Search This Blog

Monday, September 29, 2014

Airchair Travel, Time Travel, From Main to Nebraska

There are two books in today’s post. The more recent title is Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, by Ted Kooser, familiar to me as a poet (poet laureate of the U.S., 2004-2006) and more particularly, since I live in Leelanau County, Michigan, as a poet who collaborated with former county resident and poet Jim Harrison in a book called Braided Creek. The other title today is One Man’s Meat, by the iconic E. B. White, first published in 1942. For the story of this book becoming an American classic, follow the link.

The author of Charlotte’s Web (to name only one other among his many other writings) lived in Maine during the time he wrote the essays contained in One Man’s Meat, some of which were published originally in Harper’s and the New Yorker. Kooser, born and raised in Iowa, writes these days from Nebraska. Separated as their authors are by decades, the works of these two poetic essayists dovetail beautifully. Both write of memory and books, country living, farm neighbors, the natural world around them, and the larger social and political reality of nearby villages and the world beyond.

Kooser can’t help writing poetry even when he’s writing prose (thank heaven!), and so we get descriptions (these are of winter) like the following:
A maple, bare now but which all summer bent heavily over its leafy shadow, can scarcely hold itself back from human happiness under the least touch of the breeze. 

A dozen sparrows burst from a bush by the road, like somebody’s name remembered after fifty years.
White is by turns reflective, practical, curmudgeonly, and downright funny, and sometimes he’s a couple of those at once. Here he is on the subject of his experience of the 1939 World’s Fair:
The voice of Mr. Kaltenborn in the City of Man says, “They come with joyous song,” but the truth is there is very little joyous song in the Fair grounds. There is a great deal of electrically transmitted joy, but very little spontaneous joy. Tomorrow’s music, I noticed, came mostly from Yesterday’s singer....
Maine’s land and sea figures largely in many of the journalistic essays in One Man’s Meat. Here’s how January 1939 begins:
A seacoast farm, such as this, extends far beyond the boundaries mentioned in the deed. My domain is arable many miles offshore, in the restless fields of protein. Cultivation begins close to the house with a rhubarb patch, but it ends down the bay beyond the outer islands, hand-lining for cod and haddock, with gulls like gnats around your eyes, and the threat of fog always in the pit of your stomach.
But you see? He can’t help writing like a poet, either. I breathe deeply of the salty sea breeze and then turn back to landlocked Nebraska, of which Kooser writes,
People who depend on good weather for a good life – farmers, their families, and field hands – in country where the sky has pressed the dirt flat and pushed the great forests back under the grass, show us how much the weather weighs. Bent-backed under the leaden skies of winter, round-shouldered under the steel blue skies of summer, in their old age shrunken in height and walking with canes, they show us. And their buildings, put up like props to hold up their part of the sky, show it as well. The barns lean to one side and collapse, the porch roofs hang from the eaves and fall, the outbuildings crumple and drop out of sight in the brush at the edge of the ironed-out fields.
Rhubarb patch? Check. Collapsing barn? Check. As a friend of mine likes to say, stoutly, forestalling any criticism of her way of dress or housekeeping, “I live in the country!” From Maine in the 1930s and ‘40s and Nebraska far from the Great Lakes, I recognize in the essays of White and Kooser the life around me today in northern Michigan, and I feel they are both my neighbors.

Postscript Monday morning: Having finished both books now, I want to read them again immediately, out loud to David. I did read aloud to David and a friend who stopped by the bookshop on Sunday afternoon (we were there for less than an hour) White’s thoughts on poetry, and I’ve bookmarked one of Kooser’s passages about his old dog.

Sometimes I hear idle browsers (not serious browsers, who are quiet until they suddenly shriek with joy) muttering that they “already have too many books.” Here’s what Ted Kooser has to say about that:
I spend lots of winter days with books. I probably have the largest private library in Seward County, thousands of books. I can’t resist them. ... If I were to read two of three books every week, I couldn’t live long enough to read through the ones I buy....
White's book reminds me that it doesn’t matter how old the book is when one first reads it: the discovery for the first-time reader is always new. And having other worlds on the shelf, inviting future exploration, adds a feeling of wealth to a modest country home.

Ted Kooser was born in the spring of 1939, while the first entry in the collection by E. B. White (another Teddy when young?) begins in July 1938, when he moved with his family from New York City to rural Maine. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that White and Kooser ever crossed paths, much less sat in the same room together. Yet Kooser must have read some of White’s books (surely The Elements of Style, co-authored with William Strunk, Jr.!), and there’s no doubt in my mind that White would have appreciated Kooser’s poetry, as well as his sometimes-wry poetic prose. I’m thinking here of Kooser comparing Harold Stassen to a leaf-footed bug that appeared in his house one year after two or three hard frosts:
Occasionally, when suddenly agitated by some mysterious force, he would fly for a short distance, awkwardly whirring down the air of a room, to smack head-on into a wall on the other side. When the house was quiet, there would be a little click. The leaf-footed bug would fall to the floor, slowly to gather itself as if brushing off its coat, and slowly move on. I was reminded of Harold Stassen, campaigning for president again and again. It was encoded behavior, I suspect, deeply imprinted in his genes, a complete disregard for failure.
That passage makes me smile, even though I greatly admired Harold Stassen and everything he stood for, including his unwillingness to admit defeat. I suspect that Kooser admired that too and also admired the little bug he came to look for around his house every day, having once noticed it, and I’m sure White would have appreciated and admired the candidate, the bug, and the poet’s description and the analogy.

In the couple of pages of E. B. White that I read aloud to David and Ed on Sunday, there appeared these two sentences, in parentheses in the original:
...(I sound as if I were contemptuous of poets; the fact is, I am jealous of them. I would rather be one than anything.)
This comes from a writer who had put down the following sentences only a page before:
There are many types of poetical obscurity. There is the obscurity which results from the poet’s being mad. This is rare. Madness in poets is as uncommon as madness in dogs. A discouraging number of reputable poets are sane beyond recall. There is also the obscurity which is the result of the poet’s wishing to appear mad, even if only a little mad. This is rather common and rather dreadful. I know of nothing more distasteful than the work of a poet who has taken leave of his reason deliberately, as a commuter might of his wife.
Don’t you sense that Mr. White’s prose is clearly in the service of poetry? That he is touched not by madness but by poetry himself? Had their lives not been separated by time and space, surely White and Kooser would have been great friends!

Well, now they have met, in my life, in my private library, and they will share shelf space for as long as my books and I continue life together. Like Kooser, I have books yet unopened (e.g., those paperbound Louis Lavelles I bought in Paris years ago), and as White notes, there is always more work in a country life than there is time in a day to get it done (he became, in his country life, the farmer I long to be), but there is always room and time for more books in my life, if they are rich enough, as these are, to bear re-reading. Reading them makes me happy. Introducing other readers to their charm and wisdom will be another kind of happiness. I do lead a charmed life!

Both books are still in print and will be available by Saturday, as new paperbacks, at Dog Ears Books.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Presence, Online and On the Street

Indoors today --
“Do you have an online presence?” one visitor to the bookstore asked me. (Visitors with the most questions are sometimes those least interested in looking at books, or so it seems. They’ll ask if I’m open all year rather than take advantage of the fact that I’m open now and they’re here now, and it’s unlikely they plan to come back in February, anyway.) Well, I have this blog online, and I have a limited number of my special books described on the Dog Ears Books website, but it isn’t one-click shopping. I was an early participant in the first open-to-the-public, multi-dealer, used book marketplace, back in the mid-1990s, but the Internet has changed enormously since then, so now I go my own way, here on Waukazoo Street and online.

Then, lo and behold! In Friday morning’s mail came a letter addressed to me from the online behemoth itself, urging me to sign up for its “local register.” Yes, the behemoth wants to jump on the “local” bandwagon, now that local has become hip and cool and people are getting wise to supporting their home communities. The letter – well, more a flier, really; there was no “Dear” salutation or closing from any particular person with any kind of title – began not with a statement of invitation or a question about my interest but with a simple imperative:

“Accept Payment Wherever Your Business Takes You”

That’s right. The command had no punctuation, and every word in what would, with a period, constitute a sentence was capitalized. Strange? Stranger yet, to my eye, was the meaning of the sentence. “Wherever My Business Takes Me”? As in, away from my business on Waukazoo Street? This would be local how?

Welcome to my world
Okay, you already know it will be a cold day at the center of the earth before I’d sign on with the behemoth, but by coincidence my already-made-long-ago decision received validation moments after I’d opened the unwelcome envelope, with a quote and link in that day’s “Shelf Awareness” newsletter to a very detailed account of the false economy Americans practice when they fail to support local business. No summary or set of quotations from this article would do justice to its contents, so please follow the link and read it for yourself.

How happy am I that the same Jim Hightower now exposing the behemoth’s ugly underbelly has long been a champion of organic agriculture and real local farmers? Very happy! Independent bookstores, writers, thinkers, and farmers: we’re all connected, and we’re all on your side. Question: Are you on our side? “Our” including “your”?

A young Facebook friend of mine commented recently on one of the links I posted there that he supports both independent bookstores and the online behemoth. His take on this was that when he knew what he wanted, he would order from the behemoth, while if he just wanted to browse he’d go to a bookstore. I thought of Tinker Belle asking children to clap their hands if they believed in fairies, and then I imagined her asking them to clap again if they supported those who would kill fairies. 

Believing a contradiction is not uncommon, and even acting on contradictory beliefs is not uncommon. What more can I say? My presence is on Waukazoo Street in Northport.

Okay, I thought of something more to say. We're having some work done on our house this fall, and the new siding came from Northport Building Supply, the new windows from Thomas & Milliken. The money to buy the siding and lumber came from the sale of paintings (David) and books (me) in Northport

Storefront -- today -- 106 Waukazoo St.
What goes around, comes around, as the saying goes. If it doesn't go around in the first place, don't be surprised if it doesn't come back your way.

Looking in/looking out

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Novel I’ll Be Re-Reading For Years to Come

One of my favorite meadows near home

Months ago a friend recommended that I read Longbourn, by Jo Baker, but summer is a busy time, and books and weeks fly by at a dizzying pace, so I didn’t pick up the book that had been waiting patiently for me until a few days ago. That’s all it took—picking it up and reading the first page. I was hooked.

The main character, Sarah, is a maid in the Bennet household, that family of five daughters famous among English-language readers for 200 years from Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice. Mrs. Hill and her husband run the house with the help of maids Sarah and young Polly, and as Polly, only about 12 years old, has a hard time waking up early, it falls to the more responsible Sarah to rise in the dark on washday and go out into the cold morning to begin the hardest day of the week.
The air was sharp at four thirty in the morning, when she started work. The iron pump-handle was cold, and even with her mitts on, her chilbains flared as she heaved the water up from the underground dark and into her waiting pail. A long day to be got through, and this just the very start of it.  
All else was stillness. Sheep huddled in drifts on the hillside; birds in the hedgerows were fluffed like thistledown; in the woods, fallen leaves rustled with the passage of a hedgehog; the stream caught starlight and glistened over rocks, Below, in the barn, cows huffed clouds of sweet breath, and in the sty, the sow twitched, her piglets bundled at her belly. Mrs. Hill and her husband, up high in their tiny attic, slept the black blank sleep of deep fatigue; two floors below, in the principal bedchamber, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were a pair of churchyard humps under the counterpane. The young ladies, all five of them sleeping in their beds, were dreaming of whatever it was that young ladies dream.
From Austen’s book we already know Longbourn (the house) and the Bennet family and their neighborhood and the nearby town of Meryton, the relatives and the officers and dozens of letters exchanged by the gentlefolk. We’ve made a visit of several weeks with Elizabeth when she goes to stay with Charlotte Lucas at the parsonage after Charlotte has married Mr. Collins, and we’ve accompanied Elizabeth again into Derbyshire with her aunt and uncle. Her parents’ foibles are as familiar to us as those of our own family. But without Baker’s book we hadn’t the barest acquaintance with the servants at Longbourn, Netherfield, Lucas Lodge, or Pemberley. As the author says in her note at the end of her book,
The main characters in Longbourn are ghostly presences in Pride and Prejudice; they exist to serve the family and the story. They deliver notes and drive carriages; they run errands when nobody else will step out of doors—they are the “proxy” by which the shoe-roses for Netherfield Ball are fetched in the pouring rain. But they are—at least in my head—people too.
So a great part of the pleasure in reading Longbourn is coming back to a familiar fictional place and adding a new dimension to our experience of it. Jo Baker goes places with her characters that Jane Austen never went. It is as if the servants and those whom they serve inhabit completely different worlds, as of course they do, from a social and economic perspective. Seeing Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their daughters through the eyes of their servants, therefore, gives a very different picture from the one painted in Austen’s original novel.

But another source is pleasure in reading Longbourn is simply Jo Baker’s beautiful writing. The housekeeper at Hunsford Parsonage peers into scoured pans with her “head cocked like a hen.” When Sarah goes out one night, she stumbles through “cow-churned fields.” We are in the country, in the English countryside, and see and hear and feel it all around us—the old drovers’ road near Longbourn and the stone steps of the boundary wall at Pemberley, “treads ... glossy with the years.”

Not everything is lovely and pastoral in this world, however, and Baker also brings in the muck and the blood of it, along with the far-off slavery that brings sugar to England and the plight of orphans and unwed mothers and country boys off to war in strange lands and widows and orphans in those strange lands. All this she manages with brilliant economy of language and without ever losing the focus on her characters. For instance, when collecting gossip from their aunt in Meryton, the girls learn, in passing, that “a private had been flogged,” and no more is said of the flogging by Austen. Baker has Sarah come unawares upon the scene in Meryton:
Her senses, briefly, could not accommodate the image.  
Then it was a pig. A carcass. A great slab of meat waiting to be skinned.  
Then her perceptions shifted again, true patterns formed: she saw the shape of human muscle, shoulder blade, a dark slick of hair, the cable-twist of neck.  
In the instant that she saw, she looked away, but by then it was too late. ...His skin was lurid in the dull light, his cheek hazed with greying stubble and flattened against the dark weathered wood. His eyes were wide and rolling, his jaw clenched. His body, held immobile by the bonds, was fiercely at work: his arm muscles shifted and twisted, his feet trod and braced against the cobbles like a horse’s.
It is a horrible scene, shocking to Sarah and to the reader, but the detail in it is not gratuitous, and the images are those of a masterful writer: “his feet ... braced against the cobbles like a horse’s.”

Somewhere I read a review of Longbourn that took issue with Baker’s mentions of chamber pots and night soil and women’s bloody napkins and babies’ stinking nappies. Well, this is the servants’ world: what the gentry would never mention and can pretend does not exist must be dealt with by the servants, and Baker does not dwell on it unduly. It’s just that in Pride and Prejudice, we share Jane and Elizabeth’s sheltered, privileged world; in Longbourn we are in Sarah and Polly’s world, the one that props the other up and makes it possible.

But there is another dimension, and if the “necessary house” takes us down a level from Austen’s world, the political and military realities Baker includes take us up to a bird’s eye view of England at that time—again, while always staying focused on her characters. History barely intrudes on the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, but the Longbourn cast know its pinch and fear its chill winds.

Jo Baker loves Pride and Prejudice and has been re-reading it for most of her life, a love I share. When a good friend of mine said in our reading group that she “loved the language but didn’t like the characters at all,” my heart sank. Not like Eliza Bennet? No, my friend was impatient with Eliza and with all the rest because none of them knew what it meant to work; instead, they led what she considered superficial, pampered, frivolous lives. Now I can’t wait for my friend to read Longbourn. She will love both the language and the characters and will be drawn irresistibly into the drama of their lives.

I believe a reader coming to Longbourn without any knowledge of Jane Austen’s novel could still be bowled over by the story and the writing. Despite Baker’s inspiration, her work can stand on its own. I’m also sure readers like my friend who found Pride and Prejudice boring (!) will have a more positive reaction to Longbourn, finding it more “realistic.”

As for me, I will go on loving and re-reading Pride and Prejudice, only now I will also have Longbourn to love and re-read. My experience of the English countryside in the late 18th century has been deepened and broadened and enriched, especially as it pertains to one small English neighborhood, my love for that faraway, fictional place a reflection of my love for my own home.

Wild grape and willow at water's edge

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Squirrels and Nuts Gather in Northport

Me with Lynne Rae Perkins

Along with bookseller and hostess roles, I am generally the photographer of my own bookstore events and thus, all too frequently, appear in none of the pictures. Determined to avoid that pattern on Friday, here I am (thanks to friend Dan Stewart) with Lynne Rae Perkins-- writer, artist, friend, fellow Leelanau County resident (Suttons Bay), and our county’s only Newbery medalist (Criss Cross, 2006). We were launching her new book, Nuts to You, at Dog Ears Books, with chairs for the reading set up next door in my husband David Grath’s gallery.

Lynne's art from her book, NUTS TO YOU
David’s paintings graced the walls, but Lynne also brought some of her own art, delightful illustrations from Nuts to You. Fun!

She brought a squirrel, too! This one is named Jed, after one of the characters in the book, and for a squirrel (I was somewhat nervous when I heard he was coming) he behaved pretty well at the party. And Lynne’s husband, Bill Perkins, known more as a maker of artisan rustic furniture rather than jewelry, contributed little acorn necklaces (Lynne gathered the acorns), and every book purchaser received one, and we wore them all evening long. Is this adult behavior or squirrelly behavior?

There were raffle items, also: a Nuts to You t-shirt; a Nuts to You iron-on patch (to put on anything the winner wanted to put it on); and a brown knitted acorn cap, knitted by the artist-writer herself.

Raffle items

Early arrivals had a chance to visit with Ms. Perkins before her reading, and I know they were grateful and happy to have the opportunity.

Fans of all ages

Kids meet Newbery author
It’s a good turnout when the chairs in the gallery are all filled and the crowd spills through the doorway and back into the bookstore. It’s fun to have some little kids come, too. Someday they can tell the story to their kids: “We were on vacation, and our mom took us to meet Lynne Rae Perkins. I don’t remember much about meeting her, but we read the book over and over, year after year.” That’s what they’ll say.

Punch bowl needs refilling again
We had punch and cookies and peach pie. (My latest brainstorm for punch—I share it freely—is Kilcherman's fresh apple cider and Vernor’s ginger ale.) The honored guest herself made the sugar cookies in squirrel and acorn shapes, and another guest brought the pie. More acorns? I assembled a few out of tiny crackers, peanut butter, Hersey’s chocolate kisses, and butterscotch chips.

Author-illustrator baked treats

Bookseller assembled hers
So what do you think? Are we all nuts here in Northport, or is it only writers, artists, booksellers and booklovers? No matter, we all had a wonderful time, and I’m not embarrassed that Lynne Rae Perkins and I look like a couple of kids playing grownup in the photo below. Nuts to You is a book for all ages, I love it madly, and Lynne is one of the funnest (not a typo: I mean that just the way it reads), most talented, and most generous people it’s possible to imagine! Lynne, thank you again and again and again!

We had fun! We sold out! We are happy!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Book Review: FROZEN MOON

My previous post focused on perils faced by booksellers if they open the door indiscriminately to self-published books. It is only fitting that I now introduce a recent outstanding exception that came my way. My mini-review (250 words) of Frozen Moon appears in this week’s Northern Express, but 250 words cannot begin to encompass all I have to say about this book.

It started with an e-mail from a friend of the author:
I read your MI Bookmark in the last issue of Northern Express Weekly and I wondered if you are interested in looking at a couple of books by a friend of mine – David Greenwald. He is a self-published Michigan author who is writing a series of 3 books based on the search and rescue dogs involved in different missions.
As always, I was leery, but -- Michigan author, dog story? The author’s friend closed her message asking if I would be willing to take a look if the books were sent to me. Again, Michigan author, dog story? How could I say no? I wasn’t promising to read an entire book, if it started off badly, much less review or stock it, just “to take a look.” The book arrived. I opened it and began reading....

Frozen Moon: A Jenny-Dog and the Son of Light Novel,
by D. M. Greenwald
Parker, CO: Outskirts Press, 2013
Paper, 263pp, $14.95

“It was the worst damn winter storm the sheriff had ever seen.” So begins Greenwald’s tale of suspense and outdoor survival in the frozen North.

While adult skiers get in one last run for the day, a resort employee is keeping an eye on three young children at play in the snow. A ringing telephone calls her away for a moment, and six-year-old Kelly Martin vanishes. Panic quickly ensues. Did Kelly wander off into the storm, or could she have been kidnapped? Immediate searches of hotel and grounds turn up nothing.

Faced with a lost child and a fast-building storm, Sheriff Sam Hanson calls the State Police to send in dogs, but also, long before the official police dog handler gives up, Hanson has another tracker and his dogs flying in from Wisconsin. From Wisconsin to Vermont, in severe weather conditions, with airports closed? How can Joshua Travis and his dogs possibly get there and find Kelly in time? Even if the little girl is still alive, outdoors alone, in sub-zero temperatures, lost in the blizzard, how long can she be expected to survive? The nail-biting race against clock and storm begins on page one, and the action and suspense never let up.

Greenwald brings convincing detail to passages dealing with flying, driving, dogs, preparation for rescue, and survival’s practical challenges. He doesn’t neglect the thoughts or emotions of his characters, either. Men and women will be equally spellbound from start to finish.

He also knows how to write about winter.
Outside, the cold hit him with a crack. The wind tried to race through his body. The difference between conditions inside and outside the shelter was incredible. The storm raged on. Snow was coming down in sheets, even in the woods. The frozen tree crowns rocked and shook and sometimes shattered, sending giant wooden shards crashing to the ground. These woods were not a safe place to be....
I was so impressed by this book that I wanted a second opinion and asked a friend to take a look. She brought it back the very next morning, saying, “It’s your fault I didn’t get anything done yesterday! I couldn’t stop reading this book!”

Running parallel to the main story line, the rescue, are a couple of sub-narratives featuring characters in other parts of the country. No spoiler here: you'll have to read the book to learn more. I’ll only say there is a mystical element that may not appeal to all readers but will fascinate some. I read quickly through those passages myself; my friend said they added a lot to her enjoyment of the book.

Bottom line? If you pick this book up and start reading, you’ll find it hard to stop for meals. And when you do reach the last page, you’ll want to share it with a friend. It’s that good. I look forward to meeting the author one of these days.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Reply to Duncan on the Role of Traditional Publishers

This post began as a comment to be published on Duncan‘s blog, but as my intended comment grew longer and longer it seemed to me that posting it on my own blog, with links, would make more sense. So here’s the post that sparked my response and will give a clearer picture of what follows below.

15 September 2014

Dear Duncan,

As you and I are both booksellers with open shops, and you are in addition a working writer with your own books to sell, I’m always interested in comparing your perspective on publishing and self-publishing with mine. As I’m sure you know, best-selling author Stephen King did experiment with self-publishing an e-book but then turned back to the traditional road. Here’s a link with a brief discussion of why King and others might not want to self-publish.

My own bookstore experience with a majority of self-published authors continues to be fraught with difficulties. Not always—the self-published titles I carry in my shop are clearly exceptions!--and more often than not I give self-published books, whether brought to me in person or hawked to me by e-mail, a cool reception. For me as a bookseller, there are two big large, distinct problems, and here they are:

First (and labeling one “first” and the other “second” is completely arbitrary), all too many self-published book authors want to be writers but don’t realize that by self-publishing they are also going into business. Let me repeat: Publishing is a business. If you’re going to self-publish, you’re going into business. Instead, most of the authors who come to me (there are exceptions, thank heaven) are neither prepared for nor interested in accounting, advertising, bookkeeping, distribution, marketing, publicity, or any of the myriad other business aspects of getting their books into readers’ hands and keeping track of even the most modest paperwork. “I just want to write books.” And so they bring their books into my bookstore without any kind of basic written consignment forms or invoice forms. The serious writers among them do better or quickly learn their lessons, but as the wannabes increase in number, the problem grows rather than diminishing. You suggest that a distributor take on this problem – who would want to? Herding cats and taking on responsibility for litter boxes? Distributors, like publishers, like booksellers, need their businesses to survive. The writer who has an agent as well as a publicist still has to do a lot of personal appearances and other kinds of marketing these days, but being with a legitimate publishing house smoothes the way.

My second (or should I say simply “other”?) problem with self-published books, be they fiction or nonfiction, is that way too many  are very poorly edited, even in cases where the author has paid someone for “professional” editing. Yes, I use the scare quotes intentionally, because I often wonder, other than charging for editing a manuscript, what other professional qualifications were brought to the job? Editing problems range from the level of words and sentences (e.g., misspellings, inappropriate word use, run-on sentences, bad punctuation) to the level of narrative (e.g., undeveloped characters, confusing transitions, or even a “story” in which little if anything happens at all).

Your own willingness to rewrite and rewrite, tightening up your stories and bringing your characters to life (as I read in many of your blog posts) is admirable. If only this willingness were more widely shared among those who dream of becoming book authors! (Readers, Duncan writes very forthrightly about his own writing, as will evident to you if you read some of the older posts on his blog.)

It’s child's play these days to have a book "designed" and those dearly beloved pages bound – easier still, perhaps, and probably cheaper, to throw it out into the world in e-format. Regardless of investment, however, most self-published authors don’t want only to see their book in the marketplace. They also want readers. And that’s where offering a product that has recognizable value, along with offering it in a professional, businesslike manner to make it worth the while of intermediaries, makes all the difference. As a bookseller, I am much more comfortable dealing with traditional publishers through traditional book distributors, whenever possible, for these reasons. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014


A World Elsewhere: An American Woman in Wartime Germany, by Sigrid MacRae
NY: Viking, 2014

Someone at Viking made quite an understatement in writing the tip sheet accompanying the review copy of this book: “This shows the side of the [sic] WWII rarely seen.” A World Elsewhere is much more complicated than a story of “ordinary, decent people.” I was somewhat prepared for the author’s mother’s story, having hosted in 2006 another author whose family had survived repeated escapes in the same era--from Russia to Estonia to Poland to East Germany, West Germany, and finally to the United States.

Following the event with Sigrid von Bremen, I also heard another friend’s history of a complicated and harrowing World War II escape from the Germany of her birthplace, a third’s story of parents who survived both exile in Siberia and imprisonment in concentration camps, and a fourth’s telling me of many family members who died in those camps. But all of these were “decent, ordinary people.”

Sigrid MacRae’s parents’ story is unique in my own reading experience in two ways: first, that her mother was American (the other stories of fleeing Germany were all of Europeans), and second, that her father was a German officer.

In her prologue, MacRae tells of being given by her 85-year-old mother a box of her father’s letters, a box she was “reluctant” to open.
Opening the box—resurrecting him—would mean finding not only the man who became my father, but also the man responsible for the “Nazi!” a first-grade classmate had yelled at me as a six-year-old, newly arrived in the States from Germany. I didn’t know then what that was, but whatever it was, I knew it wasn’t good. The taunt stayed with me. It was thrown at me in many other guises, and eventually I blamed my father.
Eventually, after finally reading the letters, she undertakes extensive family and wartime research to be able to write her parents’ story. For the record, I'll note here that her father, while he   became an officer, was not a Nazi and not a member of the S.S. When he died, he was in the infantry, and most of his "action" consisted of marching through countries (France, Russia) Hitler hoped to conquer.

The book begins with the unlikely event of her parents’ first meeting and then, as MacRae tells of their getting to know one another, gives the very different backgrounds of her mother and father, Aimée and Heinrich. Aimée had lost her mother when only three years old; her father was cold and distant, her older brother anything but a protector. As if this weren’t enough, the girl spent years in a body cast to correct scoliosis. Thus Aimée’s girlhood and adolescence were spent in relative isolation, her education haphazard. Heinrich, by contrast, came from a large, close Baltic German family attached, before the Revolution, to the Russian court. He was confident, charming, and worldly in the best sense of the word. The two fell deeply in love, and when Aimée returned to Europe to marry him after a trip home, she expected to spend the rest of her life in Europe. When asked when she would be returning home, she replied confidently and emphatically, “Never!” For her, America was her father’s cold home, Europe her husband’s warm family.

A typical young married story begins: Heinrich immerses himself in studies, and Aimée begins having babies. They have the troubles and worries of any young couple trying to establish family and career but fewer financial worries than most, thanks to quarterly checks from Aimée’s trust fund in America.

But this is Germany between two world wars, and so along come unemployment, inflation, a weak government, and, eventually, the coming to power of Hitler. Heinrich’s family members and friends were not well disposed toward Hitler but did not imagine he would rise very high, be in power for long, or prove a great danger. That he was not a Communist something they saw in his favor.

At this point in the book a reader with historical hindsight begins to feel a chill.

Somehow the subtitle, An American Woman in Wartime Germany, did not prepare me to follow Aimée’s husband into occupied France as an infantry lieutenant. Imagining herself in her father’s shoes (helped by the letters he wrote to her mother during this time), MacRae paints a picture of French peasants clinging to their traditional hatred of the English and philosophically accepting the German invaders—until, too late, they realized that the Germans were making war not only against the English but also against the people of France. Eventually Heinrich, once a refugee himself when his family had to flee St. Petersburg for their estate in Baltic Germany, was put in charge of a POW camp and charged with helping refugees return home. He writes to his wife, “The misery in which these unhappy refugees live—here, there, wherever they find a place—is terrible.” Mostly, however, rather than dwelling on the ugliness of war, Heinrich writes home of the beauty of the French countryside and of his love for his family.

Almost all of my own European experience, as well as what foreign language competence I possess, relates to France, and the same was true for my father, a veteran of World War II—all the more reason I found myself in strange territory, accompanying, as it were, the German Army as it invaded France. It seems unlikely that the author’s father had any kind of vision of Germany taking over the world. Still, knowing what was to come in the Occupation, I could not take his letters at face value.

Then in June of 1941 came Operation Barbarossa, a three-pronged German military push into Russia. Despite what had become of Napoleon and his army in 1812,
...Hitler was confident, claiming that he had only to “kick in the door” and the behemoth would crumble. Heinrich was with Army Group Center, the largest of the three prongs of the operation, meant to deliver a lightning strike and bring the quick victory Hitler predicted would be his before fall.
Heinrich can’t help thinking that a German victory in western Russia might enable him to return to his happy childhood place, the family estate in Ottenhof. Odds seemed to favor them in that the disparate peoples of Russia had never become unified under Soviet rule, and the “defenders of the Motherland were hungry and hollow-eyed,” often throwing down their weapons “in panic and exhaustion.”

Like his friend and fellow officer, Alexis von Roene, Heinrich had little sympathy with Hitler’s values and goals. But he was a Baltic German, with strong Russian roots.
The Russians had been set up on the bank of the Dnieper in 1812 just as they were now. If an awareness that this time Heinrich was in the role of invader, not defender, cast any shadow or brought a frisson of unease, it was quickly banished. He mentions no burned villages, no ruthless brutality. He was no alien invader; he was returning to land defended over the years by forefathers. This was a liberation, a return home.
He was killed at Mogilev on July 23, 1941. From that date forward his children, including the baby girl who never had a chance to know her father, had to depend on the resourcefulness and ingenuity of their American mother to preserve their lives and insure their future, and the remainder of the book is faithful to its subtitle.

From an isolated girlhood, interrupted by surgeries and immobilizations in a body cast and followed by an unhappy boarding school experience, the widow Aimée, American-born mother of six children born in Germany to a German father, finds within herself enormous reserves of strength because – she had no choice. Residents had been forbidden to leave East Prussia, but the roads were seething with fleeing refugees, Berlin was under siege, and if the family stayed put as ordered, Aimée’s oldest son, 16-year-old Friedrich, would be taken into a German army desperate for men.
She gave each child a small chamois bag with [her brother’s] Chicago address to hang around their necks. Putting any hope at all into such a fragile vessel seemed absurd, but she felt compelled to do it. They were headed into the unknown, and the thought of being separated in the maelstrom ahead was terrifying.
They had a wagon and a horse. They had, for a while, potatoes. At last they reach British lines, where Aimée persuades a British officer not to send them back into Russian-held territory.

After a series of refugee and displaced person camps, the family at last settles “permanently” in the traditional farming village of Grosseelheim, where the doctor friend who has attached herself to the family hopes to set up in practice, but the villagers and farmers are poor and cannot afford much doctoring. Then the doctor herself dies of cancer, and the family turns to relatives in America, hoping to emigrate.

Once safe in New England the family faces new struggles: an abandoned farmhouse that needs almost everything essential to it replaced; a deportation threat; the necessity of moving from a house they thought they would never leave when the property is condemned for expansion of a U.S. Navy airfield. But of course we know, from the beginning of the book, that mother and children flourish in America.

For me, it was not so much the story of  “an American woman in wartime Germany” that held me spellbound but the individual stories of young Aimée and Friedrich, their love story, and the unsettling view of the invasion of France through the eyes of a German officer, along with the grit and determination Aimée demonstrated in building a new life in America.

A World Elsewhere is beautifully but simply written. Much of the words on the page come directly from letters, the author allowing her parents to speak for themselves. The accumulated facts of the story are haunting, simply by being true. I doubt that very many postwar American women have ever imagined themselves wives of German officers. In hindsight and from an American perspective, such a vision is unthinkable. And yet, here were two young people, previously tossed about by life, who fell in love and did what lovers all over the world have always done--they married and began a family—little realizing the tossing about that lay ahead of them in the future.

The author writes in her epilogue that researching this book
...taught me that there is not one history, but many; that context is everything, and life is far more complex than we ever imagine, especially when history writ large intervenes. I found that despite the stiff-armed Nazi salutes and gutteral “Achtungs” that came my way, I was not the devil’s spawn after all, just the product of two people in a particular time and place, enmeshed in circumstance, their hopes upended.
MacRae’s parents’ story is not one familiar from hundreds of others from World War II, but the author conveys its truth and poignancy in such a way that the lives of Heinrich and Aimée will remain with readers long after the book has been closed.

Friday, September 12, 2014


Crabapples in Northport

Between the colorful, spectacular reigns of summer and fall comes a quieter time. The last cutting of hay is being baled, but we’re still far from field corn harvest, and the countryside and villages seem to draw deep breaths and sigh contentedly. Images in today’s post come primarily from home and from country roads between home and Northport. This is one week in my life, September 3-10, much of it told in words only.

The chairs are exhausted from so much fun
A week ago, while Bruce took care of bookselling in Northport. I had an afternoon under the linden tree in our side yard, sitting at the outdoor table with David and friends visiting from afar, drinking beer and feasting on bread and cheese, pistachios and almonds, tiny tomatoes and tinier cucumbers. Two days later, with another group of friends Up North for a few weeks of vacation, after my work day our dinner party group gathered in the shelter of the front porch, leaving the cold and damp outdoors, enjoying an Ethiopian menu with rich, decadent, un-Ethiopian dessert and drinking wine and singing (well, two of the five sang for the rest of us) as darkness fell. 

Michaeleen at the piano in Eastport
Then along came Sunday, a gorgeous day and my first Sunday off since the week before Memorial Day! David and I had a good little visit with friends in Suttons Bay and then drove around Grand Traverse Bay—unbelievably, I hadn’t made that drive for two years—for a private piano recital, poetry reading, and Greek dinner with other friends we don’t see often enough, way over in Eastport. (Oh, for a car ferry between Northport and Eastport!) On our way home, we detoured through Elk Rapids, thinking we might find Northport friends in the marina, but there were too many boats, and we were too tired to walk the docks in search of Bill and Sally.

Monday, September 8, was my first Monday off since the week before Memorial Day (yes, the bookstore is now closed both Sundays and Mondays, and as a result I get a 2-day “weekend” now that summer is over), and I drove to Traverse City early to pick up my custom t-shirts at Jen-Tees. It was another gorgeous, gorgeous day, and I took back roads through Cedar in both directions, almost singing out loud at the beauty of the day, but by midafternoon both David and I were so worn out with looking (he’d gone to Glen Arbor while I was doing the Traverse City round trip) that we had no energy to go out for dinner and made do with hot dogs and homemade potato salad.

Tuesday was gorgeous again, all day. I was in the bookstore from 10 to 5, but when I got home David proposed going out to dinner, and we trekked all the way down to the bottom of Lake Leelanau, to Perrin’s Landing, to have cheeseburgers and beer on the deck of the funky little waterside tiki bar. It reminded us of Florida, but without palm trees, and with no grouper or stone crabs on the menu. The sunset was spectacular, but I’d left my camera in the car. When we arrived back at the farm, the moonrise—the full moon of September, the harvest moon—was even more spectacular.

I love my little plum tree
On our drive south through Leelanau County on Tuesday evening, joy kept bursting out of me: “I love September!” “I love bracken fern!” Listening to a music CD: “I love that song!” Remembering music I’d been playing that day in the bookstore: “I love ‘Phantom of the Opera!’” On the road down the west side of south Lake Leelanau: “I love cows!” “You’re full of love tonight,” David observed. Yes, and it felt so good!

Wednesday was another day off. (Three in one week!) Bruce was at the store, so I got up early and headed out with Sarah on my morning rounds: take the garbage out to the road, find a place to walk with Sarah, go to the bank, stop at the Enterprise office to arrange for an ad for the Lynne Rae Perkins event, and have a long latte-and-croissant session at Pedaling Beans, working on a Facebook event and press release for Perkins. (“Day off” does not always mean no work. Sometimes it just means a chance to get work done.) Sarah and I took our morning walk in just in time, before the rain began. No big noisy storm today, just gentle rain. It was nice.

Viburnum showing first hint of fall
I was home by noon and made myself a lunch of leftovers before plunging into the writing of a book review. Have a second review begun, but the book was in Northport, so I treated myself to reading a little philosophy, a recent book passed along to me from my friend in Eastport, philosopher and poet and musician Michaeleen Kelly. She had already done a lot of underlining in the book and said I could keep it, so I underlined fiercely and wrote all kinds of notes in the margin. I may do a post on this book in the near future (which will probably be of interest to one or two of my readers).

There are many more pictures in my memory of the past week than there are on my camera’s memory card. I didn’t get the camera out for the beer garden afternoon ... for the Ethiopian dinner ... for the drive to Traverse City and back or the drive to the tiki bar and home again. I captured a few images in Eastport but nothing on the way over and back.

So what are the images in my mind?

Asters coming into bloom – the tiny, light lavender ones, the ones that look almost like daisy fleabane. (No big deep purple ones yet.) A hawk on an electric line along the road. Holstein cows lying in the grass; elsewhere, feeder calves grazing contentedly (their tails like ropes). In warm late afternoon light, a hay crew slinging rectangular bales up onto a red wagon. Six sandhill cranes: a pair flying over Swede Road, another pair down by Lake Leelanau, a third pair nearer Cedar. Friends’ dear faces. On the way home around Grand Traverse Bay, the surface of the water changing from turquoise and gold to copper to platinum and back to gold. A female mallard near the deck of the tiki bar, and a while later the setting sun stained the clouds a deep crimson purple. A roadside stand heaped with fresh tomatoes; another with ears of sweet corn. Goldenrod bright as the sun, even in the rain.

Then the sounds: the clattering of the cranes’ call, raucous jeering of crows, voices and laughter of friends, beautiful, swelling piano chords and arpeggios, rain pattering on the metal roof of our front porch.

Warm kiss of the afternoon sun, caress of a September breeze through an open window, contentment from seeing dear friends happy with what life has brought them.

Me, too.

Cloudy and chilly but still beautiful

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Murder on the Île Sordou, by M. L. Longworth (NY: Penguin, 2014), $15 paper

This is the fourth book in a series and the first I have read. For me it has what David and I like to call “all the elephants” (serious film people say “all the elements,” but we are sillier at our house), being set on a fictional French island in the Mediterranean, the two main characters an investigating judge and his law professor girlfriend [sic]. Judge Antoine Verlaque and Professor Marine Bonnet from Aix-en-Provence have come to the small, remote island offshore from Marseilles for a vacation getaway, accompanied by Marine’s best friend, Sylvie. Perhaps the third party makes sense in light of the previous three books? Anyway, there they are, the judge’s position supposedly under wraps, although the hotel staff are all aware of his identity.

The small hotel is also a holiday destination for a retired bachelor teacher-poet from Aix, Eric Monnier; an American couple, Shirley and Bill Hobbs; Alain Denis, a has-been French film star now reduced to acting in dog food commercials, traveling with his wife and stepson; and another French couple who are, we learn, major investors in the hotel.

Then there are the hotel’s principal owners, an ambitious manager with a troubled background, an inventive young chef, an experienced bartender, an inexperienced waitress, and a quiet older woman who does the hotel laundry and befriends the young waitress but otherwise keeps to herself. The man hired as a gardener also serves as a boatman and general handyman.

As for inhabitants outside the hotel staff, there is only one: the aging son of the former lighthouse keeper, kept on out of courtesy to keep the windows clean on the now-automated lighthouse.We have here a classic setup for a murder mystery, worthy of Agatha Christie: the island is remote from the mainland, powered only by a generator, and without reliable Internet access or cell phone coverage, so unless he or she arrived by sea and left the same way, the murderer can only be someone already on the island. Meanwhile the meals are sublime, the wine endlessly flowing. “All the elephants,” as I said before, brought together by an experienced, professional American author who has lived in Aix-en-Provence since 1997.

And yet I was disappointed. Here’s why:

(1) The body doesn’t show up until halfway through the novel, and that severely tried my patience, already strained by lengthy expositions introducing the cast of characters. Given all the expository background and the number of chapters in which nothing happens, the story moved slowly, bogging down again and again, and it was hard for me to keep the characters straight. Had they been revealed more through interaction with each other rather than exposition, their personalities would have been clearer and the buildup to the crime less tedious.

(2) There was a lot of awkward sentence structure, so much that my inner editor got more of a workout than I like her to get when I’m reading for pleasure. Parentheses are oddly placed, and word order is frequently strange. This sentence will serve as an example:
“Small gun at close range?” Verlaque asked, trying not to too obviously stare into Dr. Cohen’s dark eyes.
Why not “trying not to stare too obviously”? I’m not simply objecting to a split infinitive. Sometimes there are good reasons to split an infinitive. But here? I don’t think so. “To-too” is distracting. I found many such distracting spots in the novel and wondered why some copy editor had not eliminated the pesky little problems. I don’t usually see this kind of thing in Penguin titles.

(3) I never want to put spoilers in my reviews, so won’t say who gets killed or by whom, but I will say that when the body is finally found, the victim is no surprise. The identity of the murderer is somewhat trickier but no huge surprise, either. The real mystery to me was the explanation for the crime. The author herself seems to have realized how much she was asking us to believe, as Verlaque and Bonnet are troubled by the outcome of the investigation.
“Perhaps the next murderer will be a horrible person,” Marine said, trying to smile. 
“Yes, let’s hope,” Verlaque answered. “Someone we both detest.”
I recommend this book with the above qualifications. No rave; overall I give it a B+. But the relationship between Verlaque and Bonnet might lead me to read earlier books in the series and even look forward to the continuation of their story past Murder on the Île Sordou. The two have been dating for a couple of years, and both have begun to have occasional thoughts of marriage and family, though they have not reached the discussion stage. (She hasn’t even met his parents. But wouldn’t she think of him as her lover rather than her boyfriend, though? These are French adults, not Americans.) So, yes, I might enjoy getting to know this couple better. I’d be interested in their professional lives when they are not on vacation, as well as their romantic relationship. And a day of two of escape to the south of France? Sure, why not?