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Friday, February 28, 2014

"Did He who made the Lamb make thee?"

What light through yonder window breaks!
March – at last! Often considered the least bearable month Up North, March can bring late winter storms or early spring blossoms, or it can zig-zag back and forth from one season to the other. Wise are those who save their “winter” getaway for March, when desire for change – of scenery, of weather, of company – can just about blow the top of a person’s head off. What do you say of today? Is it lion or lamb? Or, taking our cue from William Blake, shall we ask, is it tiger or lamb? We drove home around midnight last night, after a dinner party, through near-blinding snow, so I'm going to say March came in like a very big cat, neither creeping softly like fog nor frolicking gaily like a spring lamb. 

Whatever March brings, the plan is for our pack to stay put and stick it out. On Thursday morning past, we thought we might just stay put at home and not even venture into the village. The morning had brought more subzero wind chills, there was more blowing and drifting in the forecast, and all the area schools were closed. Why bother? On the other hand (see photo above through farmhouse bathroom window), the sun was shining! I mean, the sun was shining!!! And our driveway was plowed clear and not, it seemed, drifting closed any too fast. We came to town. I opened the bookstore. A customer called, having gotten my message from yesterday, and said she would be in to pick up her order, eager to have it. “Good! I’m here!”

And considering that we’ve endured yet another week of brutally cold weather, with no real let-up in sight, it wasn’t a bad week for Dog Ears Books. First of all, on Wednesday I discovered that we’d made the website of the National Writers Series. Cymbre Foster had contacted me earlier in the month, sending a questionnaire and requesting photographs, and NWS has always been supportive not only of writers but also of area bookstores, but the new NWS initiative to feature bookstores and bookstores on their site has me nearly speechless with gratitude. Nearly, I said. Thank you, National Writers Series!

Next, remember the mystery poet? Nothing had come from him or her for quite some time, but Wednesday brought another poem (this one #7). As usual, it was typed on lined paper, with no return address or signature, and a variety of old stamps made up the necessary postage. Thank you, mystery poet!

Here's a transcription, in case my photograph is too difficult to read: "what of love is the daffodil moon/if not mr. day/to ms. night crooning/I send you flowers but you/never call/and from the window/ms. night leaning/but don't you see I unboxed them all." 

Don’t you love the thought of daffodils on this bitter-cold first March day Up North? At left and below, to complement the poet's offering, is a visual preview in the form of a couple of photographs from last year.

 (Honesty compels me to add that last year's daffodils did not emerge until April, but that's not far off, is it?)

April 27, 2013

A third surprise came on Thursday morning when I opened my daily issue of Shelf Awareness and saw myself heading the page under “Quotation of the Day.” Total surprise! Thank you, Shelf Awareness and Robert Gray! Thanks for further elevating my bleak winter mood, already given boosts by Cymbre, NWS, and the mystery poet.

Yes, I’ve had worse weeks in my life than the last one of February 2014.

And look at these poor, patient lovelies. 

This group of deer has spent most of the winter yarded up in a little patch of woods on the western edge of the village of Northport. Like humans (one young mother, indoors for weeks with small children, told me she feels "like a hamster on a wheel") and dogs (thank heaven Sarah had one indoor play date this week!), local deer have been treading and retreading the same limited ground for the past couple of months. There’s no way they’ll be flying to Florida, and they don’t even have the relief of escaping through books or movies, but do they complain?

Here Up North, do we humans complain? Yes, indeed. This year, just about all of us. But February is past, March is here, and sooner or later we’ll see daffodils -- and be able to walk and run and explore in the woods again, too, Sarah. I promise! Just be patient a little longer....

P.S. If the date on this post appears as February 26, that's because I began composing and saving it on that day, and it was just too much trouble to copy the whole thing over again to make the date come out as March 1. Trust me! It is Saturday, and I'm really looking out to a sunny Waukazoo Street on the first day of March as I click on -- any moment now -- "Publish." There!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Only Constant: Change

Snow and cold are not news.
Maybe you’ve heard of Esther Forbes. In children’s literature, she made her name as the author of Johnny Tremaine, the 1943 winner of the Newbery Medal, but she also in her lifetime was one of the foremost scholars of Paul Revere and won the Pulitzer in 1942 for Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. Her first published short story, “Breakneck Hill,” won the O. Henry prize for short stories in 1915. The author was then 24 years old. You can read more about this fascinating American writer here

A novel by Esther Forbes that I’d never heard anyone mention fell off the shelf and into my hands not long ago. Rainbow on the Road tells the story, from the perspective of an old man in Kansas looking back on one summer in his youth, of an itinerant portrait painter in 18th-century New England. No less than John P. Marquand wrote of Rainbow on the Road (he is quoted on the flyleaf):
A while ago I wrote a paper in which I tried to show that no historical novel can recapture the true spirit of the past, since its writer must always present it in terms of the present. I was amazed at how mistaken I was in this idea when I read Esther Forbes’s last novel. I have never seen the illusion of a period so beautifully presented. Somehow she has caught the whole spirit of New England, which I used to recognize when I talked to very old people during my childhood. In my humble opinion, it is outstanding in every way. It is literature and by far the best thing she has ever written.
It is interesting to see that Marquand called Rainbow on the Road the “best thing she has ever written,” considering Forbes had won the O. Henry in 1915, the Pulitzer in 1942, and the Newbery in 1943. Looking back on the fact that Johnny Tremaine has never been out of print, what would anyone say now was Esther Forbes’s “best” book? And what of John P. Marquand? Sixty or seventy years ago, who would have predicted that he would be found on a website (could websites have been predicted!) calling him one of America’s “Forgotten Writers”? Sic transit gloria mundi.

Book Club edition, 1954
This morning I was telling David the bare bones of the story of Rainbow on the Road – the unschooled portrait painter, trained by apprenticeship when young as a “limner,” who painted bodies and backgrounds all winter and then traveled the countryside come summer, filling in faces and selling his canvases for $3 to $5 apiece; the handsome, womanizing highwayman whose description was close enough to the painter’s that the two were often confused in pre-photography New England; the life of all the various peddlers on the road in late 18th-century New England, days of horse-drawn coaches and stages, small town inns and public houses, rocky hills grazed by sheep, isolated farmhouses, flatboats and canals as good transportation, and political speeches as good entertainment.

Close to a third of the novel (this is only an impression, not anything I measured, and my impression may exaggerate the facts) is taken up with stories told by various characters. Speechifying, story-telling, and the making up and passing along of original ballads were ways that Yankees passed the time in those days. Their stories, added to the author’s descriptions of the countryside and plot complications as Jude Rebough is confused with Ruby Lambkin, make for a very entertaining novel. Historical verisimilitude, which Marquand praised so highly, is rich icing on a hearty cake.

One of the great themes of Rainbow on the Road is that of social change. The narrator was thirteen years old, he tells us, when he spent that summer on the road with the man who stood in the place of an uncle to him. (His “Aunt Mitty” was not a blood relative but had taken him in when his parents were killed in a road accident near her house.) As an old man looking back, he tells us, along with his story, about the way things were done then.
I guess I’ve made it clear by now that these days were before the time an artist (and seems like everybody is an artist now) could buy paint in a compressible tube with the oil and the pigment already mixed together. The powdered colors, each ground to the proper coarseness or fineness best for it, came to Dr. Bloomer in containers about like what rare tea come in. On selling them they were transferred to bladders of small animals. When Jude wished to use a certain color he’d prick the bladder with a bone tack, sprinkle out the amount he’d need, and mix in the linseed oil. But I associate the smell of oil of lavender with his work, and turpentine as well. From then on, the bladder having been breached, the tack served as a stopper....  
The biggest bladder used was that of a rabbit. If you wanted more, instead of going into sheep or swine bladders, you bought two rabbitsful. As I remember, this was about an ounce. A rat’s bladder was smaller. These were commonest but other animals served. A mouse’s bladder was the smallest unit.
I found these descriptions mesmerizing. The boy, accompanying the artist as an apprentice, never did learn to paint, but he learned to make brushes (also described), and he took over the handling of money, something for which the artist had no gift.

One of the novel’s minor characters is a peddler of broadside ballads, Phineas Sharp. Sharp puts words to tunes of his own invention and sings his way along the road, keeping his overhead low and selling copies of his lyrics. The last time Jude and Eddy meet with Sharp, the latter tells them abruptly, “I’m sixty-four,” adding, “What’s more, when I die there will be no more like me coming on.” This meeting, coming near the end of the book and near the end of the summer’s adventure for the painter and the boy, begins to sum up the changes that were in the wind all along.
“My trade’s done. Pianofortes and music stores. Sheet music. Music books. I’m the tail-end of the last. People, learned people, have told me there have always been singing men upon the road since the beginning of time. But I know they will not last on into time to come. If I had a son, or a grandson rather, I’d never learn him my trade.”  
We had come to the edge of the high ridge on which Bennington sits. Below us was the great valley into York State. The road he would follow on dipping and appearing and disappearing across it. 
 “Ballad singers and broadside men are done for,” he said.
That was the last they ever saw of Phineas Sharp, footing it along that ridge road, appearing and disappearing over and over until he passed forever out of their sight. In retrospect, the narrator sees that limners like Jude were as much a disappearing breed as broadside men.
...[Jude] was just about the tail-end of his trade too. Not the last of people like H. H. Hooper, who called themselves artists and had studios. But he was among the last of the traveling limners, for already (unbeknownst to any of us) that Frenchman, name of Daguerre, had done his work. Before you could guess it the itinerant limner was clean off the road and the daguerreotypist and the tintype men were on it.
The days of canal boats and rivermen were coming to an end, too. Soon the railroads would arrive, and the strong horses on the towpaths would disappear along with the ballad singers and limners.

As a bookseller for over 20 years, I am forced to think about and adapt as best I can to constant change. To extinction, however, one does not adapt: one succumbs. The question is, which is it to be? Bookshop proprietors have been worrying about their own demise since the first appearance of the newspaper. Movies and television and electronic games all presented new threats, while more recently it is the online world of virtual text, amusement, instant answers, and distance socializing that some think has booksellers doomed. What is the future for books? Many hazard predictions and have ideas, but no one really knows.

Lately I’ve been fretting (winter tends to encourage all kinds of fretting) about what seems like a new, disturbing development in the world of books and reading. Ten or twenty years ago, whenever anyone in my bookstore gave a sly little smile and referred to the local library as my “competition,” I’d shake my head and say, “Every town deserves a library and a bookstore. A library is not a bookstore, and a bookstore is not a library. There’s room for both.” I said that, and I believed it. For several years (two years practically single-handed) I helped run our local library’s summer guest author series. But recently I’ve felt a rumbling underground, changes beneath my feet, the carpet moving under me, and I’m wondering more and more if bookstores and libraries are complementary, as I have been invested in believing for so long, or if economic reality has conspired to cast booksellers and librarians as competitors.

Research into recent developments is better done online than in old books, so I began poking around. One library site, rather than describe or predict, went in for prescription: 
In the end, there should be no competition between bookshops and libraries.    Authors, publishers, booksellers, and libraries would do well to view each other as allies in the struggle to preserve literacy and instill a passion for reading and learning in all of mankind.  When everybody reads, everybody wins.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? That is definitely the world I want to see, the one I love to believe in, as I’ve loved libraries and librarians all my life -- and still do! On the other hand, here’s a retired librarian proposing that librarians become booksellers. What happens then to “no competition” between us? 

I found some ideas from the year 2010 for ways bookstores and libraries can collaborateand I found an opinion from 2014 from a radio talk show host who believes bookstores should be more like libraries and libraries more like bookstores. Problem: Library funding is discussed; bookstore revenue is pretty much glossed over. Numbers of people through the door mean nothing to a bookstore’s bottom line. Nothing counts but sales.

A piece from Forbes magazine was the scariest. The writer, Mark Bodnick, predicts that public libraries will go extinct, following the disappearance of bookstores, because anyone will be able to download whatever they want to read without going to either a bookstore or a library.

I cannot read the future. Quite frankly, I find more enjoyment visiting the past via books – and visiting real, live friends face to face, whenever possible, spending time with them in the same room, although we have no “need” to do more than call each other on the phone or chat through Facebook. But that’s just me, and my feelings prove nothing about what will come to pass with books in the years ahead.

I could be that I am one of the last of a vanishing breed. If that’s the way things turn out, I will be grateful to the end of my days for such a wonderful experience: my own bookstore, surrounded by books, meeting strangers, making friends, helping customers, and getting to know writers in this world we shared as the 20th century turned to the 21st on planet Earth.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Midwinter Potluck

February 21, 2014
[I wrote this on Friday but waited until this (Saturday) morning to post it. Please note that today is Northport's Winter Carnival out at Braman Hill -- chili cook-off contest, cardboard sled races for the little ones, milk jug curling for the older crowd, etc., etc. A fine, wint'ry time will be had by all who attend.]

View out front window
No single large topic. It’s a wild, windy day, and my brain doesn’t want to settle down. Big news is that the ice caves are over! Open water, moving ice, very dangerous! Don’t go! Okay, that was my public service announcement, and now for the more mundane agenda:

(1)        I’ve been noticing something for several years now. When I was in grade school (and my grade’s spelling champion from third through sixth grade), we spelled anyone, anywhere, anyhow, anyway as single words; any time was two separate words, as was any more. We had no rule to tell us whether to separate the words or not, any more than French has a rule for whether a noun takes the feminine or masculine article. It was just something we had to learn, one instance a time. Increasingly these days, American-style English seems to jam together any two words of which the first word is any. I’m not going off on a tirade about this. It’s no big deal. Language evolves, and common phrases tend to associate more closely over time, baby sitter becoming baby-sitter becoming babysitter. In fact, copy editor became copy-editor became copyeditor, and all the young copyeditors operate on the jammed-together style. Well, yes, I can learn new tricks and make a point to do so from time to time. But change my ways on these spellings? Don’t look for me to be doing that any time soon. Old spelling champions’ habits die hard. -- And there the spelling program wants me to squash together die and hard, but diehard (a noun) isn’t what I mean: I’m talking about dying hard! Sheesh!

(2)        Here’s another recent linguistic phenomenon. The word so used to function almost exclusively as a transition word, an alternative to thus or therefore or in order to. Some years ago, I noticed someone using it apparently at random, not as a transition from one thought to a logical implication but simply to begin a sentence. She might be answering a question or merely introducing a topic. "So, we were doing such-and-such...." The word so here functioned basically as a verbal throat-clearing, with no more meaning than uh. Again, this is not a tirade I’m embarking on. No big deal. But I find it interesting to note how pervasive what I call "the throat-clearing so" has become. Listen for it the next time you hear someone being interviewed on radio. And beware (if you have not already succumbed), because it can be contagious, which is no doubt that’s why we’re hearing it everywhere these days. Not very important, and yet it strikes my ear as a kind of verbal tic, and I’m trying mightily to resist it.

(3)        Well, then there’s the academic who thinks we could get all perfectly well without commas, but I’m not about to get into that one. You can guess which side I’d be on, anyway

(4)        About leaving comments on this blog: More than one person has asked me in frustration if they must have a Google account to leave comments. “It keeps asking me for my Google account name!” My intrepid, persevering sister (one of them; actually, I have two, both of whom are intrepid and persevering) figured out why she was encountering that particular roadblock. It was because her browser default was set to Google, i.e., she was on Google (on?) while trying to leave a comment. If you don’t want a Google account, you can visit via another browser and post a comment as Anonymous. What was interesting to me was that people could be on Google and not know it. But, more importantly, now that I've given you the key, please go back a couple of days and leave a comment on the most recent book review post to be eligible for a book giveaway. A name will be chosen a week from today, Saturday, March 1 (weather permitting!).

The way it looks today
The LAW OFFICE sign will be gone from the front of the building by summer. We were shocked and saddened by the sudden, unexpected death of our lawyer neighbor, Bill. Moving forward, however, David was hard at work on this stormy Friday, painting the floor a brighter, cheerier color as he prepares to expand his gallery space right up to the windows onto Waukazoo Street. 

A can of paint, a bowl of chili from the Garage Bar & Grill -- let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! -- As if we had a choice, right?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Grants Are Great But Not a Long-Term Solution

The biggest news in the book world this week, which I mention in case you have been vacationing on Mars and missed all the announcements, is that bestselling author James Patterson is giving a million dollars in grant money to over fifty independent bookstores across the United States. Julie Bosman, writing for the New York Times, claims, “Independent bookstores ... have found themselves a Daddy Warbucks.” The Warbucks analogy makes for a catchy sentence, but it’s unlikely that Patterson will be coming back to the same bookstores again and again to rescue them from oblivion, and the recipients of the grants aren't counting on that, either. They are, however, making plans to do things they would otherwise be unable to do so quickly or easily, if at all.

One of my regular customers (and a good friend) asked if I’d applied. No, I didn’t. New books are only a fraction of my shop’s inventory, I’m not in a major city, I have no paid staff – I didn’t think I would fit the profile. But I'm happy for all those whose mini-grant applications were funded.

It’s very generous of Patterson to shell out a million dollars to independent bookstores, especially since, with his reputation, he could live the rest of his life on the profits from online sales. (Can you imagine if your novels accounted for one out of every 17 hardcover novels sold for four years running?) What he realizes – and clearly deeply cares about – is that in the current business climate, not only are bookstores “at risk” (chains as well as indies, if not more so), but also libraries, publishers, and “the future of American literature.” In my view, it is the attention he brings to these issues that has value far above and beyond the individual grants to individual bookstores.

Did everyone reading today’s post notice the new banner text at the top of the Books in Northport site? I feel I need to be much more up-front about the difference between Dog Ears Books and the online behemoth seller of “everything.” (If you think the behemoth seller is creating jobs, please read what one of the most wealthy one-percenters has to say.) Behemoth does not even have highest possible profits as a goal: the goal is nothing short of world domination, annihilating all competition, leaving nothing but scorched earth for “consumers.”

Please ask yourselves these questions: How long will books remain “cheap” (cheapened by the behemoth) if market world domination is achieved? More importantly – the question implied in Patterson’s warning – what level of quality can we continue to expect of books (whether physical, virtual, residing in clouds, or whatever), and what variety will be available, in the event that the behemoth succeeds in the world domination plan? What will get “published,” and what won’t? What books will you hear about, and how?

Recently I wrote that more and more I feel like a “character in a fantasy novel.” It isn’t that I consider my tiny contribution to the world of literature the deciding factor in literature’s future – hardly! I can be called a lot of things but not, I think, a megalomaniac! What I do believe, very strongly, is that it’s important for each small individual to do his or her part to bring about the world we want to see in the future. This is my Sixties background: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

And if you want, if you value, for yourselves, your children, your grandchildren, a future with bookstores, with libraries, with bona fide quality publishers, and a future in which at least a few novelists and poets and writers can make a living by writing, while the rest make at least part of their living that way, you need to consider very carefully where you make your book purchases. It matters. If my bookstore were to vanish tomorrow, it would still matter.

The way we live today is shaping the world of tomorrow.

***Please see my previous post and leave a comment to qualify for a drawing in the current book giveaway, courtesy of Viking Books. Sorry, overseas readers, the offer is good only within the United States. But thank you, as always, for visiting Books in Northport.

February 2012 - still one of my favorite pictures

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


This Is Not an Accident: Stories and a Novella, by April Wilder
NY: Viking, 2014
Hardcover, $26.95

What would you do if you were stood up for a date after driving from Wisconsin to Iowa City to meet someone you’d met through an online service? Would you get blotto and not remember the drive home the next day? Would you then begin to obsess over the possibility that you could have killed someone on the road and not remembered the event? And would you then begin compulsively repeating the Wisconsin-Iowa round trip, searching along the way for signs that would tell you what might have happened on the drive home you don’t remember? What about the speeding tickets, the driving class, the traffic court? How would you handle these situations?

Whatever answers you came up with to those questions, you can throw them in the wastebasket, because you are not Kat, the protagonist in the title story of Wilder’s collection.

Wilder’s cast of characters forms an almost coherent group of incoherent lives. Kat, a cartoonist, by virtue of her work, exhibits some direction and drive; it’s just that her on/off switch is triggered more by chance than decision. But Kat is likable. Characters in the other stories are not always as sympathetic. That is, I liked Kat and found her sympathetic, but in part because she reminded me of a dear friend, whose responses are never like those of anyone else I know. More generally, one of the things that kept me going with this book was the varied and even wild responses of the characters in the stories and the bizarre situations they created by responding in surprising ways to earlier unexpected situations they encountered.

What’s around the next corner? What will the new day bring? Is everything an accident?

Another standout feature of Wilder’s fiction is her gift for original simile and generalization to capture perfectly the feel of a moment, a gesture, or an appearance. Of the young man named Odd (I couldn’t help thinking, weren’t they all?), Wilder writes “He was one of those guys who can’t grow a real beard and so shaves every day to hide the places where no hair grows.”  In another story, Lauren thinks of her friend Wahl, trying to decide if he is attractive,
The veganism figured in. He burped like an opera singer holding a note, as if to brag that his weren’t regular burps but special vegan ones.
There are also flashes of commonsense wisdom when you least expect it, as when Kat’s sister, who works as a mermaid, performing underwater moves in a tank for the drinkers on the other side of the bar, tries once again to set her straight:
... Around Angel’s eyes the skin gathered, a look similar to the one she got when Kat explained how someone had wronged her, and Angel would cut her off and say, “Okay, wait a minute: so you seem to be proceeding under the assumption that other people are telling the truth. Is that right? Is that your plan for getting through life?” And Kat would be left making minnowy gaping motions with her mouth.
The last story before the closing novella takes an unusual form. By the third item on the questionnaire that is titled “Creative Writing Instructor Evaluation Form,” we know it’s headed down a strange road. Will there be a crash?

Then comes the novella. In “You’re That Guy,” we meet Eckhart at 3 a.m. in a car in Utah with a friend. Gradually, in bits and pieces, we learn what preceded their drive across the desert, and eventually we find ourselves with Eckhart more or less settled down, and more or less falling in love with a Mormon girl (or at least a former Mormon, a girl who was raised Mormon), but by that point any connection to the malaise into which Eckhart had fallen before Russ rescued him seems tangential at best. Then comes an accidental encounter with a mentally ill man in a 7-Eleven, changing the story’s trajectory once more.
As Eckhart crouched to chain up Clyde, he noticed the people in line inside the store drop their eyes as the guy passed, making exaggerated room like you would for someone carrying a live marlin.
It isn’t a marlin. The guy is carrying a doll, dressed in child’s clothes, a doll he treats as a live baby and that other people around him, so as not to disturb whatever delicate equilibrium the doll allows him, also treat and speak of as a child.

I had a hard time with “You’re That Guy.” As the vegetative claustrophobia of the early parts of the novella gave way to an almost equally pointless, claustrophobic Utah social scene, all I wanted for page after page was to escape the main character’s life. Another friend of mine often recommends to me depressing or violent serious movies that she describes as “hard to watch.” If “You’re That Guy” were a movie, I’m sure I would find it hard to watch. But when I reached the last sentence – what can I say? – I was glad I’d stuck with it. Life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards, as Kierkegaard noted. That’s pretty much how I felt in retrospect about this novella.

“She didn’t make an active, conscious decision as far as she could recall.” That was Kat, trying to chart after the fact her unplanned replay of the Wisconsin-Iowa expressway drive, but it could just as well be said of all the characters in This Is Not an Accident at one point or another. Oh, these people plan to a certain extent, of course. They decide some things. Lauren plans a European vacation with Wahl and agrees to three days in Denmark. She even agrees to staying in hostels, although she would prefer more privacy, because that’s the way Wahl can afford the trip, and she will be dependent on his language skills and travel confidence. They’re not lovers, so how much can go wrong? The unplanned, the unexpected, default mode in place of decision, or a decision made under pressure affect the course of even the conservative and successful lives.

My guess is that the main audience for Wilder’s fiction will be the 25-50 crowd, old enough to be sophisticated, young enough to be hip, postmodern enough to be patient when the fictional lives get “hard to watch.” Wilder is a gifted writer. This is her first book. Who knows where she’ll go next? I would not dare to hazard a guess!

And now a surprise: the publisher is offering a giveaway of April Wilder’s This Is Not An Accident, and all you have to do is leave a comment here to say why you’re interested in reading the book, and the winner’s name will be drawn at random. Thank you – and good luck!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The New Golden Calf

With all the digital technology and digitized information at our fingertips these days, it’s getting harder and harder to tell who knows what. Is he smart, or is it just his phone? In some cases, both human and phone can be called smart, but you see my point, and perhaps an important distinction is lost when we apply the same word to a person and an appliance – or application – or app.

Early in the European occupation of America, indigenous peoples’ opinions on the value of the written word divided into two camps. To some it was little short of magic, while others, when they understood what was going on with reading and writing, saw the written word as compensation for the white race’s poor memory, a kind of interpersonal and historical crutch. Maybe it is a crutch. After all, no single person can hold in her head all the knowledge, all the science, history, poetry, and drama of the world’s books.

Yet as far as I know, humans have never attributed intelligence to the objects we call books. We see clearly and accurately that the written word is a means of storage and conveyance, dependant on writers and thinkers and researchers and creators at points of origin and on receptive, discerning, comprehending, critical minds at the other end. Without the critical function of intelligence in reading, readers would be nothing but “smart,” preening parrots.

Oh-oh. I see a long road unfurling before me here, the first steps taken in the paragraphs above, but I’m a couple days into a winter cold and not feeling energetic enough for a long journey. No one will mind, I’m sure, if I simply share a couple of anecdotes?

In my first year of graduate study in philosophy, a post-doctoral fellow said of someone she’d been in school with, “At first I thought he was really smart, and then I realized he was just counterexample smart.” Counterexample smart! That phrase captured so much! The counterexample smart student never saw the virtues of another’s position, never contributed to building its strength or complexity, but neither did he ever fault the position in a thoughtful way, and never did he remain a silent listener, leaving the argument to others. No, he always leapt into the fray, and his refutations invariably took the form of coming up with a counterexample, no matter how outlandish or obscure. It was the only arrow he ever had in his quiver. A counterexample can be an important, serious objection to an argument, and strengthening an argument often has to do with making it impervious to counterexamples. But there is so much more to thinking and arguing and philosophy!

My other anecdote concerns a small event that took place in my bookstore, part of a conversation I was having with a very smart, very educated friend, who is also a strong supporter of my bookstore, i.e., he buys books from me on a regular basis. All this I say to make clear that the improvised contest that popped up between us one day had nothing in it but curiosity and good nature.

We were recalling one of Ogden Nash’s silly poems, “Very Like a Whale,” and talking of metaphor and simile in general, when it suddenly became very important to me to remember the name of the poet Nash was lampooning. “The Assyrian... purple and gold.” Who was it?

My friend snapped his fingers. “Just a minute! I can tell you!”

He pulled out his cell phone, telling me that he had recently downloaded a new app that would answer the question. While his fingers repeatedly swiped the tiny screen, I went to the poetry section of my bookstore and pulled an anthology from the shelves. 

The race was on!

The chronology of the first anthology ended too soon. I pulled down a second book, which had an index of first lines. Excellent! But oh, no! Whoever alphabetized the list had included the initial words “A,” “An,” and “The” in the list! My friend’s fingers were still swiping, as mine scrolled, so to speak, down the page, through all first lines beginning with “The.” There it was! With a page number! I flipped to the page, and voilĂ !

“Lord Byron!” I called out in triumph. Then, joyously, I added, “Book beats app! Book beats app!” 

My best-beloved technology, the printed word bound into books, had been challenged and had met the test. My friend remained good-natured in the face of the book’s victory. If by chance he reads this, I’ll bet he even laughs out loud.

Okay, in general, most of the time, the app (how I hate that word!) would probably be faster – provided, that is, the answer to the questioned posed has somewhere, somehow, by someone, been uploaded to the world-wide web. There’s an awful lot “out there,” but it’s not true that “Everything is out there.” For example, one year I was interviewed by Fine Books and Collections magazine, and the interview appeared in print, but it is nowhere online. There is a lot of genealogy and local history online -- and there’s a lot that isn’t there, too.

More and more I feel like a character in a fantasy novel (an old, eccentric character in an odd, hidden-away corner of the world) as I think of all the “knowledge” stored in “clouds” and wonder what would happen if these clouds were to be dispersed – or censored – or if for any reason clicking and swiping stopped bringing the desired effect. Is that scenario so hard to imagine? Is it apocalyptic thinking? Paranoia?

Then again, on another level, I simply enjoy the search for answers. And in conversation, cooperative thought and figuring things out together with friends can be entertaining as well as informative. “Saving time” with instant answers can be, in fact, a conversational deal-breaker, turning what started out as conversation into a technology-worship session. Have you ever had an experience like this? Instead of the instant answer returning the group to its original conversation, the person with the “smart” phone engages in hijacking: “And look what else it can do! And I can do this! And this....” At that point, unless you’re the one with the phone, your role is reduced to ooh-ing and ah-ing.

After “book beat app” in the incident I’ve described, my friend pocketed his cell phone, I returned my book to the shelf, and we continued our enjoyable, congenial discussion of metaphor and poetry. We were happy to be surrounded by books but felt under no obligation to worship or attribute intelligence to them. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Pecan grove in midwinter -- no blossoms yet, but (please note) no snow, either.

A Tough Nut to Kill, by Elizabeth Lee
NY: Berkley Prime Crime, 2014
Paper, $7.99

It’s always a happy day when a Michigan writer comes out with something new, and our own Elizabeth Buzzelli, now writing under the name Elizabeth Lee, gives us additional joy this winter with A Tough Nut to Kill. The first book in a new series, Tough Nut spirits away from Up North mountains of snow, sub-zero temperatures, and treacherous road conditions, taking us into the Southern life of Lindy Blanchard, third-generation member of a Texas pecan ranching family.

The season is summer. The temperature is hot! And when Linda discovers the body of her uncle Amos, lying dead on the floor of her greenhouse with a plant stake through his chest, surrounded by viciously destroyed trees, the search for the killer begins!

As readers we can’t help suspecting just about everyone in sight, and the author doesn’t simplify our task. Lindy’s brother, Justin, muddies the waters further by insisting that Amos may be the killer’s second victim. You see, Justin never accepted his father death three years before as an accident. Amos made plenty of enemies, but who could have wanted to Jake dead? Are other family members in danger?

And why would anyone want to destroy Lindy’s project, research into developing a strain of drought- and disease-resistant pecan trees to benefit all the ranchers in the region? Church ladies, wild hogs, competition over who bakes the best pecan pie – you know you’re somewhere else, and you’re darned glad to be there, chasing down clues with Linda and her Meemaw, the redoubtable, people-smart Miss Amelia. Great fun!

Happy Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"How Deep Is Your Love?"

You found the heart; now find the agates.

If your life’s love wants roses and violets in February, he or she best not live in Michigan. No, not true. Roses and violets can always be had if you know where to go. Look to a florist shop or flip through greeting cards, if that’s the way you want to go. Popular culture, traditional stuff -- what was it that English prof called it? I forget. The comforting, the familiar, the lulling.

Lulling. Lullaby. “The cradle will fall”? Before words have meaning, the baby is lulled by rhythm and music. Sound. Movement.

This morning I turned the pages of Poetry in Michigan, the beautiful new book from New Issues Press, wondering if it might possibly contain the kind of love poem associated with Valentine’s Day. I didn’t expect and didn’t find such a poem. But I did find stunningly beautiful lines, both in the text and in the many pages of full-page art. Robert Fanning’s “What Is Written on the Leaves” is more a funeral elegy than a love poem, and yet its litany of farewells spoke, to me, of the beauty of life and this world. 
Of the season, let go. Of the ache to shape and make meaning,  
let go. Of the hand in the dark, moss and worm, the awful gnaw.  
Of the docked tongue, the root-clenched heart. Let go trunk mold,  
branch rot. Of the green shoot that sprouts through your death,  
being born, let go. Of quietude of a peace so deep,    
of the changing light—of the euphonious chorus  
of children, let go....
From this quiet, dark, woodsy beginning the poem builds slowly, urging the reader to let go of all manner of human responses and questions, as well as moods of nature, each one specific and familiar, until the last line lifts off the page and vanishes on the breeze, leaving calm in its wake.

In the middle of “Aerial View of Warren, Michigan, by Jim Daniels, a poem that compares the houses of his boyhood neighborhood to the little green look-alike houses of the Monopoly game always in play then, the poet gives us this stanza, one that made me smile in recognition:
We stood on stoops and called each other out to play.  
We did not trust doorbells or any closed door.  
Anyone with a piano or a dog of recognizable breed.
Teresa Scollon appears in this anthology, I’m happy to say. “July Fourth,” a poem recalling her father’s appearance in the parade.
We agreed it’d be good for the town to see  
you. Stories had you half buried already,  
and we were all so broken, panicked  
but not saying so. And you relished the joke   

 of a sick man running for office, so Irish  
in its blackness—nothing funnier than disaster.
So before he died, there were laughs and smiles and “that mile and a half of public sun.”

I like Scollon’s identification of her father’s parade event as “so Irish,” Daniels’s image of suburban Warren as a place where “a dog of recognizable breed was suspect.” Because before we can “let go” of all these moments, these memories, the feelings they hold, we must experience them, and do we ever fully experience anything we don’t hold in memory? Alison Swan recalls a lifeboat in the dunes, Jim Harrison a day of walking through Michigan woods, Diane Wakoski “the rain forest of old kitchens.”

Susan Blackwell Ramsey, in “Neruda in Kalamazoo,” imagines the poet Pablo Neruda in a Kalamazoo coffee house, skeptical of poetry or love’s possibility in that town, until a trio of random images changes the potential of the scene. Austin Hummell writes about ice, under the deceptive title “Look at the Pretty Clouds,” in ways that bring ice to the forefront of a reader’s attention. Not hard at this time of year, to think of ice, but you think of it differently with this poem reverberating in your skull.

“Is the world too close or too far?” That’s a line in “Holding,” by Mary Jo Firth Gillett, and doesn’t it capture one of poetry’s perennial questions? I am happy to meet Judith Minty again, with “First Snow,” and have a visit with Jack Driscoll over “Houdini.”

Then there are the images, the works of art that grace full pages opposite many pages of text. Painting and poetry, realistic  and abstract, each one invites long exploration. David Grath’s work (two in this volume) I know well, of course, and Ladislav Hanka is an old friend of ours, but others are new to me. One artist whose work I am thrilled to discover in this book is Karin Wagner Coron.

David Grath

Ladislav Hanka

Karin Wagner Coron

And many more, of course.

My subject heading this morning comes from a popular song, but I admit I use it tongue-in-cheek here, realizing that not everyone’s idea of the perfect Valentine gift would be something as “challenging” as a book of art and poetry. Many people, I know, are frightened by the very word ‘poetry’! (They’ve told me so.) I would do away with that fear, if I could, but we’re all different. So if your Valentine, the love of your life, wants roses or a gold watch or a new snowblower or chainsaw instead of poetry, then do, by all means, give your love something that will thrill his or her heart. I’m only presenting an option. And remember, there are a lot of colorful pictures in this book, too. Actually, it could as well have been called Art and Poetry in Michigan. That would have been my title.

True love takes many forms. It does not, however, take a holiday. It isn't afraid of a little snow, either. 

Sarah on Tuesday morning

Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Vacation on Manitoulin Island (with the Old Dog)

On September 21, 2006, we crossed the bridge from Espanola, Ontario, to the town of Little Current on Manitoulin Island, where we had reserved a cabin (#4) for four days on the shore of Lake Manitou, outside the village of Manitowaning, at an old-fashioned resort called Wee Point. Here are a few selected travel notes from that Canadian vacation seven years ago.
Down the road [I explore with my dog], clambering over hills and dips in tree-surrounded, rock-strewn pasture, where lifeless black surfaces break through the earth’s skin blossom with lichens, mosses, grass, wildflowers, and seedlings. From somewhere off in the trees comes a loud “HONK!” low and singular. Cow? Moose? Nikki is excited and wants to run [but must stay on leash because of cattle]. ...  
David puts up with the absence of television. I put up with radio news and music. He misses movies, and I plot to escape current events. I only want Little Current! And cattle. And the heartaching colors of fall. The idea of lynx and moose and bear. 
I read to David in bed from Hamlin Garland’s Son of the Middle Border, and the passage of Garland’s first trip “to see the world” (Minnesota and Wisconsin and South Dakota), traveling by train, staying in hotels, and writing letters to friends back home in Iowa, reminds me of myself and my continuing excitement over the myriad small novelties discovered away from home: “A landscape is precisely as great as the impression it makes upon the perceiving mind. I was a traveller at last! – That seemed to be my chiefest joy and I extracted from each day all the ecstasy it contained.” 
I had to carry Nikki over the cattle guards at the gates, but she was interested in the smells and eager to explore. Out at the main road I went left (north?), and there they were, a long line of them, different ages and different colors (grade cows?), passing through a gate in single file and dispersing into the rocky woods. Along the fence was sumac halfway gone from green to red, dry seedheads of teasel, a volunteer apple seedling amid a riot of fall flowers, mostly asters and goldenrod. Sumac “on fire” warms the soul on a chilly morning. So do lowing cattle in an orderly procession, all on their own with no need to be driven.
Coming back from another dog walk later in the day I met Pat, who owns Wee Point along with her husband, Jim.
As I’d imagined, Jim did paint the resort signs and lawn furniture and shutters on the cabins. Made them, too. From Manitowaning, he sailed the Great Lakes for 17 years, then got a license and ran an auto shop. Pat grew up in Little Current. They married in 1967.  
Pat thinks the cattle are particularly noisy because calves have been taken recently from their mothers, but she also says there was no big annual auction this year in Little Current. [Historically, the economic base of the island has always been feeder cattle and tourism.] The tornado in July (talked of in South Baymouth today when I was buying postcards) damaged the auction buildings too badly, and also the organizer of many years died.
A woodpecker landed on a tree behind Pat. She said a recent guest had asked if one woodpecker were a pet, saying, “It seemed to want its picture taken.” A farmer owns the land between the gate at the road and the gate into the resort. ... The painting on the outdoor chairs and tables, as well as a small coffee table inside, is bright and gypsy-like. “Diamond Jim,” he was called, and the shutters (each cottage with its own motif) all have a diamond somewhere in the design.
On 9/14, after a day of exploring to Kagawong and back, I write:
Still here, I anticipate already my future longing for this island. It’s hard to believe that two days [spent here] two years ago produced such an attachment that I felt wrenched away when we reached the swing bridge at Little Current and I had to say a very unwilling good-by. 
“Burnt” bacon for breakfast, per David’s request, fills the cabin with smoke, and we take our plates outside to the lakeside picnic table. On our way out the drive later, going to town on errands, David starts in explaining cross-ventilation to me for the millionth time, and I interrupt to tell him I already know, and we both start laughing so hard he has to stop the car.  
In Manitowaning, what we had taken to be a bank turns out to be the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. We find a Bank of Montreal sharing a building with the post office, and there I change $50 before doing a small shopping at the Fresh-Mart. Because the used bookstore at Burns Harbor doesn’t open until noon, we find ourselves back at the Muskie Widows Tavern for coffee out on the deck, to the accompaniment of a welder roar and rumble from a construction site across the street, where a metal pole barn is being added to a lovely old limestone block building. The welder noise bothers David not at all. “This is perfect,” he says contentedly. “Cooling our heels here, waiting for the bookstore to open.”
Can this be called “travel”? It’s the way we like it – not doing anything special, just hanging out and feeling at home in a place far from home. No plot, no conflict, no suspense.

On our last Manitoulin morning, cattle appeared to bid us farewell.
One beautiful, big, cream-colored cow stretches her neck up gracefully to reach and nibble popple leaves. Her ears hang down sweetly. She walks off into the trees and emerges on the road in front of us, then strolls down the road, free of all concern.
Later, on the mainland, looking north at a low cloudbank that rests over the LaCloche Mountains (the La = the the?), I notice that the mountain rock has the same color range as the cattle we have left behind – white and cream and gold and brick red.
In the sunlight, the same colors as the cattle, the rocks look warm, not cold. Like animals, they invite the human hand.
Sorry for lack of photographs. I searched high and low and found many other files from 2006 but nothing from September.

My search through old photo files did, however, turn up beautiful, sobering images of Up North spring that counter a claim made by one of our friends the other day that we are “halfway through winter.” Here are a couple reminders of winter-spring not long ago. First, here's March of 2012:

Then, late April of 2011:

On the other side of the coin is that four days after the four snowy photographs above were taken, the snow was gone, and I found these little flowers in the woods, Sunday (Easter Sunday), April 24, 2011:

 Now, wouldn't you rather look at those woodland wildflowers than at more pictures of snowdrifts today in my farmyard driveway?

4:15 p.m. Coming back to add a p.s. to say that I have updated my other blogs today, also -- the photography blog, the drawing blog, and the one where I rant about all kinds of miscellaneous stuff. Warning: If you read the last one linked there, it may blow the top off your head!