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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Turning Leaves, Turning Leaves

Aspects of the fall landscape keep surprising me. Sumac, for instance, is already past its color prime (frost sweetening the berries), while other, larger trees are still primarily green. There’s a lot of variety from one maple to another, the maples by no means all on the same fall schedule—good to know, since it means lots of color still ahead. Birch leaves are going golden, poplars not yet. All the ash leaves are beautiful in their quiet, subtle way. [If you're looking for a post offering a fall color tour, see this one next.]

Last night a friend asked what I’d been reading lately, and the question overwhelmed me. So much, so much! Turning leaves so rapidly at times that they almost created a breeze! I took several books with me to the U.P. but ended up spending most of my vacation reading time with J. B. Priestley’s Lost Empires, a novel of bygone traveling “variety” stage shows. Reading it, I was almost convinced the book was a memoir. Coming home I plunged into Howard Norman’s What Is Left the Daughter, a novel set in Nova Scotia; Gregory Bates’s Tattoos on the Heart, which I highly recommend, about his work with gang kids in Los Angeles; and John Mortimer’s amusing memoir, Clinging to the Wreckage. A friend loaned me Wild Comfort, by Kathleen Dean Moore (and was shocked at how quickly I read it, although I told her sincerely that I will be re-reading it for years to come), a book about nature and grieving that seemed so important and pertinent to lives I know that I immediately ordered copies for my bookstore, and then I needed something light and easy and treated myself to another of the Botswana novels featuring the delightful Mma Ramotswe, this time The Full Cupboard of Life. Isn’t that a wonderful title?

One bit of assigned reading that I finished bare hours before the deadline (the group reading it together was coming to my bookstore for a discussion )was Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Yes, more turning leaves. A couple people in the group were unpersuaded that reading this work all at once, from start to finish, was the best way to approach it; instead, they advocated the “dipping in” method. Well, I began at the beginning and left a bookmark in place for my next session, but in another sense it was a “dipping-in” experience for me, since I set the book aside so many times to turn to others, often having four going at the same time. This is the way I usually read—a book for the bedroom, a book for the porch, a book for the bathroom, a book for the car. Doesn’t everyone? No, not everyone, but I know I’m not alone, either.

Since joining the American Booksellers Association, I have been receiving a box of advance reading copies (ARCs) of selected titles every month. Who does the selecting—or how—I have no idea. Bruce read one of the books and reviewed it for me, and subsequently a customer ordered it, but many of the titles seem to fall into the category called “chick-lit,” books neither of us would ever choose for ourselves and books I would not order for the store except by special request. From the most recent box, though, one book wouldn’t stop nagging me to read it.

All Fall Down, by Megan Hart, had the cover look of a murder mystery, but that’s not what it was at all. Told in third person throughout, the story alternates between two points of view, one that of a childless married woman nearing 40 (Liesel), the other of a 20-year-old mother of three (Sunshine). The younger woman is the daughter of the older woman’s husband (Chris), but he has never known his child or even that the child his pregnant first wife was carrying when she left him for another man was his. If this isn’t complicated enough, the younger woman lands on her father’s doorstep seeking refuge. At her mother’s insistence, she has escaped the fenced cult compound in which her entire life has been lived, and shortly after her escape everyone inside, including her mother and the fathers of her children, committed mass suicide.

The story sounds sensational, but the author’s telling of it is not overwrought or “thrilling.” The unexpected does occur in life. Unbelievable events do take place, shattering complacency and habit. Moreover, the answers to our prayers--Liesel has been wanting children before Sunshine and her brood arrive—usually do bring unanticipated consequences. Any married person who has gone through a stretch of “This isn’t working!” and come out the other side still married, as well as any parent who knows the exhaustion of dealing with children 24 hours a day, will recognize the truths in this story. Hope and faith ebb and flow. Despair visits from time to time. Then you get up and go on.

One loose end (unless I simply missed something) was the identity of Sunshine’s third child, baby Bliss. The answer to that question would not have been terribly important, as the story of her second child’s father really served only to give a general idea of how babies were conceived within the “Family,” but when I finished the book it occurred to me to wonder. But another strength of this story, aside from its realism, is the way the author portrays different ways of life and beliefs as having different good and bad features. She does not oversimplify choices or judgments, as would have been so easy to do. The characters too were believable, struggling but essentially good and capable individuals.

The chief book of my life these fall days, however, is Jerry Dennis’s The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes. I get up in the morning and check and answer my e-mail and then sit down with a fresh cup of coffee and the Dennis book, treating myself to a chapter—or, on greedy mornings, more. The chapter called “A Good Winter Storm” (and in my mind I kept changing the word so that it was “A Great Winter Storm”) gave me an appetite for the season ahead. Yes! Winter! Delicious! “Reading Nature at Pine Hollow” had me almost jumping up and down, wanting to get my reading groups together to tell them, “He’s reading Ulysses! He’s reading Whitman!”

I love the way Dennis relates books to nature:
One reason we read books is to connect with other minds and find a universality of experience. They are life-lines we throw to one another so we can pull close enough to shout our amazement at the size of the ocean.

Isn’t that wonderful? Or here—
Just as water can be made into a more interesting beverage by filtering it through grapes, nature can be altered in interesting ways by filtering it through a consciousness.

Reading nature as filtered through this author’s consciousness is certainly a pleasure. It is also, I’m sure, an experience that will deepen my direct contacts with the natural world. (For a complete review of this book, see this week's Northern Express.) My reading this morning was the chapter “Fugue and Storm,” and I will close with a line from one of those leaves but first want to mention that when the author comes to Dog Ears Books this Friday, we will also have prints by artist Glenn Wolff, who illustrated this and many other Jerry Dennis books.

And now, take this thought with you into the day, out into the world. If you go out into the world with earbuds in place, the music should be Bach.
Perhaps any experience of nature, compressed into legible form, is shaped like a fugue.


P. J. Grath said...

Stop the presses! Extra, extra, read all about it! We will not only have Glenn Wolff prints but Glenn Wolff himself, to sign and discuss the book along with author Jerry Dennis! Really, friends, could you ask for more than that? --Cake, you say? Yes, there will be cake, too.

Dawn said...

Oh absolutely nature is a fugue...what a perfect way to describe it.

Sounds like a perfect Friday too! I will be somewhere far away on Friday, wish I could be in more than one place at a time! said...

Everything I said about you on my blog is illustrated in this post: your enormous enthusiasm, your gorgeous photography, your gracious and moving words.

Coming to your site is like taking a refreshing breath.

Thank you.

P. J. Grath said...

Helen, you are too kind. Thank you--again! I am home now, 9 p.m., after a lovely evening at Dog Ears Books with author Jerry Dennis, artist Glenn Wolff and many friends who came to celebrate the new book, along with my bookstore's 18 successful years. The weather is strangely summery, moon soft, stars twinkling through gauzy wisps of cloud. I'm taking a deep breath and hearing Roger Mifflin's voice in my head: "Thank God I'm a bookseller!"

Kathy said...

I am glad you honored sumac here, Pamela. I have been admiring its rich red hues but have not paused to photograph. I am not only glad you're a bookseller, but glad you're a blogger, as well.

P. J. Grath said...

I'm glad you're a blogger, too, Kathy. It was my discovering your blog through Gerry's Torch Lake Views that first brought us together.

Sumac! Isn't it wonderful? Visitors from Kansas years ago were amazed and delighted by it. Do you know the song "When the Sumac Is On Fire"? Can't remember the artist's name, but we have the CD around here somewhere....