Search This Blog

Friday, October 29, 2010

Life on the Line—or Not

Warning: There is philosophy in this post.
Promise: It does get around to books and writing and fiction, so if you scroll quickly you can get past the philosophy part fast.
Plea: Give it a chance!
Hint: Thought questions posed are in boldface type. Those are what interest me the most today.

First, please imagine a line that starts out of itself. It doesn’t really—it has antecedents, of course, but we’re leaving that out of the picture. This line that starts out of itself grows longer in a very irregular manner. Sometimes it dashes ahead quickly, while at other times it is sluggish and seems almost immobile, but the appearance of immobility is only a temporary illusion. Always the line grows in length, twisting and turning unpredictably or forging straight ahead, though one can never predict what will happen next as it grows. Do you see it? Can you imagine it?

Now imagine that the line, as it grows, becomes ever bulkier in shape. No longer a simple line, it increases continuously as it grows--widening, deepening, reaching upward, growing humps and warts and bay windows and citadels, secret, hidden chambers and towers that announce themselves to the sky. Complicated, isn’t it?

Ask yourself, how would the line experience itself? As a line moving through and growing in space? Is this how you experience your life?

We generally represent life as linear, albeit it not necessarily heading always in one direction, and I’ve added the widening to account for experiences and memories and associations that we accumulate along life’s path. There: “life’s path” is a verbal image often employed. Nor would I (though others do) ever make claims about the possibility of time travel. Go backward? Through a black hole? Become ever younger? And then what—will your mother’s womb be there for you to return to, if she did not go through the black hole with you, and what of your father and his very necessary contribution to your being? No, I accept life as irreversible but still want to ask the question: Do we experience life in linear fashion?

The only way we can represent passing time at all, discovered French philosopher Henri Bergson, is by misrepresenting it, and thus the same is true for our own lives. For each of us, self is grasped immediately, by living consciousness, but can only be talked about using words, only represented in the way consciousness (for practical reasons that ensure survival) represents the material world, with sharp distinctions and symbols.
In place of an inner life whose successive stages, each unique of its kind, cannot be expressed in the fixed terms of language, we get a self which can be artificially reconstructed, and simple psychic states which can be added to and taken from one another just like the letters of the alphabet in forming words.

In this reconstruction, psychic states are “solidified,” ideas “crystallized,” and we get the appearance of permanent associations and inflexible habits, closing the door to freedom. Freedom was Bergson’s chief metaphysical concern in Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, but my concern here is much more restricted. What I’ve been thinking about more and more lately is nonlinear fiction, and I only hope that readers with an interest in fiction, impatient with philosophy, did not give up several paragraphs ago.

What was the first movie you remember seeing that did not proceed in straight chronological fashion? For me it was “Slaughterhouse 5.” Not a Vonnegut reader, then or now, I was completely lost during most of the film. Seeing it a second time, I began to make sense of the structure, but it was very unconventional for its time.

The same is true, I believe, for nonlinear novels. What is the first you read? My memory here is not as clear, and whichever was the first does not stand out for me. I can say, however, that the books I read as a child and a teenager and as a young adult all pretty much kept to a chronological pattern. Oh, yes, there were the occasional stories within stories, so that the first chapter set the stage for a narrator to go back in time, but within the bookended story chronological order was maintained. A came first, then B, then C, etc.

Between then and now the convention has been challenged so repeatedly that it has become one way to write a novel, rather than the way to construct a film, rather than the way. Even among YA novels these days, nonlinear structure is no longer daring. Do young readers take it for granted, the way we took chronological stories for granted when we were young?

“I wish it hadn’t told me on the cover that it was nonlinear,” one woman in the bookstore recently complained. “That puts me off.”

Are you put off and/or confused by nonlinear writing? Why, do you think--or why not?

There are so many different ways such writing is worked out in fiction. Sometimes there are parallel narratives, with alternating chapters going back from one to the other. Or the parallelism can be more than double, and/or each different voice might have an entire section, the narrative then returning to the “beginning” in the next section. I’ve read at least one novel that focused on one life but jumped around within that life. Then there is the business of beginning at the end and telling the story in reverse chronological order, but, like the old "backwards" days at school, when we were supposed to wear our clothes backwards, there are limits, since just as no one could put their shoes on backwards in high school, no backwards film or novel I know of has sentences coming out of characters' mouths backwards.

How does your memory work? Your memories of your own life, do they line up chronologically?

These are serious questions, so no extra points are given for quick responses.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Snowbirds Blown South by High Winds Up North

“How are things on your end of town?” Bruce Viger asked me when I stopped in to get a Tandoori chicken salad to go at the Eat Spot. I love the Halloween decorations Bruce has put up. He’s changed the name of that salad, too, by the way, and now calls it Bruce’s Favorite Salad. There’s no picture of Bruce’s Favorite because I fell upon it ravenously as soon as I got back to Dog Ears Books, saving only one tiny shred for Sarah. She counts on me to share. She loves to share. But I digress.

How to characterize these painfully quiet bookstore days, now that the trees have been stripped of their colorful leaves? “Tranquil,” I finally answered.

In the course of our ensuing brief conversation, Bruce made an interesting statement, which is that Northport’s population is becoming increasingly seasonal. “More and more” was the way he put it. “More and more?” I asked.

“Sure. Think about it. Look at all the houses being operated as vacation rentals that used to be lived in year-round.” I hadn’t thought about it, but he’s right.

“And then,” I said, strengthening his case for him, “there are all the people who think of themselves as ‘year-round’ but spend half the year traveling elsewhere, if you added up all the days they’re gone.”

I took the conversation back to the bookstore to share with David, whose first question was how I saw Northport’s increasing seasonality affecting my business. Well, I don’t. It’s been three years since I tried staying open all winter, and that was not the only year of the doomed experiment but was definitely the last. My business will always be seasonal—I finally, reluctantly accepted the fact, after banging my head against the wall for several years--and keeping it viable at all necessitates closing January through March. “Know when to walk away/know when to run.”

But I won’t be walking or running very far before January. Until then, there are surprises here on Waukazoo Street every day, both for me and for my customers. Right now I’m reading a book by South African writer Njabulo Ndebele called Fools and Other Stories. I’ve also started a new YA novel from Canada, The Kulak’s Daughter, by Gabriele Goldstone, a book that recently received a Silver Medal from Canada’s Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards. Ken Scott was in recently and signed a couple copies of Up North in Michigan, and I have four signed copies of A Good High Place, by L. E. Kimball, also, thanks to another recent visit.

My quiet winter days of fiction writing and pencil drawing are still three months off, but these quiet late fall days already offer more reading time, and if I knuckle down to work I should get more serious book reviews written before it’s time to put up the Christmas tree. Maybe a bit of philosophical rambling, too. It’s an ill wind that blows no one good, or so they say.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I'm Blaming It on the Wind

It must be the wind's fault. Like the nerve-fraying mistral in the south of France, this peculiar, tornado-strength wind feels all wrong, and others besides me are as edgy as cats on hot tin roofs. We're none of us complete morons, we weren't born yesterday, and we don't mean to rub each other the wrong way, implying, in our casual remarks, one another's ignorance, incompetence or willful thick-headedness. No, we are really individuals of goodwill who want to live in a community of respect. We just need to get through this windy patch.

I tried to upload a video of wind-blown corn but had no success. Instead I'll direct you over to my other blog to see how beautiful one of our neighborhood orchards looked before the wind reached full strength.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Living and Reading at October’s Tempo

“Rain-wrapped tornado” was a new one on me. That’s what the weather people were talking about today, with warnings for several Michigan counties. Not ours. We had only high winds. Very high winds.

Trees that aren’t yet bare soon will be if these winds keep up long, but please note that while the foliage deserts (or is torn from) the branches, the trees are already prepared for next year with fine, fat buds.

I find that reassuring.

Yes, our mild days are over, it seems, and the wild days are here. Grey clouds scud, yellow leaves are driven through the air, and the wild turkeys seem to sense that it’s the time of year to be very wary of human beings. When I stopped to photograph this small group, they didn’t lose a moment thinking the situation over but hurried back toward the garden statue of Mary, conveniently distant from the road.

Our small, intrepid human band, the reading support group who tackled last year James Joyce’s Ulysses, decided this fall to read three plays. It’s been very worthwhile and enjoyable, but already we have arrived at our third, Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett. The season has passed too quickly! Estragon and Vladimir struggled to fill time. The days of their pointless existences hung heavy on their hands. Time dragged horribly for them. How old are Didi and Gogo in the play? Isn't it usually the young who make such complaints? "There's nothing to do around here!" Whereupon the parent offers to give the child something to do, and the wise child quickly exits the stage for the freedom of nature and/or solitude.

Can you say “neglected modern classics”? Which ones have you neglected? Recently I decided it was time for me to read James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. Here’s a little bit of what the High Lama promises Conway in Shangri-la:
The years will come and go, and you will pass from fleshly enjoyments into austerer but no less satisfying realms; you may lose your keenness of muscle and appetite, but there will be gain to match your loss; you will achieve calmness and profundity, ripeness and wisdom, and the clear enchantment of memory. And, most precious of all, you will have Time—that rare and lovely gift that your Western countries have lost the more they have pursued it. Think for a moment. You will have time to read—never again will you skim pages to save minutes, or avoid some study lest it prove too engrossing.

Tempting dream! One of Sharon Astyk’s recent blog posts had put Henri Bergson into my thoughts again. (Indeed, he is never far from me, and his birthday was this month, too.) What a surprise, looking up Bergson in Samuel Enoch Stumpf’s Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy (I was also looking up Heidegger, to connect some of his ideas to the Beckett play), to find a portrait that seemed almost to match one of the illustrations in my copy of Lost Horizon—not at all inappropriate, given the connecting theme of time.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


This is a view from the Leelanau County side of Grand Traverse Bay looking east to the Antrim County side. You can ignore little Gull island today. It's the far view horizon where the story is set.

A hundred years ago, the last leg of a journey to a northern Michigan resort might well by accomplished by water. Leland would be approached by way of Lake Leelanau from Perrins Landing, Northport and Omena via Grand Traverse Bay from Traverse City, and Alden (then Spencer’s Creek), Eastport and Bellaire through the “chain of lakes.” So now, come back with me to 1911, where Luella, the first narrator of L. E. Kimball’s A Good High Place, is practicing fly-casting from the deck of her father’s passenger/light-freight steamer, the Mabel, a boat that runs the inland waterway from Elk Rapids up to Eastport through the Torch River and Torch Lake.
I tie on a piece of red yarn instead of a fly, pull out several feet of line with my right hand, and shake the tip of the bamboo rod until the line works its way to the end. Then, holding the rod at twelve o’clock, I lower my arm quickly and smoothly until the rod stops at nine o’clock and the red yarn shoots out ahead of me in a neat roll cast. I strip more line and recast, this time bringing the rod slightly out to the side and back to one o’clock, holding it until the line floats up behind me. Then I bring my arm down to ten o’clock. A pretty fair back cast, which by now has worked the line out a good forty feet. I cast the way I live: not without finesse but with a tendency to overreach, cast too much line to handle.

There are three main characters in A Good High Place, as well as at least three other pretty important ones. Luella begins the story in 1962, having just returned to Elk Rapids, the scene of her childhood, at age 63, and her narrative, in the way minds and memories work, dips back and forth between past and present. Kachina and Keane both appear in Luella’s version of the past, but in the second part of the book we meet Kachina, a Native American woman, in her own life.
She stands, stretches up to her full height of almost five feet, reaches her hands up higher yet and runs them across the oak beam that spans the length of the small log room. She has never wanted more than the one room. Not because she objects to convenience or is disdainful of creature comforts. She objects to the space things manage to displace inside her head, leaving no room for her thoughts. Besides, the roof obstructs her view of the sky, and a bigger roof would simply obstruct more of it.

It is through Kachina’s eyes that we encounter the Northern Michigan Asylum in Traverse City and unexpected aspects of Keane’s character.

Finally there is Keane himself, the man whose youthful animal vitality drew both Luella and Kachina to him in their different ways and kept all three connected decades later. In the early years Keane was sometimes Luella’s fishing partner, while later in life he built Kachina’s cabin.
The river taught me something, he says. Taught me I can stand and fight the current, or I can lift my feet and float on downstream. His hand floats out over the stream like I pictured his body doing. He keeps talking. There are times when you have to do one thing and times when you need to do the other.

Throughout the novel, fly-fishing serves as a metaphor for life, as in "Another point about fishing: you can’t always see them. The fish. And that doesn’t mean they aren’t there." Who else is there, still part of the story, but no longer visible in the landscape? Luella’s mother and baby Emily? Luella father, Cap, and her Uncle George are still alive but each, in his own way, as elusive as trout in a stream.

And yet, I don’t think it’s only the fishing or the northern Michigan location or even the combination of the two that reminds me of the best of Jim Harrison’s fiction. The comparison didn’t occur to me at all the first time I read A Good High Place, but my second reading has been different, and I keep wondering what, if not northern Michigan, if not fly-fishing, keeps reminding me of Harrison as I read Kimball’s lucid prose. There are the literary allusions, for one thing. But there is also a certain way this author connects with the characters her own mind has created and put down on paper, characters who now have their own complex reality. A Good High Place has the “moral ambiguity” Don Lystra referred to in a recent e-mail to me, that sense that right and wrong are rarely black and white in situations we confront when growing up and in everyday adult life, so that a novel that presents unalloyed heroes and villains misrepresents life. This author also has a deep, writerly appreciation for the past, in which each of us continues to live even as we move through the present, that present increasingly dense with memories and associations.

There is a lyrical quality to this writing, and there is truth that transcends whatever historical facts the author has used or invented. One truth that particularly impressed me is the presentation of friendship as something complex, mysterious, complicated and at times downright uncomfortable and bothersome. There is no shortcut to a long relationship, whether a long marriage or a long friendship. At the beginning of a relationship, those who will become friends sometimes have to overcome initial antipathy toward one another, and along the way, as each one experiences and perceives a different subjective world, there will be further opportunities for misunderstanding and hard feelings. Yet at the same time, beneath the storms, bonds once forged--in whatever curious manner they are forged--will build their own history over time, and this history of intimate relationships growing up inside a larger community and world history is part of the genius of L. E. Kimball’s fiction writing.

I was fortunate enough to have a visit with Lynn Kimball last Friday at Dog Ears Books, where one of our topics of conversation was all the complicated ways readers come to any writing by white authors portraying characters from other ethnic groups. I admitted to Lynn that when I feel a Native American character is put into a book simply to provide "local color," it bothers me. I see it as Indians being used all over again for their own purposes by white culture, and my wariness about this sometimes prevents me from entering fully into a work of fiction. Kimball's reasoning for including Native Americans in her story is simpler: "They were there." The historical period in which her story is set would not be accurate without them. Also, we agreed that characters in a novel are not intended by their author and should not be taken by readers as ethnic representatives. Each character in a good novel (and this is a very good novel) is an individual, and within any cultural or ethnic group, within any historical period or community, there will be differences across individuals. My initial wariness, which I must admit is a personal prejudice, melted away on my second reading of this book, and I entered fully into Kimball's created world and her characters' lives. I hope to be able to persuade many Dog Ears Books customers to do the same.

So now, is it too much to say now, after reading and re-reading both Kimball’s A Good High Place and Lystra’s Season of Water and Ice, that I am high on Switchgrass Books? Top-quality writing, focus on the Midwest, offered in attractive binding with beautiful covers at very reasonable prices ($13.95 is a howling bargain for this kind of package): this is a bookseller's dream.

The Light and Dark of Scenery and Fiction

Everything is subtle as we dip into late October. The sun does not rise with a shout but with a sigh.

Country scenery is far from monochromatic, but the quilt is quieter, somewhat faded.

I was thinking this morning about fiction and about a difference I notice between novels and short stories in the last decade--besides length, I mean. Short stories, in general, tend to be darker, bleaker, grimmer, while novels, very serious and even tragic ones, even by authors who also write short fiction, don't often maintain the dark tone throughout that is found in so many recent short story collections. Writers of short stories are frustrated because publishers and the marketplace favor novels over shorter fiction, and many explanations have been put forth, but I can't help wondering if the view of life presented, in general, in so many short stories doesn't contribute to the difficulty they have finding buyers.

Which road to take? Bravely into the dark? Lightly into the light? Down through the shadowy valley, then up toward the light? Straight or twisting and turning? Which road to take? Always a question, in any life, in any endeavor. What does it mean to choose one road rather than another?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem (Huh?)

Okay, I have to take the translation on trust, but my source tells me the phrase I've used for my title today, a Czech proverb, means “You live a new life for every new language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once.”

Since the bilingual book I’m featuring this week (see sidebar to right) is by an artist fluent in English and Czech, the quotation seems doubly appropriate, though Ladislav’s book is in English and Anishinaabemowin (which he is now in the process of learning), rather than English and Czech, which got me to thinking that a second language doesn’t have to be “foreign,” if we take that to mean “from another country." A second language can be native to this land of ours, like Anishinaabemowin. It can also be American Sign Language (ASL), not a spoken language at all.

It's interesting to me to hear (or read) the reasons other people give for learning languages beyond their first. I chose to study French because my father had learned it in high school, had been in France, and because he loved the country and the language. My sisters and I grew up being commanded, "Fermez la porte!" etc. (I suppose this could have worked against my wanting to learn French, but it didn't, and I'm glad.) At one time, when much younger, I had a long list of languages I wanted to learn, including Greek, Hebrew, Russian and Chinese, and then I finally realized, to my chagrin, that none of those used the alphabet with which I was familiar. Hmmm.

I took a beginning class in American Sign Language while a graduate student in philosophy. "Why?" my advisor asked. "Because it seems philosophically relevant." "Everything is philosophically relevant!" Et alors? One of the difficulties with maintaining any kind of fluency in ASL is that you can't keep it by reading in it, the way you can with French, and no one in my life is an ASL user, so it transpired that I took a "beginning" class at three different points in my life and could use another one now. Even some of the letters of the alphabet are deserting me.

A question I've never been able to answer concerns the philosophy of Henri Bergson, whose only daughter was both deaf and a painter. Did she use sign? (American Sign Language is closer to French Sign than it is to English Sign, due to its history, but that's another topic.) I wonder because of Bergson's thesis that all our thinking about time is spatial, that is, that we spatialize time, if you will, and that this thinking leads to unsolvable paradoxes. Oliver Sachs makes the point that sign spatializes grammar, including tense (time). All this, for me, strengthens Mark Johnson's claim that language is irreducibly metaphorical. Try to conceptualize time without space, and you see the difficulty immediately. Space-time may make sense to physicists, but it is not a phenomenon of human experience.

Have I gone too far? Shall we return to our sheep? How about to our dogs? They don't bother their minds with questions of this sort at all, and they seem to understand us no matter what kind of noises we make or even if we make no noises at all.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

If My Life Had Been Different

Sometimes I like to make this pronouncement: “I would have been a good Canadian,” following which my resident devil’s advocate likes to say, “What do you mean by that? How would you have made a good Canadian?” I tell him I would have obeyed the law of the land and worked hard to make an honest living. If I were a Canadian, I would continue my lifelong education, vote in Canadian elections, recycle religiously and be as kind as I could be to those around me.

“So how is that different from being a good American?” the devil’s advocate asks. In my book, it isn’t different at all. That’s really my point.

Since this is the season when maple leaves command our attention, anyway, I was more than delighted yesterday to find Manning’s Maple Leaf Creme cookies at NJ’s grocery store in Lake Leelanau. There was Red Rose tea, also, and these homey little things reminded me of our last vacation on Manitoulin Island with our old dog, Nikki, so I had cookies and memories last night with my after-dinner tea.

The daughter of a friend of ours has co-written a couple of humorous little books about Canada. So You Want to Be Canadian, by Kerry Colburn and Rob Sorensen, is an introduction to Canadian culture for Americans, while The U.S. of Eh? offers evidence for the tongue-in-cheek claim that Canada has created and continues to control 70% of American culture. Have you been “Canucked”? These books may surprise you with their answer.

What’s the weather on Manitoulin Island these days? Up in Wawa? Over in Montreal? Okay, eh, I couldn’t resist going back into this post and adding links to these favorite Canadian places named. Check them out! Some of my beloved Up North places are close to home. Others are over the border.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Some Corners of My Colorful World

Are we past peak color? I suppose you'd have to say so, and with the wind blowing fiercely around the old farmhouse right now--and a windy night in store--I imagine there will be far fewer colorful trees tomorrow. Still, everywhere I looked yesterday and today I found my world blazing brightly, especially in the low, raking light of early morning or late afternoon.

Some scenes naturally arranged themselves horizontally,

while others, vertical, reached for the sky.

There were even surprising pockets filled with what looked like summer colors. (That Deb K. in Northport is quite a gardener.)

And then there is always the bookstore! Lots of color there!

Here's a Jim Harrison cover perfectly suited to the season at hand.

Old pulp fiction is colorful in a different way. Perhaps a better word is lurid. (Isn't that a great word?)

Yes, I find color everywhere in my Up North world, outdoors and indoors. And by the way, I have more fall photos on my other blog, which I'm sad to admit is not getting much viewing, so go on over if you have a minute to spare. Like this one, it's free, and the images there could use a little company to cheer them up. :)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Come With Me on a Personal Leelanau Fall Color Tour

After breakfast on Sunday morning, David proposed a color tour. His oldest daughter, her husband and I promptly acquiesced. Our direction was south, our destination a particular area of Sleeping Bear that is dear to our hearts. We went “the Cedar way,” inland by way of Lake Leelanau, Cedar and Maple City.

Getting close, Bohemian Road (C.R. 669) took us to Lake Michigan Road, which parallels the lakeshore, where driver and passengers were all pleased to find that the road surface was not as completely washboard-y as it sometimes can be. And Shalda Creek is always lovely.

Then we turn onto the best-beloved two-track that used to be the driveway to David’s “house in the woods,” back before the Lakeshore came in. At the time he was upset, but now we are all happy to have this as public land, rather than being full of condos and closed off to us with big gates.

This tree has always been glorious, in every season--

Other trees have grown up over the years.

As it always did, the way leads eventually into the more subdued, dappled light of the woods.

There is color and light high above our heads. There is color at our feet. Some trees tower. Others, like the modest striped, or green, maple, are more our size. (This little tree always makes me think of my friend Kathie, who loves Acer serotina, sometimes called "moose maple" in the Far North.)

The old Indian marker tree, like those in Ladislav Hanka’s beautiful new book, points back to the meadow, so we can’t get turned around. Anyway, this is old home ground.

Not only for David but for all of us, it was good to revisit this spot and its memories and hear again the old stories, but there are many, many beautiful trails and sites in Sleeping Bear, from Port Oneida down into Benzie County. Which is your favorite?