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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sarah's World and Ours

While David has been ducking in and out of the world of John Updike short stories and I inhabiting Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (a cheerier place than it sounds, especially as compared to Chancery), while we follow economic news and forecasts, what fills little Sarah’s doggie mind? When she goes to the window and whines in a certain way, we know that Weiser or Ida or both are outside, waiting for her. And when we drive to the dog park, she knows when we’re getting close, and her excitement fills the car. We think of the dog park as exercise and socializing for Sarah. To her it’s just life. As far as we can tell, she takes every day and every hour just as it comes.

It’s doubtful that Sarah is yearning for Michigan, but when I took her outside last night and looked up at the sky over the Gulf of Mexico, clear after recent thunderstorm of the night before, to see Orion in the southwest, I was seeing it over our old Leelanau barn. Soon!

Meanwhile, I’m cramming in all the reading I can before we go back home where obligations of home, bookstore and community will fill the days. Jane Austen in Boca, by Paula Marantz Cohen, is a lark I heartily recommend. You don’t have to be Jewish or retired or living in Florida to enjoy it. Having read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice enriches the reading of Cohen’s book, but I’m sure it would be entertaining even without the literary background.

As for Dickens, we met one of his Bleak House characters here in Florida just the other day--they exist in real life, his people!--but I do think that novel should have had a different title. I’ve avoided it for years, due to nothing more than its name (and have my friend Marilyn to thank for bringing it to my reluctant attention this winter), so how delightful to find myself charmed rather than depressed by the reading! The plot twists and coincidences, along with multiple tangled narrative threads connecting the cast of characters, have something in them of soap opera—but oh, the language, the descriptions of persons and places! Very satisfying, very satisfying!

P.S. I have just read in today’s newspaper that Hernando County is considering handing over its presently public libraries to a private, for-profit company. The company says it can save the county $500,000, maintaining current hours, and would hire back most current employees. So where would the savings come from? How would the private company make its profit? Obviously, employees would be hired back at lower salaries. Perhaps they would no longer have benefits. Would library patrons be required to pay a membership fee? Borrowing fees to take books home? Service fees to use computers? Columnist Dan Dewitt ends his piece by observing that “this is the kind of compromise we’re forced to make when we decide we hate taxes more than we love democracy.” Ocean ports, prisons, schools, libraries—what next? I suppose this is more of what libertarians consider ‘freedom.’ I would love to hear the reflections of Charles Dickens on all of this. Perhaps he would wax eloquent on the myth of progress.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Libraries and Bookstores

Aripeka, Florida, a sport fishing community since the 1930’s and a fishing village possibly as long as a thousand years ago, straddles the county line between Hernando County to the north and Pasco to the south. The post office and Baptist church are south of the line and both bridges over Hammock Creek, while Carl Norfleet’s store is north of the line and between the two bridges, leaving only the Community Club, a nursery business, and the Chief Aripeka RV Park not only north of the county line and creek but way down a narrow, winding road through the sawgrass from the rest of the village.

All that, besides being part of a partial description of this place, is to say once again that we have been staying, technically speaking, in Hernando County, which also contains Weeki Wachee, the place we stayed during our last Florida getaway, three years back, and so it seemed only natural for me to renew my membership in the Hernando County library system and to get back in the groove of going to the West Hernando branch there in Weeki Wachee. It’s familiar, my “home” library in Florida, and I feel comfortable there. The availability of shady parking places (for Sarah) is important, too. The other Spring Hill branch, a larger library, was landscaped in such a way that none of the trees cast shade on the parking lot, and it’s too far to drive to the main library in Brooksville, the county seat, on a regular basis.

More recently, however, we’ve begun an acquaintance with the Pasco County library system. We began with the Friends of New Port Richey Library used book sale. The sale was smaller than we’d anticipated, but the people were friendly, and the sale was held outdoors (in the shade) between the library and City Hall, down the street from Christina’s Family Restaurant, where we breakfasted beforehand on homemade bagels fresh from the oven, so it was an all-round satisfying event for us. Now finally, on the recommendation of Carl Norfleet here in Aripeka, we have found our way to the library in Hudson—not an obvious destination, as Hudson is not really a “place” these days, except on the map. That is, there is no downtown, only an old cemetery at the northeast corner of the intersection of Hwy. 19 and Hudson Avenue, off the highway to the east a warren of medical offices and facilities and gated communities, with less pretentious neighborhoods lying between the highway and the Gulf. The library, though—wow!

First thing we noticed with approval were all the trees left standing in the parking area, providing many shady spaces. The architecture impressed David: he loved it immediately. As we were getting our bearings inside, I spotted a notice on the desk near the entrance offering translation services to anyone needing them. If my memory is correct on this, more than a dozen languages were listed. The children’s area looked very inviting and had its own circulation desk and librarians, and there was lots of comfortable seating throughout the building, even an area off the lobby with restrooms, drink machines and more comfortable chairs.

As a bookseller, I have never considered myself in competition with libraries (though I sometimes envy librarians their salaries and benefits), and as a reader I patronize both libraries and bookstores. When I’ve bought and enjoyed a book new to me, I’m likely to visit the library to look for other titles by the author. This accounts for all the Paula Fox works in my “Read in 2009” list. Or I may try out a new author first with a library book and then set out to buy more books by that author, as I have done with Walter Mosley and Farley Mowat. Other people probably approach libraries and bookstores differently, but I usually look on library shelves for something specific I’ve already got in mind, while I enter a bookstore as if it’s a potluck, a treasure trove, to be gleaned for wonderful surprises unknown to me before my hand touches the books.

When we go to independent bookstores, we always tell the owners that we have a bookstore, too. That’s not so much to elicit the offer of a discount (though dealers in used books usually offer this courtesy to one another) as it is to say, We know how it is. We know the joys and sorrows, perks and frustrations. We have a life like yours! Isn’t it great? It’s often an occasion to trade stories. In libraries I appreciate the convenience of wireless connections, David loves to browse magazines, and we both count on libraries as sources of practical local information, but our expectations of libraries are very different from our expectations of bookstores. We don’t expect to connect to anyone on a personal level in the library, whereas in a bookstore that same lack of connection makes the experience less than fully satisfying or meaningful, regardless of how many books we buy. For some people, would expectations of library vs. bookstore be just the opposite of ours?

When we visited Aripeka from Weeki Wachee three years ago, there was the beginning of a little volunteer-run library. It was officially open only one day a week, but if you went down the street and knocked on the librarian’s door—and if the librarian was home!--she would let you in at other times. There was no checkout system: patrons carried away the books they wanted and brought them back when they were done with them. This year there is no sign of life at the small cement-block building. I suppose that, like Carl, other Aripeka residents are in love with the big Hudson library and don’t see much reason to try to “compete” with it.

But wait! This story would not be complete without mention of the boxes outside Norfleet’s store. People leave things there: books, shoes, clothes, videos, grapefruits, oranges. You take what you can use. If you have something useful and don’t want to keep it in your life, you leave it in the box for someone else. It’s a simple system, and it’s all potluck (no special orders), but for what it is, it seems to work pretty well.

A note on my “Read in 2009” list: For a while I had the list set up to show only the ten most recently added books. Now it shows all titles. My rule for this list is that I have to have read the whole book before I can add it, so a couple mentioned in earlier posts, books I haven’t finished yet, aren’t yet listed.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Books, Dogs, Fairs

It's spring! Trees, vines and shrubs are bursting into bloom! This one has the gaudy, manically cheerful colors of many homes and businesses here in Florida. Visiting manatee in the creek (below) is subtle in color, graceful in motion.

Ever on the alert for any book title with the word ‘dog’ in it, and continuing my research into young adult novels, the other day I landed on The Boy Who Spoke Dog, by Clay Morgan. What a gem! Once again, of course, I am biased: the main dog character is a border collie! I found myself laughing again and again while reading passages describing this dog’s behavior:
The little dog backed away. She did this in the way Jack had seen many of the Border collies do. They kept their heads low to the ground and their eyes on the sheep. The little Border collie kept looking back and forth between Jack and the stick. She seemed to be willing him to go to the stick.

Each time Jack throws the stick for the dog, the dog brings it partway to him but won’t come all the way.
“Bring it closer,” Jack said.
But the little dog just backed away from it again.

Personal prejudice aside, the expression tour de force is not inappropriate to describe this book. People who love dogs will recognize the truth on every page and say, “Yes, yes, yes!” laughing with tears in their eyes. As for those readers who just don’t get it about dogs, if they can be persuaded to read this book, they may gain some inkling of what all the fuss is about.

David read Round Ireland With a Fridge and loved every page of it. Now I tell him he’ll love The Boy Who Spoke Dog, too.

On the subject of dogs, our Wednesday visit to the dog park was interesting. As often happens, Sarah found a “best friend of the day,” one perfectly matched to her play style and energy level. After Sheba left, however, Sarah had to make do with the social opportunities remaining, and one of the dogs unfortunately took a need to dominate a little too far. Sarah loves to wrestle and doesn’t mind being rolled over and having her ears chewed lightly: she’ll give the same in return and love it, play-barking and play-growling. But this other dog’s growling lacked the playful sound, and its attacks, while stopping well short of bloodshed, were freaking out other owners, who one by one took their dogs away, finally leaving only Sarah and the conquistadora.

Now as I say, Sarah’s a tomboy and a roughneck, but she does not like to fight. When hostilities break out, she quickly distances herself, as if to say, “Not interested! None of my business!” In the case of this particular hostile dog, whose only potential target was now Sarah, Sarah wisely did the dog equivalent of folding her arms across her chest and turning her back, refusing to be engaged in that manner. The other dog kept trying to pick a fight, and Sarah kept declining to be interested, making a fight impossible. I was so happy watching my dog, keeping herself out of trouble, wise beyond her years! David was proud of her, too.

Seriously? Our work? David finished a large painting the other evening, and I think I’ve found a solution to the narrative voice problem that was plaguing me. It’s unusual, but I really think it will work. So far, so good, for a while, but now I'm over the hump and into the woods again. Slogging on but doubting I'll achieve my goal of a complete first draft by the time we return to Michigan.

We went to a book sale last Friday in Floral City and afterwards took in the Citrus County Fair in Inverness. My fair dinner, jambalaya, was a great success--very generous portion and hearty eating. I was probably guided in this choice by thinking of friends and relatives in New Orleans this week.

These little porkers sharing a last kiss were not as sad as the hog who wouldn't stop squealing and trying to climb out of his pen, as if he knew what Fate held in store for him.

The comforting aspect of fairs is how little they change over the years. David and I enjoyed the crowds of young people and reminisced about the St. Joseph County Fair in Centerville, Michigan, and the 100-meter Ferris wheel in the Tuileries in Paris.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Paddy and ‘Saiorse’

Never one to resist a travel book, I couldn’t help picking up Round Ireland With a Fridge. But how silly! I put it down again. Really! Then picked it up a second time to read the dust jacket notes. Who was this Tony Hawks, and what was his story, anyway? Well, for starters he’s an Englishman, not an Irishman. Okay, a travel book by someone touring a country not his own is no novelty. But a travel memoir by a man who hitch-hiked the whole way around the Emerald Isle with a refrigerator in tow, just to win a hundred-pound bet? Now that’s different. And undeniably silly. One observation that haunts the pages is: “A totally purposeless idea, but a damn fine one.” And it must be said that Hawks pulls off the trip and the book with style.

To win the bet, he had to hitchhike the circumference of Ireland, Northern Ireland excluded, within a month. To make up for the excluded area (he did nip over the border a couple of times), he had to get himself and the fridge to two designated islands, one off the north and one off the south coast. No stipulation was made as to the size of the refrigerator, so Tony wisely bought the smallest he could find (its price exceeded that of the wager), one he could pull on a “trolley” (what we Yanks would call a furniture dolly) and the size most likely to fit into the back seat of a small car.

I’m not going to reveal details of this hilarious odyssey. There was a lot of time spent in pubs, but Tony saw a lot of the Irish countryside, too, including a few famous sites. He met people, made friends, had laughs. This book could as easily be shelved with humor as with travel. Need I say more?

A bit more. My point for St. Patrick’s Day is that along the way some blokes in a pub decide that the refrigerator needs a name, and the name given it is ‘Saiorse,’ Gaelic for ‘freedom.’ And on the day Saiorse Molloy (the naming took place in Mat Molloy’s pub) was named, Tony Hawks visited the focal point of the small town of Westport, dominated by a statue of no other than St. Patrick. “The words beneath him,” Tony remarks, “made interesting reading.” The inscription:


Wouldn’t “the least of all the faithful” be bowled over by a modern St. Patrick’s Day? The parade in so German an American city as Cincinnati goes on for hours!

Ireland gives me hope. After a long history of Troubles, the Irish have turned toward peace. It gives me hope for other trouble spots the world over. Peace and saiorse: not incompatible but a necessary conjunction.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Florida Views, Book and Michigan News

Spring has arrived in time for our final weeks here on the Gulf before returning to Michigan. Recent sunrises and sunsets have been spectacular, and the space shuttle take-off, which we watched from the North Fork bridge, was nothing less than fabulous. (“Nice launch!” one five-year-old said over and over in admiration and approval, as he waved good-by to the astronauts. The next morning people are still saying, “Hey, how’s it goin’? Great launch, wudnit?”) I must report, with a small twinge of regret, that we watched the launch without cameras, but it’s only a small twinge, because being there and seeing it were something we won’t soon forget.

Minor delights did catch my eye in the past few days when I was camera-ready: an old-fashioned pinball machine on a café wall; the juxtaposition of painted and live plants at the entrance to a gallery; a green palmetto floating down a salt creek looking like some kind of sailing vegetable porcupine. Too bad I can’t send the smell of the ocean or the feel of the breeze. I gorge on the sights, smells, sounds and textures of the world around me.

My book binge has not abated, either. Having read Paula Fox’s memoir, Borrowed Finery before reading her YA novels Monkey Island and The Village By the Sea added another background layer to fiction. In each, the coldness and unpredictability of the author’s mother, combined with her father’s weakness and absence, both of which repeatedly put young Paula at risk, are explained and overcome, translated and transformed. I realize now that I have handled books of hers before and that she is a Newbery winner, though I had not read any of her books before Borrowed Finery. So many avenues to discovery! How fortunate that there is not a single road one must either take or miss entirely!

The difference between Fox’s childhood and these two novels is that the literary protagonists have in the background two loving parents, though the mother and father in Monkey Island find themselves unable, for a time, to care for their child. I was reminded of Melanie Klein’s Love, Hate and Reparation (the title of the American edition, Love and Hate, omitted the most important aspect of the theory), in which the famed psychiatrist argued that all of us endlessly recreate and rewrite childhood hurts in an effort to make events come out differently. We seek, in other words, to undo the hurt. This is not to say that Fox’s stories are only interesting from a psychiatric standpoint. Far from it. She has a light and lovely genius for capturing a look or feeling in completely original but transparent language, and the adult reader (this one, anyway) inhabits the world of the girl Emma in the one book and the boy Clay in the other, perceiving the behavior of adults and the complexity of situations and emotions from the child’s perspective, as undoubtedly young readers would, also. It is a dangerous world Emma and Clay encounter, and Fox does not shy away from presenting the dangers, but we never feel dragged through slime. Human beings can be frightening, true. There are also those who are kind. And as the protagonists learn both these truths, they grow in appreciation for life’s ambiguity and contradictions, as did Paula Fox herself. Neither do they miss occasions for happiness along the difficult way. These stories are highly imaginative as well as real and honest and also redemptive. Great combination.

One thing I have to say in my defense (if I need one) for burying my nose in so many books is that my reading has been very eclectic and intentionally so. I may sometimes read two or three books in a row that come from the same shelf , so to speak, but then I make sure the next one is something entirely different. So after two YA novels, I turned next to, of all things, a book on business. It was much more than that, though.

True to Our Roots: Fermenting a Business Revolution, by Paul Dolan (president, Fetzer Vineyards), is as much about leadership and agriculture and wine and ethics and interpersonal communication and community and the good, meaningful life as it is about business. Are you interested in organic farming? In community decision-making? In how teams can function to achieve insight and excellence rather than stagnation and compromise? All this is covered in True to Our Roots, with an explanation at the end of the wine-making process, to boot. Makes me eager to get back to northern Michigan and visit the wineries in my neighborhood to see what they’ve been up to lately.

News from northern Michigan from Michael Sheehan is that this year’s Senior Spelling Bee will take place on Friday, May 1st, 1:00 p.m., at the Gilbert Lodge on Long Lake Road. See the TC senior website or Michael’s own for more details.

Another contest for a different age group is the annual Anne-Marie Oomen High School Poetry prize contest sponsored by the Dunes Review. Any high school student from the area south of the Mackinac Bridge and north of U.S. Highway 10 is eligible to enter. Poems (up to three) should be e-mailed to Names should not appear on poems but should be included in a cover letter, along with name, contact information, poem titles, short bio and name of high school. The contest rules specify “no rhyming verse, please.” I wish the contest organizers had left style up to the poets, but rules is rules, kids. Does that mean they’re made to be broken? Not if you want to win a contest, I guess.

We saw Saturday’s sunset from Jenkins Creek and its afterglow from the road leading through Hernando Beach and back to Aripeka.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Various Delights

Many mornings David and I have a late morning coffee (make mine espresso) at Paesano’s Italian Bakery & Deli in Spring Hill. Paesano’s has recently added gelato to their offerings, and I was interested to see that they went for flavors rather than right colors: cappuccino, pistachio, tiramisu, chocolate, spumoni. We feast our eyes on the pastries and then order toasted, buttered bialys to go with our coffee, sometimes splurging on a special loaf of bread to take home.

My writing project has stalled. A couple of things going on in our lives distracted me, and I lost momentum. Also, I have the strong feeling that the whole story needs to be changed from the third to a first-person narrator. I continue to accomplish (if that’s the right word) a lot of winter reading, however, and one author may help me with my own work. I just read a memoir, Borrowed Finery, by Paula Fox, and am intrigued to learn that she has written many books for children and young adults. I love her writing so will hit the juvenile section today at the library and see what I can learn from a pro.

The night before the full moon worked out well with the camera, as the moonrise and sunset were going on simultaneously. This may or may not be the sunset of that day; it is definitely the moon that night, and you see here both moon and sunset sky as we saw them from the bridge over the South Fork of Hammock Creek in Aripeka, Florida.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Dogs, Books, Walks Here on the Gulf


Saturday was a light-hearted morning for the pack, starting even earlier than our 8:00 a.m. (on the dot!) arrival at Pine Island, where we paid the five-dollar admission fee and showed Sarah’s inoculation record at the gate so all three of us could participate in “Bark Island,” a two-hour, off-leash romp on the beach, held once a month except in summer. No fences! The beach at low tide! So many other dogs! The cool, refreshing water to run into, over and over and over! We gave her a full hour of intoxicating freedom. She would gladly have stayed for the second hour, but I was concerned that she would drink salt water, being too distracted to come back to us for fresh drinks when thirsty. And besides, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t made the most of every single minute of liberty!

On the way out she seemed almost dazed. “I think she’s in shock from so much excitement,” I told David. He thought (maybe because he’s been reading those Sam Shepard stories) it must have an experience for her equivalent to what he would feel at a big Hollywood cocktail party, tossed into a sea of strangers, all with something to sell.

My head was kind of reeling, too. Keeping an eye on our girl in such a big, open space, as dogs wove in and out of groups of people and splashed in and out of the Gulf of Mexico, was tiring even though I didn’t run or swim myself…


…I was also coming down off a kind of reading marathon, overwhelmed by worlds I’d visited and heartsick for their inhabitants.

Having recently read The Bookseller of Kabul, my first immersion into life in the Afghan capital, I was drawn to Kabul Beauty School, by Deborah Rodriguez, and the story began with such a gripping episode that I was glued to the book all day and finished it before bedtime. I know several hairdressers who would gulp this book down! Honestly, though, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could find it dull or uninteresting. (David is reading it now.) The narrator is lively, extroverted and irrepressibly candid. The situations in which she finds herself are quite (I can’t help this) hair-raising. But I have reservations. I can’t give an unqualified rave.

To explain why not, here’s part of what I wrote about The Bookseller of Kabul:
“These are real people, not fictional characters, I kept reminding myself. I wondered if Sultan, the bookseller, or any of his English-speaking family members, had read this book and what, if anything, that might mean for the lives of any individuals in the story. It is such a huge responsibility, I always think--writing and publishing intimate details about the lives of living human beings. How does one dare?”

Since writing that post, I’ve read that the real-life bookseller depicted in Seierstad’s book, Sultan, was indeed unhappy with the literary portrait painted of him. An unsurprising consequence. But in light of that, how about an answer to the obvious question that started shouting in my mind while I was reading the first chapter of Kabul Beauty School, a question left unanswered by the following chapters, as well as by the interview with the author and questions for discussion at the end of the book, i.e., What have been the repercussions to the author’s “best friend” in Kabul subsequent to the publication, in a best-selling book, of the account of how the two women managed to pass the friend off as a virgin on her wedding night? How has the friendship fared? How would it be possible that Roshanna’s in-laws would not now know the whole story? What is the point of engaging in subterfuge on a friend’s behalf, only to trumpet the full story to the world after the fact?

The last of the questions suggested for groups discussing this book is, “Do you think it was wise for Debbie to help Roshanna escape detection as a non-virgin on her wedding night? Would you have chosen to interfere? Why or why not?” Fine, I say, discuss those questions, but don’t stop there--go on and ask whether or not, having interfered, Debbie took on an obligation to keep her friend’s secret?

The author admits to being impulsive, rarely thinking twice before speaking her mind. Had she not told the story of Roshanna’s wedding, the book would lose that much of its force, so it’s easy to see why everyone on the publishing team would have pushed for it, but didn’t Rodriquez have any second thoughts? Is this a moral dilemma? It’s probably pretty obvious where I come down on this one. Even here, in the tell-all, tabloid culture of the U.S., I would expect better treatment from a friend. In Afghanistan, where women are punished severely for so much less, and the author knows it, I can’t understand Debbie’s decision at all. Did Roshanna give her permission? Encourage Debbie to tell her story? This was a 5 a.m. wake-up-and-agonize story for me, and I’m not even involved!

Is it wrong of me to raise the question here in a more or less public forum? What do you say?

Social discrimination against Native Americans, traditional ways of life lost, wildlife habitat lost, tracts of formerly beautiful land manacled and imprisoned—these were the Patrick Smith novels I read last week. Women denied any reasonable measure of autonomy, turned into “female impersonators” or “drag queens” for as long as it takes them to be transferred from father to husband, their husbands also suffering from unemployment and endless war, the fields their children might have played in now minefields—these were the memoirs set in Afghanistan. I don’t advise hiding from either history or current events; being informed about our world is crucial to living in it wisely. But I admit I needed a little break at this point and turned to a different kind of reality, one more amenable to direct input, more likely to ease the heart. Anne Raver’s Deep in the Green: An Exploration of Country Pleasures was like a morning in the garden. I needed that. The Wild Boar, a different kind of murder tale by Felix Mettler and set in Zurich, was another change of pace. Right from the beginning, we know who committed the murder. The mystery lies in if and how the police will solve the crime.


I was in motion pretty much the whole hour on the beach with Sarah on Saturday morning, and Sunday brought a surprise visit from our friend Sandra, who was on her way for a walk in the Weeki Wachee Preserve and invited me to come along. Fabulous! The tracts of land that make up the preserve are varied. Some areas are “scrubland restoration,” while the land we walked on Sunday was formerly owned by a company that mined it for phosphate. Unlike the scrub, it’s mostly open land, savannah-like in appearance. There are also beautiful small lakes and strange hills of piled-up limestone rocks, both lakes and hills created by the old mining activity. This area has several points of entry, a straight paved road leading in from one, with two-tracks branching off and curving through the property. We’ll go earlier next week and hope to see more birds. My only disappointment (but hardly a surprise) is that dogs are not allowed, even on leash.

So, back in Aripeka, later in the day, David and Sarah and I went for a stroll. It was a very lively day, with families fishing from bridges and road ends and lots of boats going out on the open water of the Gulf of Mexico. Land was good, too, though. The sun was like a benediction. I felt a little bit the way Sarah must feel: “Outdoors!!!!”

Friday, March 6, 2009

Sequence with Pelican

“You know what happens two days from today?” Carl asked on the bridge as the birds were coming in to hunt for breakfast in the creek, just before sunrise. I was out with dog and camera, he walking to the store.

“Bark Island! No, that’s Saturday. What’s Sunday?”

“You have to get up an hour earlier.” Seeing my blank expression, he explained, “Daylight savings time.”

You have to look carefully at the first image to find the pelican.

The second Patrick Smith novel, Allapattah, was faster-moving, more gripping and ultimately, for me, more tragic than Forever Island. Definitely worth reading. Sam Shephard short stories are written with surgical skill, but they remind me that I never want to go to Hollywood, California. Maybe not even California.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

From Northwest to Southeast

Stanley Park, Timothy Taylor’s first novel, is set in Vancouver. That was not a problem for me: I enjoy reading books that also serve as travel. Also, Canada, yea! Who doesn’t like Canadians? It was the relentless focus on food that I feared might wear thin. The whole “foodie” preoccupation with preparing and combining ingredients and presenting and consuming meals, the notion of bad food as crime and good food as salvation, is beyond me. Taylor’s short stories, in his book Silent Cruise, offered a series of short visits to the diverse narrow, esoteric worlds inhabited by his characters, and each trip left me breathless, but would I have the stamina for a novel-length immersion in restaurant kitchens? Thought not, but in fact I was up half the night finishing Stanley Park. So go read some Timothy Taylor and thank me later for the tip. You’ll be very astonished at the places he will take you.

Now I’ve turned to a 1973 novel by Patrick Smith, Forever Island, set in the Florida Everglades and the small towns of Copeland, Imokalee and Everglades City. Since there are few roads in that part of Florida, and to spend any time there at all is to become familiar with the roads and towns, if not the mysterious Glades, I’m able to picture much of the locale described. For the rest, my mind dredges up memories of the Fakahatchee Strand and mixes with them (geographically and botanically, this is hardly legitimate, but imagination does what imagination will do) with memories of swamps and “cricks” off the Suwannee River, another wild, trackless country where alligators lurk beneath subtropical flowers.

Smith’s writing isn’t particularly subtle. He has a lot of the crusader in him, and he wears his heart on his sleeve. The character Albert Lykes, editor of the Everglades Gazette, probably comes closest to speaking the author’s heart:

He was old enough to remember what the country once looked like from Big Cypress to Lake Okeechobee when most of the area was undeveloped and was the natural watershed for Big Cypress and the Everglades. He thought of the lush tropical growths and the clear lakes and springs and the woods teeming with animals and birds. Then came the drainage canal to trap the water and carry it off to the Gulf on the west and the Atlantic on the east, stopping this natural flow that was the lifeblood for hundreds of square miles to the south; and then the dike around Lake Okeechobee so that no more water flowed south; and then more and more draining canals, more and more dikes, then the thousands and thousands of vegetable fields, each surrounded by a small dike and a drainage ditch; and when the rain came it flowed from the fields and into the drainage ditches, carrying with it the pesticides and the fertilizer, the phosphates and the overflow from thousands and thousands of septic tanks, seeping slowly into the drainage canals and poisoning the land. Great areas of the drained land became bone dry, and the marshland muck dried up layer by layer and blew away, leaving only bare limestone rock, and the muck fires raged over hundreds of thousands of acres, some burning downward for years, ruining the land as a home for the birds and the animals and the reptiles and the men who tried to live there; and then came more land developers with their concrete block houses and St. Augustine lawns, moving northward from Homestead, westward from Miami and Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, draining and building right out into the River of Grass, moving eastward from Fort Myers and Naples, and now it was coming from north of the swamp.

The question is not, as I see it, how any writer should tell any story, but how different writers tell their own stories. This is Smith’s story. He lays his cards on the table, and readers are free to draw their own conclusions, but it’s clear where he stands.
"It means more people and more jobs and more businesses and more tax money for the county and more money in circulation. It means progress."

For a moment Lykes just shook his head, then he said, "It means more drainage canals and more streets and more garbage to dump somewhere and more sewers flowing south and more animals retreating. Is that what you call progress?"

More people, therefore more canals and streets and garbage and sewers. More businesses, therefore more money. The real estate man was telling the truth as far as he saw it. He didn’t want to see the rest. Or maybe he thought the garbage and sewage and loss of habitat would be worth the financial gains. Every step forward, he might have, comes with a price tag, after all. And even Charlie Jumper’s wife, back in the swamp, wants to bring electricity back to their chickees so she can sew in the evenings and keep meat and fish in a refrigerator.

Here are two things I believe. One is that everything in life is a double-edged sword. Nothing is purely and absolutely good or bad. That doesn’t mean we stop dead in our tracks (life doesn’t allow that), but it does mean, for me, acknowledging (second thing I believe) that our lives are lived on the slippery slope and that we have to be careful where we put our feet down. And sometimes we have to dig in our heels and cling to where we are, because the alternatives are bad bargains in the long run—not just for alligators but for us, too.

David and I see some of the same qualities in Florida, but we describe them differently. I call it “very young, geologically,” while he says it seems “very old, practically prehistoric.” But you see, that’s the same. He says old because he’s looking back from today, and I say young because I’m imagining the infancy of North America. Either way, newborn or ancient, this is fragile land. And so beautiful.

The sun was beginning to set, and brilliant hues of red and orange and yellow were streaking through the clouds and downward into the hammocks, making the tops of the palms sparkle and glisten like tiny bits of rainbow. Even the somber sawgrass was changing color as the sun dropped lower into the west. There was a quietness about the marsh that made it seem not part of this world, a land and time completely unto itself.

Monday, March 2, 2009

In Like a Lion

Days are lengthening, green leaves bursting out, but when darkness arrives--out here beyond cell phone signals, where stars are bright against the black velvet sky over the Gulf of Mexico--it drops with the suddenness and finality of a stage curtain. And just when it seems that Florida winter is finally past, along comes another cold spell. Not Michigan winter, to be sure, only enough cold to suggest hot cereal for breakfast and to require coats and caps before venturing outdoors. Put away the sandals, dig out the socks again!

The last day in February was windy, and rain arrived before daylight on Sunday, the first of March. (Thinking of dry woods and scrubland and parched pastures inland, I had to welcome the much-needed rain.) Morning sounds as the lion roared in were the whoosh of wind and rain, clatter of live oak leaves, purr of furnace. Saturday was sunny, though, and a fine day for rummage sales.

I found a lovely book at our second sale, and an umbrella for a dollar was a timely purchase, given the turn in weather the next day. Then up at Howard’s Flea Market we met a bookseller who generously steered us up the road to a bookstore going out of business. Indeed, it was the last day of the Book Basket’s liquidation sale, so how could we not go? We’d already had a satisfying midday meal of blanket sausages and cherry pie à la mode, after all. Nonetheless, we drove north on Hwy. 19 and east on Homosassa Trail with mixed feelings. There is no denying the thrill of the book-hunt, wherever it leads, but we are always sad to hear of a bookstore closing, and the woman who gave us the tip had muttered gloomily about “the economy” and a rash of bookstore closings. Who wants to be a vulture picking at the carcass of someone else’s dream? All of us in the business know what it’s like to live close to the edge, surviving year by year.

Happily, the story turned out to be quite different.

“No, a lot of people assume it was the economy, but that wasn’t it at all,” bookseller Daisy Baze told us with a smile, her young son playing happily close by. “We’re expecting our second child, and I just couldn’t see bringing two little ones to work every day! The only place the economy hurt us was when we tried to sell the business. We’ve been here two years, so it’s an established business, but no one wanted to take the chance.”

Knowing that we were not looting a failed business but helping someone move from one chosen life stage to the next, we were free to enjoy ourselves, scouring the place for treasures. Helping? Oh, yes. Because closing a retail business is a whole lot more complicated than quitting a job. You don’t just turn in your keys and walk away. Daisy seemed relaxed and confident with her decision, however, coping cheerfully with customers, moving truck, phone calls and the child at her feet, and I’m glad we had the chance to meet her.

[Bookstore report so far: Of Florida bookstores we knew three years ago and looked for this year, only one has closed. We had not known about the Book Basket until its last day of business but were happy to discover that the reasons for its closing were personal rather than financial. Given the general economic climate in Florida and judging from my own very unscientific survey, bookstores in the Sunshine State seem to be doing slightly better than the general business average. At least, they aren’t doing any worse.]

Now once again I’ve been thinking about the lives of booksellers, artists, farmers, restaurateurs, vintners and others. Some would call these “lifestyles.” I resist that label, but I realize that If I thought of “lifestyle” and “way of life” as interchangeable terms, there would be nothing to resist, so now my challenge is to make clear a distinction. One starting point in my thoughts is that a “lifestyle” is something in which one can afford to indulge, while a “way of life” implies commitment, even sacrifice. I’m not interested in dictionary definitions but in what comes to mind when people hear the words. And how, if at all, does the necessary level of sacrifice relate to the seriousness of anyone pursuing one of these ways of life as a means of also making a living?

As the chilly Sunday wore on, sun and clouds played tag (clouds eventually won), temperature continued to drop, and “Lake Donnie” covered half of the narrow two-lane road that cuts across this little island, reminding us once again that Aripeka is only three feet above sea level.

Reading: I raced through Isabel Allende’s entertaining memoir, My Invented Country, turning next to Timothy Taylor’s novel, Stanley Park, and a 1946 book of interviews with writers by Robert van Gelder entitled, reasonably enough, Writers and Writing. David is reading a book by Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour.

And here's Norfleet's store as darkness falls once more over Aripeka.