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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Who's Minding the Henhouse?

It's a cool, rainy morning here where I live. Milkweed pods are losing their green color, going a purply-brown, but remain moist and firm for now. Some of the ash, maple and sumac provide brighter colors, though full color remains in the future.

My stepson wrote the story below. When he e-mailed it to me yesterday. my first question was, "Will you give me permission to put it on my blog?" He said yes, so here it is. I'll be interested in readers' interpretations.

"We had a nice chicken coop out back behind the barn. Not too big but just big enough to hold the chickens. One day a very nice wolf knocked on the door and offered to watch the coop for us. We had been worried about neighborhood dogs and coyotes getting at our chickens so we took him up on the offer. He was a very well behaved wolf and well dressed too so we figured, how bad could it be? The wolf started work right away, setting up a little office just inside the door of the coop.

"After a few days things seemed to be going very well. The dogs and coyotes stayed away. The wolf invited some of his friends over to show them what a fine job he was doing guarding the chickens. They all agreed that the coop was as safe as could be.

"Some weeks into the summer we had gotten used to the wolves and they pretty much kept to themselves in the chicken coop. We did notice that egg production was little off but the head wolf assured us that was a temporary situation and offered to offset the loss by working even harder and putting more of his wolf friends on duty to be ever vigilant against the threat of dogs and coyotes. We agreed and complimented the wolf on his new suit of clothes, a shiny silk coat and tie. He thanked us and said it was necessary as his waistline had been growing and his old suit had become uncomfortably tight.

"As summer turned to fall we were busy getting the farm ready for winter. The egg basket was increasingly less full but our harvesting activities took our minds elsewhere and we didn't really miss the occasional omelet here and there. The wolf was a little vague when pressed about the egg decline but finally came up with a plan for future production increases and a promise that a robust egg count could be assured in the early spring. We all agreed that the program looked very promising.

"As winter came and a blanket of snow settled on the farm, the wolves came out of the coop less and less. Dogs and coyotes were nowhere to be seen so we assumed that the production plan was working and that the warmth of the chicken coop was simply more inviting than the chill of the yard. Snow piled up against the door of the coop and we pretty much stopped eating eggs. It was okay though because we had lots of potatoes and grain stored in the cellar.

"Finally the warming rays of sun began to melt the snow and spring announced its arrival. Having not seen much of the wolves we ventured out to the coop to check on the situation. To our total shock and dismay we discovered the coop to be completely devoid of any chickens! And to add to our problems the coop was full of wolves that had grown so fat that they could no longer fit through the door! Our friend the head wolf sadly informed us that all the chickens had been lost. (We did notice some feathers stuck in the corner of his beard.) His friends also heartily agreed that the loss of the chickens was unfortunate indeed and very regrettable and that in order for the egg production plan to work out as planned we would need to go to town and get some more chickens. They agreed too that it would be best for them to continue to guard the coop from the dogs and coyotes so that it would be safe for the new chickens when we returned. The wolves also inquired about the availability of some new larger suits."

- Adam Grath, Minneapolis, MN

The House Only Matters if Every Little Corner Counts

Why don’t I write about the hottest news items of the day? Why, on the anniversary of 9/11, didn’t I even mention it? Why didn’t I evaluate the so-called debate between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates the day after it occurred? And how can I write anything today that doesn’t zoom right to the heart of the latest financial news? Am I just asleep up here, with my head buried in Lake Michigan sand, or what?

If you search this blog for “economics,” you’ll find various entries on that very large topic. As for what’s going on in Congress and on Wall Street, what could I add to what’s all over the radio, the newspapers, the Internet? You see, in general, that’s the question I ask myself: What can I add to any specific discussion? Then, in a larger sense, what can I add to the sea of words in which we swim every day of our lives?

A lot of what I write about would rate as unimportant when compared to larger current issues. My “Sleeping Woman” images from the other day are photographs of a couple of wooded dunes that have been more or less the same for hundreds of years. No news there. Stories about my dog are nothing more than personal anecdotes from a very ordinary life, and most of the people I write about (with a few exceptions) are equally little known in the greater world. Many of my favorite books are out of print. The glimpses of nature that mean so much to me are, on the one hand, ephemeral, and on the other, predictably cyclical and repetitive. Not news at all. And who cares about one little small-town bookseller’s limited world? If I were trying to sell my memoirs, I’d have to worry about that question, but a blog is not a book, and no one has to buy it. A few people read Books in Northport, and a few care about the future of Northport and even of Dog Ears Books--but really, why bother?

Here’s what I think about that. If our brief, precious, individual lives—even that spider web on August 30—don’t matter, then the larger issues don’t matter, either. It often seems to me that my real job in life is to pay attention to what’s around me. There are so many people keeping their fingers on the pulse of national and international news that I don’t feel a need to follow those events blow-by-blow, minute-by-minute. I check in on a daily basis to keep the big picture in mind, but keeping track of that world is not my job. No one will care if I do it or not. My job—the job that no one else will do if I don’t--is to pay attention to David and Sarah and our life together; to notice the changing colors of the countryside, keep track of the geese and coyotes, watch the spider webs in the corners of my porch windows and the milkweed turning color in the meadow; to discover new books, cherish old books and share this love with others. It is to find the beautiful and priceless in the ordinary and the easily missed. If I don’t do this with my life, I have wasted my time on earth.

But economics! I’ll keep badgering you, my readers, to educate yourselves on economics because this subject is too crucial to our well-being to be left to suits in the academic and business worlds. And don’t think you can get away with reading one book on the subject, either. In fact, who out there has recommendations to share?

P.S. on paying attention, because I need to clarify my remarks. I don’t mean that other people are not enjoying fall colors or anything else I mentioned. What I mean is twofold. First, no one else can pay attention for me. If I don’t see, someone else’s seeing will not substitute in my life for what I’ve missed. Secondly, I’m not talking about “fall color” in general but about specific trees, specific leaves, specific moments. All of nature, all of life is particular. Generalities and concepts are useful but bloodless.

For the record, I am the opposite of a Platonist. I believe in and love the phenomenal world, distrust and doubt eternal verities.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Few Lines, Three Images

It's Monday, Monday. Rainy (if not stormy) Monday. Can't trust that day. It is, however, happily for me, a day when Bruce usually opens the bookstore, so I can be more relaxed about beginning my day.

I'm still working my way through THE PROMISES MEN LIVE BY, Harry Scherman’s 1938 book on economics that the whole country should be reading right now. Not understanding economics is no longer an option, either for presidential candidates or for the public at large. But this book and today’s to-do list will keep me too busy to write a long, reflective essay. Instead, here are three recent scenes my camera caught. All require a little background explanation.

Recently we saw a television program on prehistoric sites in the British Isles. One set of stones, in the Hebrides, had as its focus a landform known locally as the “Sleeping Woman.” The two images below are my own “Sleeping Woman,” right here in Leelanau Township.

And in the interest of documenting history, here is a shot from this month of the little shed down the street where Dog Ears Books was born in 1993. It would be difficult to get in the door at present, but we got off to a good start in that simple place. Five hundred dollars was the rent for the season, June through October, electricity included. There was no insulation, no heat, no A/C, no telephone, no plumbing—no, no, no! Life was simple then! There were, happily for us, people who came and bought books. Bless you!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Northport Homecoming

A beautiful day for a parade and a game! Go, Wildcats!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Sharon's Barns

Back home in Leelanau Township, I made the supreme effort last night, turning around after a quick supper of leftovers grabbed at the farm and coming back to Northport for an evening event, something I don’t do lightly. Time at home is too precious, and there’s never enough of it, but Sharon Kalchik was giving a presentation to the Northport Area Heritage Association about all the barns she has photographed in our township, and that I didn’t want to miss.

Beginning her project in 2005, Sharon expected to find maybe 40 or 50 barns--60 tops. She started taking pictures of those she knew. But more and more kept turning up, down long driveways, out of sight behind hills and woods, until she had documented 120, six of which are no longer standing, having either fallen in (2) or been intentionally burned (2) or dismantled (2). It’s been a labor of love for Sharon, growing out of a personal connection to several area barns she played in as a child.

“When will your book be out, and where will we be able to buy it?” was the first question after her presentation. I can only hope Sharon will overcome her modesty and get the township barn book put together while I still have a bookstore in Northport. Being able to offer treasures like this to the public is one of the great joys of being a bookseller.

Finally, since Sharon for years operated her own gift shop in Northport, the Rose Garden, I’ll close with this full-blown example, a late season beauty. Here's to you, Sharon, for a job well done!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Two More Glimpses

It’s so foggy in Leelanau this morning that sunrise is an abstraction. I’m 10,374 words into my work of fiction (the main character a 12-year-old girl) and mention that here (going public, as it were) to keep the pressure on myself to continue. I’m also several chapters into Harry Scherman’s fascinating book on economics, THE PROMISES MEN LIVE BY, published 80 years ago, and am enjoying immensely his clear, orderly account of the field, as well as the examples he gives of the history of trade through the ages, showing how much continuity and how little real underlying change has occurred. Obviously buying and selling have evolved further since 1938--but more of that later. For now here are a couple more pictures from Grand Marais.

First is Bess Capogrossa, our dear friend and hostess at the Superior Inn in Grand Marais, the hotel of the window pictured yesterday, that from which Sarah looked out so longingly over town and watery horizon.

Another of many friends in this little village is writer and baker Ellen Airgood (read one of her short pieces in STORIES FROM WHERE WE LIVE—THE GREAT LAKES, ed. Sara St. Antoine, from Milkweed Editions, 2005), who with her husband, Rick, the fantastic cook, runs the remarkable West Bay Diner.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Technical Difficulties, Reprise

I'm doing my best, but when, in an expert attempt (not mine) at trouble-shooting, no viruses are found, software is adjusted, and hard drive replaced, what remains? Even my gurus are baffled. So, when it works, I'll be here, and when it doesn't, I'll be frustrated. Meanwhile, my uncertainty sees itself in this pensive pose of Sarah's. This was her visual vantage point from our vacation hotel room--chin on the windowsill, nose resting on the screen, eye on downtown:

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

More From Our Little Vacation

This shot over the trees and rooftops shows the main business district of Grand Marais, Michigan, with Lake Superior in the background. The end of the world!

Few very old downtown buildings survived in the timber-rich North when fire swept through. The old post office building (a newer building now serves the purpose) was moved to a spot next door to the bank. There is still plenty of room for more buildings here, though we have grown accustomed over the years to the wide-open space overlooking the harbor.

Water in the harbor is much more placid than out on Lake Superior, and the smooth sand makes for easy walking--or running!

Looking west on the world-famous agate beach. Here waves crash ceaselessly.

Driving back to town after picking late-season blueberries, we could hardly see for the low sun and bugs on the windshield. Blessedly little traffic. To add to our good fortune, no deer ran into us.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Paths We Take

I cannot resist a meandering two-track leading off a narrow two-lane blacktop. The irresistible track may wind through a long-abandoned meadow, where memories of old cedar fenceposts lie hidden in crumbling bracken fern, or it may disappear into a deep, green, shadowy forest. The closer to Lake Michigan or Lake Superior, the better, too, so there’s nothing like a few days Up North to satisfy my longings. Since we already live Up North, “getting away Up North” for us means crossing the Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula.

What does vacation feel like, though? This shot of Sarah on the beach—or rather, above the beach, flying through the air—captures the feeling pretty well, I think. Yippee!!!

Ours was a modest trip this year. A lot of what we did was simply to drive a little way from our vacation “home base” to lounge around and read somewhere different that day, taking our books to the end of Coast Guard Point in Grand Marais, out to Grand Sable Lake, and past the end of the paved road to Hurricane River. The first book I finished was AN UNCOMMON FRIENDSHIP, by Bernat Rosner and Frederic C. Tubach, with Sally Patterson Tubach. This unusual joint memoir tells of two boys in small European villages, caught up in World War II--one in Germany, the son of a Nazi officer, the other a Hungarian Jew who at the age of twelve was torn from his home and lost his family in the concentration camps, barely surviving himself. The paths of these two cross many years later in California. Retired from successful careers and married to women with a long friendship of their own, Fritz and Bernie gradually come to share with one another the stories of their early years. Reading this book and imagining the scenes it described made a strange contrast to my surroundings on Lake Superior, in another small village, far from war and strife.

Vacation book #2 was a complete change of pace. GIRL FROM FITCHBURG, by Bernadine Kielty Scherman, is billed on its jacket as a “light-hearted chronicle of living in New York through the past five decades.” The book, however, was published in 1964, so Scherman’s introduction to the city in 1908 took place a full 100 years ago. Still, some of the names were familiar. It was her husband, Harry, who launched, first, the famous Little Leather Library, and then the Book of the Month Club, and who wrote THE PROMISES MEN LIVE BY: A NEW APPROACH TO ECONOMICS (1938). Their daughter, Katharine, wrote a favorite book of mine, SPRING ON AN ARCTIC ISLAND. I almost feel I know this family in some distant, literary way, though my own New York life is strictly imaginary.

Then, finally, a murder mystery. My 1952 whodunit by Ruth Fenisong wasn’t set in Michigan, though the title, DEADLOCK, reminded me of a mystery by Sarah Paretsky with the same title. Other than murder by person or persons unknown, little similarity. Fenisong’s story, perhaps a function of the time in which it was written, is more Agatha Christie than Sara Paretsky. No matter. And no matter that I never solve the mystery before the solution is revealed. It is the not-knowing that keeps me reading.

David and I did some reading aloud to each other—A. A. Gill, A. J. Liebling, Joyce Cary. But no, our noses were not always in books. Vacation for us is also looking out over the water, watching boats, taking note of changes in familiar scenes, visiting with old friends, and exploring road and beach and woods. What a wonderful and completely unexpected surprise to find that the sweet little wild blueberries were not all gone as I had feared they would be! To pick a handful and eat them right there, standing in dry bracken fern, appreciating mounds of soft reindeer moss, watching for deer, alert for bear (and for bear-hunters), then to walk down the soft, sandy two-track with David, the two of us taking turns throwing sticks for Sarah to chase—this was a getaway. The whole thing was a series of adventures for Sarah: her first vacation, first crossing of the Mackinac Bridge, first visit to Lake Superior! Not for her the memories of other years, reminiscences of a long-ago campsite down on the beach and later travels with Nikki, our old dog. Time after time, we would recall the past, and Sarah’s exuberance would bring us back to the present.

Driving back from St. Ignace today, Monday, we notice here, too, signs of fall’s inroads, the occasional red maple splashed into the cool green surrounding stillness or deep crimson Virginia creeper standing out against the evergreen it embraces. Pumpkins suddenly stand out bright orange in patches and displays. Swiftly go the days!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ride the Moon

One of the concerns of farms and small towns is the loss of the younger generation, who either don’t want to follow in their parents’ footsteps or can’t afford to do so and also raise a family. As the numbers of young rural families drops, the area school populations shrink. At certain times of year, in certain venues, towns like Leland and Northport can look like retirement communities: it’s as if we’re marooned in south Florida without the compensation of a warm winter and dry pavement.

Most of us would like to see more young people in our small towns, a diversity of generations rather than a monoculture, to put it in agricultural terms. On the other hand, I can’t help thinking it’s good for the high school graduates to try their wings—to go away to college or overseas or to test themselves against a big city or a different region of this American life. Whatever Thomas Wolfe thought, many do come home again, and not all of them wait for retirement to carve out lives in the places they grew up. It isn’t easy, you say? What is? “This game of life isn’t easy,” one visitor to the bookstore observed to me yesterday, “but what else do we have?”

All these thoughts crowded in on me this morning as I paged through KASIMIR’S JOURNEY, a children’s book from over half a century ago. KASIMIR’S JOURNEY, a story in English verse by Monroe Stearns, is based on an original story by Marlene Riedl first published in Germany, the 1957 American edition bright with the original author’s charming five-color linoleum block illustrations. We are not told specifically where Kasimir lives. (No doubt the young German audience for the original book would have taken it for granted he was one of them.) Instead we meet the little boy on the first page as he runs after a big yellow full moon.

“’Look, it’s stuck in the tree.
“’If I hurry up, it will wait for me.’”

Climbing to the top of the tree, Kasimir jumps onto and rides the yellow moon, now a fat crescent, over the tall buildings of a city and out over the ocean. In Turkey, he and the moon, now a slender sickle, part company, and Kasimir travels on to Egypt, through Africa, to China and beyond. He visits “Esquimaux” and Wyoming Indians, and in Mexico he sees a bullfight. At every step he is captivated and eager for more.

“’I don’t want to stop traveling,’ Kasimir said,
“’So long as there’s countries up ahead.’”

Eventually he crosses the Atlantic to Holland and from there, a short hop, arrives back home.

“And then went out in the meadow to rest.
“Of all he had seen his own home looked best.”

That’s fine. It’s lovely. It couldn’t be better. But I think it’s important not only that Kasimir came back home but that he didn’t just stay home all his life, afraid to venture out into the world. He ventured out, saw as much as he could and made it his own. Geography came alive for him, as did people with other ways of life.

One aspect of this book that seems quaint today is that of the boy traveling by moon rather than to the moon. The friendly yellow satellite that lets him hitch a ride is the moon of another era. It belonged, the moon of those days, to music and poetry. It was ours to ride to adventure. The whole world was ours to explore. This is what I wish for young people: music, poetry, adventure, and their own place in a world they have made their own.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Still Here, Still Reading

Bloggiversary? I missed my first one entirely, due to technical difficulties. September 13 was the one-year birthday of this blog, and I couldn’t even post. (Computer in the shop. Needed new hard drive...again. What can I say?) The year went by very quickly. Now already again there are bouquets of asters and goldenrod by the roadsides, and once more the ash leaves are turning that rich, plummy color. The wheel has come full turn.

The good news is that, without the distraction of e-mail and blogging, I got a lot more reading done in the last few days. FLICKA’S FRIEND: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARY O’HARA was a surprising look into the life of the author of one of my favorite books, one I knew, even as a young girl reading it, was an adult novel and not the young people’s horse story the adults around me took for granted it was. THE GOOD SOLDIER, by Ford Madox Ford, moved along at a good clip, despite the depressing content. Not a military story (as the title might suggest) but an account of deceit, intrigue, adultery and all usual meaningless hysteria that accompanies people with too much money and not enough to do, Ford’s novel has a fascinating structure, the truth revealed one horrible surprise at a time by a hapless narrator doomed to finish last.

I may not read every word of FAMOUS WRITERS COURSE: FICTION WRITING, VOLUME THREE, but it’s interesting and definitely worth skimming, as I resolve this week to devote the first three months of 2009 to finishing a first draft of my ‘tween novel, DREAM DOG (working title). A very different kettle of fish is CAESARS OF THE WILDERNESS: MEDART CHOUART, SIEUR DE GROSELLIERS AND PIERRE ESPRIT RADISSON, 1618-1710, by Grace Lee Nute. I confess to looking up Mackinac in the index and turning first to that section. It’s early Michigan, after all, that has first claim on my interest, as I have little grasp on the history of Ontario. PREVIOUS CONVICTIONS, by A. A. Gill, has given me a long list of places I never want to visit. BETWEEN MEALS: AN APPETITE FOR PARIS, by A. J. Liebling, gift from an old friend who visited over the weekend, called up no such aversion. Far from it!

But the book I’ve been carrying from room to room and between house and shop, the one whose end is already all to close, is Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli’s DEAD DANCING WOMEN. A humorous murder mystery! How does she do it? I am reluctant to come to the last page (keep taking breaks), as the next Buzzelli novel is not due out until next summer, but Northport can look forward to a visit from her next month, when she will give a talk at Dog Ears Books on Saturday, October 11, at 2 p.m., on the topic “Murder, Mayhem, and Mischief: One Writer's Up North.”

One very sad note this weekend was the death of David Foster Wallace. Recipient of a 1997 MacArthur genius award, Wallace was perhaps best known for his Pynchonesque novel, INFINITE JEST, but my favorite of his works was an account of the Illinois State Fair in his collection of nonfiction essays titled A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING I’LL NEVER DO AGAIN. Reading that essay, you sense his deep love for the fair despite all he says making fun of it. His father, James Wallace, was one of the three professors on my philosophy dissertation committee at the University of Illinois. A friend was a classmate of David’s at Amherst. Such are the disparate threads related, some distantly, to a single life, traced out in its loss.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Around Town and On the Beach

There’s a lot going on around the village today. Students from Northport School’s yearbook class, under the guidance art teacher Jenny Evans but on their own for this phase of business, were out drumming up advertising for the yearbook. Could anyone even try to resist Anna and Christina? The girls were thrilled to have Dog Ears Books sign up for a full-page ad and willingly posed for a picture. Go, Wildcats! By the way, Homecoming this year is on September 27.

Over on Mill Street, the Willowbrook remodeling is going full steam ahead, and by dint of an extra dog walk I was lucky enough to catch these guys raising a new wall. They weren’t posing, either. In cases like this, timing is everything. My old garden on Nagonaba Street, between Nature Gems (on the corner) and Dolls and More, has gotten some attention lately. Someone took out the old rose of Sharon that died a year ago, I was happy to see, and the big purple asters, so showy this time of year, are obviously doing well.

Out in the wild, along roadsides and in old meadows, asters are blooming, too. To treat myself as well as my dog, I closed up shop early yesterday and took Sarah for a little birthday trip down to Sleeping Bear territory, where she had her first swim in Lake Michigan. You’d think she’d been swimming all her life. Water and sun were warm, crowds nonexistent, breeze glorious. We need to do this kind of thing more often.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mornings, Evenings, Coincidences

[Books discussed: THE BIG WAVE (1947), by Pearl Buck; THE LITTLE ARK (1953), by Jan de Hartog; THE BLUE BEAR (2002), by Lynn Schooler; THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES (2002), by Sue Monk Kidd]

Coyotes were kicking up a yipping, howling fuss out behind the house shortly after 3 a.m. Already wide awake, I made a couple pieces of toast and settled into a comfortable reading chair with THE LITTLE ARK, so close to the end of the book and so early in the morning that I also had time to finish THE BLUE BEAR, OR, THE SHORT HISTORY OF A PHOTOGRAPH, by Lynn Schooler. It’s Sarah’s birthday today (not that it means anything to her), and she was up early, too, so I stuffed peanut butter into a bone (replacing marrow) to give her something to do. Going out to play with coyotes was not an option, and she didn’t even argue with me on that one.

Recently, at last, I finally got around to Sue Monk Kidd’s THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES (2002), long after the rest of the country had read and discussed. The funny thing was that when I was halfway through, a local man gave me the gift of a jar of fresh honey from his hives, and that very day someone walked into the bookstore looking for another book having to do with bees. Another set of coincidences has to do with several books I’ve picked up to read lately that echo in some way the Katrina September that everyone has been remembering around this three-year anniversary.

First came THE BIG WAVE (1947), by Pearl S. Buck. Illustrated with prints by Hiroshige and Kokusai, this simple children’s book tells the story of two boys, Kino, a peasant’s son, and Jiya, the son of a fisherman. Kino lives high on the side of a mountain, his father’s farm a series of terraces on the mountainside, but Jiya lives in the village on the narrow strip of beach between the mountain and the sea. “’The sea is our enemy,’” Jiya tells his friend. When the ocean god is angry, the earth shakes, and the waves roll. Kino learns to fear the sea and is thankful that his father is a farmer, though he recognizes that both farmers and fishermen are necessary to Japanese life.

Then one day came “a strange fiery dawn. The sky was red and gray, and even here upon the farms cinders and ash fell from the volcano.” At last, after hours of anxious waiting, “the earth … yielded at last to the fire. It groaned and split open and the cold water fell into the middle of the boiling rocks. Steam burst out and lifted the ocean high into the sky in a big wave. It rushed toward the shore, green and solid, frothing into white at its edges. It rose, higher and higher, lifting hands and claws….

“In a few seconds, before their eyes the wave had grown and come nearer and nearer, higher and higher. The air was filled with its roar and shout. It rushed over the flat still waters of the ocean and before Jiya could scream again it reached the village and covered it fathoms deep in swirling wild water, green laced with fierce white foam. The wave ran up the mountainside….”

Jiya was safe with Kino’s family, but as the two boys watched, the wave took the entire village, sweeping back once before subsiding into stillness, leaving only an empty beach. No bodies, no wreckage, nothing. Kino’s parents tell Jiya he is their son now, understanding that it will take time for him to get over the shock of his loss and go on with life. He does, of course. In the end, he marries Kino’s sister, Setsu, and moves back down to the beach to build his own house and follow his father’s way of life. “’If ever the big wave comes back,’” he says, “’I shall be ready. I face it. I am not afraid.’”

Another thread of this narrative of life on the edge centers around the Old Gentleman, a rich noble who lives in the castle high on the mountain. He wanted to adopt Jiya after the boy’s family was lost, but Jiya chose to remain with Kino’s family, even though they were only poor peasants. The Old Gentleman was angry that Jiya would be so foolish. He was angry again when surviving fishing families came back to begin to rebuild the seaside village. You will never be safe here, he tells them, but Jiya tells him that he is not safe on his mountain, either, for an earthquake could destroy even the castle. “’There is no refuge for us who live on these islands. We are brave because we must be.’” This tale of home and loss and rebuilding on dangerous ground, though different from New Orleans and Katrina in many details, had many elements that Louisianans would find familiar.

Another story of disaster, from a very different part of the world, THE LITTLE ARK (1953), by Jan de Hartog, tells of two children, Jan and Adinda, aged ten and eleven, orphaned during World War II. The children come to live in the Dutch village of Niewerland as the wards of old Parson Grijpma and his wife and are given the job of ringing the church bells for the parson, who is too old to climb the belfry steps any more. Thanks to this chore, Jan and Adinda gradually make a whole world for themselves up in the belfry. A puppy, a kitten and a rabbit, unwelcome in the parsonage below, become their treasured menagerie high above the village, and there is no one to take these pets away from them.

“Another reason why the belfry was a world all of its own was that, seen from up there, the village with its little red roofs, small trees and tiny windows looked like a toy village, peopled with little animals. The harbor, in daily life a noisy basin, full of big ships manned with giants who spat black juice, looked from the belfry like a rectangular puddle in the distance, silver in the sunlight, with small gray and black ships; and the giants looked like ants, crawling to and fro.”

But just as the warning bell in THE BIG WAVE tolled over the hills of the Japanese island, warning of danger from the sea, one evening the harbor master in Niewerland reports that the sea has reached its highest-ever level and is still rising, and the bells in the belfry must be sounded to warn everyone. Jan and Adinda have never been in the tower before after dark. “When they finally arrived in the belfry, they had to crawl on all fours. The wind screeched through the arches, and the bells that had hung motionless for as long as they had known them [the children hit the bells with hammers to toll them, rather than pulling on ropes] now swung and groaned in their yokes.” When the cold, exhausted children wake the next morning, the dike has vanished, along with the harbor and all the ships, and only a couple of rooftops remain, people huddled on top with their bundles.

This is not a children’s story but an imaginative fictional account of a very real flood in the history of the Netherlands, that of 1953, and its horrors only begin when the children discover their stepmother dead at the bottom of the belfry tower staircase. The girl, Adinda (repeatedly referred to as a “half-caste” throughout the story), manages to get the boy and all the animals down from the belfry and into a houseboat they have always admired from shore. In their little ark, they drift helplessly over submerged villages and farms through water afloat with human bodies and the bodies of farm animals, some living but most dead. “After the horse, other small objects slowly drew nearer from the sea, as they bobbed inland sideways, rocking. A telegraph pole, heeling over, its wires trailing like hanging hair, moving with the current; a swaying tree, looking as if it were sailing; then a small orchard with, suspended in the branches, a big black rubber dinghy. At a hundred yards’ distance was a corner of a ruin that had been a home, a right angle of jagged walls, and over it peered the mad motionless face of a man.” The man, we feel certain, would have stolen their boat and cast them into the water, but he sinks before he can reach them.

Adinda is given to fits of gloom and pessimism. She expects the worst, expects every joy that comes to be snatched away. Her refusal to be play happily with the treasures on the houseboat goads Jan to anger. “Had he been older, he would have hit her; he kicked the desk, hammered brutally on the piano, slammed the lid shut with such violence that the wires hummed and ended up on his back in front of the fireplace….” He tortures the cat and flings it into a corner. The girl watches expressionlessly, then withdraws even further into herself. She “shut her eyes and listened to the wind rising, and the toneless lapping of the waves, feeling like crying but incapable of tears, accepting as inevitable the misery she had brought about herself by imposing on her world the gloom life had taught her to expect.” She withdraws, he rages. This is no fairytale idyll on the little houseboat.

Adinda and Jan are rescued for a while by a crew of friendly pirates. The boy loves their “manly” talk and never wants to leave, but instead they are removed to a hospital ship. It is there than Jan overhears adults forming a plan to put the children off again rather than return them to the village to which their adoptive father has been evacuate. Parson Grijpma has been searching for his adopted children, but the director of the hospital ship says he would rather take the children to Devil’s Island. Onderkerk is a collection of morgues for men, women, and children, bonfires for dead animals, and all who remain alive, a witness reports, are “raving mad.”

THE LITTLE ARK faces head-on the nightmares of sea invading land. Jan and Adinda are determined to find their way back to their adoptive father without leaving their menagerie behind, but an adult helping them with their escape scheme warns them to “attach those animals to a string or something,” or they’ll be shot by the military police. “’All stray animals in the flooded area are shot at night. They say it’s against contamination from the corpses.’” There were people in New Orleans who refused to leave their dogs behind. Others, picked up by rescue boats, are still sometimes said (by those with short memories, little imagination and faulty information) to have “abandoned” the pets they were not allowed to bring with them.

Back to the book: Arriving at Onderkerk, Jan and Adinda find coffins being buried in the dike, thin processions stumbling along the narrow clay ridge to say last farewells. They are reunited with the parson, but problems do not end. There is the problem of water and the problems of waste. At one point the girl, Adinda, infuriates her affectionate, pious father by observing, of their cabin aboard the hospital ship, “About everybody has pee’d in this room by now, except me and Jesus.” The puppy squats, the rabbit drops, and the boy begs to be allowed to urinate in the washbowl.

For those not fortunate enough to be onboard, life is worse. One farmer’s disaster-induced madness pushes him to murder. Looting is not widespread but does occur, and there is one particularly ghoulish incident.

Before the book closes, Parson Grijpma, Jan, Adinda and their animals return, in the little houseboat, to what is left of Niewerland. It isn’t much. The church is the only old building left, “buttressed up with poles and planking to prevent its bulging walls sagging out still more.” Prefabricated wooden shacks stand on the rubble, and a dredge works out in the harbor. The puppy has become a dog, the kitten a cat with kittens of its own, the rabbit has somehow multiplied, and even the parson’s wife’s rooster has survived. This village, too, will be rebuilt.

Neither of these two stories end “happily ever after.” In one sense, neither ends at all. The story of Jan and Adinda, like that of Kino and Jiya, centers on one historic incident that marked a generation, but each generation is only a chapter in the ongoing larger story.

Wilderness guide Lynn Schooler’s first-person account of his friendship with Japanese photographer Michio Hoshino and their many adventures together searching Arctic islands and glaciers forms the main narrative in THE BLUE BEAR. Again, however, there is a larger story. In the Arctic, danger does not come as a disaster that tears ordinary life apart but is itself part of everyday life. It can and does come without warning, out of the most beautiful day, in the most pristine scenery. “Every fourth or fifth wave was a monster, a slick gray animal that rose so high it seemed to block the wind. I was sure it was only a matter of time until one fell on top of us and drove us under.” How long is the story of Alaska itself? Schooler recounts findings in paleobotany of plant fossils 50 million years old, but those palm fossils had to have formed near the equator, before Alaska as we know it today had taken shape. As for the giant glaciers, as landforms they change within a human lifetime.

Schooler and Hoshino are both bachelors for most of this story, neither exactly by choice. Schooler yearns for a partnership, and Hoshino is very clear in his mind about wanting a family. Everywhere in nature he sees families, projecting his own desires onto all of life. When the two men visit the remains of a rotting cabin, the images Hoshino finds there focus on the brevity of life and the sadness of leaving no one behind.

Adult nonfiction adventure memoir, THE BLUE BEAR nevertheless somehow completed for me a coincidental trilogy of books picked up at random, all having to do with human beings living intimately with the sea, facing danger, suffering loss, and somehow going on. I am no saltwater adventure-seeker but only a freshwater bookseller, content to live within walking distance of one of the world’s Great Lakes. Once in the last century, however, the waters of our little creek came as high as this old farmhouse, we have been told. Complacency is always asking for trouble, but meanwhile, for now, I’m counting my blessings.

We got some of the rain we needed. The mornings and evenings have been beautiful, the hours between bright and clear.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Waukazoo Revival: Ongoing in Northport

Sad to say, I lost a whole long, brilliantly written (ahem!) book review I’d hoped to post today, but there was plenty of exciting action in Northport, as these pictures show. All this was happening on Waukazoo Street, right next to Dog Ears Books and the Painted Horse Gallery. Bruce Viger, owner of the fabulous Eat Spot on Mill Street, is the mover and shaker behind this big change. Next June on this site there will be a BBQ joint. There will be patio seating, or you can take it to go. Another big leap forward for the Waukazoo Revival!

How many times this summer was I asked, “Do you think Northport will come back now that the sewer’s in?” or “What do you think? Is Northport going to come back?” Come back from where? This town never went away! We hit a real low point about three years ago but have been rebounding ever since. Other remodeling projects are the old North Country Gardens building on the corner of Waukazoo and Nagonaba (before it was NCG, it was Andersons’ grocery store) and the Willowbrook building on Mill Street, so there will be lots of new kids—and shops--in town by June of 2009.

But it is September. It is a quiet time of year.

Friday, September 5, 2008

One Bookseller's Take on the Self-Publishing Game

I’ve wanted to blog about this many times before, but every time I started in, I found too much to say for a posting of reasonable length. This morning, however, the program called “Points North,” on Interlochen Public Radio, tackled the subject. Two of the radio guests were self-published authors, a third the editor of FOREWORD magazine, published out of Traverse City.

Author Aaron Stander is happy with the success of his two northern Michigan murder mysteries. The second author, Mark Levine, in addition to publishing a book on self-publishing, operates a business guiding authors through the process and had a lot to say about how far self-publishing has come in the last few years. Heather Shaw, editor and new publisher, voiced the most caveats. As a bookseller, I share Heather’s wariness. The point below about review copies is one she made on the radio this morning. Some of the rest of what follows are concerns she and I have in common, but, in addition, I bring a decade and a half of bookselling experience to the question.

Let me say that my goal in presenting my view here is not to discourage anyone but to prevent unrealistic expectations and unnecessary heartbreak.

1. BUSINESS: Approach self-publishing as if you’re going into business, because that’s what it is. (If you want to throw up your hands and insist that you’re a writer, not a businessperson, you should not self-publish. Save yourself the aggravation.) Have a detailed marketing plan before your ARC’s go out. Marketing plan. Detailed. Detailed marketing plan. There are books on the subject. Read a few. If you don’t have a detailed marketing plan, you’re not ready to self-publish.

2. FIRST IMPRESSIONS: The book must be physically attractive. Cheap paper, cheap binding, bad photo reproductions all work against sales. Your book has to say, before anyone knows what’s in it, “Pick me up.” Once it’s picked up, it needs to elicit head-nodding and page-turning.

3. CONTENT: Fiction by authors not already famous is always hard to sell, with the wonderful exception of regional murder mysteries. Your self-published novel needs to be a page-turner. For a memoir to sell, the story needs to be either unusual in itself or brilliantly, entertainingly told—preferably both. If your book is nonfiction, it needs to offer new information or present it better than other books on the subject. Know your field. What’s out there, and how does your book compare?

4. STYLE: Editing is part of publishing. Without a publisher, you’re on your own, and if you’re serious about your book reaching a wide public, don’t skimp on editing and proofreading. You can’t proofread your own work. Many have tried, many have failed. Your mind reads what it knows you meant to say, not the marks on the screen or paper, and the greater the number of errors to the page (even, perhaps sadly, the more nonstandard your style), the worse for your reputation and that of your baby.

5. REVIEWS; If you hope to have your book reviewed, advance reader copies (ARC’s) need to go out THREE MONTHS IN ADVANCE OF YOUR PUBLICATION DATE. If you publish first and then send out copies for review, it’s too late. FOREWORD is not alone in holding to this policy. This is industry standard.

6. BOOKSTORES: Make it as easy as possible for bookstores to handle your book. If it will not be available through a regular major distributor (my accounts are with Partners and Ingram, and every book I have to order directly from an author or publisher outside these outlets adds another complication to my ordering system), be aware of the way booksellers place orders. (a) Provide a printed invoice form. (b) Offer at least a 40% discount. (c) Don’t expect immediate payment from an invoice. (Industry standard here is 30-45 days.) (d) Be prepared to handle returns. Painful as it is to all of us, returns are another standard procedure in the book world. Booksellers may return unsold books to distributors, publishers and authors. One publisher with whom I deal has a no-return policy, but his discount to me is 50% rather than 40%, and he has a strong track record of many years. (e) If a bookstore agrees to give you a signing, do as much as you can to help get publicity for the event. Tell everyone you know, and hand out fliers. (f) Think past simply signing your book. What else can you do to make the book attractive to potential customers? Give a talk? A reading? A demonstration?

Getting a book printed is the easy part. Selling, while very different from writing, can be almost as hard as writing, so know what you’re letting yourself in for before you decide to self-publish. Maybe there’s another way you can go.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Salute to Leelanau Book Women

Dog Ears Books, as has already been discussed in these pages (I think of the postings as pages), celebrated its 15-year anniversary on July 4, and that got me to thinking—not to detract from the offerings of male booksellers but simply to acknowledge my sister colleagues--about other woman-owned Leelanau bookstores that have been around a long time. Original owner Prudy Meade (mentor and friend sorely missed still) started Leelanau Books in Leland in 1976, and Mollie Weeks started the Cottage Bookshop (now owned and very creatively expanded by Barbara Siepker) in 1984. Tack our own 105 dog years onto the list, and that's 32, 24, and 15 years, respectively, with all three still commanding a following today.

That said, I do miss strolling into Known Books in Suttons Bay and being greeted by Cheryl’s big smile. We would catch up on shop talk, and then she would leave me alone to explore her shelves while she worked, and I always left with a few books, feeling good about the whole experience. That’s what it’s about, this bookselling gig, both selling books and providing a positive experience. (Selling anything, all by itself, is just selling, and chatting endlessly without making sales doesn’t pay bills.) Besides, our books are our treasures! By making them available, in our small towns, from our hands to our customers’ hands, the value we add to our “merchandise” is very personal.

Years ago, a man who had never before visited a store that sold used books (or maybe never visited a bookstore at all) asked me, “Where do you get your product?” The word shocked me. I don’t deal in 'product,' I sell BOOKS!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

For "Another Anonymous"

Another close-up of that fabulous car of Keith's.


THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, by Stieg Larsson, translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland. NY: Knopf, 2008

This is the first of Larsson’s trilogy starring Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander. All three books were best-sellers in Sweden and several other European countries in 2007. No signed first editions will be available. Read through to the end of this post to discover why.

A mysterious prologue, which I leaked earlier in this site: on his 82nd birthday, a man receives an anonymous gift, a framed, pressed flower. He has received such gifts for 30 years.

Next: a five-generation family tree. I always skip over these when they are presented at the beginnings of novels, figuring that I'll either work it out as I go along or get bored and not finish the book. This book I finished.

First chapter: Unusual. The story proper begins after, not before, the trial that has brought Mikael Blomqvist professional and financial ruin, and we are given only a few background details after learning that he was found guilty of libel. There is a flashback to a meeting with another journalist, a colleague who put him on the trail of the man who has now bested him in the courtroom. International business intrigue. Dirty dealings or not?

Next: The scene shifts to the office of a private investigator and founder of a security business, Dragan Armansky, employer of Lisbeth Salander, so that we first meet the latter through the eyes of the former. “Everyone has secrets,” Salander says in answer to a lawyer interviewing her for an investigative assignment. “It’s just a matter of finding out what they are.” The man she whose secrets she is being asked to discover is Mikael Blomqvist. Not until much, much later in the story do Blomqvist and Salander meet.

For a long while, the individual stories of Salander and Blomqvist run parallel. There are the antisocial behaviors of the young woman that led to her being considered mentally deficient and assigned a state guardian, despite her obvious brilliance with computers and in other areas, alongside the male protagonist’s uncertainties over a year-long, cold-case investigative assignment, which he accepts with great skepticism, in a small village in the north of Sweden. The paths of each, their intersection, what together they discover and the relationship that develops between them form the heart of the story.

The character of the Swedish journalist Blomqvist and the many campaigns his magazine (another thread in the story) conducted against neofascism movements are based in the reality of the author’s life. What little I have read about Larsson leads me to suspect that other aspects of his personality (e.g., the photographic memory) are given to the female character, Lisbeth Salander. Both, however, are very fully realized characters, and neither is one we have met before.

Violence, especially violence against women and the danger of violence presented by neofascist groups, was a big issue for Stieg Larsson, as it is for Mikael Blomqvist. There are episodes of graphic violence in this novel. Compared to other contemporary fictional and film treatments, however, Larsson’s is restrained, and none of it feels gratuitous. There is pulp fiction, as there are pulp films, where violent action is the only real character, the people with names included only as vehicles for mayhem. Such is not the case here. Blomqvist and Salander are both living on the edge, threatened by very real, physical danger, but they are trying as hard to hold onto their souls as to their lives, and the inner struggles are as central to the story as the search for the killer.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is due out this month, and Knopf will bring out Larsson’s two sequels in the future. Sadly, Larsson died in 2004, before publication, never knowing he was destined to be an international best-selling author. The good news is that he enjoyed creating his characters and his story, and this satisfaction comes through on every page.