Chichester Clark, a dog story;
THE HUCKABUCK FAMILY AND HOW THEY RAISED POPCORN IN NEBRASKA, a Carl Sandburg classic, this edition illustrated by David Small of Kalamazoo;
ADVENTURES WITH LITTLE DUCK—a book, a puzzle and a toy, all in one!--

Next, novels for grownups:
PEOPLE OF THE BOOK, by Geraldine Brooks, author of YEARS OF WONDER and MARCH;
ATONEMENT (now in paperback and at your local movie theatre), by Ian McEwan;
NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON, by Pascal Mercier, a book none other than Isabel Allende called “one of the best books I have read in a long time”;
OUT STEALING HORSES, by Per Petterson, which got a review I couldn’t resist;
STRIKE DOG, a Woods Cop mystery set in the U.P., by Michigan’s own Joseph Heywood--

Biography and memoir:
CALLED TO QUESTION, by Joan Chittister, for the spiritually inclined;
THE MEASURE OF A MAN, by Sidney Poitier, an American icon;
UNBOWED, by Wangari Maathai, a story of hope for Kenya, something we all need right now;
BOONE: A BIOGRAPHY, by Robert Morgan, another book with irresistible reviews, especially for the lover of Western history in your life--

You and your life:
CHOOSING HAPPINESS, by Stephanie Dowrick
Plus a couple of long-time favorites of mine, still in print:
THE LUCK FACTOR, by Richard Wiseman

Food, drink, health:
FROM THE VINE: EXPLORING MICHIGAN WINERIES, by Sharon Kegerreis & Lorri Hathaway;

As for me, I opened an old book this morning and am now hooked. It's a novel loosely based on the life of the poet Rimbaud. I'll let you know how it holds up as I get further in.

Monday, February 4, 2008

One to Look Out For

Putting aside for a couple of days the Beatrix Potter biography, I gave myself over to an advanced reader’s copy of a novel coming out from Knopf next month, THE RAIN BEFORE IT FALLS, by Jonathan Coe. I’d been discussing with a few friends recently a phenomenon one encounters when reading good fiction: as Marilyn put it, “You get to this point where you forget that the author’s just making it all up.” With the Coe novel, I had a more unusual experience early on, retaining awareness that what I was reading was “made up” but believing strongly in the characters nonetheless.

The book (set in England) begins in the third person but taking the perspective of a woman named Gill, married and mother of two grown daughters just launching out into life on their own. Gill’s Aunt Rosamond in Shropshire has just died, and Gill has been named executrix of the aunt’s estate. She, her brother, and someone named Imogen are the heirs. The challenge will be to find Imogen, someone the others only knew slightly, haven’t seen for ages and hardly remember.

Rosamond was listening to music on the day she died, “Songs from the Auvergne.” She had also been recording stories on cassette tapes for Imogen. When computer searches and newspaper ads fail to turn up Imogen, Gill and her daughters listen to the tapes, hoping for clues on how they might find the missing girl, and at this point the story turns to the first person, Rosamond speaking through the tapes from beyond the grave.

Coe’s device is simple, what he accomplishes with it complex. Rosamond has decided that she will tell her story by describing to Imogen, who is blind, a series of photographs. The first is one of her own, Rosamond’s, childhood house. It was taken near the time that children were being evacuated to the countryside to be safe from the German bombing during World War II, and when Rosamond herself is evacuated, soon afterward, she is sent to live at Warden Farm, with the family of Beatrix, grandmother of Imogen. Beatrix and Rosamond, in typical little-girl style, soon become “blood sisters.” Over the years and decades, this relationship becomes tangled and murky in many ways, but even at the beginning it is not straightforward: Beatrix is not loved by her mother (intent only on her sons and her dogs) and uses Rosamond to try to gain family attention. Rosamond is rather a yo-yo to Beatrix, pulled close when it suits, at other times dropped.

Some of the developments of plot and character are predictable. We are not surprised, for instance, at Rosamond’s emerging lesbianism, the early clues for Rosamond herself being shared on the tapes. Quite different the developing family history of Beatrix, her daughter Thea, and granddaughter Imogen. Legacies of love and lack of love chart this course, and there are many twists and turns, understandable in retrospect, unforeseeable ahead of time, the story shifting from Shropshire to London to Canada and back again.

I mention place settings because they are so vivid that the places are almost characters in themselves. Places are described first in each chapter, as Rosamond records facts for Imogen about a picture’s composition, setting, color, and the people in it. There are twenty pictures in all. Rosamond has chosen them (from hundreds available) in order to present Imogen’s history to the girl in some manageable, chronological order, and in reading the visual descriptions along with all the associations and history called up by each image, the reader lives the story in all five senses.

It works. The device works. Along with Gill, we are transported back in time, living Rosamond’s life as Imogen’s grandmother and mother, then Imogen herself, are woven through it. At the end we share Gill’s desire to see a meaningful pattern in it all.

This is a book worth reading. I don’t want to give away the story by saying more.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Keeping Them Alive

The plants in the bookstore/gallery window this winter do not suffer the typical neglect I visit on houseplants unlucky enough to join our household. This is the secret: they are not at home but here at my place of business--where my days are spent, on public view, demanding care every day. I appreciate these green leaves and colorful flowers in the (sometimes sunny) window and don’t mind watering the plants, but I can’t help thinking from time to time that if I and they were in Florida we could all be outdoors, flourishing in the sun. Oops! Sorry, Michigan! That’s just a grey day weariness talking. Another evening in the Lake District with Beatrix Potter, another night spent dreaming of Hunca Munca and Jeremy Fisher, and I’ll be good as new in the morning.