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Friday, January 30, 2009

Avian and Other Distractions

Writing fourteen chapters of a novel for young girls, begun almost two years ago, is the main job I’ve given myself for our time in Florida this winter, and finally I can report that I’ve spent a couple mornings at that pleasant though demanding task. My other jobs here are housekeeping--interesting and enjoyable at this leisurely pace and even a mild sort of adventure, thanks to sources of fresh produce and cheap imported packaged foods not available back home in Northport--and Sarah. Sarah is also a pleasure, of course, as are shopping, cooking and writing.

Besides these pleasant jobs, I’m also indulging myself with as much reading as possible, which is neither task nor distraction. It is a serious activity, though I’m throwing myself into it like a glutton at a wedding reception. Or, like the greedy dog in the fable, dropping the bone in his mouth to grab the bone he saw reflected in the water, I keep laying aside a perfectly fascinating book to grab at another, equally compelling. Since those mentioned in my last post, I’ve brought home two book-related books, The Archivist, by Patricia Cooley, a book I picked up for its wonderful cover (a stack of books, obviously old ones) but bought for the promising content, and The Bookseller of Kabul, by Åsne Seierstad, a book with such exciting opening pages that I keep thinking it would make a great evening read-aloud book, if only we weren’t already so engrossed in People of the Deer. Anyway, The Bookseller of Kabul is a library book, so I don’t dare save it to read aloud after Mowat. And my point (yes, I have one)is that I almost always have a stack of three or four books with me, wherever we are, but over and over I let myself be distracted, and so the daylight reading goes slowly.

The possibility of fun with David is always a distraction, as it has been for years. If he suggests a drive down to Tarpon Springs, am I going to put up any resistance? But much lesser proposed expeditions meet with the same compliance. Shall we go out for coffee or ice cream? Yes, yes, yes! Can Sarah come, too?

Then—and this may sound silly—there are the birds. There are cormorants, herons, egrets, pelicans, terns, but I love especially the stately, patient waders, so intent on their own jobs that we watchers don’t even exist for them. We are sitting in a park, all settled into beach chairs in the shade, and my book lies open in my lap, forgotten because--there are herons in the shallows! Will we ever sort out these feathered beauties, though? All egrets, iI have some hope, now that the library has yielded up to me John Netherton’s North American Wading Birds, but I’m not expecting miracles of myself. All egrets are herons, but not all herons are egrets. Some species have morphs of different colors, and in many the immature plumage is the color of the mature plumage of another species. Besides, just as birds distract me from reading, other things distract me from learning the names of birds.

(Another book that came home with me from the library today was Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continents Natural Soul, by Scott Weidensaul. The thrilling chapter on wild Florida rings very true to me. Weidensaul wrotes that “the real South—the truly wild South—is still out there, if you know where to look for it, often surprisingly close to the schlock and profligacy of the modern age.”)

People-watching cannot be resisted! This was true Wednesday afternoon at Hudson Beach, where an endless parade passed before our eyes, every adult or couple or child radiating a story we would never know. Fascinating, however, to speculate! One old woman clutched a stuffed animal as a younger woman pushed her in a wheelchair, while nearby four young girls, ages about three to thirteen, focused intently on building sand castles. The Ages of Woman, all at once, right in front of us.

The sound of other languages pulls at my attention, too, demanding to be heard. Rarely in Northport do I hear anything but English, so hearing foreign conversation reminds me that I am somewhere else. The language spoken is largely Greek on the sponge docks at Tarpon Springs, but in the parks there it may as easily be French or German or Italian, Russian or Spanish. Being able to hear Spanish-language radio is a joy, and I can’t resist trying to read women’s magazines published in Spanish, picking out meanings of unfamiliar words from context and pictures.

We are having a stretch of rainy weather, however, so I may get more writing and reading both accomplished in the days ahead. The birds are a good example for me to follow. They always get their work done.

Those of you reading in northern Michigan may be interested in this e-mail I received from Michigan Writers (I'm only quoting part of it):

Please join us for the winter reading of northern Michigan's literary journal, featuring the presentation of the annual William J. Shaw Prizes for Poetry. By the way, this year's winning poems were chosen from by far the largest pool of entrants in our history. We'll gather at Traverse City's premiere hub of community activity, Horizon Books, at 7 p.m., Friday, January 30th.

Another literary note: John Updike has died. This is my opportunity to urge everyone to read his too-often neglected novel (I haven't even heard it mentioned in radio tributes, but this link includes it), In the Beauty of the Lilies. You'll be glad to reach the end but glad you read the book, as it captures the 20th-century American zeitgeist better than any other book I know.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Settling In and Reading in Paradise

Our reading-at-night book as we first began settling into our winter base on the Gulf was Farley Mowat’s Born Naked, and we enjoyed that book so much that I decided our next bedtime reading would be Mowat’s first published book, People of the Deer. (Both of these were among the books I bought in Micanopy last Wednesday.) It reminds me of Michigan winters back in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when as the days and nights grew colder, I longed for them to be colder still. What Mowat calls Arctic fever surely had a hold on me. I think the Arctic appealed to me then for some of the same reasons it called to Mowat, though he also longed to recreate or build on an earlier experience and had serious, more or less professional interest in wildlife. But the Barrens, as he describes them, are country in which the struggles to be faced are not arbitrary. They have nothing at all to do with human politics and discord. Instead, the difficulties---at least then--came with the territory, with the geography and the climate.

Another book I’m reading at present is The Future of the Race, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. & Cornel West. (This one I picked up in Crystal River, where the bookseller at Poe House Books had a good selection of books on race relations and African and African-American history.) The essay by Gates, “The Parable of the Talents,” begins with his own experience at Yale and the black student leaders he met there. West’s essay is entitled “Black Strivings in a Twilight Civilization” and is very much a critique of the work both essays reflect in their thought, “The Talented Tenth Memorial Address,” by W.E.B. Du Bois. This book was published in 1996, only 12 years ago, and it is interesting to read in light of Barack Obama’s election, as it will be interesting to follow Obama’s presidency and response to it by public intellectuals such as Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

But my focus on serious reading keeps slipping. I take Sarah out for a walk and am greeted by a vista of fabulous wading birds.

David tempts me with a drive down to Tarpon Springs, and we share a gyros on the sponge docks and dream over the boats. Now our friends from Weeki Wachee have returned from a trip to the Keys, and Sandra and I have already taken two walks to the post office and a drive to Pine Island.

And Sarah has friends, too. Ida and Weiser visit almost every morning, and the indoor doggie play hour requires a bit of supervision. Sarah would be happy to run around Aripeka without a collar or leash, as do her new friends, but we don't think she is traffic-smart enough for that. Not to mention the mud factor....

One sad bookseller note: it appears that the Time Traveler, Dimitri, no longer has an open shop. We knew that he had moved from Tarpon Springs to Port Richey, and we found him in the phone book for Port Richey but not at the address listed, and no one could give us any more information, other than to say they thought he’d closed his bookstore.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Reply to Someone Who Isn't Interested in One

Every trip becomes entwined in memory with larger public events of the same time period. We did not travel to Washington, DC, for the inauguration, but memories of our drive to Florida and time here so far will forever be marked by what we have watched on television, read in the papers, talked about with each other, friends and strangers. In many ways, this is the time of our lives.

But not everyone is as thrilled as we are. David and Gene, out of curiosity, wanted to hear on Wednesday what a certain right-wing radio talk show host would have to say about our new president. I’m happy to report that once they got a gist of his rant, they took mercy on me and spared me further. We were in the car on a beautiful day! Did we need poison in our ears? I sure didn’t!

If a man refuses to listen, no one can make him hear. Lies, however, are not differences of opinion, and distortion is not an opposing view. Don’t talk about my generation and say that we, who in the Sixties had “Question Authority” as our motto, are now content, like sheep, to “follow blindly”! Those of us who had tears of happiness in their eyes on Tuesday were not blinded by those tears. President Obama was elected, in part, because he demonstrated a willingness and ability to listen, not only to advisors but also to the American people. He listens and thinks for himself, and he expects no less of the rest of us. This time around we are not being told that dissent or questioning are unpatriotic. This time around there is no ideological loyalty test that we must pass to be considered good Americans. Our new president’s approach to government programs, to policies, to ideas is pragmatic, not ideological. Does it work, and is it in line with American values? Then it’s good. If it either doesn’t work or abandons our values or both, it’s dead in the water. One can be pragmatic and have principles. In fact, I would argue that principled pragmatism is essential to the historical American character.

I feel sorry for those Americans who do not, who cannot, for whatever reason, share the joy of this precious time in our country, but I am not sympathetic to distortion and lies. Is the man on the radio jealous? That’s sad. He is trying to drag his listeners back down the road to fear, though, and the time when those cheap tricks worked may be past. I hope so.

Let the dogs bark. The caravan is moving on.

Still Among the Living

I left my travel tale last night with the Saturday evening before the inauguration, the night of our arrival in Suwannee, Florida. One of the many wonderful things about having a dog, whether at home or on the road, is that someone has to get up early to walk the dog, and that person sees each morning at its freshest. Mysterious, magical fog clothed Suwannee on Sunday morning as Sarah and I explored, each of us in her own way. I used mostly my eyes, she mainly her nose.

I’ve already mentioned our excursion to the flea market that afternoon, and Monday was mainly a day of R&R, rest and recuperation from a week on the road, and Tuesday, of course, we were glued to the television most of the day!

Ordinarily, David and Gene would have been all for getting a boat in the water on Wednesday and exploring Gene’s network of “cricks” off the Suwannee River, but the temperature had gone down below freezing again the night before, and the day was not going to be a warm one, so Gene proposed a driving day instead. Of the many small towns we passed through and poked around, some were particularly memorable. One of those was tiny rural Evinston, Florida, with its old, old post office and store (unfortunately not open when we stopped by).

The next place we got out to walk was the home of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at Cross Creek. Here is the writer’s house, her maid’s house at the back of the property, and a rescued fighting cock, its comb and wattles missing. This poor rooster had a hard life before finding a place of refuge—and a mate!--at this Florida state park, and as he is still among the living, I guess I paid more attention to him than to the human beings who used to live here.

Micanopy, Florida, a town we remembered well from three years ago, made us happy again, chiefly because O. Brisky – Books is still among the living! Micanopy is a little gem of a small town, full of beautiful houses and gardens, but Brisky’s is a treasure trove unusual in these days, the inventory covering specialty areas in entomology alone breathtaking. Among other purchases, I found two Farley Mowat titles and am well into his autobiographical work, Born Naked. I was the best customer of the day, the proprietor told me, and knowing well how much that means to a bookseller, I was happy to have brightened his day. Gene and David also bought ooks. The place had us all in a state of frenzied excitement (okay, especially me!), and we went away deeply satisfied. By the way, from the look on his face, you’d think I had not asked before taking this picture, but indeed I’d been given permission, and this was the pose I got.

It must be said that Sarah got into a little trouble during our time in Suwannee. On Wednesday morning, when Gene suggested a good place for her to run around off the leash, the little mutt ran around as directed--and then waded right into the Suwannee River, coming out stinking! And did she learn? Oh, no! Thursday, just as we had the car all packed up to leave and were throwing a toy around Gene’s yard for her to chase, the minx took it into her head to explore down to the water at Gene’s dock, on one of Suwannee’s many small canals. Unfortunately, it was very low tide. Never in her life had Sarah encountered muck as deep and stinky! She sank up to her chest (we pieced the story together afterward from the evidence), and when she climbed out and came running toward us, even she seemed disgusted.

A hose was required, and drying-off time in the sun. David and Gene decided to leave us and walk to the café. I used the time well, however, reading my New York Times from the day before, which was, you’ll recall, the day following the inauguration, hence a very special issue. So instead of having my nose out of joint at being left behind, I was in glowing spirits when the guys returned. David and I then said our fond farewells to Gene and turned our noses south, back on Hwy. 19 again.

When we were last in Florida, three years ago, there was a wonderful little used bookstore upstairs in a big, beautiful old house in Crystal River. Would it still be there? No, it wasn’t. That was the bad news. The good news was that Poe House Books is still in business, just down the road and around the corner on Hwy. 44. Another bag of books for the car but, more importantly, another good independent bookseller with his shop open six days a week (closed Sunday).

There are two more booksellers from our old list that we’ll be looking for in this neighborhood in the days to come. Will we find their shops among the living? I certainly hope so.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Start to Catching Up

Days after the fact, still euphoric from the inauguration, I'm starting the catch-up game with our trip.

This was one of the most inviting of my pictures from A Novel Experience in Zebulon, Georgia, and somehow I missed it in the post with that story. Also missing that day were any photographs of the house style I was trying to describe (I also forgot to include the possibility of dormers as a variation on the theme), so below are some examples. Former President Jimmy Carter’s boyhood home outside Plains is in this style, also.

Arriving in Americus, Georgia, in time to visit the on Habitat for Humanity Global Village last riday afternoon, we gave ourselves the self-guided outdoor visit, winding first through a narrow, winding recreation of a street through a typical Third World slum (the image here shows a slum school room as seen through a broken window) and then out into a series of Habitat-built family houses, their style and materials varying according to country. (Children taking the tour can have a “passport” stamped in each house, i.e., country, they visit.) When we reached the house built in Botswana, with its bright blue trim, I was happy to recognize from my reading the reason for the color: blue is the color of the national flag of Botswana, and people there often paint the doors of their houses blue out of national pride. (This, I confess, I learned in the Alexander McCall Smith novels featuring the lady detective, Mma Ramotswe.) The cost of sponsoring a Habitat house like this in Botswana, where nearly half the population lives in poverty and unemployment can reach 40 percent, is only $4,100. Cost in other foreign countries ranges from below $3,000 to over $12,000; Habitat houses in the United States would obviously be more expensive to build.

Next morning in downtown Americus, a little before nine o’clock, the café-bookstore called Well Read and Well Fed frustrated us with a vision through the windows of books and tables and a sign on the door saying the place would not be open until ten o’clock, so we got a coffee to go at a gas station and took the road toward Plains. The young woman working in the gas station, I noticed, switched back and forth from English to Spanish as if both were native languages for her, and for some reason that made me very happy and made up for the disappointment downtown. Eight miles out of Americus, we found the Plains Trading Post, one of our regular stops, open for business and visited a while with Philip, the proprietor, buying peanuts, gospel tapes and postcards before heading over for breakfast at Mom’s Kitchen, where we’ve had Sunday dinner on our other three visits to Plains. This time, at Saturday breakfast, we were told that if we were to stay over, Jimmy would be teaching Sunday School in the morning, as usual, before leaving for the inauguration in Washington, and we could have our picture taken with him. I asked if people in Plains would be getting together to watch the inauguration, and it was as I thought it would be: the old auditorium in the former high school, the school Carter attended and which is now a museum, would be the official gathering place on Tuesday. What a great place to be! (In some ways even better than Washington, I couldn’t help thinking. My heart is always at home in a small town, and I have a particular affection for Plains.) We had been on the road for a week already, however, and, many motels down the line from Michigan, were still miles from our Florida destination. Staying through Tuesday would have meant four more motel nights and restaurant dinners. So….

So on we went, approaching Suwannee by sunset, by nightfall sharing a dinner of fresh-caught fish with friends, and the next day enjoying 65-degree temperatures while strolling through flea markets, buying fresh tomatoes and grapefruits, a cap for me and a toy for Sarah.

Sarah can’t get over the exciting smells—first Georgia, now Florida. When David and I watch a movie set in a foreign country, he often says to me, “We’re someplace else!” As I read Sarah’s mind today, that’s what she seems to be thinking.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Awake, Dreaming, Happy

Here at the home of friends, we just watched CNN's broadcast of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s entire 1963 "I have a dream" speech, and it could not feel more relevant today. Celebrating King's birthday the day before Barack Obama's inauguration is the happiest of coincidences: it could not have been scheduled better by design. And in that strange way that events occurring while one is away from home become themselves part of the trip, the larger events forever entwined in one's personal memories, I felt a shiver run through me (though this was not the only shiver I had during the speech) when King mentioned the "motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities," which were segregated at that time, because on our travels through the Midwest and the South this past week, we have been in many restaurants and motels. Some of the staff of each were black, some white, as the travelers and diners were both black and white. This is now "business as usual" in our country. It's such an ordinary thing now, wonderful when set in historical context. And tomorrow Obama will take the oath of office on the Lincoln Bible. "Free at last," here in America, our job is not over and will never be finished, but it is good to pause and be grateful for how far the United States has come. Today and tomorrow we celebrate. Then, back to work.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My New Country

On the outskirts of Americus, Georgia
Another cold morning with bright sun

With the presidential inauguration only three days away, David and I are caught up in pre-celebration mode along with the rest of the country, and it seems a wonderful coincidence that Monday, the day before the inauguration, is the holiday devoted to remembering the birth and life of Martin Luther King, Jr. We gave up television at home but rely on it in motels (local and regional weather forecasts are important when traveling in winter), and a couple nights ago we watched an excellent documentary on King and his times. Our times, those were, too, and not so long ago.

The next morning, we were captivated by a news story featuring a group of young people preparing for the inauguration, where they would be performing for the new president. The viewing audience was given a preview of their song, and David and I were in tears by the time they finished. These children know a world very different from the one Martin Luther King grew up in, thanks to him and many, many other Americans who fought, nonviolently, for change. The first changes were slow, forced by law. Legal rights were sometimes recognized only grudgingly. The law had changed, but people hadn’t yet. They could not yet trust each other.

But I’ve been noticing something this past week and thinking about it ever since Benton Harbor, and after the children sang I finally voiced to David what I hadn’t yet said aloud and hadn’t written to anyone, even in private e-mail: that ordinary interracial conversations we’ve had on this trip seem blessedly unguarded, relaxed and comfortable. Admittedly, this is a subjective impression, not a scientific poll, but what a great feeling! My country today feels to me like the country we dreamed of in the 1960’s. “It’s been a long time comin,’” the old song went, “but I know a change has gotta come.” Now there’s no denying that it has come. No more is there a color line assigning life roles with black on one side, white on the other. David said he had been noticing and feeling the same thing.

We visited the Habitat for Humanity Global Village yesterday, and sometime in the near future I will write about that and post photographs. This weekend, though, all I want to do is recognize and celebrate my country. I love what we have become, are still becoming, can become. My favorite “God bless” sign, though, is one I saw three years ago in Apalachicola, Florida: “God bless the United States and the whole world.” That’s how I feel. No one should be left out.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Real Vacation Day

We circled Atlanta this morning on I-75 and exited onto Hwy. 19, our road for the day. Traffic was so light it was almost nonexistent—nice for us, not all that good for businesses in the little towns along the way. I don’t get it. Why would people pound down the expressway, playing deadly dodge-‘em with huge trucks, when they could be rolling along on a velvety divided highway, enjoying the scenery? We spotted our first palm trees of the South outside Griffin, Georgia. There were also large, feathery stands of some yellow-green, ferny sort of plant. Bamboo? My heart began to sing at the sight of what I call my “cloud pines,” their graceful shapes towering over shorter trees and burned-over ground, and David and I made noticing and commenting on an architectural style characteristic of Georgia and northern Florida our Appreciation Project for the Day.

There must be a name for this style of house. I suppose it would be called some kind of bungalow. The basic building is a simple square with hipped roof. The four sides of the roof come to a peak over the center of the house. This peak is sometimes flattened rather than pointed and may support a widow’s walk at its summit. There may be a porch on one or more sides of the house, sometimes wrapping the entire bungalow, and there may be additions to the square, either symmetrical or not. Whatever the variations on the basic classic style, every example I have ever seen has had a welcoming, sheltering, generous look, and such a house is particularly charming when surrounded by a pecan grove, the stately trees spaced wide enough apart to form a series of graceful allées.

These appealing houses (sorry I was too busy appreciating them to use my camera), the cloud pines, herds of cattle taking their ease under the Georgia sun (apparently untroubled by cold), and finally a quiet red dirt road where Sarah could stretch her legs—but before that, and long before Americus (which I’ll have to save for another post), we hit the jackpot in Zebulon, Georgia, county seat of Pike County, both the county and the town named for Zebulon Pike, famous American explorer of rivers and mountains. Coming into town, David pulled over to park across from the courthouse, and I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a bookstore just ahead on our side of the street. It wasn’t just any bookstore, either, but a big, beautiful, exciting bookstore, featuring new and used books, rural Georgia photography, coffee and a young but fascinating history.

A Novel Experience has been in business for three years and has three owners, Chris (whom we met), Karen and Susan. Before the building could house a bookstore, however, it needed a roof. For seven years, the building at 426 Thomaston Street, with its dirt floor, had stood open to the rain. It took a lot of vision to see a potential bookstore on that site, but Zebulon has a lot of can-do citizens, and a re-development grant from the state of Georgia through the Downtown Development Authority made loan money available to buy the block, one side of Courthouse Square. A restaurant, an office center and the Chamber of Commerce now share that side of Courthouse Square with A Novel Experience.

We were excited, however, long before we heard anything of the building’s history, because this bookstore is gorgeous. The space is so large (like Amy in Little Women, envying girls with nice noses, I always envy booksellers with huge spaces!) that there is plenty of room for a number of cozy nooks—one for the children’s corner, another for coffee, a lovely area in back like a parlor, complete with fireplace. David and I were like kids in a candy store.

Here are three shelves, each with the name of one of the booksellers on it, the books on that shelf being that woman’s recommendations.

And here is a close-up of the soulful wall treatment. Nothing fake here: this is what had to be done unless the wall were to be covered up, and that would have been a shame, wouldn’t it?

Chris, a psychotherapist in her other job, is also a horsewoman. She is also active in the Chamber of Commerce and in local agribusiness (her term). Pike County is positioning itself as a major organic grower. Thus the sign down the street advertising a seasonal farmers’ market.

Down the road in Thomaston, county seat of Upson County, where we had lunch at English’s Café (homemade chicken-pecan salad on toasted wheat) and I photographed this sweet little old theatre, happy to see that it is still in business (currently showing “Marley and Me”), we met a couple from Indiana. They had just come from Americus, our destination for the day, and we traded recommendations. They sent us to the café we will visit tomorrow, and we sent them to A Novel Experience.

As we continued south from Thomaston, David exclaimed with great satisfaction, “Now this is traveling!” Amen!

P.S. You're wondering if we bought books. Yes, we bought books! Wendell Berry, Georges Simenon, Stuart Edward White and more.

Getting Lost

My best vacation memories are of places found accidentally, far off the beaten path. Of three that stand out, two were in adolescence, traveling with my parents and sisters, and one with David in France eight years ago. Actually, David and I have had many such off-road adventures, from Canada to FLorida, but the one I will recount was outstanding.

One: My parents were looking for the home of a famous woman writer somewhere in northern Florida. I don’t remember who it was, but Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is the likeliest one who comes to mind now, so many years later. What I do remember is driving very slowly down a narrow dirt road, the trees on either side hung with Spanish moss that swayed slightly with the least movement of air, and little barefoot children who stopped their play to stare silently at our car, as if they had never seen one before. We never did find the famous writer. I guess we must finally have turned around and stumbled back to paved roads. But it’s that dirt road that stands out in my mind. The dirt road, the Spanish moss, the barefoot children.

Two: Another family vacation took us to South Dakota, where my parents had lived when I was born. We covered the state from east to west, and one day we found ourselves on another unpaved road, a secondary road that slipped to tertiary status as it wound up into the mountains. We came to a wide, roaring mountain stream. There was no bridge, but the road continued on the other side of the water. My father drove his Buick slowly into and through the rushing water while my sisters and I hung our heads out the window in excited disbelief. On the other side we pulled over for a picnic on a large flat rock. We girls wanted to wade in the stream, but the water was too cold. It was August.

Three: When David and I were last in France, we took the TGV to Avignon, where we rented a car and began a slow, meandering drive north. We stopped to visit a Traverse City artist friend living in an old silkworm farm on the outskirts of a small village. Most of the time we were on two-lane roads (narrower in France than in the U.S.), and David was doing all the driving (he drove, I talked: that was our division of labor in France), and after a while, in the mountains, I noticed that roads to and from higher villages off the road came in pairs, as if one road led up, the other down. These were very narrow roads. Could we take one up and see what the higher, named place looked like? We could come right back down to the road. --Sure. Well, the ascent quickly became precipitous and terrifying, but there was no way to turn around or back down. At the top, turning left, to make our way between buildings we had to fold the side mirrors back against the car. (French car makers anticipate these situations.) Then the road ended! Not only did it end, but the pavement was crumbling at the edge, and chunks had fallen down the mountainside! What now? I got out to keep an eye on the edge so David wouldn’t tumble down it in the car as he made a series of very small back-and-forth wheel crankings to turn us around. We stopped to catch our breath and for a picnic of bread and fruit and cheese on a low stone wall. After eating, we walked down the narrow, deserted street. Two women on a balcony above called down to us, astonished by our presence, to ask where we were from. “Près de Chicago,” I answered, giving my standard response. They would never have heard of Traverse City. Their astonishment increased, but it reached epic proportions when I described to them the road’s end that had almost been the eud of us. “There was a sign saying not to go there--!” “No,” I said, “there was no sign.” “There was a sign,” one of the women continued, “but some kids took it down!” Thanks, kids! Our bodies might never have been found! We did find the other road going down the mountain, again narrow and frightening, and only then did I realize that these were not, in any official way, one-way roads! It was one of those adventures one would never choose to repeat but was glad to have had and survived. Les Crozes-Hauts was the name of the small collection of houses—not really a village at all: no shops, no post office—but we always call it “the scary place.” The two women were friendly, though. I asked them questions and learned that they had bread delivery three times a week, vegetables and fruits twice, meat and fish once a week, all by little trucks, camionettes. I wonder if the drivers of those little trucks were well paid. I see that village in my mind as clearly as if we had been there yesterday.

Many miles over many years, but these are a few of the long-ago memories that stand out. That might be my wish for today--to get lost. Not just turned around and confused on some miserable, impossible expressway interchange, but lost, far from the pavement, where adventure awaits.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bookstore Thoughts From the Tennessee Road

All right, I’ve added IndieBound to my “Good Connections” list (check out the link called Independent Bookstores), and I’m gearing up to be optimistic about the business I’m in. It isn’t real estate, after all, or investment advising. So here I go, out on a limb to proclaim the start of a great year for books and bookstores, in general, and especially for Dog Ears Books. For starters, we the people are inaugurating a president who reads books! Then too, the air is full of new ideas and the rethinking of old ideas, and many of us will be turning to books to help sort through thoughts we’ll bring to one another in discussion. At the same time, we will be feeling a pinch in the pocketbook for a while yet, so although a new hardcover book may cost $26 compared to a movie’s $8, there is much more than 90 minutes’ worth of entertainment and food for thought in the book, and it can be passed along to a friend when finished.

David predicts happy times ahead for used books, the initial foundation of Dog Ears Books (hence the name) and still the majority of our store stock. I remember one or two fellow students in graduate school who raised eyebrows when they saw me reading “outdated” books--not classic texts from ancient Greece, of course, but philosophy books written perhaps 20 years before the time I was reading them. Sorry, friends! Technologies may become outdated (and I’m not entirely sure even of that), but ideas rise again and again from their own ashes, rediscovered by each new generation of readers. And then there are those classics, too. They have always been a staple of the book business, new and used. All grist for our mills.

The publishing business is in turmoil, so independent booksellers can hope for changes that will level the retail playing field for us. Besides drastically lowered numbers of new acquisitions in the near future, publishers (and distributors) have begun to rethink the whole notion of returns. Why should bookselling stand out in the retail marketplace when it comes to wasteful industry standards? Shouldn't book people set a better example? I’m talking about over-large print runs and unnecessary transportation costs. And why should the public have to wait a full year to be able to purchase a title in paperback? Here are changes whose time has come: smaller print runs; paperback editions either preceding or coming out simultaneously with hardcover editions; and a no-returns policy, with wider discount to retailers. Let’s stop shipping books back and forth, back and forth, extending credit so that publishers don’t get paid for months on end, and finally shredding and pulping books that can’t be sold. It’s time to bring down cost and make life easier for all concerned, from publisher to retail customer. Shall I predict these changes or just cross my fingers and hope for them?

Day Five Out of Northport

[This is being posted in the morning after the day it was written, as the motel wireless signal wouldn’t reach our room last night. Single-digit temperatures are in the weather forecast for Tennessee.]
Wednesday: Effingham, IL, to Whites Creek, TN
Sunshine all the way

Sarah has a quality wonderful in dogs, that of being “good in the car.” Here she is on her travel pillow between our seats, looking to us for approval. When the pillow gets boring, she retreats to her cave, i.e., crate, i.e., cage, where she has room to lie on her side with feet outstretched. She is a patient traveler.

Expressways are not my preferred travel routes, but we’ve taken them from Grand Rapids to northern Tennessee, choosing time over variety and making getting and keeping ahead of snow a priority, and I too have been “good in the car.” I had to admit, reluctantly, that the expressway choice was sensible, given the weather. I miss going through all the little towns, and even the land looks different from the route roulante that the expressway seems to me: we pass by farms and woods and fields rather than going through them on the same level. By Day Five out, I had reached my expressway boredom limit, and so, while David was driving, and to pass the time in a more interesting fashion for both of us, I read aloud from Alex Karmel’s A Corner in the Memoir: Memoir of a Paris Neighborhood. The Marais having been David’s neighborhood during his first stay in Paris, he was fascinated before he heard the first word, but we were both captivated almost instantly by the story. Karmel and his second wife, a Frenchwoman, find a sixth-floor walkup apartment to buy in the Marais, and this launches the author into historic research of the quarter, beginning with his own building, which he quickly discovers is 300 years older than what they had been told. Part One ends thus:

…And so we are permitted to imagine, without feeling it is only imagination, how this ordinary house came to be built, how it was built, and who might have lived in and around it at various times. That is the kind of information that is called ‘History’—the sum of all we know, and infer, in the present about the past.

I prefer reading aloud to David rather than listening to books on tape. Our choices are not so constrained, and being the reader, free to stop and comment at any time or to take questions or comments from David or to join him in conversation about something else without losing a word of the story, I have more of a sense of control over the situation. Also, David can ask me to repeat something, and neither of us has to stop a tape and back it up. We both like reading this way.

Here is some history encountered along our way to the Ohio River. I-24 gave us an opportunity to stop at a rest area named for a fort built by the French in southern Illinois (before it was Illinois) in 1757. (It was the name, Fort Massac, reminding me of a town called Massiac in central France that led me to look at brochures inside and find the story.) Burned by Chickasaws (and who can blame them?) in 1763 at the close of the French and Indian War, the strategic site was subsequently neglected by the British, allowing Revolutionary Colonel George Rogers Clark to march into Illinois, capture Kaskaskia, and claim the entire Illinois Territory for the United States of America—without firing a shot! It was the first American president, George Washington, who ordered the fort rebuilt. (There is a rumor that Vice President Aaron Burr had a meeting there to plot for the conquest of Mexico, but Burr had other troubles, and Mexico was never annexed to the U.S.) Damaged by the New Madrid earthquakes, the fort was again rebuilt in time for the War of 1812, but at the war’s conclusion settlers of the region helped themselves to the fort’s timbers, presumably to build their own houses and barns, until little remained. Illinois was granted statehood in 1818. The Fort Massac site, purchased by the D.A.R. in 1903, the site became the first state park in Illinois in 1908 and is now home to a reconstruction of the original fort.

Seeing the historical marker for the Blue Star Highway made me feel at home, as both the Blue Star and Red Arrow highways in west Michigan hold many memories for me. Of course, the purpose of the Blue Star Highway was to honor America’s Armed Forces. This particular marker also honors George Rogers Clark.

David couldn’t stop in the middle of the bridge for me to take a photograph of the Ohio River, so this is the best shot I could get. We noticed that the river had flooded far up through the trees and into the fields of Kentucky but speculated that this natural flooding is probably a good thing. And then, south of the Ohio, we found ourselves in the limestone country of western Kentucky and Tennessee, dramatically different from the prairie farmland of Illinois we’d been traversing since Joliet. Even by expressway, the difference in topography from state to state is striking. “One union shall unite us, forever proud and free.” How easily I can imagine certain state lines as borders between countries, and yet they are not. Amazing!

We exited, before being caught up in the Nashville rush hour, with plenty of dog-walking daylight left. Later David channel-surfed while I read a little book by Paul Gallico, a rough, ex-library copy with the binding peeling off its spine. A strange story, Love of Seven Dolls. I kept imagining it with illustrations, but that would have made it seem too much a children’s book, and the antagonist, so to speak—the protagonist being a waif of a girl known as Mouche (fly)—is much too realistically cruel for a children’s picture-story book, not only striking but also raping the girl in his attempts to destroy her innocence. No, this is a book for adults, but its readers, to stay with the story to its end, must have children’s hearts and hopes. They must believe in the possibility of redemption. That is to say, I suddenly realize, that this book’s readers must be romantic pragmatists! Can the puppeteer be wholly depraved when his puppets (hand puppets, not marionettes) are so loving and kind to the desperately lonely girl they (i.e., he) rescued from suicide by drowning? Philosophical skepticism was awake from the beginning, for while my childhood fear of marionettes did not extend to hand puppets (the jointed mouths and limbs of the former that terrified me, hard and machine-like where hand puppets were reassuring soft like stuffed toys), still I could never completely believe in them the way Mouche did. I was even more put off by the character of Gogo, the Senegalese. The reality of the character I could accept, that is, but not the author’s treatment of him. He is the troupe’s “slave,” he must sleep in the car rather than hotels—well, that is the puppeteer’s treatment of him. But his name, given by the author, calls forth a stereotype, and his position has not improved by the end of the book. No, Gogo deserved better. But so did Mouche, and so, when it comes down to that, did the puppeteer himself, an orphan brought up in a hard world: “By the time he was fifteen he was a little savage practiced in all of the cruel arts and swindles of the street fairs and cheap carnivals.” Unloved all his life, become “wholly cynical,” there must have been some instinct within him to save himself, or why would he have saved Mouche, though giving all the credit for saving her to his puppets, from throwing herself into the Seine? A little story, simple on the surface, underneath it is an endlessly complicated and convoluted as human nature. I read my mother’s Paul Gallico books when I was young, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris and The Snow Goose. This one was new to me. I wonder if my mother would like it.