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Monday, October 29, 2012

Sheer Joy: The Life of Words

Poor Descartes really wrote on the problems of poets: word sense and word sound, math and mechanics, the mind and its body, can they touch? And how, pray God, can they resemble? In the act of love, as in all the arts, the soul should be felt by the tongue and the fingers, felt in the skin.        William Gass, “The Medium of Fiction”
 In Fiction and the Figures of Life, which contains the essay that holds the lines quoted above, the author makes over and over the point that fiction creates its own world, out of nothing but words. It is not a reflection or representation of reality but an addition to reality, as is all art. Another point he makes is that philosophy creates worlds, too. So poetry? Surely! And drama, of course.

Those who came to Dog Ears Books on Saturday afternoon were invited into the world of Teresa Scollon’s poetry, and the invitation was impossible to resist. More than once we were moved to tears—or laughter.

What I’ll say next is peripheral to Scollon’s poems on the page: it’s about her reading of them. Her spoken voice in the room is very like her written poetry, and so it is perfectly suited to her work. Just as these very carefully wrought, polished, moving poems spring from the poet’s unique vision of very ordinary, everyday situations and occurrences, so too her delivery is direct, understated, personal, and completely unpretentious. Is this wisdom she has achieved, or is it simply her essential self? The power is in the work. It does not need to be declaimed and would be badly served by a trance-like voice and presentation, by a reader mounting an invisible pulpit. Here is how the poem called “Autobiography: Falling” quietly begins:

How a bird falls 
from a height 
from a great height 
says something about 

The bird lets itself drop 
and its dropping 
is curiously 

The word plummet 
has a place where 
for a moment 
the mouth holds 
a plum. 
For only a moment. 
The roundness 
of it is how 
a bird falls.
The poem's story grows and goes on from there, and the way Scollon reads, calmly and softly, trusting her listeners as she trusts her own voice, her audience is with her from the beginning and stays with her to the end. In fact, I thought they would never let her leave! It was a marvelous discussion, along with a beautiful reading. What a gift on a bleak, chilly, late fall afternoon! She was delightful!

Last night I finished reading Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. I’d been carrying the book around for a couple of days, stealing moments in its world, and last night I reached the section near the end, with the storm threatening the Everglades, and then Lake Okeechobee blown out of its banks:
As soon as Tea Cake went out pushing wind in front of him, he saw that the wind and water had given life to lots of things that folks think of as dead and given death to so much that had been living things.
Belatedly, Tea Cake and Janie set out to try to outrun the storm. While I was reading (and even now today), another “storm of the century” is threatening the Eastern section of the country in our real-life world. Even without that reality in the background, Hurston’s literary descriptions of the storm in her created world are horrific, hardly joyful, and there is more sadness to come in the wake of the storm. Yet, Janie had found joy with Tea Cake, and I cannot help rejoicing with her over that.

If we are to believe William Gass, Janie’s world is one that none of Hurston’s readers, black or white, have known first-hand: only in the created world of the novel do we meet Janie and Tea Cake and all the other characters. This I believe. And yet, isn’t it also true that some people know people like these characters? And that some who know them are sympathetic and caring, while others stand coldly as far away as possible? To enter the novel’s world, it is necessary to stand close--to stand in the place of Janie and to see her world through her eyes. It is for this reason that, in my more hopeful hours, I see fiction as having the capacity to enlarge our hearts and for real human connections and sympathy. 

Can you feel with a character? Do you find that it helps you feel with real human beings--or is the fiction merely an escape from the real world? How is it with you?

It amazes me that I had not read Zora Neale Hurston's novel before, but I am so happy to have read it now. The joy of words is in me today.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Autumn Restlessness

Sun clears top of woods on Thursday morning

Picking up books at random and slowly turning pages and reading a few lines here and there, I often come upon thoughts and ideas it would never have occurred to me to search out, either in print or online. It’s pure serendipity. Similarly, I remember happening upon many unexpected treasures in the old days of the physical card catalog at my public library. And then, in graduate school, there was the excitement of roaming the stacks!

On what may have been the last of our summer-like autumn days this year, I paced restlessly in my empty bookstore, envying people at home raking leaves or those driving the roads, going--going anywhere! I wanted to be out in the woods, down on the beach, on a road—heading north, south, east, or west, but moving!

Canada geese are on the move. Every morning flocks take to the air from their overnight resting places and honk and wing overhead in southward Vs and strings. Fishery-hatched salmon, obedient to blind instinct, thrash their way up streams they never came down as young fish. Retirees are closing up their Michigan homes and packing for winters in Florida or Arizona or California or Mexico.

Our human ancestors did not live in settled communities until they started gardening and farming, and peoples who do not live by agriculture and industry still today move with the seasons. They move livestock herds according to pasture, follow the rains. They follow game or whatever. Just as “to every thing there is a season,” for many dwellers on earth, “to every season there is a place.”

When I am restless in spring and longing for the open road, it is Chaucer’s words in the Prologue to his Canterbury Tales come to my mind. In autumn, it is a chapter from Wind in the Willows, “Wayfarers All.”

The sun shone. The wind blew. With the bookstore open and leaves blowing in from the sidewalk, I paced like the old timber wolf years ago in the zoo in Traverse City. What name to give this feeling?

The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds, a truly lovely book by Julie Zickefoose, contains many stories of birds the author has known over the years. My eye is most drawn to the quick pencil sketches in this book. I looked at finished watercolor paintings, too, and read bits of stories, but I was still, you see, too restless to sit with the book and start at the beginning. It wasn’t that kind of day. And then I came upon the following gem: Zugunruhe, migratory restlessness! That’s it!

Poet Teresa Scollon comes on Saturday!
My nomadic ancestors are having a genetic effect on my spirit. The gypsy in my soul tugs at the farmer in my soul. We are all tethered in place this autumn, but we feel the tug. Luckily, we have poetry for comfort.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

And Then, a New Day Dawned

I'd been up for three hours and outdoors for one before the sun came up over the eastern woods. What a gorgeous morning!

Sarah does not need to hear twice the question, "Do you want to go for a walk?" The girl is ready!

The wind had been up before us and working hard, stripping maples of their colorful leaves and and leaving them to stand naked in the new day's light.

Pockets of color, however, remain--popples, sumac, and dogwood here. Also, the gaily tinted autumn cherry orchard and--the best--beneath a giant, bare-limbed ash tree, new shoots of triumphant beech where the old patriarch fell a few winters back. 

Beeches, like oaks, hold tightly to their leaves, sometimes right through the winter. Leaves that are buttery-toasty now in October will fade and thin to dry, rattly parchment by January, but they will provide scraps of color, however pale, in winter's otherwise monochromatic woodland scenery.

At last we turned toward home. Sarah and I have been wearing a new shortcut path to our yard, and it's coming along quite well. I'm in hopes it will be discernible through snow for at least part of the winter. But for now, in late October, what a morning! It was gloriously bright and warm and windy and exciting morning outdoors, the best possible prelude to another bookstore day in Northport in quiet autumn. 

I was crabby yesterday. I admit it. Still October on the calendar, it was "a damp, drizzly November in my soul." Some days are just like that. But weathers of the soul, like the earth's weathers, are only passing surface events. The core is something else.  
...[E]ven so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets or unwaning woe revolve around me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy. 
- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
And sometimes the surface is joyous, too. Doesn't Sarah look contented? She does not turn up her nose at fleeting pleasure!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why Do I Bother?

It's been a spectacular fall

Why do I bother blogging? It takes a lot of time and energy to put together a halfway decent post, whether or not photographs are included, and without an editor or proof-reader I’m always sticking my neck out even further. My handful of readers, for all I know, may shake their heads in wonderment at typos and infelicitous turns of expression, not to mention the high horses I sometimes mount and ride to a lather. “Why does she bother?” they may be asking themselves, and sometimes I ask myself the same question. It isn’t as if I have thousands or even hundreds of readers a day. Between one and two hundred is more like it. And they are not all reading the most recent post, either. No, it isn’t “consumer demand” that keeps me going.

For that matter, why do I persevere in maintaining an independent bookstore in a small village at the end of a northern Michigan peninsula? Our town has a library. There’s a post office, too, where residents can pick up books and everything else they order by mail from online sellers who don’t have my bricks-and-mortar overhead but do have worldwide name recognition. How many people find their way into Dog Ears Books in Northport on any given weekday in late fall? And how many of those who drop in are open to the treasures on offer?

New middle-grade vampire series!
For the last two years, I have waged exhausting war on invasive autumn olive on the land around my house and barns. Why? There is no quick and easy way to eradicate this pest, and there is no way to insure that it will not return. In fact, it is certain to return. Across the highway from our driveway is a corner so thoroughly infested that it has become impenetrable, and every plant has berries, and every berry eaten by a bird contains a seed that will be dropped somewhere else. Down by the Happy Hour, three fields were cleared of autumn olive. Neighbors on the hill above us made the effort. It’s either very expensive or (for someone like me who can’t afford the expense) very laborious and time-consuming to address this issue, and many, by default, make a different choice, but if everyone in Leelanau County were to make an all-out effort against autumn olive, that effort would still have to continue into the future year after year.

Why do I bother? This is who I am. These are some of the things I do. Here I stand. What else can I say?

Don't forget Teresa Scollon's reading and discussion and book signing this coming Saturday, 3 p.m. at 106 Waukazoo. Author visits are one of the best parts of my bookstore life, and I'm eager to share them with you!

Asters and native grasses in meadow

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Time Out for a Word Rant

"I say so strange a dreaminess did there then reign all over the ship and all over the sea, only broken by the intermittent dull sound of the sword, that it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates." – Hermann Melville, MOBY-DICK OR, THE WHALE.

There’s something that’s been eating away at me, and I can’t keep quiet any longer. My fellow Americans, if you among those guilty of this error, I’d like to shake you awake right now! You are driving me crazy! Never fear, this has nothing to do with politics. 

Let’s start with a quiz, if you don't mind. No one will know how you answer, so you risk nothing. In the following sentences, a form of which word belongs in the blank space: ‘rein’ or ‘reign’? Note that ‘reign’ and ‘rein’ both have verb and noun forms.

  • The morning following a big storm, a majestic calm often _____ . 
  • For the morning writing exercise, the professor always gave her students free _____.
  •  At the public meeting, several speakers had to be asked to _____ in their impulsive speech.
  •  The dictator’s _____ of terror lasted five years. He then handed over the _____ of power to his oldest son.
  •  With the lightest touch on the _____, the third rider into the ring controlled her horse perfectly, and that team of horse and rider ultimately _____ supreme in the dressage competition.

If you find these two words confusing but grammar in general interesting, bear in mind that the verb ‘to rein’ is transitive, while ‘to reign’ is intransitive. For those not keen on grammar, what does this mean? Look at other verbs. ‘To throw’ is transitive; it takes an object. The dog’s owner threw the ball [object] for the dog to retrieve. To stand is intransitive and does not take an object. She remained outdoors for hours in the rain. It makes sense to ask, “She threw what object?” It doesn’t make sense to ask, “She remained what object?” She remained. The verbal buck stops there. Or He stood. Intransitive. But then there’s She stood their hectoring as long as she could, which is transitive, but that’s a different verb, though it looks the same. –Oh, all right, maybe transitive/intransitive won’t be much help here.... 

Think, then, of the famous Hallelujah Chorus: “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” “And He shall reign forever and ever.” (One online site I wish I hadn’t seen gave this as “He shall rain”—NO, NO, NO! Gods and humans do not rain. Only rain rains! Are we really confused about ‘rain,’ too? I find that hard to believe. I don’t want to believe it. Please, let it not be true!) If ‘reign’ is really the word you want, then it’s the word you want, but stop to think and be sure. “He handed over the reigns”? NO, NO, NO! Rein in—that is, hold back—that fevered rush to error!

To figure out which word you want, it helps most to know where each comes from. Think of regal, regency, regalia—all this pomp and circumstance has to do with kings and queens and courts. See the ‘g’ in all the words? On the other hand, there are horses, animals domesticated to our use, controlled with bits in their mouths and reins leading from those bits to the hands of a rider or driver. Give the reins a twitch, and the horse’s mouth feels it, and the trained horse responds. So in the sentence you are writing, which sense applies? If you are using the word as a metaphor, is your guiding image one of a ruler or an animal being controlled? Wordsmith Michael Sheehan gave readers of a brief Facebook exchange the following Latin origins: 'Reign' goes back to regnum, the office or power of a king, while the Latin verb retinere, from which comes 'rein,' means to curb or restrain.

What is our problem, Americans, with all the confusion over these two words?

The United States rejected monarchy from the start. No one reigns over the American people, and early Americans were very clear on that point! It meant a lot to them. For our first century, also, we were predominantly a horse culture, and every American knew that reining meant controlling. Today, in the 21st century, both monarchs and horses have faded from general cultural consciousness, and a people with little feeling for matters royal or equestrian find themselves using old words out of historical context. For some reason—and I’d be interested in any speculations on why this might be so; because it is fancier???—the spelling related to royalty is the one almost always used these days, while that related to horses, which is often what the writer really wants but doesn’t know it, almost never appears. The problem is that the two meanings are very different.

When I posted my original (much shorter) rant on Facebook, asking friends for their understanding of these two words, several responded, and all my literate friends got it right, I'm happy to report, but my favorite response came from Sylvia Merz, librarian at the Leland Township Library, because her explanation was so delightfully succinct. (That is, she doesn’t go on and on and on the way I do.) Here is the way she distinguishes the two verbs:

“‘Reign’ is to rule; ‘rein’ is to control.”

Thank you, Sylvia, and my other clear-thinking friends! But are we fighting a losing battle? Is the day at hand when a single word will contain both meanings and thus makes no etymological sense at all? I give the last word today to someone I’ve never met:

The spelling “reign” in this expression is an example of the triumph of folk etymology over origin. The expression to give free rein to is figurative. It means to give a person freedom to act on his own authority. It derives from an equestrian term:
 free rein – a rein held loosely to allow a horse free motion; the freedom that this gives a horse. (OED)
 The word rein derives from a word meaning “a bond, check” from a verb meaning “to hold back. It’s related to retain. The word reign derives from a Latin word for kingship. To reign means to exercise the power of a king. The sense of this “reign” has become conflated with the expression “to give free rein to.”
The confusion has become so complete that it’s beyond correction.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Eye of the Whale

As before, the Pequod steeply leaned over towards the sperm whale’s head, now, by the counterpoise of both heads, she regained her even keel; though sorely strained, you may well believe. So, when on one side you hoist in Locke’s head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant’s and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! Throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right. – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Chapter 73: “Stubb and Flask kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk over Him”
Their talk was of the devil. Stubb, the Pequod’s second mate, called a “dog” by Captain Ahab early in the story, is convinced that one of the strange men who only appeared on board long after the ship was at sea is, in fact, the devil, the immortal devil, on board to win Ahab’s soul in return for the capture of the white whale. But it is not this talk of the devil that I want to relate to John Locke and Immanuel Kant, giants of Western philosophy, but Ishmael’s lecture to readers in the following chapter, and in particular that section of the chapter focused on whales’ eyes and the difference in their vision from our own.
Moreover, while in most other animals that I can now think of the eyes are so planted as imperceptibly to blend their visual power so as to produce one picture and not two to the brain; the peculiar position of the whale’s eyes, effectually divided as they are by many cubic feet of solid head, which towers between them like a great mountain separating two lakes in valleys; this, of course, must wholly separate the impressions which each independent organ imparts.
Skipping the rest of that paragraph and Melville’s analogy to sash windows (I am more taken by the picturesque two valley lakes separated by the mountains, although the windows speak more directly to seeing), we come to this:
A curious and puzzling question might be started concerning this visual matter as touching the Leviathan. But I must be content with a hint. So long as a man’s eyes are open in the light, the act of seeing is involuntary; that is, he cannot then help mechanically seeing whatever objects are before him. Nevertheless, any one’s experience will teach him, that though he can take in an undiscriminating sweep of things at one glance, it is quite impossible for him, attentively, and completely, to examine any two things—however large or however small—at one and the same instant of time; never mind if they lie side by side and touch each other.
We human beings, Melville is pointing out, can only look at two things by looking first at one and then at the other, back and forth. This brings to my mind a very strange discovery I made in the fourth decade of my life. I had gone to a new eye doctor for an exam, and he made some casual, passing remark about my “crooked eye.” I was in a state of shock for days. Crooked eye? What crooked eye? It was true I’d noticed something odd in snapshots but dismissed the oddity by accepting that I was not photogenic. When a neighbor made a pencil drawing of me—I was in my early teens at the time—and my eyes in the portrait did not quite match up, all I could think was that she was “not a very good artist.” Now here was a physician telling me—but not telling me, because he assumed I’d always known—that I had a crooked eye! You may imagine how closely I examined my face in the mirror. And that was when I realized for the first time the limitations of binocular vision: I could only look into one of my eyes at a time, not both at once.

“Did you know I had a crooked eye?” I asked my mother. “Oh, yes, we knew,” she replied. “But”—still incredulous—“you never mentioned it!” “We didn’t want you to be self-conscious.” Well! Well, all right! That was long ago now, and I’m over it (except for noticing, with benevolent fellow feeling, crooked eyes in others I meet or see in movies or whatever), but try it yourself if you are skeptical. And now, back to Melville--.
How is it, then, with the whale? True, both his eyes, in themselves, must simultaneously act; but is his brain so much more comprehensive, combining, and subtle than man’s, that he can at the same moment of time attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction? If he can, then is it [Melville is saying that it is, not asking a question] as marvellous a thing in him, as if a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstrations of two distinct problems in Euclid. Nor, strictly investigated, is there any incongruity in this comparison.
Well, now what about that business of listing between the empiricism of Locke and the idealism of Kant? If we had whale vision and whale brains, would we have to choose between Locke and Kant, or could we examine both simultaneously and be convinced by both in the same moment? Would we have to choose between Plato and Aristotle or Paris and Venice or even Democratic and Republican, or could we hold all oppositions of belief and view and preference at once?

It is often pointed out that human beings do believe contradictions in many areas of life. We say we want to achieve a certain goal, and yet we speed nonstop in the opposite direction. All too often, our mouths speak one set of values, and our lives demonstrate another. Are we so different from our mammal relatives in the sea, after all? Or is the human being, each individual’s thought, divided against itself, “very like a whale”?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Fall Color: Most Beautiful Leelanau Autumn Ever?

We had a sunny day. I had a beautiful drive with David and a lovely walk with Sarah. Has there ever been a more beautiful autumn Up North?

It's hard to stop, but I think I'll put a few more on my other blog....

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Especially ... in the Rain

The reds and yellows, oranges and golds and purples of fall foliage—all are especially beautiful in the rain. The past two weekends here Up North we’ve had both company and rain, and we and our company have all had a wonderful time.

Two weekends ago my stepdaughter remarked happily, “We’ve never had this much color when we’ve been here before!” She and her husband were thrilled to have been here for the peak of a most colorful autumn.

This past weekend’s guests talked us into a walk in the woods in the rain. We went in search of the striped maple, a small tree they had never seen. We were able to show them many (easy to spot this time of year), a couple quite large. No, I did not take my camera into the rainy woods, so there are no photos from that walk, but believe me, all came home from the expedition wet and well satisfied. The colors were stunning, too. We had to stop to catch our breath several times, and not because the hike was too arduous but because the scenery was breathtaking.

Locals and visitors who don’t want to get wet can easily enjoy fall color in comfort as they drive the roads of Leelanau County. Leaves and pavement alike gleam as if lacquered. Sous un ciel couvert (under a cloudy sky), time seems to slow down and almost stand still, an illusion I cherish. Even then, it's worthwhile to pull over to the shoulder (signal first, please) and get out of the car for a closer look. Asparagus adds a surprising charm to fall composition, and sumac particularly rewards the closer viewer.

The groundwater needs recharging, and higher lake levels (back to “normal”) would be appreciated by all. Still, I have to admit we’re glad our grandson had clear skies earlier in October when he drove up from Kalamazoo on Friday and back home on Sunday with the top down all the way. Sunshine for David and Lyric, peak color for Carson and Kirk, striped maples for Michael and Majda--no complaints from our happy guests, whose cups of blessings all overflowed.

Friday, October 12, 2012

An Unusual Book

Don't judge me by my cover
Not all old books are valuable, any more than all old violins with the name Stradivarius were made by the master, and while some old, valuable books wear their worth on their covers, others lie quietly in nondescript bindings, awaiting discovery. Would this book catch your eye? Something about its size made me pick it up. I looked at the title, laid it down, picked it up again, and finally, thought, Botany--well, that's always interesting--without ever looking inside. It was a sale. The books were cheap. What could I lose? And so I came to own The Evolution and Distribution of Flowering Plants, by John Muirhead MacFarlane, published in Philadelphia in 1933.

Days later, unloading my box of "new" old books, I opened this unprepossessing volume and, to my delight, found an inscription by the author:

Author's inscription
An author's signature always makes a book more interesting. Looking further, I found two foldout sheets showing (separately--one shown below) the branching evolution of the plant families treated in the work. 

Diagram of plant family
More and more intrigued, I poked around on the Internet for information about MacFarlane. According to a source lacking citations or references. he was born in 1855 in Scotland, near the Firth of Forth, educated in Scotland, and taught at the University of Edinburgh before emigrating in 1893. At the University of Pennsylvania he taught botany and played a key role in establishing the botanical garden. He died in 1943. About Mr. Katsumi I have been able thus far to learn nothing, having little to go on beyond his family name. Presumably he was at least interested in botany. 

But here is the icing on the bibliocake, as it were:

Author's hope

On the book's title page, in the same ink and same hand as the inscription, the author added a note of clarification. The present volume covers only two families in the plant kingdom, and thus MacFarlane calls it "Volume I." He was 78 years of age when this volume was published. Did he hope to complete the work or that other botanists would take it up and pursue it to conclusion? In his preface, he calls this book a "set of preliminary studies."

The fashion for tracing evolution of species from sample plants had its heyday in the nineteenth century. (Another of MacFarlane's works in evolution and distribution has to do with "fishes" and is much easier to find than this book on plants.) In our own time, interest has shifted to the cellular level and below, with scientists relying on DNA samples to pinpoint biological origins and migratory paths around the globe. And yet, how painstaking and laborious must have been this author's work, how passionate his devotion, and how fond the hopes he cherished!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Random Discoveries and Recommendations

This morning’s "Shelf Awareness" newsletter, which I receive by e-mail each business day, included a report from the Codex Group, including survey information showing that most “personal recommendations” gaining books new readers are for backlist titles, not new books. Codex is also concerned that recommendations themselves come from and are a form of “random discovery” and that many new books that will be overlooked, undiscovered, and thus not personally recommended.

Books recommended on this blog are definitely personal recommendations—usually mine, although there may be a guest reviewer from time to time—and “random discovery” pretty much covers the territory for how I stumble upon books I love. Not always. Sometimes a publisher offers a review copy, and if the book sounds like something I might read, I take up the offer, hoping for the best. More often, I must say, a synopsis from the publisher or author tells me it just isn’t my kind of book--and if it’s a book I wouldn’t read myself, how could I recommend it?

As for the books I find by serendipity, let’s face it: “random” in book discovery doesn’t exactly have the impersonality and lack of judgment of atoms colliding. There are clues ahead of time—the aforementioned synopsis, cover blurbs, an introduction or preface, sometimes the author’s established reputation. Books having to do with Michigan, especially northern Michigan, are apt to get my attention, whether fiction or nonfiction. The others? If the Buddha Had Kids was sent to me by the publisher after a rep inquired and I said yes, I was interested. The Tiger’s Wife has been the choice of so many book clubs I’d have had to be brain-dead not to have heard about it.  A customer brought in My Grandfather’s Blessings (see right-hand column) with a stack of other books to add to her trade credit account. High Tide in Tucson came the same way, the author’s name well known to all of us who love books. I can’t remember how The Concise Dictionary of Chinese-English Language fell into my hands, but I’m glad it did. (I think I found it somewhere in the U.P.) That covers a handful of recent Books in Northport recommendations. Typing “book review” in the search bar at the top of the page will take you to others.

A couple of the fiction titles mentioned in my third paragraph above were also part of my post on “Fiction and Judgment.” But now, my latest rave--

High Tide in Tucson, by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperCollins, 1995), is a collection of essays that defies one-word description, unless with a meaningless word like wonderful” or “fabulous.” Some of the essays are hilarious, e.g., “Life Without Go-Go Boots” and “Postcards From an Imaginary Mom.” Others are quietly thoughtful, like the title piece, “High Tide in Tucson.” Still others, such as “Stone Soup,” are justifiably angry over things more people should be angry about. Kingsolver writes of her own life and about writing, and good writing about writing always interests me, but she also writes about the world of nature and the world of artifact and artifice. In the later category are essays on prehistoric Native American sites in the Southwest and a decommissioned missile silo, both with remarkable reflections and insights.

The problem is, which essays to discuss, and what passages to quote, in recommending this book? The trouble is that with this collection, as with My Grandfather’s Blessings, I find myself wanting to quote the entire book!

While not all of Kingsolver’s essays are concerned with fiction, by a long shot, you won’t be surprised that I would read the ones that are with special attention, and so, in the spirit of some kind of continuity, or at least follow-up, I’ll focus on an essay called “Careful What You Let in the Door,” one that takes on that question of violence in fiction, part of our recent discussion.
When I watch a film whose plot capitalizes on the vulnerability of women to torturers, maimers, rapists, and maniacs, I take it personally. I feel preyed upon. I don’t enjoy sitting through another woman’s misery even if I keep telling myself that her big problems there are really all just ketchup. It still hurts to watch. For me, a recreation [read ‘re-creation’] of simple violence has no recreational value. So why would I ever create an act of violence in a novel? My answer has to do with the fact that I don’t consider a novel to be a purely recreational vehicle. ...Art is entertainment but it’s also celebration, condolence, exploration, duty, and communion. The artistic consummation of a novel is created by the author and reader together, in an act of joint imagination, and that’s not to be taken lightly.
A few readers stir restlessly. Isn’t Kingsolver missing an awful lot about of film by taking all movies to be only pure recreation? Suppose we divide movies into two groups and books into two groups, with one group of movies and one of books labeled “pure entertainment,” intending nothing serious. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t help answer the violence question for me. Kingsolver says of what she calls “slice & dice” entertainment (I remember the righteous indignation of a young coworker many years ago over the bloody mayhem of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” a film whose title apparently was insufficient to warn her away), “See enough of this bang-you’re-dead kind of thing and you’ll start to go numb around the edges, I guarantee.” But it was the more serious “Silence of the Lambs” that she felt culturally obligated to see and that made her feel “preyed upon.” (No, I didn’t see it, and I won’t.)

As a serious novelist, Kingsolver takes the question of fictional violence seriously:
I find I’m prepared to commit an act of violence in the written word if, and only if, it meets two criteria: first, the act must be embedded in the story of its consequences. Second, the fictional violence must be connected with the authentic world.
She does not create fantasies of violence to titillate and excite but conceives fictional worlds to help us—and herself--understand and find our way through the world in which we live. The caveat with which she ends her essay echoes the title of the piece:
I will not argue for censorship except from the grassroots up: my argument is for making choices about what we consume. The artist is blessed and cursed with a kind of power, but so are the reader and viewer. The story no longer belongs to the author once it’s come to live in your head. By then, it’s part of your life. So be careful what you let in the door, is my advice. It should not make you feel numb, or bored, or demented, or less than human. But I think it’s all right if it makes you cry some, or feel understood, or long to eat sand for want of more, or even change your life a little. It’s a story. That’s what happens. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Ashes to Ashes

Ash trees are the supernumeraries on the autumn stage. Sugar maples, with their brilliant reds and oranges, are the stars, with supporting roles played by bright yellow birch and tamarack and the scarlet of sumac. Willows are not spectacular in color but commanding and familiar to us in size and form, so we notice them daily. Amid the showier species, the ash often registers only subconsciously, but if all the ash trees were to be subtracted from the stage, how we should miss them!

The beauty of the ash trees’ color lies not in traffic-stopping brightness but in subtlety and range. Autumn always seems to my eye the most deliciously edible of seasons, and ash colors beg to be tasted, from creamy butterscotch tones through toast brown to pomegranate red. There are purples as deep and rich as the skins of plums and aubergines and tropical fruit colors, too--banana, pineapple, persimmon.

Many, many years of my life slipped by before I noticed ash trees at all. Belatedly but suddenly, or so it seemed, one fall I began noticing certain saplings by the side of the road. What were they, anyway? So lovely! Once they had caught my eye, I saw them everywhere. It took a while longer for me to notice mature trees with the same leaves, the same exquisite autumn jewel colors, but now I see them everywhere.

I know what you’re all thinking, those of you already savvy about ash trees. The dreaded emerald ash borer! Will the borers be the death of the species? Will the stage of the future be missing the contributions of the ash? Gene Logsdon, in A Sanctuary of Trees, has a more optimistic forecast. He notes, in his own woodlot,
...white ash trees that are dying all over the place from the emerald ash borer. I have enough dead ashes in my woodland to supply all the firewood I will need for the rest of my life. But when foresters and landscapers tell me to kiss the white ash goodbye, I lead them by the nose into my woods. Right along the path to the barn, there are two patches of ash seedlings—scores of them. I exchange greetings with them several times a day. They are my good friends. The tallest of them is about five feet now, growing slowly in the partial shade, the top sprig nipped off last winter by a deer, but none the worse for it. It is three years old and still only the diameter of my finger. Obviously it is not yet old enough to interest a borer. It will take six to eight years anyway for these seedlings to reach borer-food size, during which time the borers, running out of bigger ashes, will start to starve. I hope.
Nature does not hold still. Life does not hold still. Even without human interference, the landscape would change constantly, from one season to the next, one year to the next. It is our miraculous and unearned good fortune to live for a while amid our contemporary species, all of us just here for a while.