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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Don't Call It 'Dirt'

Call it ‘earth,’ or call it ‘soil.’ A lot of it gets moved around this time of year. With the sewer work in downtown Northport, heavy machinery, expertly handled, makes amazingly accurate and fast work of digging, while orchard tractors out in the countryside move with deliberation, upslope and down, cultivating natural and enhanced contours of the land around newly planted young whips of cherry trees. My daily drive from home to town takes me past Norm and Pauline Neilsen’s mature orchards, where I catch my first sight of blossoms beginning to show every spring.

“Anyone can see whether the land’s being properly worked or not,” says one peasant in the book CHINESE LIVES: AN ORAL HISTORY OF CONTEMPORARY CHINA, ed. W. J. F. Jenner & Delia Davis (NY: Pantheon, 1987). “You can’t hide the crops: they’re like the farmer’s face.” Louis Bromfield made a similar observation in Ohio over half a century ago, when he came home from Europe to take up the “new” agriculture, a kind of precursor (to oversimplify the history of scientific farming) to what later developed as organic farming. I need to re-read PLEASANT VALLEY and MALABAR farm to refresh my memory of the details, and I want to find statistics, too, for soil lost annually in Michigan to erosion, a number I remember back in the 1980’s as measured in tons per acre per year. How much new soil is produced by a single earthworm in a year? And what about the new deserts appearing in China, where soil washed away by flooding after huge tracts forest were thoughtlessly “harvested” to make cheap furniture for export? I hope to do justice to these important topics in the near future.

Today, however (Thursday), Waukazoo Street is open again (give these workers credit: our street was only closed for two days!), and tomorrow (Friday) the bookstore will be closed, as the Dog Ears Books team travels south for the Senior Spelling Bee at Gilbert Lodge in Traverse City’s Twin Lakes Park. I have final grades to calculate for my NMC students this weekend, and Tuesday I’ll be part of a panel at the Portage Public Library on “What Some Are Reading,” looking at book club selections around the state. (When asked to participate, I first her the request as “What’s Summer Reading?” Some book clubs, though, take summers off! The old U.P. joke goes, “We have two seasons here, Winter and Company.” Well, who doesn’t want to be Up North when the sun is shining and blue water sparkling? Yes, it’s a busy time, but it’s what we live for.) So don't hold your breath for my ag history report.

Happy bulletin just arrived: Joe Borri's book of short stories, EIGHT DOGS NAMED JACK, is one of three finalists in the "Best New Voice Fiction" category for the 2008 Benjamin Franklin Awards. Way to go, Joe!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Road Closed, Bookstore Open

Is it a "nightmare"? No, merely a challenge. "The nice thing about Northport," Ben Wetherbee remarked this morning when he came in for a browse and a visit, "is that you can walk anywhere in town you need to get." Older, more jaded voices ask, "How long is this going to go on?" Well, it just started on Waukazoo Street, and it seems to be moving along pretty fast, as far as I can see. We should definitely have downtown repaved and easy to navigate by the time summer visitors arrive. For now, anyone brave enough to come this week, park around the corner and WALK to Dog Ears Books is welcome to a 10% discount. Just say you read it on "Books in Northport." Post beneath this one is my literary offering for the day--two postings for the price of one.


Sun is shining this morning, as it was yesterday. Wind last night was from the north and COLD! Cold continues this morning. No snow yet. But yes, we’ve got another book review for you, so here goes:

A FOOL AND HIS MONEY: LIFE IN A PARTITIONED MEDIEVAL TOWN, by Ann Wroe. Nonfiction. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.

A pitcher of gold found in a blocked drain underneath a house begins the tale. To whom does it belong? The year is 1370, the place a “partitioned” town in what is now the governmental department of Aveyron (named for the river) in modern-day southcentral France. The fourteen century, though, was far from modern, and in the Middle Ages the town of Rodez was additionally burdened (on top of feudalism, war, marauding bandits and the Black Plague) by the fact that half the town was controlled by a bishop, the other half by a count, alike only in their power over residents and in their consistent demands for taxes and tribute. As if this weren’t enough to try men’s souls, the division of power was made physical and ever-present by a wall separating the two jurisdictions, its gates locked at night. Strangers were suspect in medieval Rodez, and even residents of the town were strangers on the other side of the wall.

This is the world scholar Ann Wroe set out to explore. Originally she had hoped to research the Albigensians or the Perpignan region, but these, she found, were already “spoken for” by others, and she had to find a bit of unclaimed academic turf of her own. Rodez was still available. No one so far had wanted it. There was a wealth of surviving documentation from the period in question. Rodez it would be.

Commuting between Oxford and her new field of historical endeavor, Wroe traveled back and forth in time as well as in space. “Over the two years I spent there,” she writes, “I approached Rodez in a variety of ways, but each time there was the same sense of a journey deep into the interior.” That journey, even in the 20th century (by train), ran “through impossibly narrow cuts and rock walls glistening with water….” She recalls geese along the tracks, laundry hanging out on lines, “and trees pinioned to cliffs of rock [that] brushed against the windows. This, at least, is how I remember it, as if it were a train in dreams.” A train into the past, one might say.

A FOOL AND HIS MONEY is history, not fiction, and Wroe does not event people, dialogue or incidents. Introducing the characters, however, she describes their surroundings, along with facts to which they testified on record, in the context of the complex social, political and economic world of their world. Each character is also introduced in a chapter along with some larger issue, such as the law or debt. When we meet Gerald Canac, an important figure in the story, we learn also about the large fair held in November and June of each year and of what the fair usually brought to the town, in terms both good and bad.

“At the edge of the fairground the meadow was left uncut, full of ox-eye daisies and feathery seedling grasses that ran into the old abandoned vines. Respectable merchants like Canac avoided this part, for this was where the prostitutes set up shop.”

Though I have traveled by car through southcentral France and stayed overnight in various towns and at least one medieval country village, I entered the world of this book as if going into a foreign country. Even as a time-traveler, were time travel possible other than in books, I would be suspect in Rodez, a definite outsider. In 1370 even French was a foreign language there. Most people spoke Occitan, and legal documents were usually translated into Latin.

About 60 pages into the story, however, my perspective suddenly shifted. A group of men caught on the wrong side of the wall—after “curfew,” as it were—find themselves trudging from gate to gate in hope of reaching their homes for the night. They were not criminals and had no evil intent, only a desire to get home. At last, in desperation, they find and climb over a low fence. “Unluckily for the trespassers, some sleepless soul in that other, foreign side of town had known who they were….” A law has been broken.

Wroe tells of various ways the residents of Rodez tried to work together and help one another, despite the town’s rival authorities. “But this was a partitioned town; there was nothing natural about it.”

This was the point in the story where the people and their problems became familiar. Lines from Robert Frost came to mind: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” he wrote, thinking to himself, even while helping his neighbor repair the winter-damaged wall between their two properties, “Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offense.” Put a wall between neighbors, and they become strangers to each other, jealous of trespass, quicker to suspect than to welcome one another. The Berlin Wall came down, others always go up. Sometimes mere stakes tied with bright plastic ribbon are as forbidding as stone.

In Rodez, the holders of power, the bishop and the count d’Armagnac, they who divided the place between them and made sure it stayed divided, were little in residence in their respective castles. The count was off to war or currying favor from the king, the bishop living a bookish life of ease and luxury at the court of the pope. The people of the divided town paid for the lifestyles of count and bishop—and here is the deepest irony of Rodez, one that persists in our world today: the dividers pass back and forth at will, while their quarrels fall hardest on the divided, who have nothing to gain by hating each other. Only the lawyers (another fascinating chapter!) reap benefit from the discord.

This history of a small incident and its consequences, involving faceless individuals with unfamiliar names who lived long ago and far away, is strangely compelling. Had we lived there, then, this might have been our story. Perhaps, in some ways, it is our story even today.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Staff Book Review: DARK LIGHT

DARK LIGHT, by Randy Wayne White. Fiction. Putnam’s Sons, 2006.

Those of you folks who are getting away to Florida soon should take advantage of airplane or beach time to become acquainted with this author. He has written 12 novels, mostly centered in the islands of Southwest Florida and the nearby Everglades. The main character is “Doc Ford,” a marine biologist living at the marina on Sanibel Island. Doc’s job is collecting biological specimens for colleges and research institutes, and a community of unusual and quirky characters surrounds him at the marina. These characters are his close friends, the only family he knows.

In spite of the quiet island surroundings, adventures always seem to find Ford and friends, partly because of repercussions following from Ford’s mysterious past, working for a secret government organization somewhat like the CIA, but also because he and his friends represent the “locals” who live on these islands, those at odds not only with the annual invasion of tourists (who, by their sheer numbers, threaten the delicate balance of nature that allows these islands to exist), but, more importantly, with developers who sneak in at night to fill the swamps and destroy wildlife habitat to clear the way for shopping malls and giant hotels.

Before he started writing novels, Randy Wayne White was a charter fishing captain. As a result, he knows these islands intimately and describes them in accurate detail, and there’s a distinct advantage in reading a book about the immediate area you are visiting. When you get home, you can impress your friends describing all the sights you have seen, even if you actually only read about them and never left the beach. This particular book involves a boat that sank during a hurricane in 1944 and an attractive woman visited by German relatives late in WW II. Were the Nazis fleeing to Florida to escape retribution? Did they bring gold bullion to pay their way to Argentina? Was the gold in the boat that sank (and is now lying in the sand just off Sanibel)? Only “Doc Ford” can find out for you!

If you enjoy this book and are fortunate enough to be visiting Sanibel Island, be sure to stop for a meal at the Doc Ford Sports Bar on SanCap Road. There you will probably find Randy Wayne White at the bar of his restaurant, chatting with his old fishing buddies, and you can tell him yourself that you enjoyed his book.

- Bruce Balas

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Mostly Indoors (sigh!)

Sarah is waiting now by the door to go outside and have me throw a stick or ball for her to chase, but we may not get as far as the woods. The wind is beastly, and I have stacks of student papers to grade. Spring is only just begun, however, and there will be many more wildflower and squirrel expeditions in the weeks ahead for mom and dog.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

In the Moment

[It will be immediately obvious to anyone who is anywhere in or near northern Michigan this morning that what follows was not written today. I am discovered, thanks to a cold, raw wind and leaden skies. Never mind. The mood was true yesterday and will be true again—when? Very soon!]

Oh, quick, someone, hit the pause button now! Now, with bloodroot in full bloom, trillium opening in the woods, and Dutchman’s breeches everywhere. Now, with bellwort and trout lily competing for the Shy Yellow Wildflower Queen’s crown. Now, with buds swelling in the orchards, the faintest green flush at the tops of birch trees, and myriad small flowers, inconspicuous one by one, together reddening the maple branches. Can’t we stretch this week or two into a couple of months? Why does it have to be over so soon?

Every year this season seems more miraculous to me, and I’m all the more astounded at my good fortune in being given yet another. Oh, brave new world! I’m as excited as a dog released into “The back yard!!!”

“Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.”
--Andre Gide

Beginning all over again but enriched by memories of former springs, my heart lifts with birdsong at dawn. Exchange this for the latest political news? Later in the day, perhaps.

Here is a spring poem by Li Po, “To Tan Ch’iu,” Arthur Waley’s translation:

My friend is lodging high in the Eastern Range,
Dearly loving the beauty of valleys and hills.
At green Spring he lies in the empty woods,
And is still asleep when the sun shines on high.
A pine-tree wind dusts his sleeves and coat;
A pebbly stream cleans his heart and ears.
I envy you, who far from strife and talk
Are high-propped on a pillow of blue cloud.

Fishing Derby going on despite the cold; Wylie reading still set for 6-8 tonight at Horizon in Traverse City.

Friday, April 25, 2008


Long after Nikki, our old dog, had completely lost her hearing, I kept up a running, one-sided pseudo-conversation with her. “She knows you’re talking to her,” people (well, some) said to reassure me, but I was mostly just talking to myself. Though I prefaced and interspersed my monologues with Nikki’s name, they had little to do with her. I was just being a human, doing what humans do.

After discovering “The Dog Whisperer” on the National Geographic channel and becoming ardent fans of Cesar Millan’s work with dogs and their owners, I began to think for the first time about talking to dogs. Speech, obviously, isn’t how dogs communicate with each other, and when you think about it there’s very little talk necessary in dog training. Kipling’s first Jungle Book, the story of Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, gets it right. It’s the monkeys, not the dignified wolves, who make all the noise, and we humans, the monkeys’ relatives, are chatterers, that’s all. I’d never needed to verbalize nonstop to Nikki, and continuing to do so when she’d gone deaf was even more pointless. Only late in her life, after reflecting on human-dog relationships in general, did I begin to experience fully the deep, peaceful bond of companionable silence with my dog—and what a relief and refuge it was, leaving the rest of the busy, noisy world behind! She had never bombarded me with questions, never asked, “What’s wrong? Are you mad about something?” if I’d been quiet for a few minutes. Just being together, indoors or out, had always been enough for her. When I stopped talking to her—well, for the most part—I became more peaceful myself, more calm and centered.

Patricia McConnell’s books, THE OTHER END OF THE LEASH and FOR THE LOVE OF A DOG, are fascinating because they are as much about humans as about dogs and because they address the lives humans and dogs share. Because both species are mammals, we share many common traits and behaviors; because we are primates and they are canids, there are important differences between us.

Dogs don’t talk. They don’t hug. They like to roll in stinky stuff. Strange dogs sidle up to each other and smell each other’s rear ends rather than approaching head-on to shake hands. But dogs and humans are sociable creatures. They enjoy the company of each other, as well as that of members of their own species. They show emotion. Both species remain playful into and through adulthood. We even have in common a specific affinity for games involving throwing balls! McConnell’s cautious bottom line seems to be that despite the differences, most people would do better with dogs by anthropomorphizing more rather than less.

“Surely the most common fear in all mammals is the fear of being hurt. This isn’t surprising when you think about it—being hurt isn’t going to help an animal pass on its genes. It’s a shame dogs can’t more easily tell us when they’re hurt, or afraid of being hurt, because I think it’s a common motivation for what we think of as aggression.”

Do you want someone trying to give you a backrub when you’re concentrating on a work-related problem? Dogs may like petting, but that doesn’t mean they want it just any old time. Do you get crabby when you’re tired and hungry? So do dogs. When your parent or spouse or child calls your name, do you drop whatever interesting activity you’re engaged in to run instantly to that person? Does it make you nervous when a stranger rushes at you with arms outstretched? On the debate (is this still debated?) over whether or not dogs have emotions, McConnell comes down firmly on the affirmative side. Even pigs, she says, display anger, and how quickly a pig gets angry and how angry a pig gets depends on the individual pig. Same with humans, same with dogs.

I said in a previous posting that the books I’ve been reading lately have all seemed to connect to each other. McConnell directly references Malcolm Gladwell’s BLINK. A lot of what we learn from her books is how much dogs pick up from unconscious signals we don’t even realize we’re giving. Just as important is the very specific information she gives on signals we can learn to spot in dogs--for example, when a growl is part of play and when silence is dangerous.

In FOR THE LOVE OF A DOG, McConnell makes an important point about mental exercise for dogs: “We’re not the only animals whose brains need to be stimulated,” she writes. And, brains being physical organs, mental exercise is also physical exercise. “Fifteen minutes of trick training and fifteen minutes of playing fetch can do a lot for a dog who’s been hanging out all day waiting for you to come home. If you don’t have thirty minutes at least a couple of times a day, you might, just perhaps, want to rethink having a dog in the first place.”

These books are not dog training manuals and are not intended as substitutes for training guides. That’s McConnell’s caveat. My perception is that the priceless tips and information this author-trainer-behaviorist gives, along with the many stories--of her dogs and her clients’ dogs--that make the advice come alive, may just be more helpful than a stack of training books. Reading THE OTHER END OF THE LEASH and FOR THE LOVE OF A DOG, you are not only told how to teach your dog to come to you when called but also told about many ways you may unconsciously undermine the lesson you’re trying to give.

One has the feeling in reading these books that the writer is fully engaged with every sentence. Sometimes she stops herself, looks at a word she’s just used, and points back to it in astonishment, saying, in effect, “That’s just what I’m talking about!” She doesn’t cover up her own mistakes, either, but offers them as lessons for others.

A warm-hearted, dog-loving person. An engaging writer. A scholar and researcher well-grounded in the field of animal behavior. An honest woman. What more could you want? These books are definitely worth their cover price many times over!

[Postscript: Okay, it is reasonable to expect the blogger to get the author's name right in a book review. I've corrected my error now and can only excuse myself by saying that a beloved third-grade teacher was named Miss O'Donnell. I don't know where else that 'O' would have come from.]

Thursday, April 24, 2008


April is the Month of the Young Child. This shadow on the floor is of a tracing of one of Northport’s young children. Windows all over town feature these cheery figures again this year, and Dog Ears Books is no exception.

April is also National Poetry Month. Our friend Ken Wylie will be reading from his book THE LAND THAT SUNRISE WASHES at Horizon Books in Traverse City this Saturday evening. See a review of this book on my posting for January 6 and come to Horizon, downstairs in the Shine Cafe, 6-8 p.m.

Speaking of writer friends, I’m happy to see that the second of two authors who read from their books at Dog Ears in 2007 is currently being featured on Diane’s blog, carp(e) libris. Dorene O’Brien is currently up, with her VOICES OF THE LOST AND FOUND.

Ken lives here in Leelanau Township year-round. Dorene will be back this summer. Northport will be hoppin' with writers--and artists!

P.S. (How could I forget?) This Saturday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., is the annual Scott Brow Fishing Derby at the Old Mill Pond here in Northport. This is a kids' event, with prizes awarded!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Continued, In Brief

Life is humming along in woods and orchard. Here’s that lovely little trout lily I first spotted on Sunday…another shot of the mystery wildflower from April 20, looking much the worse for wear only three days later…and one tired, happy dog, home from our evening rambles.

All readers goes through wonderful spells when every book picked up sizzles with connections to those just put down. April has been that way for me. From human psychology to dog psychology, behavioral economics to memoir and fiction, whatever I read sheds additional light on whatever else I’ve been reading. I love it when this happens! I’ll have more to say about the phenomenon very soon, with special attention to some excellent books on the human-dog relationship.

But not tonight. Like Sarah, I don't have much to say after this long, full, beautiful day.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Wildflower Challenge

The second wildflower pictured on the April 20 post is a puzzler. First person to post the correct (verifiable) identification for that wildflower wins a copy of Lund's MICHIGAN WILDFLOWERS IN COLOR. Naturalists, on your mark, get set, GO!

An Evening on the Beach

Last night after dinner, Lake Michigan called to us, and we answered. Down Gills Pier Road from the Happy Hour, to the spot where Onomonee Road ends (officially, at the water), then out on the relatively new but ever-lengthening spit that extends out into the Lake, becoming more a small peninsula every year. Willows, osiers, alder and popple have taken root. Bird and fish skeletons abound. I've only been to the Arctic in books and dreams, but there is a wonderful Arctic spring feel to this little corner of Leelanau Township, putting me into the world of SPRING ON AN ARCTIC ISLAND, with bird life all around.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Staff Book Review: THE INNOCENT MAN

THE INNOCENT MAN, by John Grisham. Nonfiction. Doubleday, 2006.

John Grisham has written 18 novels, all of them set within the legal profession. As he was once a practicing attorney, they are particularly realistic and, as a result, all of them have been best-sellers. This, his most recent book, is a significant departure: it is a true story. THE INNOCENT MAN describes the experiences of a man who arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit.

Grisham came across a brief newspaper article reporting that a prisoner had finally been freed on DNA evidence after many years on death row. Curious as to how such a thing could happen, in spite of all the protections built into our legal system, Grisham decided to go to the town of Ada, Oklahoma, where the original conviction took place, to investigate the circumstances.

In his interviews with the police, prosecutor, lawyers and judges, it became apparent to Grisham that the police in this town were under a great deal of pressure to keep criminals off the streets and that a possibly innocent person in jail was better for them than no arrest at all. Once someone was in jail, then, all investigative efforts worked to keep him there, and, all too often, contrary evidence was ignored or manipulated to support the suspicion of guilt. As the suspect moved through the courts, therefore, he faced the attitude that if he was in jail, it was probably for a good reason.

The U S Supreme Court has installed a comprehensive safety net to protect citizens in our legal system, highlighted by “Miranda” readings and free access to legal help. Because of these protections, many people complain that it has become too difficult for the police to make arrests and that, too often, guilty criminals go free. But as Grisham illustrates, in spite of all the protections in place, the system isn’t perfect. Innocent people may still be convicted and even executed.

It’s interesting to note that Grisham, perhaps from a feeling that his regular readers would perceive this book as another of his novels, decided not only to interview participants, but also to identify all of them by name and to include photographs of the convict, his family, the police, prosecutor and judges in the case. It’s somehow more persuasive to see a picture of each of the participants as their actions are described.

Even though THE INNOCENT MAN is nonfiction, John Grisham’s experience as a fiction writer has served him well in building with this book a suspenseful, exciting and emotional story of one man’s harrowing journey through our legal system.

- Bruce Balas

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Miscellany Time Again

An otherwise unremarkable sapling popple at the edge of the woods was rubbed bare on one side, probably by deer rubbing mossy antlers against it. Wonder if their antlers get to feeling itchy this time of year. On the other side of the hills, where the undulating wooded ridge comes to an abrupt and slightly eroded drop, a line of dead leaves reminiscent of the art of Andrew Goldsworthy crossed the verge between wild and cultivated land like a bridge constructed by snowmelt running downhill. And the spring wildflowers! More already than I’d expected to find, every day bringing a new, quiet, peaceful explosion of life. Getting outdoors more often is but one of the serendipitous aspects of bearing responsibility for a young, strong, active, energetic dog. (Sarah = serendipity, in my private lexicon.) The calendar has spring beginning a month earlier than it bursts forth here Up North....

My sister and brother-in-law in Springfield, Illinois, felt the southern Indiana earthquake the other morning. “Yes, it woke us both up,” she wrote. “It was quite strong and seemed to last a long time. Our bed was shaking like crazy. I stayed in bed (what you're supposed to do though I didn't know that) just to truly feel the sensation.” She said a friend transplanted to the Midwest from California found the event quite “normal.”

In a different vein, independent of seasons and weather, David’s son in Minneapolis has entered the wonderful world of online video, and not just with songs. Against the background of his own guitar music, Adam reads from his book, THE FAULTY CARPENTER, while illustrations from the book play on the screen. Way to go, Adam!

And to reach even further afield for something unrelated to spring, I found the quotation below unfortunately used as an example of "absurdist" rather than "existentialist" philosophy:

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life. - Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Don’t believe everything you read “out there,” any more than you’d believe anything just because you read it in a newspaper.

Coming tomorrow: A review by Bruce Balas of John Grisham’s AN INNOCENT MAN.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Our Northern Spring So Far

There isn't much green in this picture--only pine branches to contrast with the brown of last fall's dead leaves. Nevertheless, closer peering reveals life, in town and country. Hee's some of what this month has already brought forth:
April 5: first ice cream stand open in Traverse City
April 7: first spring peepers I’ve heard in Leelanau County this year
April 12: first wild leeks emerging in our woods
April 16: first open daffodil, semi-wild but within the perimeter of the larger farmhouse yard
April 17: first dark purple violets in bloom (Northport)
April 18: first spring beauty blooms (not yet open) and first leaves of troutlily (my favorite of its many names) in the woods

Friday, April 18, 2008

Elie et François

A while back I made a premature observation in a reply to a comment on this site. The book in question was MEMOIR IN TWO VOICES, by François Mitterand and Elie Wiesel, Mitterand’s memoir, for which he asked his friend to join him in dialogue. Perhaps Mitterand wanted a collaborator of sorts because of the state of his health, or it might have been that the two men, in friendly, informal conversation about their very different lives, came up with this idea as a way of putting Mitterand’s life in a more meaningful historical context. At any rate, my initial and very false impression, gleaned from glances at the first few pages, was that he and Wiesel were talking past each other. Such is not the case at all. Not only do both voices come through, along with Wiesel’s deep questioning of Mitterand, but throughout the conversation their careful listening to one another is evident, as well as their implicit appreciation for one another’s strengths, gifts and experiences.

The idea of a memoir produced by two people, the memoir’s subject and a friendly interlocutor, is foreign to the American mind, but it is typically French. I don't mean this specific form but the more general creative approach to all established forms, artistic and otherwise. I remember an exhibit of art at the Grand Palais where the only thing all the pieces had in common was that they were influenced by China or Chinese art. No particular period of art or group of artists or specific style—simply, this painting or this vase or this fabric design was Chinese-inspired. Gallic invention of new forms is an art in itself.

MEMOIR IN TWO VOICES arranges the Mitterand-Wiesel conversation into thematic chapters: Childhood, Faith, War, Writing and Literature, Power, Special Moments. Elie Wiesel’s reputation as a writer is world-wide. The character of Mitterand, known internationally as a French head of state, is the more surprising. The depth and breadth of his knowledge is impressive, his self-knowledge almost more astonishing. We do not meet in these pages a clever humorist or mystical poet; the surprises are quieter and build more sedately. Here is, we feel more strongly with every page, a man of substance.

Mitterand, wo died in 1996, was a man clear about his personal and political ambitions. He was also clear about his individual limitations and the limitations on any individual in a position of power. And yet he was not a pessimist. Agnostic at most, in terms of religion, he had enough faith in human beings to hope that mutual self-destruction could be avoided.

The lives of Wiesel and Mitterand took place on the world stage. My own is small and close to home. Here is a large rock between orchard rows and some hedgerow litter that shows clearly that a Deere was here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

One Spring Day Up North

Here it was, this beautiful day. First, leaving the "neighborhood" to drive to Traverse City for my early morning class, there was a lovely dawn. Here it is behind the cemetery at St. Wenceslaus church.

Then along Grand Traverse Bay, at sunrise, a blackbird was singing--or so it fondly imagined.

After class, on my way back north to Northport, in the town of Suttons Bay, at the wonderful little jewel of a flower shop called Forget-Me-Not Florists, I was delighted to find paintings by Northport's own Joanne Sahs.

The water was gorgeous in the sunshine! Farther up the road, the blues of Omena Bay were striking in the sunlight.

And finally, back under the old silver maple in our backyard, the first daffodil was shyly begining to open after a day of bright sunshine.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Canine Matters

We were listening to “Calling All Pets” on the radio Sunday morning, and after the usual call-in questions and answers they played “Border Collie Soliloquy,” by Baxter Black, and we were in stitches. It is so Sarah! Our little Aussie-Border mix (the dog named Sheela on that second site looks the most like Sarah) has yet to meet a sheep, but “[Is she] truly smarter than a chimpanzee? Cuddlier than a koala? More dedicated than Batman’s valet? Can [she] change course in midair?” My favorite line, though, is “Makes coyotes cringe.” That allays some of my fears—though I never “let” Sarah out but always take her out with me. But I’d just said to David the day before, after running her through some fast paces in the meadow, “If any dog could hold its own against a coyote, it would be this little girl. She just hugs the ground and streaks!”

On the other hand, despite what one person wrote online about an adopted Aussie-Border mix, I would not (that’s N-O-T) recommend this kind of a dog to just anyone. Because they are so clever, agile and energetic, they need lots and lots (and lots!) of regular exercise, along with very rigorous and consistent training. Sarah is good for my physical well-being because she gets me outdoors when I would otherwise be tempted to say, “I don’t have time for exercise,” and she’s good for my mental health because her little mind is so active that I have to stay alert, too, making sure she isn’t bored and looking for trouble, but quite honestly, she’s a lot more dog than we needed. These are not dogs to be left alone, not dogs for sedentary lifestyles (bookstore?), and they are not “low-maintenance” at all, in terms of attention required. Sarah is a huge commitment! She and I challenge each other: “Can you rise to my expectations?” “Are you woman enough to meet my needs?” I’m giving it my best shot, and she’s definitely worth it. I can’t take on any more jobs, though! Home, bookstore, classroom, Sarah—that’s definitely my limit!

Okay, so this afternoon, upon return from Traverse City (teaching day, but with a guest speaker taking most of the burden from me this week and giving my students what I’m sure is a welcome change of pace), and knowing that Bruce was at the helm of Dog Ears Books, I sprung Sarah from her morning solitary confinement and took off across field and orchard with her, through a corner of the woods, up to the unpaved road to our south. That’s when I heard them: coyotes yipping up a hullabaloo in the middle of the day. Sarah heard them, too, but when I changed course, she changed with me, turning toward home. No sense putting her to an unnecessary survival test, after all.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Signs of Life and Death in the Woods

Good medicine countered bad weather yesterday, good medicine in the form of friends and bookstore customers (many people falling into both categories) and, later, a fine ramble in the woods with Sarah. Here is a little of what we saw there. This morning the sky is clear as the sun rises over that woods. Maybe the daffodils will begin to open today.

Saturday, April 12, 2008



It began with what should have been a minor, correctible clerical error, but when Kathy receives repeated notices for a tax she knows she doesn’t owe (the notices should have gone to Biscove, not Bisgrove), she stops opening mail from the county and so misses the notice of eviction for nonpayment of taxes due. Her life as a recovered drug user and alcoholic had already hit the skids when her husband suddenly left one morning with no explanation. That was bad enough, but prospects decline further as she is forcibly turned out of her house, her belongings dumped in a hot little storage building. The money she makes cleaning houses and offices won’t be enough to keep her even in the cheapest of motel rooms for as long as it may take to regain her property through legal processes.

Enter a former colonel from the Shah’s army. A married man, father of two, Behrani works days on a road cleanup crew and nights in a convenience store. Every morning he leaves the apartment he won’t be able to afford forever on his current earnings dressed as if going to a high-level office, keeping up appearances, telling himself that the masquerade is essential in order that his daughter may marry well. His children have no idea what he does away from home. Once his daughter is married, however, Behrani lays a plan to improve rather than hide his financial situation. He will use some of the dwindling money they have left to buy a house at auction, cheap, then resell it for two, three, four times what he paid. One house at a time, he will regain his rightful place in the world.

Kathy’s house is offered at auction. Behrani buys it and moves in with his wife and teenage son.

Behrani comes to the little bungalow trailing a history of pride and guilt over his career in Iran, where, because of endemic corruption he was able to live very well at the top of the social ladder. Overtly he believes he deserves much more in America than he has: secretly he believes, at least part of the time, that he deserves to be executed for his past associations and that it is only a matter of time before justice is served.

Kathy’s feelings of low self-worth are closer to the surface, her personal history one of social and marital failure and substance abuse. She is her family’s black sheep, the one the rest watch for signs that she is once again falling into drug use, losing whatever ground they have helped her gain. When her mother telephones from back East, Kathy says that her husband is sleeping or away from the house, hiding the fact that Nicky has abandoned her.

The third major character is Lester, one of the policemen on the scene when Kathy is evicted from her house. Drawn to her helplessness as much as her sexual allure, Lester responds to Kathy with feelings strong enough to overcome his confusion, ambivalence and skewed sense of proportion. Is he a servant of the law, deliverer of justice, or is this his last chance for a deep and meaningful relationship, something more valuable than his wife and children at home? Lester wants to help people but is dominated by fear and regret.

The three major characters have all become lost along life’s way, hiding shameful secrets from the ones they love most. What might have become of Behrani and his wife and son, of Kathy and Lester and their families, without the eviction and auction brought about by a small clerical error? The error was made, the wheels set in motion, and moral dilemmas multiply for all concerned, with conflicts between and within characters. Narrative point of view shifts among the characters, giving the reader access, one at a time, to their thoughts, emotions and memories,. We don’t know what will happen next because the characters don’t know what they will do next, let alone how others may react, and the action builds powerfully, inexorably. Behrani’s wife and son, in their smaller roles, grow in dimension as they are drawn into the vortex.

The subtlety and complexity of this story, diversity of the characters’ backgrounds, economic and political realities in conflict, individuals struggling to make sense of their lives, and, above all, the compelling quality of the writing make this a book I recommend without qualification. I imagine lively book club discussions, especially in mixed-gender groups and those with diversity of background.

(There is snow on the ground this morning and more snow falling, but it is a spring snow, not winter. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Time, Poetry

Here's another picture from my recent trip to Illinois. That's Sarah on the right. The other dog is her "cousin," i.e., my sister Bettie's dog, Gracie.

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES is 100 years old this year. The peace sign is 50 years old. Puppy Sarah is seven months old today, and “Books in Northport” will be seven months old three days from now, on the 13th. The animal that marks time, that’s what we are.

Precious little did I accomplish today. One table cleared and reset with books of poetry for National Poetry Month. One bookcase of trade paperback fiction restocked and re-alphabetized. A couple of boxes of donated books gone through, treasures retrieved and priced and (some of them) shelved. Visits with friends, a long walk with Sarah (upstream to the millpond), and falling into poem after poem by Mary Oliver. The poem called “On Losing a House” frightens me because I understand it already, though I have not—yet—reached the time for that loss. The poem “Her Grave, Again” brings Nikki back to me:

she steps down into my dream
for a visit,
she hovers
as in the old days
at my shoulder,
she sulks
until we run out together
into the world
then she prances

through the bogs and over the dunes
then she gallops back to me
as in the old days
and leaps against me
her body
as in the old days
touching me
with the two wings of our lives…

“Love and terror” are the “two wings” that begin the next section of the poem. There would not be one without the other. If no love, no terror, and vice versa. The old house, the old dog, the shared life that had its home in the old house, along with the old dog. It was one year ago today that we said good-by to our old dog.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

An Open Book? Secrets We Keep From Ourselves

Books I’m reading currently:

(Fiction) HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, by Andre Dubus III

Books I brought home today to read (both nonfiction):

MEMOIR IN TWO VOICES, by François Mitterand and Elie Wiesel

Books I’ve read recently and am still thinking about:

BLINK, by Malcolm Gladwell
EXPERIMENTS IN ETHICS, by Kwame Anthony Appiah

The last group of three titles is indicative of an exciting recent development in academic research, the rejoining of an old dialogue. Philosophy, psychology and (behavioral) economics, fields that had split from each other during the last century, each growing narrower in scope (not to mention less relevant and less interesting), are now rediscovering many common and overlapping interests. Much of the recent dialogue is fueled by research showing that the classic Western model of rationality, so dear to economists and philosophers, is only part of the picture when it comes to how human beings make choices, decisions and judgments. The classic model does explain a lot of conscious thought and reasoning, and no one ever believed conscious thought explained all decision-making. People have always known that desire and emotion, for example, can “contaminate” reasoning. But that was exactly the classical picture: explicitly logical thought processes were considered legitimate, while anything else was problematic.

Now come all these studies showing that much more of our decision-making than we ever realized occurs on an unconscious level and that this is not all bad. Making snap judgments on the basis of minimal information has evolutionary value, say writers from different academic disciplines: it’s quick, it’s efficient and, in many instances, our conclusions are highly accurate. The other side of the picture (everything being a double-edged sword, proving once again the truth of my own personal philosophy, i.e., that everything is a double-edged sword), obviously, has to do with error. When unconscious judgments go wrong, they can go very, very wrong—and since we are unconscious of how we reach these judgments, we tend to repeat errors again and again.

But Appiah, Ariely and Gladwell don’t leave us hanging there. All three of these writers give us both the good news and the bad and then give suggestions as to how we can become aware of our tendencies to error and re-educate our unconscious thought processes. Along these lines, it’s possible to gain a fascinating and eye-opening look into your own unconscious by trying out a few of the exercises at the Harvard Implicit site. The FAQs page is instructive. I highly recommend it.

It’s turned cold again around here, but it’s the cold of northern spring, not the cold of continued winter. I can smell the difference. Also, one good warm day of sunshine, and the colony of old daffodils under the silver maple at the eastern end of the popple grove will burst into joyous bloom. Look for it here, soon! Two days ago I heard spring peepers in the little swale north of the Houdek Dunes parking lot. Believe it or not, spring has arrived.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Squeezing in Book Time

Life has been hectic lately, what with travel, birthday, a big Traverse evening, days of grading, and a weekend of house and yard work. So other than BLINK, the assigned reading for my philosophy students for the end of the semester, I haven’t found a lot of time for reading. Biography is good for times like these. It has all the unfolding narrative drama of a novel but somehow does not compel nonstop reading. The book I’ve been picking up at odd moments, then, the last few mornings and evenings is THE MYSTERY OF GEORGES SIMENON: A BIOGRAPHY, by Fenton Bresler.

“Through a friend of his father’s, he got a job as a junior assistant in a bookshop on the rue de la Cathedrale, one of the main shopping streets in the heart of Liège.” Simenon’s days as a bookseller were few in number, that budding career cut short when he corrected his employer in front of a customer. The fact that he did once work in a bookstore, however, if only for a few days, gratifies me. This was in Liège, Belgium, his birthplace and the town where his childhood and youth were spent. Nine pages later, at the age of 18, he and his fiancée are planning their escape to Paris.

It seems that spring has arrived at last, with the first golden crocus open in front of the house, and as winter comes to an end, my need to escape my immediate surroundings diminishes considerably. An hour or two spent in Paris, on the other hand, appeals to me in any season.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Elsewhere in Midwest

Dave Somsky of Northport and Chicago was back in our little village a few weeks ago, sharing pictures of the venture he and his son launched recently in the Windy City. Vrai Amour, at 953 W. Webster Avenue, is now open for business as a retail food establishment. If you’re there in the city and homesick for Leelanau County, you can find Black Star Farms wines at Vrai Amour, but you certainly don’t have to be homesick to shop their exciting selection of gourmet specialty foods and wines. Back here at home, we are all excited for Dave and Matt and wish them all the best. (Just thinking about Chicago, I'm remembering how exciting the city is in late springtime, when the trees are all in bloom along the lakeshore and the first sailboats dot the water.) Congratulations, Matt and Dave, on making your dream come true!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Very Special Art Event

Here’s from my yesterday--

Last night was a very special event at the Dennos Museum on the NMC campus in Traverse City. Montana painter Russell Chatham was there in person for a reception, book signing, and formal, on-stage “conversation” with Suttons Bay gallery owners Harry and Piper Goldson and a huge and enthusiastic audience.

A collection of 28 of Russell’s paintings has been on exhibit at the Dennos for many weeks now. David made at least four visits to the show before last night’s event, and I toured it twice. A long, detailed video presentation of Russell’s lithography process ran continuously in a small auditorium throughout the weeks of the show. Last night, then, was the culmination of 30-40 years’ of Chatham’s life work, long and loving effort on the part of the Goldsons and the collection’s owners, and a great deal of anticipation from artists and art lovers in the Grand Traverse area and beyond. At least two Grand Rapids artists made the trip to Traverse City solely for this occasion. Another man, a regular summer visitor with his family to Dog Ears Books, drove from Chicago to see the show and to hear Chatham speak. It was not an event to miss!

David and I met Russell Chatham years ago through writer Jim Harrison. Chatham and Harrison are fishing buddies and share a love for good food as well as for poetry (and, I’m sure, many of the other good things in life), and Russell could always be counted on to appear in Leelanau County during hunting season, when the table at Jim and Linda’s old farmhouse, surrounded by guests, groaned under the weight of carefully prepared food and expensive wine. (The Harrisons now divide their time between Montana and Arizona.) Always, however, Jim and Russell were workmen first, putting time into their respective arts with almost monastic discipline. It’s not what the world at large imagines when conjuring up a picture of the artistic life. Excess and indulgence, the gossip of that life, are only part of the story: you don’t stumble around in a river, flailing away drunkenly with a fly rod, and catch trout.

Chatham’s answers to questions were down-to-earth and prosaically technical—what colors of paint he uses (mostly red, blue, yellow), how he achieves transparency, the process of transferring a moment in nature to a painting on canvas. Asked by Piper Goldson to expand on what he meant by a painting being “untranslatable,” like a poem, Chatham related his experience of seeing a painting in the Hermitage and then seeing it in a book, not recognizing the image in the book as the painting. He also observed that no end of describing a painting comes close to the experience of seeing it.

Russell’s technical explanations reminded me of a talk David and I heard years ago in Santa Fe, New Mexico, by painter Elmer Schooley, who charmed us both with his generous and unpretentious descriptions of how he achieved certain effects on canvas. When Chatham talked about untranslatability, I was reminded of my first visit to the Art Institute in Chicago and seeing at an imtimate distance famous paintings I had before then only known as pictures in books. Unprepared for the difference in experience, standing before one small painting by Monet, it was all I could do not to break down in tears.

Chatham’s final, on-stage remark of the evening was perfect. Earlier, someone had remarked about looking at landscape and recognizing a “Chatham moment.” Russell said he’d heard that many times. Looking slightly surprised, he almost shrugged as he tried to say what the comment meant to him: “I guess it means I did okay.” Thunderous applause followed. I’m so glad we were there.

The exhibit continues through tomorrow, Sunday, closing at 5 p.m.

You who have been reading this site for a while will have already noticed that I am usually posting a day late. That is, the post on any given today is about its yesterday. Well, here’s why—and if you can get through this next sentence and make sense of it, you have too much time on your hands: If blogging were my only job (ah, if it paid my way in the world!) and if I weren’t also running a business and teaching (which involves commuting), these paying responsibilities falling on top of “running” a house (albeit ineptly and haphazardly) and training a puppy (lots of effort going in this direction, because Sarah deserves it, and a well-behaved dog and its family all have better lives) and still trying to carve out time to read books, which (as my sister Deborah kindly reminds me when I admit to feeling guilty for neglecting other tasks to sit down and read) is part of my JOB, postings would appear in more timely fashion, and fewer photo ops would be missed. What can I say? C’est ma vie! A rich stew!

Friday, April 4, 2008

More Sun, Nature in Abundance

Late, slanting afternoon sun on these birthday flowers brought the outdoors inside yesterday. I had another long day of grading but again managed to find three different work venues to keep my mind fresh, without as much running around as the day before. This time we stuck to Northport, and I worked in my bookstore (Dog Ears Books closed this week for “spring break,” though it’s just a different work schedule for me rather than vacation), the library, and finally out at David’s studio. Today should wrap up the job. I’ll take BLINK along, too, and make notes as I read.

“Nature in Abundance” is the slogan on a sign outside the little U.P. town of Grand Marais, our beloved home away from home, and I thought of that this morning when Sarah and I were out for our pre-sunrise walk and I spotted a coyote sauntering across the meadow, cutting a path halfway between us and our house. (Doesn't it just figure I hadn't taken my camera out with me this morning?) Sarah was looking the other way, and I had her on the leash, so I clamped her head between my knees to keep her from seeing the coyote. When it was out of sight, I led her back to the house, still on leash. Years ago, when we asked a veterinarian what would happen if our old dog Nikki tangled with a coyote, the vet replied with these chilling words: “Wild always wins.”

The bookstore will re-open next week, and NMC classes will resume. Where has the time gone?

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Having papers to grade, I couldn’t change yesterday’s plan completely and just goof off all day; on the other hand, the brilliant sunshine was too tempting to spend the whole day indoors. When David said he had to drive to Lake Leelanau, then, I offered to ride along to keep him company, bringing along my stack of student papers and, for more company and general cheer, our little Sarah dog, who brings us such joy.

The revised plan worked out fine. We went by way of Leland, stopping for coffee at Stone House Bread, where David read the car trader rag while I graded. Next we parked for a while at the Lake Leelanau Narrows (waiting for the lunch hour to be over at the insurance office), where I got more grading done and where we also walked out on the docks with Sarah to let her look at the water. (You can look, too. Okay, did you?) Finally we wound up for lunch at the 45th Parallel Café in Suttons Bay, where David was instantly drawn into conversation with an old friend, who joined us at our table, leaving me free to—you guessed it—grade a few more papers. Sarah was very well behaved in the car all day. She got up on one of the front seats to watch for us when we left her, but she destroyed nothing, and when we returned and told her, “Get in the back!” she did it right away. Cody at Van’s Garage in Leland, Lisa and Sarah from the insurance office in Lake Leelanau, and our neighbor Carol, whom we encountered in Suttons Bay, all came out to the car to meet the pup, and she gave them all the wiggle-wiggle-wag-wag greeting.

Leelanau County on Wednesday, April 2, was showing signs of spring. Most interesting and unusual (in my experience), was a big, fat old groundhog, sitting up like a prairie dog, basking in the sun. If he’d been out there seeing his shadow two months ago, it would have meant six more weeks of winter, according to the old wives’ tale. But surely this groundhog was saying to himself, “This is more LIKE it! SPRING is comin’ on, and it feels SO GOOD!”

It certainly felt good to us to be out in the sunshine. And when we got home, Sarah and I went for a long walk up through Bruce’s orchard and Claudia’s woods. Take walks while the sun shines! Read when darkness falls!

Today’s reading (besides student papers) will be BLINK, by Malcolm Gladwell. This book, like Dan Ariely’s PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL, explores studies on how human beings actually make judgments, as opposed to the classical view of how they should. Gladwell looks at good and bad snap judgments and ways we can improve the ones we make. That’s a snap overview: the fascination is in the details.

Sunshine this morning? Will it last?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Readers, All of Us

Yesterday was my birthday. No foolin’. I’ve been campaigning for a May birthday for years now, but David insists I can’t change the date, so an April Fool I remain; however, to ease the pain of a milestone birthday this year, he gave me a fabulous party at Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern, just down the road. (Yes, very near the tree that received such heavy “visits” from the pileated woodpecker.) “There’s no place else I’d rather be,” I told Paul Fischer, quoting the old song, and it’s true. David had even made the (old) little girl’s dream come true and gotten me a tiara! He is full of surprises, my sweetheart! And of course there were a couple of books amidst the bottles of wine and other lovely presents from dear friends, all of whom looked especially beautiful to me last night.

After my day of grading student papers and quizzes and before we left for the party, I found time to finish reading Walter Mosley’s BLONDE FAITH and was blown away by the last page. Don’t expect me to reveal it, but I could not have been more surprised or amazed and still don’t know what to think. In retrospect, I see that this novel leaves nothing out of the life of Easy Rawlins. It’s all there: his mother, all his friendships, his war experience, the women and children he has loved and continues to love, books he’s read, thoughts and ideas and values and his struggles as a black man in a world that all too often can’t see anything in a person but color. If a reader who had never met Easy Rawlins in any previous novel picked up this book and read it, that reader would have Easy’s life and character in full. My advice, then, if you are that reader, is to start with this novel, then go back to the beginning and read the whole series. In order, out of order, it doesn’t matter. Mosley’s mystery novels transcend the genre while offering everything a mystery reader expects in terms of character, setting and plot. Don’t miss them!

My birthday party and murder mysteries? How do those go with the picture I’ve posted today?

I grew up in a family of readers. We were five people (we lost my father two and a half years ago) living in a house with one bathroom, and my father often, somewhat ironically, referred to the bathroom as “the library.” There were always books and magazines on the floor, tempting one family member to occupy the little room for longer than was comfortable for others waiting to get in. “Are you reading in there?” would come the suspicious question from the other side of the door. I doubt I’m the only one who would hold a book in one hand, splashing water in the tub with the other to simulate the sounds of industrious bathing. My mother introduced us to ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and to Agatha Christie. My father devoured short stories and loved a surprise ending. We all read poetry. The youngest of us, my sister Bettie, is a public school reading specialist. My sister Deborah taught communication for a time and now has two sons in college, one of them majoring in (gasp!) philosophy.

Joe Borri recently jumped on the six-word autobiography bandwagon, inviting readers of his blog to contribute theirs. It’s a challenging idea and takes some time and thought. Finally I remembered the t-shirts a former philosophy chairman had made for his children: “Philosophy—I’m in it for the money.” Ha! I thought of everything and everyone I’ve loved—people, dogs, poetry, philosophy, books, bookselling—and there was my six-word biography: “Not in it for the money.”

Some people advise you to follow your passion and say “the money will come.” I say, don’t count on the money. It may come, and it may not, depending on what your passion is and how you pursue it. You might have to do something besides what you love, just to support yourself and your passion. The question is, if you have to choose--as sometimes you do--between a life of love and a life of money, what can you afford to live without?

I’m grateful for the values given to me by loving, reading parents. My life with my artist husband is the life I would choose again and again and again.