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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Grand Marais; Seed Time; Mark Twain; Reading and Gender

Grand Marais, Michigan

Yes, it’s another day of potpourri rather than an extended theme, and I’ll open with the news that Grand Marais, Michigan, our favorite little town in the Upper Peninsula, is the winner of a Reader’s Digest contest in which anyone could vote, and anyone could vote any number of times. Given that latitude and the monetary incentive, little Grand Marais turned up the heat and beat the drums and managed to accumulate 1,281,724 votes--not bad for a town with a population of 350, eh? The good news is that the town will receive $40,000 for the civic project of their choice. The not-quite-as-good news is that estimated costs for needed work on the harbor run into the millions. Anyone have grant money available for a good Up North cause? Harbors of refuge are few and far between on Lake Superior. A book on Grand Marais published by Arcadia in their “Images of America” service is available at Dog Ears Books, for those who want to explore from the comfort of an easy chair until snowmobile season gives way to black fly season. GM, you know I’m teasing! You know I love you dearly!

Seeds of Dreams

Indeed, it is that time of year, the time when a northern gardener’s thoughts turn to spring and the planting of this year’s garden. It will be many weeks until the soil is clear of snow and ready to be turned, and I never plant anything “tender,” such as tomato plants, outside until Memorial Day, no matter how warm the weather in May, but gardens are made as much of faith and hope as of sweat and toil, and before the time for hard labor arrives it’s glorious to revel in seed catalogs like these gorgeous beauties!

When I take a break from the catalogs, I turn to books, and one I’m discovering for the first time this year (a “classic” in its field, I’m told by those who are way ahead of me) is Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners. General chapters begin the book: “Botanical Classifications”; “Pollination and Flower Structure”; “Maintaining Varietal Purity”; “Seed Cleaning Methods”; and “Seed Storage Techniques.” I should say, perhaps, though the subtitle already said as much, that this book is not a technical treatise for botanists but is a truly practical guide. Where in your home will you find a spot that provides “constant warmth at a specific temperature”? Ashworth suggests the top of a refrigerator, warning against trying to germinate seeds from the Solanaceae family (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers) near a gas stove or water heater, as natural gas can inhibit germination. Who would have known or guessed that? Germination rates over years of storage for different vegetable seeds is another example of a handy tip. For example, half of the onion seeds you save, if properly dried and stored, will be viable two years later.

The bulk of the pages of Seed to Seed deal not with generalities but with specifics—families and species of vegetables, the families arranged alphabetically, beginning with Amaryllidaceae, the onions, leeks and chives, and proceeding through Valerianaceae, Indian corn salad, with all your common favorites in between and a few you might never have tried before. For instance, I’m keen on attempting to grow okra this year (“Okra seeds will maintain 50% germination for five years when stored under ideal conditions”), and while I knew the plant came from West Africa, I am surprised and oddly delighted to see that it is a member of the Malvacea family, a relative of the humble and lovely old-fashioned farm hollyhock.

Supplementing my garden, whatever I end up planting and growing, will be the summer farm market in Northport, and a book to help me with new ideas for the tables will be Fast, Fresh & Green: More than 90 Delicious Recipes for Veggie Lovers, by Susie Middleton. Oh, boy, sweet potato fries!!!

Mark Twain’s Meanderings

First, my confession: I’m not a huge fan of Mark Twain. When I finally got around to reading Huckleberry Finn, I was astounded and dismayed by the last few chapters of the book and the way the whole story fell apart. It reminded me of movies where the people making them started with a good idea and then didn’t know how to wrap it up. I mentioned here in the blog a while back that David and I were reading Life on the Mississippi at bedtime. For quite a while we were thoroughly engrossed and entertained; disappointment came when the narrative (to use the word loosely) jumped a large chunk of years, skipping from the author’s days as a pilot to a later pleasure trip he made down the river with a friend. Those later chapters weren’t nearly as good as the ones that had gone before.

Now a review by Andrew Delbanco in the New York Review of Books of the new Twain autobiography (the first of three volumes came out this winter) confirms my feeling about Twain’s writing, while offering the reviewer’s positive assessment of what he calls “incoherence” in Twain’s books. Delbanco quotes from a 1895 essay by Twain, “How to Tell a Story,” in which the author admits (boasts?) that “to string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and purposeless way” is his way of going about the task. Well, that explains that, doesn’t it? (Does it?)

I was particularly struck by Twain’s complaints about writing, as opposed to talking, which was his real talent. Another passage quoting the famous story-teller was this:
“With pen in the hand,” he said, “the narrative stream is a canal: it moves slowly, smoothly, decorously, sleepily, it has no blemish except that it is all blemish. It is a little too literary, too prim, too nice.”

What would Mark Twain have to say about writing on a laptop computer, with AutoFormat and spelling and grammar checking programs second-guessing the writer at every turn, all this in addition to the neatness of typeface on a screen, which seems to shout at the writer to produce finished, blemish-free prose or poetry? On the other hand, the speed of typing on a keyboard (as evidenced by sloppy and/or fiery, spontaneous e-mails from friends who hit “Send” in the heat of emotion without saving to a “Draft” folder for later, calmer revision) would seem to bring writing closer to speech, and thus closer to the “wandering and purposeless” style, the unpolished spontaneity favored by Twain.

So here’s one question for today: Is the computer keyboard or the yellow pad and pen more likely to prime the writing pump and make a story flow?

Did Reading Change Her Life? Yours? Mine?

Going through boxes under my desk at home (same place I found the treasure box of postcards), I ran across a book loaned to me by a friend with a “Please return” Post-It note inside. The book was How Reading Changed My Life, by Anna Quindlen. It’s a very small book, and I enjoyed reading it but commented to David that I didn’t see how reading had changed the author’s life at all: She began as a reader and has remained a reader, to the extent that she prefers reading to all other activities, including travel and outdoor recreation. (Hmmm, always? I’m a book-lover but can’t go that far.) What I want to get into today, however briefly, is Quindlen’s speculation that women read differently from men, men for information and women for “connection,” and this, she thinks, explains why so many women are in book clubs, while so few men are. Do women more often than men share books with friends? Is reading more often part of a basis for friendship between women than it is constitutive of friendship between men? My own experience is that we readers, male or female, often form relationships with other readers, and these relationships often involve the sharing of books, but I don’t see the gender difference Quindlen finds. How do you see it? Sarah awaits your comments!


Deborah said...

Darling Sarah and her cute paws! What a sweetie. My personal experience is that women connect and share more through book discussions than men do. I know of many all-female book clubs (not to say they wouldn't welcome a man - that's just what they are) and only 2 male+female clubs.

P. J. Grath said...

One group I'm in is five women, another four women and three men, the third a large group with shifting participants, mostly women, one regular man, sometimes a second. In group #2, though, I don't see a lot of difference in how we share or discuss the books, and in group #1 we are as apt to read nonfiction as fiction--sometimes agriculture, sometimes economics, sometimes history or religion. When I loan or recommend books, either to male or female friends, it's based on mutual interest rather than gender. But there IS the matter of "girl" books, and starting in early reading years, girls will read "boy books" but not vice versa. Where does that leave us?

Sarah's paws are not tied up! That braided rope is her newest tug-o'-war toy.

Gerry said...

The Cowboy found the photo of Sarah in bondage worrying. Miss Sadie guffawed and dragged out the rope toy.

Mark Twain loved technology. He was so entranced with it that he lost all his money investing in the Paige compositor. I expect he'd have loved today's digital recorders and Dragan Naturally Speaking software just about to death.

I'm a huge Twain fan in spite of his many flaws. I can imagine him blogging . . . He would definitely pay for the premium video and audio embedding options!

P. J. Grath said...

Wow, Gerry, I didn't think of voice recognition software. Yes, I'm sure he would have loved it.

And can't you just see Sadie and Sarah with the rope, one on each end? Would the Cowboy worry as they played, or would he get it?

Gerry said...

The Cowboy worries about everything except minding me. That is why he is sometimes sent to bed without supper. Unaccountably, he does not seem to worry overmuch about that.

I've imagined a whole new blog. Actors who portray Personages, as Hal Holbrook portrays Mark Twain, could post mini-performances and comments could be cast as replies or arguments from the Personage's contemporaries. If it gets really, really cold and snowy I think we should work on this, PJ.

P. J. Grath said...

Gerry, have you read Van Loon’s LIVES? Here’s what a Unitarian website says about the book:
“One of his quirkiest efforts, Van Loon's Lives, 1942, was devoted to imaginary dinner parties, featuring guests ranging from Plato and Confucius to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson, and containing digressions on such topics as the author's aversion to lamb.” You can see the rest at

Van Loon’s STORY OF MANKIND was the first Newbery winner. What does the future hold for you, Gerry, with all your ideas?

Adam A said...

I'm a longtime Northport vacationer currently spending a year teaching English in Russia, where Mark Twain is very popular. Apparently Huckleberry Finn has sold more copies in Russian translation than it has in English. I think it has something to do with both countries having broad land masses spanned by mighty rivers.

I happened to bring along two Russia-related Dog Ears purchases for the trip, and I've thoroughly enjoyed both. One was Robert Massie's Peter the Great: His Life and World, which painted a fascinating and vivid picture of the boundlessly energetic tsar. The other was Tuva or Bust! -- Richard Feynman's Last Journey by Ralph Leighton, which was a little uneven but overall an entertaining look at two friends' obsession with a remote corner of Russia.

I'll likely be back in the States (and hopefully back in Dog Ears) this summer and would love to find anything else Russia-related you come across.

P. J. Grath said...

Adam, you have made my day! To think of books from my little bookshop in Northport traveling with you to Russia! Where, I wonder, in that huge, sprawling country are you? I would love to know so I could look at the map and picture the distance more accurately.

Back when I was in junior high I was fascinated by the Romanov family—later, by the Revolution. Feynman and Leighton’s dream of traveling to Tuva was my introduction to Feynman, whose searching mind remains a delight though the man himself is no more.

How interesting that Russians love Mark Twain! I will certainly be on the lookout for more Russia-related books for you. Another coincidence: I am reading this winter (with half a dozen other people) Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA.

Thank you so much for visiting and leaving a message!

Hannah said...

I too am utterly obsessed at the moment dreaming about my summer garden. My favorite "seed-porn"a is Baker Creek's catalog.

P. J. Grath said...

A really good friend recommended that as his #1 favorite, but when I looked them up online it said the 2011 catalog is already sold out. Or, not sold out, because they don't charge for it, but out of stock, all gone. I guess I can still look at the online catalog but haven't yet.

Unknown said...

We Skyped with our son Adam this morning from our little place on N. Shore Drive and he mentioned his note to you.
Here's his blog chronicling his year-long Russian adventure in Pushchino:

Ruth A.

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you, Ruth. I'll go take a look right now.

Kathy said...

Glad to hear about Grand Marais. We have never actually been there, although our son has visited. Would love to make it there on of these days!

P. J. Grath said...

Ruth, I enjoyed my visit to Adam's blog very much. Thank you for sending the name of it.

Kathy, I can't believe you've never been to Grand Marais! I suppose when you go south from the Keewanaw, you don't take a long detour along the Lake Superior shore, but you really must do it one of these days soon. GM is our "little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve." I used to be afraid to tell people about it, afraid it would be "discovered"--and ruined!--but that doesn't seem to happen. Not many people have the fortitude for a life on Lake Superior, as I'm sure you know.