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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Wind-Blown Dreams

(No pictures today--I'll do that tomorrow. With any luck, all the trick-or-treaters won't be blown away in the wind or dissolved in rain, and I can add a few of them in with the book party album.)

After our wonderful book party yesterday in Northport, I was more than ready for sleep, but during the night the wind beat against the old farmhouse, and, snug under the covers, hearing it, I shivered mentally. For some reason (the wind?) I waked early, too, thinking I saw morning light on the other side of the curtains. By the time I realized it was reflected light from another room my mind was in daytime mode and took time to relax again into sleep.

Then came the dream: We were leaving the grocery store in Cedar (except that both the town and the store looked very different in my dream from the reality I know), and I’d forgotten something and had to go back in. This time I somehow found my way to the back portion of the store, the original building, rickety wood with a hard, bare dirt floor and antique farm implements hanging from rusty hooks. When the new store had been build onto the front, new living quarters had been constructed between the old and new store areas. Well, somehow the beef I’d gotten a group together to buy on shares, meat we’d all planned to package together when a neighbor did the butchering (those bits are from real life: we do have such a consortium formed) had already been packaged and was ready to be picked up, but I had nothing to put it in and would have to come back with a friend and several big tubs. Several other brief conversations interrupted this central one. I had also ordered (this is complete dream fantasy!) some fresh meat scraps for my dog, Sarah, but those weren’t ready. Then an old woman from the store family offered me a package of something that looked like jerky, saying it was a present, something special that was hard to find any more. Maybe she had made it herself. It was lighter in color and felt moister in the package than store jerky. There was someone else who introduced herself as a new neighbor. David was waiting out in the car, but I was meeting all kinds of wonderful people, all so friendly and eager to talk, that it was hard to leave. –And just as it was hard to leave the store in my dream, it is difficult now to reconstruct the wonder of the place, with all the fascinating detail present in the dream.

When dim, weak morning light really did appear in the window and I got up to take Sarah outdoors for her first sortie of the day, I found that the relentless wind had done just what I’d been hoping a big wind would do: the carpet of leaves covering the grass had been blown away! This is one thing, at least, that is made easier by living in the country. If the wind blows hard enough, no leaf-raking is necessary.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Getting Ready to Party—and to Sell Books

The old warhorse-bookseller shifts into high gear: punch bowls washed, tablecloths borrowed, she turns her attention to clearing tables and arranging for the event this afternoon. In the image above, picture author Claudia Goudschaal sitting behind the table, signing books. In the one below, picture the punch bowls full, platters of cookies on the table, and Laura Quackenbush, a friend Claudia and I share, presiding over refreshments. Our publicity in the Leelanau Enterprise was excellent, and Claudia has been such an active, involved member of the Leelanau community for so long that I’m expecting a good turnout for her today.

Other books I’ve discussed or reviewed lately are also available at Dog Ears Books, not only today but through the December holidays. These include: Isadore’s Secret, by Mardi Link (who will be signing at the Northport bookstore on Nov. 28, 4-6 p.m.); Season of Water and Ice, by Donald Lystra; Lift: A Memoir, by Rebecca K. O’Connor; Mrs. Mike, by Benedict & Nancy Freedman. There are also new ones I haven’t written about yet, such as Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation, by Sharon Astyk. For those of you (one person who calls herself Anonymous) impatient with lengthy explanation but interested in practical matters, this book of Sharon’s will be right up your alley.

And I made green tomato mincemeat last night—how will that taste in a pie, do you think? I think it will call out for a slice of cheddar on the side. I didn’t take the mincemeat’s picture as it was cooking but will take a picture of the finished pie if I remember.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Leaves, Ghost Leaves and Fungi, Town and Country

Not much to say tonight. Long walk in town, long walk through woods and orchards, followed by dog bath after Sarah failed to resist the siren call of the muddy creek. Pictures will have to suffice. The first of the "ghost leaf" images below is the most difficult to make out, but if you try hard you may see traces where leaves lay on the street for a while before blowing away. Roses and fungi will be self-explanatory. Don't forget Claudia's book party on Friday, 4-6 p.m.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Book Review: Q ROAD

It's been over three weeks since I read Q Road, a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, set along the banks of the Kalamazoo River in southwest Michigan, with the fictional action centering on October 9, 1999, and I haven't yet posted anything about it, but today is the day. The writing in this novel blew me away! It is cracklingly clear, her characters vivid, her images startling. In short, Q Road is a book for any season, as well as for readers who may never have set foot in Michigan or entertained dreams of living in the country. "Book you're an evangelist for?" Q Road, for sure.

Here is one of the main characters, tough young Rachel, solitary, determined and fierce:
She appreciated all that grew above the surface—her tomatoes and peppers, Harland’s corn shooting upward and browning for harvest—but she loved just as well the blue clay and silt from which the plants sprang, the sandy creek mud beneath the watercress, the soil itself. What she did not like was asphalt and concrete, and too many buildings clustered together. Fences too tall or difficult to climb seemed cruel. She wanted to be surrounded by farmland, swamps, meadows, and forests, and she wanted to tramp across every patch of solid earth north and east of the Kalamazoo River....

My regular readers will see instantly why I would care about and identify with Rachel, but, she is no romantic character in a pastoral-philosophical idyll.
Crazy hermit mother aside, even just growing up with a face like Rachel’s might seem to some like tough luck. ...Her close-set eyes were always a little bloodshot, and though she didn’t much like talking, she never hesitated to make the steady kind of eye contact people found disconcerting.

Whenever Rachel does talk, she curses. She curses very intentionally, believing that only if she uses foul language will others take her seriously and not back her into corners.

George, until he met Rachel, had “farmed with the mindlessness of a woolly bear crawling toward hibernation.” Rachel was 15, George decades older and divorced, to boot, when they first coupled. “Her rifle lay within her grasp, and she looked at him with no expression, through close-set, bloodshot eyes.” George had already deeded a small piece of riverfront land to Rachel’s mother, Margo, who lived by trapping on farmland along the river, but Rachel wants more. She wants to own George’s whole farm. That’s fine with George. He wants Rachel on any terms he can get. This is Michigan, but it may be a world you don't know at all.

David, the neighbor boy whose father has left and whose mother might as well have, has reasons for the things he does, though his reasons and behaviors have make sense only within his own mind’s desperate logic.
David Retakker did not steal and smoke his mother’s cigarettes as a result of peer pressure or because he thought smoking was cool; he stole and smoked them in order to scratch and burn his lungs, to toughen his inside skin until, like his hands, it would become leathery brown and strong enough to tolerate any sort of air. And if smoking made his breathing worse now, then it would surely make him stronger later, he told himself, strong enough to conquer his asthma.

David worships George, and George and Rachel both try to look out for David, and everyone in the community keeps an eye on George and Rachel, trying to figure out their unlikely “May-December marriage.”

There are other characters, among them Johnny, George’s lazy, dangerously charming brother; George’s old friend, Tom Parks, whose parents sold their farm to developers; new residents in new houses who don’t quite know how to become neighbors or even if they want to do so. There is also hay and straw to be gotten into the barn, corn and soybeans to be harvested, and there are pumpkins, other vegetables and flowers to be sold from Rachel’s roadside stand. Finally, there are the waves of woolly bears, those furry black caterpillars banded with reddish brown, ceaselessly crossing the road. Rachel is angry at the woolly bears when they get themselves killed on the road. George tries not see the little deaths.

There are many supporting characters and subplots, as well as historical flashbacks (long in history but not in the telling, never fear), but the action of the present, we soon realize, is focused on October 9, 1999, and the pace of that day increases as the story unrolls. We are taken inside cars and homes and barns to see the entire cast of characters one and two at a time, seeing as well (via an omniscient narrator) their secret angers, fears and hopes. Inexorably, the hours pass, the people act and interact and watch each other, and the reader turns the pages ever more quickly, with held-in breath, racing toward an end she does not want to reach. I was reminded of the movies “West Side Story” and “Do the Right Thing.”

I do not like to “give away” stories before others have had the chance to experience them. Still, if anyone needs further convincing, here is a passage that gives nothing away, a passage in which none of the human characters appear, a scene in which a goldfinch is killed by a cat:
Still, the goldfinch fluttered its one good wing upward, calling to the air where it had lived, to the hazy sky, which tomorrow might be clear. “Sky, pull me up,” the bird cried with its almost weightless body, but could only flap its unbroken wing, swishing to no effect. Gray Cat held the bird down, occasionally letting loose in order to circle, stretching out a paw again when the bird began to shift. Eventually the bird did not move, but only stared up at the sky, yearning, alighting in its mind the way it had alighted ten thousand times from the ground or from a thistle or from a feeder built to resemble a barn. Never before had the bird known that to desire flight was not the same as to spread wings and rise. The cat sent his claws through feathers, into nerves. The bird’s yearning thinned, along with its breath, thinned to something like a whisper of smoke, and the bird was extinguished.

Need I say more?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Reflections and Images on a Rainy Day

Still and again, rain, rain, rain. My friend Susan says there are a couple good things about all this rain: (1) it will help the lake levels; (2) it isn’t snow. And I have to admit that the air wasn’t as cold the last couple of days as what we had for a while, either. (Snow is so much more welcome than cold, spitting rain with a cruel, bone-chilling wind!) So, confident that Dog Ears Books was in good hands today with Bruce at the helm, David and I did errands in Lake Leelanau, Suttons Bay and Traverse City. All the running around and socializing (we arranged to meet a friend in town) meant I only read a page or two at a time in my current book, but David’s eye exam gave me time to explore, with Sarah, the walking path that starts behind the old stone depot in Suttons Bay and to appreciate the loveliness of autumn rain when seen in intimate closeup.

Whether edible or not (to humans), fruit is beside the point, as far as the plant is concerned, I mused. If human life on earth were to cease tomorrow, plants would go on producing fruit, each one a vehicle for seeds, the plant’s insurance policy that its kind will continue. That their infinite variety is such a pleasure for us to behold means nothing to the leaves, flowers, fruits or seeds. And yet we love them, and that love is another gift given to us.

My short walk does not qualify as any kind of adventure. (For that, look to Kathy’s quest of the Rock Cut up in the Keewanaw.) There was no danger I would get lost on the short, paved trail. And yet, it did take me out of the car and out of myself, and it brought me into contact with natural beauty close at hand but easily overlooked.

My thoughts on this short excursion began with the oh-so-human question of edibility, shifted to the plant’s point of view (metaphorically speaking), and finally stopped being thought at all, becoming all but abstract appreciation, as my eye was captivated by out-of-focus dead leaves in still water beneath a thicket of twisted vines against grey sky.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Little Stevenson

The rain is raining all around,
It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea.

Robert Louis got it right so many times, so simply and straightforwardly. Is there anything like A Child's Garden of Verse for the present young generation? I know my own childhood would have been--even my adult life would be--much poorer had my parents not introduced me to these verses. Thinking of this reminds me that I need to re-order the book, in whatever version is currently available. And there--I've often thought how much fun it would be to collect as many versions as possible, since so many illustrators have added their visions to Stevenson's verse. Perhaps that's a project for my old age (not to say "retirement," a concept well beyond my imagination).

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hush My Mouth

I spent a rainy day visiting with friends and customers, selling books and reading to the last page of one myself. Tonight, altering a few recent photos (a nonverbal task) appealed to me, so here they are. The one above is the view west from Jelinek Road. To the left is the steep downhill slope west of St. Wenceslaus Church, and below are some colorful leaves at the edge of a wooded hill near home. That’s it. Nothing profound. It was a solidly rainy day, and now it’s a sleepy evening. Nine more days until we set the clocks back....

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Good Reading Weather

More grey skies and rain, but there’s still plenty of time for more warm autumn days, and I’m counting on them. Anyway, “soft” days like yesterday (today was much colder) have a quiet, still beauty of their own.

I was late getting started this morning, after being up until all hours, and I’m blaming my late night on Mardi Link. It was her new book, Isadore’s Secret: Sin, Murder, and Confession in a Northern Michigan Town (University of Michigan Press, $22.95 paper) that kept me reading aloud to David long after we should have been sound asleep. The story of the teaching nun who disappeared from Holy Rosary in Isadore a hundred and two years ago first caught David’s attention when he talked to a woman who had been a schoolgirl there at the time Sister Janina vanished; interest piqued, he spent hours at the courthouse, reading through official court transcripts, captivated by the story. So all these years David has had a version of the missing nun mystery in his head, a version that includes memories of an eight-year-old girl. (How accurate were her memories?) Then we saw Milan Stitt’s play, The Runner Stumbles, which took literary license with the story for dramatic effect rather than sticking to the bare facts, and, all told, my picture of what happened became a messy jumble of fact, fiction, other people’s memories, and my own hazy recall of who had told me what.

Enter Mardi Link, true crime/cold case researcher. Finally, I thought, I can get the story straight! But Link’s book does much more than that. “It isn’t a novel, is it?” someone asked me today at Dog Ears Books. (Or did she ask, “It’s a novel, isn’t it?” This was after I had just sold my last copy and had to say that I was re-ordering.) No, it isn’t a novel, but it reads like one. Link says she hasn’t made anything up, that sentences put in quotation marks and attributed as speech by one person or another are only there if she found them in a documented source. All I can say is that the story flows along, pulling us with it, and we (David and I) are picturing each scene fully as we read.
By late August, the aligned stalks were thickly tasseled, grew chest high to a man, all but dwarfed the women, and the group [of searchers] walked down each row, swinging their lanterns to cut through the darkness. They looked in the vegetable garden and around the corner shadows at the edge of each of the buildings. They searched the horse shed and the chicken coop. No one found any sign of Sister Janina. Not a footprint, not a depression in the earth where she rested, not a stray fiber of her wool habit, nothing. It was as if God Himself had reached down and plucked her from them.

To read this book is not only to follow the unraveling of a mystery but also to live in a bygone world and a very foreign one, as well, a tiny pocket of Polish-speaking, Catholic immigrant farmers who kept to themselves and maintained as far as possible their Old Country customs. The cultural details help bring the story to life. We see, for example, what will be missed by a young, unmarried, pregnant girl sent downstate to have her baby:
...She would miss the Christmas Eve celebration, as well as the turon, or caroling, in observance of the Feast of the Three Kings.

She would miss the fortune-telling of New Year’s Eve, when all her unmarried girlfriends would knock on the doors of neighboring chicken coops, hoping to hear the crowing of a rooster in response. If they did, it meant they’d be married within the year. She would miss the simple act of wishing her neighbors “Bog cie stykej,” or “God’s good graces touch you.”

We learn that even married women’s pregnancies were not discussed, as talking about a baby not yet born was thought to tempt the Evil Eye and endanger the child’s life.

Isadore today is an almost deserted intersection. The brick church (not the old frame building that stood there in Sister Janina’s day) and the cemetery are still used, but the school and store and post office are no more, and many of the old houses and barns are gone, too. Picturing the little settlement with a school of over 100 students, many of them winter boarders, three to five teaching nuns, a priest, a housekeeper and a sexton in residence makes my head spin.

Isadore’s Secret is a tale of true crime and mystery. It is also historical drama and regional history. David and I left off last night on page 114, and I think I deserve some kind of medal for not going further by myself today but waiting—very impatiently!--for tonight when we will pick up the story again.

My last picture of the day shows a trio of very serious and purposeful wild turkeys making their way cross-country on Wednesday morning. Sarah couldn’t take her eyes off them. They have nothing to do with books, but I found them pretty fascinating, too. They don't look wild to me--rather, like country gentlemen taking a civilized stroll.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


In Donald Lystra’s newly released Season of Water and Ice (Northern Illinois University Press, paper, $13.95), the novel’s now-older narrator recounts events from one late fall and early winter of his youth, a season of new experiences and attendant confusion spent with his father in an isolated cabin on the shore of an inland lake in northcentral Michigan. As his father struggles against failure in the new life he has chosen for himself and his family, desperately working longer and longer hours, drinking more, and longing for the company of women after his wife’s departure for the civilized life of Chicago, Danny struggles to find his own place and answers to the questions that crowd in on him in his loneliness. How can his mother have left him and his father if she truly loves them? Will she ever come back, if his father is unable to build their dream house? What is a home, and is this cabin a home? And (more and more urgently), will some girl or woman ever find him, Danny, lovable? He also learns how to be alone in nature and to enjoy what he finds there.

The general direction of Danny’s questions is all too familiar to many of us. Close beneath the surface familiarity, however, lurks a razor edge of danger. Violence is more a threat lurking in the wings than a star player in the drama, but the possibility of violence, like the chance of snow on a cold November day, colors many of the novel’s scenes and keeps the characters’ emotions on edge. Bruises, threats, the appearance of a small pistol hidden in a suitcase: the story does not build through nonstop action to a feverish pitch but slowly glides along, jumping forward from time to time to assume an unexpected shape, like life itself.
I had never seen a man strike another man before, and I was surprised how simple it was and how fast it could happen, how it could be a thing you saw on a normal day and not something that seemed remarkable or that you had to get prepared for.

Danny’s friendship with the slightly older Amber, pregnant and unmarried, is the central relationship in the book. Amber hopes to marry her child’s father so that she will not be forced by her mother and stepfather to give the child up for adoption, but she turns to Danny for comfort and for confirmation of the validity of her plans. Danny is both attracted to Amber and afraid of intense involvement with her complicated life. His growing awareness of responsibility for the consequences of his decisions moves the story forward.

The self-awareness of the two young people and the dialogue between them sometimes feels more adult than adolescent. Reflecting on this, I don’t see it as a problem. Adolescents do, after all, try on adult behavior and mannerisms, and 1950s American culture, in general, set a higher conversational tone than more recent film and fiction. Also, it is Danny as an adult recalling the events of the past and not simply reliving them through his younger self. Finally, I must say that it was my pleasure as a reader to put myself in the hands of a skilled literary storyteller, someone who cared enough about his characters—all of them—to let them articulate their situations as clearly as possible.
"Well, I do,” she said. “Mostly I think of what’s going to become of me if Wayne doesn’t marry me. Of what’s going to become of me and my baby. How we’ll manage on our own.” She breathed out a long ragged sigh. “Sometimes it overwhelms me, and I end up doing whatever it takes to go away.”

Poet and novelist Jim Harrison often used to say that northern rural Michigan was much like the rural South, and this is the Up North depicted in Lystra’s book. This is the backwoods, out-of-season, long before summer cottages and hunting camps were replaced by second and third year-round homes. The characters in Season of Water and Ice are living on the raggedy-poor edges of their times.

This debut novel is quietly impressive. It was never obvious to me what direction the story would take next or where all the twists and turns would lead. Cold and isolation, personal and geographic, permeate the story’s atmosphere. Leaden grey skies press down and in on the characters and the reader. It is not, for all that, a “depressing” book. I was pulled in from the start and could hardly put it down. As usual, I won’t tell you how the book ends, but I will say that Danny and Amber somehow, again and again, manage to regain sufficient hope and vitality to envision happier days ahead, and it was this that kept me caring for them until the last surprising page.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Day of Few Words

These little spiders in the bathtub were only the tip of the iceberg. Bruce was at the bookstore on Monday, and a housework day was definitely overdue. But I have a dog, and dogs need outdoor exercise, and the sun was shining, so Sarah and I really had to head to the woods before anything else got in the way.

How green it still is, the forest canopy,

and on the forest floor, how many enticing miniature landscapes there are to explore, while back out in the open edge between woods and field--

a ladybug investigates the autumn-dry Queen Anne's-lace,

a deer has dropped a partially nibbled ear of field corn, after bringing it quite some distance,

and a rough Petoskey stone, far from the smoothing action of the waves, is a reminder that this entire peninsula was once lake bottom. It's also an answer to the question, "Where's the best place to find Petoskey stones?"

But no more today. Publicity and reports to write, book reviews to polish, i.e., beware of wordier postings later in the week!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Seahorses, Etcetera

Airs romped around him, nipping and eager airs. They are coming, waves. The whitemaned seahorses, champing, brightwindbridled, the steeds of Mananaan.
- James Joyce, Ulysses

In his analysis of the works of James Joyce, Mythic Worlds, Modern Words,* Joseph Campbell wrote of this passage:
I am now living by the beach, and I frequently think of this image when I look out and see the waves rolling in, the foam flying like the manes of the four seahorses pulling the chariot of Mananaan MacLir, the Irish Lord of the sea. He is a hospitable host, with a great palace under the sea where he entertains the dead who drown in his waters.

Our Ulysses study group will be meeting soon for only the second time, but already the four of us are gaining confidence as we begin to work together through this difficult but magnificent book. Ineluctably, Joyce draws us into the visible, the audible, the personally interpreted and imagined Dublin of one June day in 1904. We may be confused at times about what is going on, but we are definitely there. My reading of this book in the past has only been reading, unguided, not study, and I've loved it but only skimmed the delightful surface, so this time through, paying attention to the symbolism and history, the experience is richer by far. What a gift to the world, this book! The Irish in me can't help feeling proud.

*Actually, Campbell did not sit down and write Mythic Worlds, Modern Words; it is a collection of his articles, lectures, and answers he gave in Q/A sessions on Joyce's work, gathered together and edited by Edmund L. Epstein. The thoughts and language are, however, recognizably Campbell's.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Pumpkin Preview

Student-decorated pumpkins for tomorrow’s Fall Festival were picked up at school this morning. I got a sneak peek, so you do, too. Don’t they look like fun? The pumpkins will be on display at the Visitors Center and Depot until 4 p.m., at which time they will be for sale. Horses from Abraham’s Carriage are scheduled to arrive in town, with their wagon and driver, at 11 a.m. Saturday, so come take a ride around town! Wagon rides will end by 4 p.m. (Donations to the Chamber of Commerce and/or tips to the driver will be gratefully accepted but are by no means obligatory.) NAHA (the Northport Area Heritage Association) will have cider and donuts at the Depot, and “Mark Twain” will appear at Dog Ears Books at noon and again at 3 p.m. (15-minute performance each time). All we need now is not to have rain! Sunshine, of course, would be icing on the cake. Icing, I said, not ice! No ice! No rain! No snow!

There is also Haunted Lighthouse this weekend and the Fried Chicken Dinner at school on Sunday, whatever the weather brings. And when the weekend ends, the fun continues, with an evening of pizza and poetry at the library on Monday, 6-8 p.m. Bring a poem or two to share and a few greenbacks to donate to the kitty. Pizza and cornbread will be provided.

Finally, getting back to books, I have recently read two excellent novels set in Michigan and will be reviewing both very soon, should probably also report before too long on our tiny (four-person) Ulysses study group, and I’m getting a head start on good holiday gift books (because what better to give than a book?), but when I say “gift book” I don’t mean the category that goes by that name--the kind you read and quickly recycle--but real books, books worthy of being given to loved ones to cherish for years.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Distracted by Peterson Park

Bruce was at the bookstore yesterday, and the sun was shining, so I was inspired. Starting out from town with dog and camera, I planned to map out a color route for weekend visitors. My tour route began, naturally, with 201 through town (note to drivers: you have to get off the top of the M-22 loop to come into and through Northport), which turns into 640 up by the Bells of Christmas. From there I turned west onto Peterson Park Road, newly paved (a smooth carpet to drive!) and beautifully lined with maples in full color.

It was Peterson Park that pulled me off-task. The sun called me down on the beach, and the stones pulled me farther and farther down the shoreline.

South Fox Island (can you see it on the horizon?) kept me pinned to the waterline.

Fossil after fossil caught my eye.

I need to get out that Michigan fossil book today to see what I was seeing on the beach yesterday, but as for my private Wednesday color tour, I never did get to Christmas Cove beach, where David and I had stopped last Sunday, or to Kilcherman’s antique apple orchard and stand or past Black Sheep Crossing to Kehl Lake or out to the lighthouse. There was, after all, housework waiting for my “day off” attention. The drive did go to show, however, once again, that my own Leelanau Township “backyard” is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Lucky weekend tourists will be at leisure to do the full, beautiful, meandering circuit. There will also be Fall Festival activities in town on Saturday (see 10/13 post), Haunted Lighthouse on Saturday and Sunday, Northport Etcetera on Friday and Saturday, chicken dinner at the school on Sunday. Am I forgetting anything?