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Friday, January 31, 2014

In Which I Metaphorically Tread Water

A county hillside last week
"Treading water" can only be a metaphorical expression at this time of year. Treading snow would be more like it but doesn't make much sense. What I mean by "treading water" could also be expressed by the musical expression "vamping," in that I have a couple or three serious, substantive blog posts in process, but since, for different reasons, I'm not able to publish even one of those today, I'm improvising a shorter, lighter post. A place-holder, as it were....

Our household has been seriously challenged this year by weather and transportation issues, and we have spent many housebound days, some planned, some unplanned. In my last post, I mentioned darning socks. Catching up on laundry, cleaning out dresser drawers, writing letters, baking, and making soup are other good projects for such days, but reading always comes near the top of every day's list, so here's what I've been reading at home the last couple of days:

My "intrepid Ulysses group" is reading James Baldwin's Another Country this month, so I'm devouring that novel every morning, and it is just as I remembered --  beautifully written and with characters so true and so fully dimensional that if a reader didn't know the author, I maintain it would be impossible to ascertain if the writer had been male or female, black or white, gay or straight. As it happens, Another Country's author was male, black, and gay and wasn't hiding any aspects of his own identity. My point is not to deny who he was but to commend the imagination and genius that was able to get inside so many different characters different from himself in terms of gender, color, and sexual orientation. 

At bedtime, before falling asleep, I slow down with Sycamore Shores, by Clark B. Firestone, an American travel book from the 1930s (originally published in 1936) in which the author recounts various trips up and down the Ohio River and its tributaries at a time when steamships -- not as many as formerly but more than you might imagine -- were still taking passengers on Midwestern waters. Crew, roustabouts, fellow passengers, towns along the way, history (pioneer and Civil War) and natural history, and agriculture are all described in detail. Occasionally the author went further on foot or by road vehicle to reach upriver stretches not (or no longer) navigable. Hidden-away hamlets, bygone days -- very restful reading before falling asleep. Also, from the two years I lived in Cincinnati, childhood visits to Ohio relatives, and trips David and I took to and through Kentucky, much of the territory Firestone covers is somewhat familiar to me. What I love, however, is the time travel aspect of this book! Firestone explored rivers of the "Old West" before our beloved Harlan and Anna Hubbard built their shantyboat and floated down the Ohio and Mississippi, but much of the riverside life is similar to what the Hubbards experienced a decade or so later. 

Other places! What a siren song they sing to us in the middle of a brutally cold Up North winter! Cleaning out an old chest of drawers recently (re snowbound project list above), I unearthed a couple of little books of my own travel notes, trips made to the U.P. and up into Canada in 2005 and 2006. It was fun to re-read my sketchy pages and share them with David, almost (he said) like taking the trips together again. If winter lasts too long this year, maybe I'll share a few of these old notes. 

Who doesn't dream of carefree travel days when snowbound for days on end?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Dead of Up North Winter: Survival and Escape

January driving conditions
[There is a book review in the second section of this post. Anyone eager to cut to the chase can scroll quickly through my description of the farmhouse in winter and get to the book review further on.]

Waking in the dark is an escape from snow-shoveling dreams.

"It's getting dangerous for us to live here in winter," he tells me, and reluctantly, against my will, I begin to agree. I don't want to understand him, but I do. Falling doesn't count, though. One can fall as easily in town or city as in the country. A daughter-in-law's fall on black ice in her dentist's parking lot resulted in a compound fracture, but here in the country, our paths are like animal trails, and we keep to them when we venture forth from our burrow, so if we fall, it's onto snowbanks, not pavement.

The landscape is a blur....
We haven't lived here all our lives, but just the same, the way I see it, we are the old kind of country people. For one thing, our old farmhouse hides behind a hill instead of ruling from on high. Giving up an expansive view, our house has gained in privacy, but the wind finds us all the same, sweeping down the back of the hill, drifting our paths closed, sifting fine snow between door and sill to fan across the porch floor, and when our truck gets stuck or won't start, or when the drive drifts closed again after the plow has opened a lane for us through walls of snow, like old country people we stay home. Most of our living takes place in one central room -- eating meals, reading books, drinking tea, writing letters, darning socks, and listening to the radio. "This is how old Joe and his wife spent the winter," he tells me. Except that they had cows to milk and hogs to slop and chickens to feed. We don't. But there's plenty of physical exertion to be had, with all the snow. No need to lament being unable to get to a gym when one lives in the old country way.

Bills this winter are going to be crushing. That's where winter really hits hardest: fuel bills and plow bills. So we close doors and shrink our footprint, and piles of projects tower and spread, filling the smaller living space until we are like mice in a nest, snug in excelsior. In the morning dark, to rescue me from endless dreams of snow (day's repetition extended through the night), the dog comes to the side of the bed, wanting up, and I pat the covers to issue the invitation she awaits. New country people have queen- or king-sized beds in spacious bedrooms with enormous windows looking out and down onto water or vineyards. Our small, cold, crowded farmhouse bedroom holds an old-fashioned double bed, and three is a crowd in that bed, but it's comforting, too.

The wind will always batter this corner of the world, as far into any future I can imagine, but we're here now. Wind and snow and cold and isolation haven't done us in yet. We're here now. That's my mantra: We're here now.

Wind sweeps down the hills....
Darning socks by lamplight is a calming domestic task. Mug of hot tea close at hand and dog at my feet, I feel connected to previous generations of women who survived harsh Michigan winters, survival an important concept during stormy days and nights. But sometimes the concept with more appeal is escape! So where is that ARC that arrived in the mail in December? Ah, here!

The Collector of Dying Breaths, by M. J. Rose
NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014
On sale April 8, 2014

This is total escape! Complete, riveting fantasy! Once again, mythologist Jac L' Étoile, daughter of an American mother and French father and heiress to a famed house of Parisian perfumes, is plunged into a whirlwind of mysterious history (16th-century Italy and France this time around) and present danger. Once again she yearns to connect with the man she has always loved but is held back by fear for his happiness and safety. The visions she experiences -- are they memories of past lives or evidence of a brain malfunction? Either way, concern for Griffin North gives her pause, since in all her visions of a past concerning a man who seems like Griffin and a woman she seemed to be, she was responsible for his death!

Now. Here's where I confess that I am not usually a reader of fantasy, apart from Wind in the Willows and Palmer Brown's The Silver Nutmeg, and that romance-suspense is not a genre I generally find appealing, either. And there's more. Belief in reincarnation, religious or otherwise, has no hold on me, and I can become downright irritable when subjected to talk of "past lives." So how does M. J. Rose do it? How does she pull me in time after time? This is the sixth novel in a series, and I've read three of them, which is an extraordinary record, given the subject matter and my reading preferences. How to explain it?

One aspect of these stories often mentioned by reviewers is their wealth of sense detail. Rose's descriptions involve not only the sense of sight but also, tellingly, the senses of smell and touch, much less frequently utilized by fiction writers. Aromas and textures draw readers into Jac's world, and we are so grateful for the sumptuous sensory banquet that we accept all kinds of literary excess. In The Collector of Dying Breaths, for example, the character of Melinoe Cypros, in her old castle outside Barbizon, France, is completely over the top, a kind of cartoonish Cruella DeVilla on the page, with her long tunics and pounds of jewelry and white wings of hair. Everything about her spells DANGER in huge, flashing lights, and it is incomprehensible that Jac will go forward with Melinoe's crazy project! And yet she does -- and we follow with bated breath!

Another, very clever way Rose keeps us hooked in is with Jac's own reluctance to buy into reincarnation. Throughout the series the protagonist moves between flat-out, hard-headed, rational skepticism (rationality always emphasized) and weakening resistance to the temptation of belief. Jac's doubts allow a doubting reader to accompany her on journeys that we skeptics would otherwise have no interest in taking.

So that's life Up North these days, during a brutal Michigan winter. It's a kaleidoscope of adventure and retreat, comfort and hardship, survival and escape. Thank you for joining me in my world today.

Our parking area when the sun came out four days ago....

Friday, January 17, 2014

Quiet Days Pass Quickly, Too

We’ve turned the winter solstice corner, and days are noticeably longer. On the other hand, winter has us very much in its fierce grip. Forecast: snow, snow, snow!

I went next door to get a cup of hot chili from the Garage Bar & Grill and was asked by a local person, waiting for friends at a table, “How’s business this time of year? Is it slow?” Ha! If it weren’t slow this time of year, now that would be something to talk about! When I’m posting on Facebook more than once a day, local peeps can tell that business is slow.

But I’m limiting my online time this winter to those slow business hours when no one's in the shop but Sarah, giving myself more time for other activities at home – cooking, drawing, reading (of course), movies, and writing. On Thursday morning I woke early in the dark, around 4 a.m. It’s not easy in cold winter to drag oneself out of a warm, cozy bed in the dark, but my mind was buzzing with a story idea -- the characters, the setting -- and as I said to David today, telling him something about the new project, you just don’t say “Go away!” when a story wants to be written.

So. Coffee. Table lamp. Lined paper. Black ink pen. I knew I needed to get down at least some basic notes before the idea fled, but somehow two hours later, getting up only for coffee refills, there was about two-thirds of a first draft written out longhand. Later yesterday afternoon, at the bookstore, I transcribed the handwritten pages and moved the story ahead a couple of paragraphs.

It’s interesting when something like this is percolating or simmering or doing whatever it does on the back burner while one’s immediate attention is demanded elsewhere. I had a couple of customers on Thursday, sold a couple of books, spent time in conversation with David and a friend who stopped by, and thought about what we’d have for dinner that night. When we got home, I read for over an hour in the book we “Intrepids” will be discussing next Monday evening, and after dinner I told David I had to continue reading, because I have a lot of pages and thinking to get through before Monday’s discussion. Then this morning I overslept! So much for my plan to get to the end of a first draft before breakfast! But it’s all okay. I see more clearly where I’m going with the remainder of the story than I did yesterday afternoon, though I haven't added another word yet to paper or computer memory.

When asked how much time he spends painting, David sometimes tells people, “I’m never not painting.” Sometimes he is awake for hours in the middle of the night and tells me he “got a lot of painting done.” When I have something simmering, pretty much the same way. The burner is never completely turned off. My subconscious is still writing and making writing decisions while my conscious mind is making a grocery list.

The main challenge of this new story is a different kind of structure from anything I've done before. The whole story is told in third person, but the point of view rotates among the three characters. The shifts are, I hope, seamless. Still, I’m curious as to whether it will work for readers. We’ll see. Not there yet.

Meanwhile, bookstore today, reading at home tonight, and – according to my plan – another morning of writing tomorrow, beginning long before the sky is light.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

When Characters Do and Don’t Become Long-Time Friends

View to north through falling snow

Sarah must be often puzzled by her human housemates. She may recognize occasional value in the movies we watch, because once in a while a dog or other interesting animal appears on the screen, giving voice to feelings not completely beyond her ken. (She looks up then and watches the screen with alert attention.) But what does she make of all the hours we sit quietly reading? For that matter, what does she make of our endless conversations? Dinner, now, that makes sense, but why do they sit at the table and keep making noises at each other long after they’re done eating? They take turns, but it isn’t as if they’re throwing a ball back and forth or anything. What is the point?

Boiled corned beef brisket with vegetables and stewed fruit
Over the weekend, David read to me from the New Yorker, I read to him from Julia Child’s My Life in France, and we watched several more episodes of “Doc Martin” on DVD, our vicarious winter travel to a little seaside village in Cornwall. After a cozy Sunday Cornish binge, David commented on how different watching a series is from watching a 90-minute movie, because with the movie you meet the characters and leave them an hour and a half later, while with the series you meet them again and again, in different situations. Between episodes you wonder and speculate and worry about them. (“What do you suppose...?” we often say to each other, trying to predict a future development between characters.)  I remarked that this has always been a good part of why people follow soap operas. David observed that even in the case of Burt, a character he doesn’t find particularly appealing, he doesn’t want to see anything bad happen to him. We have entered into this little village world, gotten to know these people, and have learned to care about them.

It occurred to me that there is a parallel here with literature, namely one of the differences between novels and short stories. That is, even a long short story, unless it has characters or settings that appear in other stories by the author, gives a reader only a single chance to connect to its world. The collection by Elizabeth Strout titled Olive Kitteridge is an exception, reading more like a novel, and The Wild Upriver, too, by James McVey, while lacking the “closure” of a typical novel, has continuity from one story to the next by virtue of its single character presented in chronological episodes. Usually, however, like a movie, the short story is experienced in a single sitting, and however powerful, however moving it is, when we reach the end of the story, we close the book and leave its world behind. The only way to encounter the characters again is by choosing to re-read the story. We may remember the story and its characters, but we don’t expect future developments. It’s over.

By contrast, the experience of reading a novel can easily command a reader’s attention day after day, sometimes for weeks. We read a few pages or chapters and lay the book aside, but in the interval between readings we wonder what will happen next and are impatient to re-enter the increasingly familiar fictional world. We miss the characters while between “episodes.”

Of course, fictional friends are not perfect. (No friends are, and we are not perfect ourselves.) David can get impatient with Dr. Ellingham’s lack of a sense of humor and his inability to smile. Martin did smile when dancing with Louisa (or “Louiser,” as the other characters call her) at their wedding reception, but he didn’t “show his teeth,” as David wants him to do, and once he told a joke to a patient, but without a smile the patient wasn’t sure it was a joke at first, and neither were we. What bothers me most about Martin is the way he seems to feel nothing at all for dogs. He is similarly immune to the beauty of horses, but dogs? Can a man be fully human who has no feeling for dogs? Humans co-evolved with dogs! What’s odd is that dogs seem to like him, though, and that gives me hope. I’m giving this crusty friend a chance. He had a difficult childhood....

There’s no shortcut to a long friendship. On the other hand, over many years there’s time for a friendship to ebb and flow, wax and wane, and to go through rough patches or periods of neglect, historical fluctuations in attention that a single brief conversational encounter cannot accommodate. If you meet someone only once, for half an hour or half a day, the encounter must have a certain intensity to leave any permanent mark. It demands a sharper continued focus for the length of its shorter existence.

A short story is much more like a movie than is a novel. If your attention wanders in the movie theatre, you’re likely to miss key elements that leave you in the dark in more ways than one. In a film, as in a short story, every word and every image has to count to achieve the overall effect. It isn’t like a novel, where – as in life – the narrator and characters can wander off onto side roads, for no other reason than that the side road presented attractive temptations and they have plenty of time.

Audiences for movies and serial television programs have no problem shifting from the long-term, getting-to-know-you quality of the series to the single-shot drama of film because they don’t expect of one medium what only the other delivers. No one expects a book of poems to be a novel, either, I’m sure (although here, too, Anne-Marie Oomen’s Uncoded Woman is a striking exception, the protagonist’s life unfolded chronologically from one poem to the next), and so no one criticizes a book of poetry for not being a novel. (They may avoid the poetry because it isn’t a novel, isn’t a narrative, but that’s something else again, a side road I won’t go down today.) Well, a short story does not “fail” to be a novel, either. Its essential qualities are quite different. 

And Americans love movies. Therefore....

Characterized by economical narrative, often lyrical imagery, and usually a singular pivotal event in a character’s life, short stories do not generally introduce us to characters who will become long-term fictional friends. But short acquaintances can be memorable, too, even unforgettable.

Some authors generously give us both options. Leelanau County's own Donald Lystra (we share him with Ann Arbor), author of the award-winning Season of Water and Ice, has captured another Michigan Notable Book award with his recent collection of short stories, Something That Feels like Truth. Bonnie Jo Campbell is another Michigan author who has written and published fiction in both short and long form. I'll be reading more short fiction this winter, no doubt, in the intervals between episodes of Swann's Way, so look for this topic to come up again soon.

Did Sunday and Monday constitute our January thaw? What do you think? And what do you think about short fiction? You may, as I do, love the place where you live, but I for one would not turn down a week in Florence, Italy, would you? The two women we spoke with in "the scary place," that tiny mountain hamlet in the wilds of southcentral France -- I'll never see them again and did not even get their names, but our meeting stands out in my travel memory book.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

My Big Morning Adventure

This little guy made it across the driveway on Friday

I'm at Dog Ears now, after a harrowing morning adventure. My friend Ellen planned to pick me up at home and then we would pick up friend Trudy across the highway, down a long private drive, at her house on the Lake Michigan shore, so we could go together to a women’s group brunch at a home on the edge of Northport. But when I went out early with Sarah-dog, our driveway was solid glare ice, yesterday's snow and slush having melted and refrozen during the night, so after I packed up my things for the day I grabbed a stout stick and walked all the way out to the highway to meet Ellen, staying in the snow on the side of the drive, walking slowly and carefully, using the stick for support. I didn't want her to come down the driveway to our house and then not be able to get back up the hill again. When I got into her car, I left my stick plunged into the snow mountain left out at the road by the plow. I mention this fact because of subsequent developments.

Across the highway and going down to Trudy's, a big patch of open road (like our drive, no tree cover) was glare ice. We slid once but did not go off the road. Got down and picked up Trudy. Trying to come up was a different story. Ellen has 4WD, but that does nothing on glare ice. She wasn't going fast enough to make it up the icy hill, and halfway up we lost purchase and slid backwards into snow on the side of the road. When she tried to move the car, we slid deeper into the packed snow on the side of the road. 

We could not even get out of the car! The doors on the right side could not be opened because they were lodged firmly in the snowbank. Doors on the left could be opened, but the surface of the hill was pure ice. None of us had Yak Trax with us (we did have car heater and three cell phones), and Ellen had taken her ski poles out of the car to make room for passengers.

Plus it's Saturday. The garage in Leland wasn't open. The office for the excavating/plowing business that takes care of this private road (and our driveway at home) wasn't open. Ellen's husband found a tow truck (word to the wise: Bingham Body and Towing, if anyone else in Leelanau County gets in a fix on the weekend) and dispatched it to rescue us, but meanwhile we had no coffee!!! We had fruit salad, coffee cake, and champagne but didn't get into any of that stuff, in hopes of making it to our brunch, after all (which we did, eventually).

When the plow truck came, he could not back down the hill to us to hook onto Ellen's car directly, because he would have slid right into her car had he tried. Instead he had to fashion a super-long winch line and winch us -- yes, all three of us in the car -- to the top of the hill.

We got to the brunch – to friends, food and coffee! -- and my friend Sally gave me a ride to Northport when she and I had to leave to get here and open our shops. Highways and roads in the village are not a problem. Temperature is in mid-30s, so David is hoping the ice on our drive will melt today.

Here I am, then, coffee brewing, hoping my friend Susan will get here (she only lives a few blocks away), and determined to get a ride back to the highway end of my driveway sometime late this afternoon. (Sally said she'd give me a ride if I don't find one another way.) Then tomorrow -- DAY OFF!!! 

Everything in winter takes so much more effort and energy that a person can feel she's put in a full day after three or four hours -- before she even gets to work! But -- no injuries, no damage to vehicle, no terrible consequences. A few lessons learned. In summary, all's well that ends well.

Oh, and the best part, other than good company, of all the time we were stuck in the immobilized car? A pileated woodpecker!!! But did I have my camera with me? I did not!

P.S. on Books

No lengthy book review or reading reflections today. Next week I’ll be back with either or both of those. I just finished reading, at a friend’s request (he wanted me to read the fascinating, thought-provoking book "so we can talk about it”), The Web of Debt: The Shocking Truth About Our Money System and How We Can Break Free, by Ellen Hodgson Brown, J.D. After that my brain seriously needed cooling down, so I turned to re-reading Julia Child’s wonder memoir, My Life in France. I’ll have more to say about both of those in the near future.

Also, if you missed my sidebar, please note that I have in stock the $16 paperback edition of White Dog Fell From the Sky, by Eleanor Morse, my #1 top fiction pick of 2013.

Now, if you're going outdoors, walking or driving, be very, very careful out there!!!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

France in Three 20th-Century Books

The Horrors of Love, a novel by Jean Dutourd, trans. Robin Chancellor. NY: Doubleday, 1967; orig. Paris: Gallimard, 1963.

Pluche, or the Art of Love, by Jean Dutourd, trans. Robin Chancellor. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970; orig. Paris: Flammarion, 1967.

Algerian Chronicles, by Albert Camus, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, edited and with an introduction by Alice Kaplan. Harvard University Press, 2013; originally published Paris: Gallimard, 1958.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

How many of you have seen the film “My Dinner with André”? In an interview in the Paris Review (summer 2012), Wallace Shawn tells how it came about that Louis Malle directed the unusual film, which consisted of Shawn and André Gregory sitting in a restaurant, having dinner, and talking. “You’ll be you,” Shawn had told Gregory beforehand,
--you’ll tell about all these amazing things that you did while you were not working in the theatre—and I will be sort of the way I really am, somewhat skeptical, and that will be funny.
The two men talked and taped, Shawn wrote a script based on the conversations and sent it to Louis Malle, who agreed to do the film. It was shot in three weeks and became something of a cult classic.

Jean Dutourd undoubtedly took much longer than three weeks to write The Horrors of Love. The similarities are striking, however, and I always introduce Dutourd’s novel to people in terms of the Shawn-Gregory film. First published in France in 1963, the novel describes at great length (665 pages in its American edition), with only short breaks taking note of the setting, time of day and weather, in bare, unadorned dialogue between two characters, “I” (the narrator, a novelist) and “He” (a story-telling friend), a primary drama concerning a second cast of characters who never appear directly, as it were, onstage. “He” and “I” walk and talk and stop to rest on benches; they begin at lunch one day, talk all afternoon, through dinner, and on through the night, winding up finally the next morning. They interrupt, digress, theorize, speculate, and argue – about everything under the sun but eventually exhausting the convoluted tale of a middle-aged French politician, married with children, and his affair with a younger woman, still living at home with her parents and brother. Despite having only two conversing characters before one on the page, in the mind’s eye, the reader is focused on that second cast of characters, fascinated by their story and anxious for its outcome.

Two men talking. A film? A novel? Done well, yes. A tour de force.

The second Dutourd novel, published four years later in Paris (1967), is much shorter (278 pages in our translated version) and more conventional in style, although again we have a first-person narrator, this time a painter. Suffering a bout of artistic “sterility,” he turns to “literature,” i.e., keeping a journal, in hopes of kick-starting inspiration or at least riding out the unproductive stretch of time without too much despair. Social commentary and criticism of the state of art in France reveal the painter’s state of mind and the disdain he feels for his brother-in-law, a more successful painter, as well as his best friend, gifted but “lazy,” as in the narrator’s judgment. 

Both Dutourd narrators defend the selfishness of the creative ego. In both novels the narrators are bachelors with generally chauvinistic views of women. Social class and fashions in art are the narrators’ (and so presumably the author’s) preoccupations, while major political events of the times are referred to glancingly, if at all. And yet I manage to re-read these novels – and not for the first time, either – with equanimity towards the views expressed, reveling in their Paris setting and fascinated by the characters who come alive on the pages.

But I’d begun reading the Camus essays in 2013 -- searing journalism, frank political statements, and heartbreak penned in the years1939-1958 on the subject of Algeria -- and only set them aside for reading that demanded immediate attention. Following the end of the holidays and homebound days as the subzero temperatures and deadly wind gusts caused by the polar vortex kept us indoors, I pulled Dutourd off the shelf to give myself a literary vacation, but then on Tuesday morning Camus resurfaced. No time like the Arctic present, I thought, before reading group assignments plunge me into Richard Wright and Marcel Proust for the rest of the winter.

Dutourd’s fiction and Camus’s nonfiction are related in being unrelated. Is that a paradox? Of these two French novels published in the 1960s, the main story of the first – that which is the main subject of the novel’s lengthy dialogue -- takes place in the decade past, the 1950s, an era marked in the United States by prosperity and complacent materialism. American military action in Korea was very much in the background of our national consciousness. Not so for France the Algerian conflict during the same period. Algeria was for the French what Vietnam was for Americans, with deep divisions and irreconcilable differences. One might argue that “the Sixties” began for France in the 1950s, bringing about the fall of the Fourth Republic in 1958.

I’ve written before of a young friend asking me, “What were the Sixties really like?” and it occurs to me that one could ask the question of any decade and that the answer would be the same: What a decade was “like” to you depends on how old you were, where you were living, the people around you, and what engaged your time and concern. And so, astonishingly, in The Horrors of Love, the protagonist’s love affair was much more important to him than his duties to the government or those who had elected him, and he goes to his tragic end completely indifferent to the much greater tragedy of Algeria and the many lives made miserable and even destroyed by France’s lack of political will to seek a just solution. It is only by its complete absence that the Algerian crisis appears in Dutourd’s novel. In the lighter and delightful Pluche, we find a similar absence of Vietnam, of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, with a single reference to teachers being on strike marking the great social upheaval in 1960s France.

Let me be clear. I am not criticizing the author for failing to write political novels. Clearly, to do so was not his aim. As his narrators make clear, he is focused on the contributions of art to culture, that which will last for centuries. But I begin, perhaps, to see what made my old friend Hélène dismiss Dutourd contemptuously when I raised his name.

Then, too, recall that Camus was also a novelist of the highest rank, besides being a clear-eyed journalist. And yet there is no odor of propaganda in his fiction. Values, yes. A point of view, yes. But never set forth pedantically with finger-shaking speeches. In fact, what strikes me about the articles, letters, and speeches in the nonfiction collection titled Algerian Chronicles, besides their searing honesty, heartfelt passion, and consistency of principle, is the lucidity of the writer’s thought and, subsequently, his language.
We resign ourselves to fate too easily. We too readily believe that in the end there is no progress without bloodshed and that the strong advance at the expense of the weak. Such a fate may indeed exist, but men are not required to bow down before it or submit to its laws.
It was in his refusal to see the world as “determined” by a fate prepared in advance by history that Camus clung to hope for the future of his birthplace, Algeria. In acknowledging his freedom to speak and to act in the name of freedom for others, he can be called an existentialist, but unlike some others known under that banner, he was not blown this way and that by political or ideological winds. He loved both Algeria and France and refused to oversimplify the conflict by labeling one evil and the other innocent. More than once in these essays he writes that only the dead can be called innocent. Questions of what response to make to terrorism and when a state of emergency exists that excuses or demands curtailment of individual freedom are two general questions Camus raises that remain relevant today. Specific global hotspots come to mind as well, places where groups divided culturally and economically must, it seems, learn to live together or ultimately exterminate each other.

As the polar vortex swirled around our old farmhouse, David’s reading took him to France, also. Deep into The Hare with Amber Eyes, he kept telling me that it’s “right up my alley.” I tell him I’m in the 1950s. He tells me he’s in the 1880s. We come up from our books for air and enjoy oatmeal muffins and cups of hot tea. With heat, hot water, electricity, and plenty of books, three days at home are no hardship at all.

Saturday, January 4, 2014


Above it all!

Flyover Lives: A Memoir, by Diane Johnson (NY: Penguin, 2014). $26.95

The ladies themselves could have been any old American mélange like the rest of us there listening, except for our French friend, Simone. She was an American citizen, but not very American. Though female lineage is apt to be surrendered with the last name, in confrontations with Americanness, Frenchness somehow prevails, as water puts out fire, fire burns paper, and paper soaks up water, and so Simone had not surrendered Frenchness to her American husband, she’d added Americanness on. Are roots arbitrary after all, or adopted? 
How could I not connect with this book? Besides being a lover of France, I was born in South Dakota and grew up (insofar as I can be said to have done so) in northern Illinois, spending the formative years from almost-three to nearly-nineteen in the Land of Lincoln. Diane Johnson grew up in Moline, Illinois, and had the mighty Mississippi River as part of her childhood landscape. Within commuting distance to Chicago, I had mighty Lake Michigan. But I know that feeling she describes as being “marooned in those fields of waving corn, stranded far from any ocean or shore....” Fields of corn, like fields of sugar cane, start out as open prairie but quickly, with jungle speed, grow up to be walls. And behind them? More green walls.

Cornfields across the road from my childhood front porch, though, were also my first association with “the West,” a distant, fabled, romantic land. Across the road and into the sunset I rode imaginary horses, borrowed from stories in library books, far beyond a bucolic horizon that was, in fact, but the last remnant of farmland within walking distance: on the other side of the cornfield lurked new suburbs and, by the time I reached adolescence, a shopping mall. Standing on the shore of Lake Michigan, either Chicago pavement or Indiana Sand Dunes beach, I felt almost literally pulled by the larger world’s magnetic influence out of my ordinary, three-bedroom, one bathroom (all rooms small) family home on the prairie. A boyfriend and I dreamed of New York and Paris, cities that would not, we imagined, go dark at night.

Unlike Diane Johnson, I have never escaped to France for more than two or three months at a time, and it has been over a decade since David and I made our last delicious visit, meandering from Paris to Avignon and back again. Yet the questions and longings Johnson recounts echo in my head with a twinge of recognition: “Was it possible I was only pretending to be comfortable in Europe when I am really an Illinois hayseed whose core of naïveté cannot be effaced?” Had one even been comfortable in Illinois? “A pleasant place,” she admits, “surrounded by cornfields” but one “I had always longed to get out of.”

Stung by the remark of a French friend to the effect that Americans are naive because they are ignorant of history, Johnson begins searching for documentation on her American ancestors. The quest takes her back to 1711, when the ship on which Ranna Cosset, as his name became in America (originally probably René Cossé) came from France, bound for Canada, was captured by an English captain. Ranna is treated to a very easy “imprisonment,” left at large on his own recognizance, cautioned only not to leave Middleton, Connecticut. There is no sign that he chafed at the stricture: when the time came for him to be released and sent to Montreal, his original destination, he flatly refused to go. He stayed and married, and his family flourished in New England, on the boundary between Canada and the new United States. Much of the history Johnson uncovers comes from a memoir written by Ranna’s great-granddaughter. It was she, born in 1800, who made the pioneer journey in 1827 with her new husband, to the Midwest. The family settled first in Ohio, eventually in Illinois.

If “Elsewhere” and new beginnings characterized the first ancestor arrived in North America and the subsequent pioneers who came to the Midwest, however, by the time Diane Johnson begins her family research her relatives have been settled in place for 200 years. No one has immigration stories or tales from the Old World, “only about Bloomfield, or over to Pontiac or Muscatine or faraway Des Moines....” The prairie is both their present and past life. Thanks to World War II, though, her father had been to Venice, Italy, and the name alone was enough to set Diane dreaming.

Big waters mid-continent
A friend and I have mourned the fact that so many foreign visitors visit New York, Miami, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Hollywood, and think that they have seen “America.” Johnson admits, “We were never a tourist destination” (true) but also notes that “Midwesternness” may not be interesting to anyone not from the Midwest. (Would “not interesting” hinge more on the tour guide and the tourists’ expectations than features intrinsic to the place? Hers is the familiar Midwestern opinion that the Midwest lacks regional characteristics, which reminds me of young Midwesterners who think that only people from other parts of the country have “accents,” as well as something I heard only the other day, that Americans of German descent do not believe they have identifiable ethnic personality traits. Is an apple dull and ordinary, a fig or a pineapple exotic?) But she loved her aunts and uncles and enjoyed a thoroughly pleasant, untroubled childhood, and early sections of her book recount childhood and adolescent memories without being sticky or schmaltzy with nostalgia.

Venturing off to London as a young divorced graduate student with four young children seems a very nervy thing for Johnson to have done, given her earlier experience of having been “daunted” by a summer internship in New York when free, childless and not all that much younger. I loved her memories of the happiness she found in the Reading Room of the British Museum. The stories of her film-writing career involve such notables as Jack Nichols Stanley Kubrik, to name only two, and the glimpses she gives us behind the scenes of the film industry make absorbing reading even, or possibly especially, for those of us far from the Coast, still “marooned” here in flyover country.

My only disappointment with Flyover Lives was that there is no trace in these pages of Johnson’s life in Paris. Opening and closing sequences visiting friends overnight in Provence, most of them Americans, are as French as the memoir gets. Yes, I enjoyed the London account (especially that library), but I had expected the story to go back and forth between Illinois and Paris. Not that anyone told me it would. Clearly, I need to explore other books by Diane Johnson. What about that little hut overlooking the Seine, anyway?

One of the many passages I loved, on the other hand, was this description of her childhood reading and adoration of sea adventures:
Girls were never shanghaied, but it took me a long time to understand that this romantic fate wasn't likely to be mine; there was nothing to lend desirable drama to my future. In my gender-neutral imagination, I was the protagonist, in my hammock or on deck when the pirates were spotted on the horizon, or when the rough mate with his eye patch went amok on the bridge. ... The books in childhood are the ones that can point your life toward something, and though, in the case of a puny midwestern girl, becoming a pirate was not a realistic goal, it took a long time for me to relinquish that hope.
 Her question of how much interest non-Midwesterners can muster for the Midwest keeps recurring as I think about this memoir, since what is “flyover country” to others has always been “home” to me, the Great Lakes sweeter than any dangerous ocean, with their treacherous tides, undrinkable water, and horror movie monsters. (As the t-shirt slogan has it, “NO SHARKS NO SALT NO WORRIES.”) Who, that is, will be the audience for this book?

First, I note that there are a whole lot of us here in the middle of the continent. Millions. Secondly, how many people calling themselves New Yorkers and Californians grew up in the Midwest and have childhood memories like Diane Johnson’s, even if maybe without all the Midwest generations? Thirdly, this is the memoir of a novelist and film-writer who has made her adult life in New York, London, Paris, and San Francisco, and who doesn’t wonder about the origins of successful Americans? Now, if a reader in L.A. or Boston or an ex-pat somewhere in Provence needs another reason to read this book, how about approaching it as an anthropologist? The strange customs of American prairie towns! The inbred reticence of a Midwesterner outside the Midwest!

If Johnson’s flyover country is as familiar to you as your own childhood, try approaching it as a sociologist, “making the familiar strange.” And if it is already strange country to you, a place you’ve never given a second thought, Flyover Lives will give you the armchair anthropologist one insider’s view of what we called in Illinois when I was growing up “the heartland.”

Northern Michigan, where I live, has more lakes and beaches and hills and woods than cornfields, but like Illinois it doesn’t have New York City or Hollywood or the Grand Canyon. Sometimes, though, when I’m driving the roads of my rural county, I imagine a French friend (in imagination my friend Hélène is still alive) riding in the car with me on her first visit to the U.S. She hasn’t come simply to be a tourist but to be with us on our home ground, to be part of our life for as long as she’s with us, and as I drive I point out to my absent friend various ordinary aspects of the landscape I love. Diane Johnson recounts her “ordinary” Midwestern growing-up years with both fondness and the distance acquired by a lifetime of having lived Elsewhere.

Flyover country between Detroit and Chicago

Thursday, January 2, 2014


White Dog Fell From the Sky, by Eleanor Morse (NY: Penguin, 2013) 
$16 paper

David and I don’t travel far from home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, going only as far as my bookstore in Northport on the days before and following the holidays. In imagination, however, and especially in the books we read, we are unconstrained by time and space. One gift that fell into in my bookseller life during the last, very wintry month of 2013 was a review copy of Eleanor Morse’s novel, White Dog Fell From the Sky.

Set in Botswana and South Africa during the period of apartheid (there is mention of Nelson Mandela still in prison), the novel weaves together the lives of a young black South African medical student and an older white American married woman. Alice came to Botswana with her economist husband to do government work, she in the Ministry of Local Government and Lands. She meets Isaac, an illegal refugee from the South African apartheid regime, when he comes to her house seeking work as a gardener, a task for which he is both unprepared and vastly overqualified.

We meet Isaac first. Upon his clandestine arrival in Botswana -- the border crossing a story in itself but quickly told, with quick flashbacks explaining its necessity -- Isaac meets by chance an acquaintance from South Africa, Amen, and, with little in the way of options, accepts Amen’s temporary hospitality, sharing the family’s single-room house and meals but declining to become involved with Amen’s mission, the then-violent ANC.

Isaac’s search for employment eventually leads him into Gabarone’s Old Village neighborhood and to the American couple’s house. If Alice had ever been in love with her husband, there is no longer much between them. When she learns he has been having an affair, he swears that it is “over,” but catching him in repeated lies convinces her otherwise. They have no children.

Alice does not want to be called “Madam,” she tells Isaac, and does not want a square or rectangular garden of marigolds. He should please himself with the garden design. Alice and Isaac recognize something in each other that commands respect, but their worlds touch only at the edges.

Isaac walks the long distance between Amen’s home and hers, adding hours to his workday, until Alice provides him with a bicycle. Now Alice has a job and a house, Isaac a job and a bicycle, but life for both is without any clear direction. Isaac has been cut off from his goal to become a doctor and see his siblings educated, and when Alice and her husband separate, their separation is uncertain and informal. Then on government expedition to gather information for the formulation of a land policy that will protect natives, their livestock, and wildlife, Alice meets Ian, an “uncivilized” Englishman whose passion is the !Kung San paintings in the Tsodilo Hills. And while she is away from home and falling in love with Ian, through a series of unfortunate blunders and outright indifference Isaac is arrested, deported, and imprisoned in South Africa.

What will become of Isaac? Is a future with Ian possible for Alice? At this point in the story, the worst is still ahead for all of them. But what of hope? If hope is reasonable at all, where does its reason lie?

Beginning with Isaac and Alice’s first meeting, I felt anxious in the back-and-forth movement between narrative lines. As fascinated as I was by the unfolding of whatever was happening with either Isaac or Alice, at the same time I couldn’t help worrying and wanting to get back to the other. The ignorance of both of what was happening with the other heightened that anxiety. Only when Alice and Isaac were in each other’s presence, speaking to each other, did I feel able to fill my lungs completely with breath, but even that was only momentary relief, as so many dangers and uncertainties and questions always persisted.

Of the characters we see at close range in this novel, most are good people. Not a single one is uniformly and always good and right, but they struggle, these people. In a beautiful land, they struggle in particular to see life as beautiful and meaningful. Whether or not – and how -- to try to “save the world” is a question that touches them all in one way or another.

Of other, more minor characters, such as prison guards, we see only a rough, inhumane surface. Even that made me think of the words of Nelson Mandela:
A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity. – Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
Morse gives us only glimpses of these oppressors robbed of their humanity. They are not the focus of her story, but what we see gives the truth to Mandela’s words.

White Dog, who seems to have come from nowhere, is no haunt but a real if exceptional dog, her character marked by loyalty and integrity, and in very important ways she serves as a home anchor for both Isaac and Alice, and later for Moses and Lulu. Drought and dust are other characters in the book. Hunger is a character stalking many. Another is torture, its essence mindless, pointless, unreasoning cruelty.

The language and especially the figures of speech in this novel are lyrical and rooted in the landscape of southern Africa. “He braced his mind the way a wildebeest braces its body against a sandstorm.” “Yellow grasses blew in the west wind, rippling, as though a hand were being drawn across them.” Can't you just see it? The imagery of the white butterfly migration early in the book recurs in a later section, and the sunken garden Isaac begins, only to find it suddenly flooding when he hits a water main with his pickax, is eerily similar to the flooded mining pit of his nightmares, from which his father makes no attempt to escape. Only one passage went beyond a lyrical realism for me into something that stretched credulity, but because the author had so surely and skillfully carried me until then, I accepted the magic of that moment.

A writer can give his or her fiction any locale on earth or beyond, but only a writer like Eleanor Morse, who knows and loves a real place and has the ability to evoke it in her work, can take readers there and inspire them with love as well. The qualities of the landscape, its flora and fauna, and particularly its people – black, white, brown, and grey – did not seem “faraway” or “exotic” as I lived my way through this story. It was with the greatest reluctance that I left them on the last page of the book, all of them so real to me that I keep thinking, That was years ago. Where are they now?


As 2013 came to a close, I asked myself what I would rank as #1 of all the novels I had read during the year. My nonfiction choice had been made without difficulty: Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing, by Daphne Miller, M.D. (NY: William Morrow). Since closing the cover of the book reviewed here today and comparing it to other long fiction in my "Books Read 2013" list, at last I decided that this choice, too, was an easy one. My #1 fiction choice of 2013 is White Dog Fell From the Sky, by Eleanor Morse.