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Saturday, December 27, 2014

Gliding From One to the Next

Bulletin board at holiday time

Immediate Future

If David and I had university positions, teaching art and philosophy, we would surely have earned sabbatical by now, the academic world’s recognition of the fact that those engaged in teaching need occasional time away for their own research and creative projects. Working in retail as we do, i.e., selling books and paintings, can be as intense as teaching (we’ve both taught, so we do know both worlds); this winter, therefore, David and I are giving ourselves sabbatical. Our businesses will be closed from the first of January to the end of April. We’ll be recharging our spirits and focusing on our own work, coming back in the spring energized and with renewed enthusiasm for our Northport world. 

The Year Past

The other day, after David gave me a little pep talk (something I needed during a slow holiday shopping season), reminding me of all the loyal Dog Ears Books customers who turn out for my author events and buy books when they come, I looked back at the roster for the past year. Our bookstore events really were remarkably successful – and a lot of fun!

Ken Scott
The event year began early in the season, in May 2014, with photographer Ken Scott and the best-selling book of the year – I’m sure this was true throughout the county, as well as in Northport – The Ice Caves of Leelanau. Wow! The 100 copies in my first order were all promised before Ken’s appearance date! Then the printer was late with the books, and half my customers (I love ‘em!) sweetly offered to wait a week for theirs! The ice caves themselves had been the phenomenon of the preceding winter; the book was a phenomenon that came on in spring and kept going strong through December.

Thirteen poets!
The next month, June, was almost more excitement than this bookseller could absorb. Thirteen (yes, 13) poets came to Northport from all over the state of Michigan to read their work from the beautiful new book, Poetry in Michigan, Michigan in Poetry. Poets in attendance were Angela Williams, Mary Ann Samyn, Joy Gaines-Friedler, David James, Dennis Hinrichsen, Patricia Clark, Linda Nemec-Foster, Keith Taylor, Anne-Marie Oomen, Alison Swan, D.R. James, Teresa Scollon, and Bill Olsen. (Audience in attendance was so numerous that the crowd spilled out into the artist David Grath’s studio and out onto the sidewalk.) Samyn, Oomen, and Scollon had previously read work at Dog Ears Books, but the rest were here for the first time; Olsen is one of the two editors of the collection. Along with celebrating poetry in Michigan, we were also celebrating (unbelievably, to me) the 21st anniversary of my bookstore, first opened down the street in 1993. What an evening! I saw stars for weeks afterward....

In July I took a breather from bookstore events but let myself get strong-armed into doing a 5-minute reading on live radio, when the “Roundup Radio Show” came to the Northport Community Arts Center auditorium. Bill Dunjen’s invitation was completely spur-of-the-moment, and my first impulse was to decline, but I rallied, found a passage from Ellen Airgood’s South of Superior, did a few quick run-throughs, and the little gig went very well. People I never see in my bookstore were stopping me at the post office and in the grocery store days later to congratulate me on that one brief performance. Visibility. Presence. Taking the bull by the horns. An indie bookseller can’t let a chance like that get away. I was also happy to promote Ellen’s book, which I love, love, love! (I’ve read it four times.)

Another literary item on my July calendar was a gathering of fiction-writing friends, all women, who came to my old farmhouse for an al fresco luncheon that stretched to dinnertime. Each writer read from current work-in-progress and reported on publishing status – which sounds (and is) quite serious, but we also drank several bottles of wine and laughed a whole lot.

Mary Beth Pope is no stranger to Northport, having worked one summer selling donuts at Barb’s Bakery, but she’s moved on since then, teaching English at Emmanuel College in Boston, where she received tenure this past year. Mary Beth took time out from work on her novel-in-progress to read for our bookstore audience from her short story collection, Divining Venus. It was, I’m pleased to report, yet another standing-room-only crowd. Mary Beth had a good time, too. That’s the way we like it – happy writers and happy customers.

Excitement continued in September. Besides the second Leelanau UnCaged street fair in Northport, Dog Ears Books hosted a book launch party for Newbery-winning author Lynne Rae Perkins and her latest book, Nuts to You. Lynne Rae is a deservedly popular guest author, so I ordered a healthy number of books in advance of her appearance, a number she and I both thought would be sufficient. Advance sales, however, made serious inroads into my stock, so I placed a second order – then a third – and then we still sold out of books on September 19! Later holiday sales of Nuts to You were not hurt at all when the press found out that the Obama family bought a copy on their annual indie bookstore shopping expedition.

Me with Lynne Rae Perkins
I had really thought September would close out the 2014 bookstore event year. One event each for the months of May, June, August and September felt like a manageable schedule, much better than some years past when I’d tried to have three events in a two-week time period. A good year, I thought. Then I heard from Traverse City writer Jerry Dennis about a new venture he and artist Glenn Wolff had underway. With Jerry’s wife, Gail Dennis, as creative director, the three were launching their own independent publishing company, Big Maple Press, and the first two books being issued were new paperback “Indie Bookstore Editions” of  It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes and A Bird in the Waterfall (with a third “wonders-of-nature” title coming in 2015). Jerry Dennis and Glenn Wolff at Dog Ears Books? Of course! Any time they want to come! And so we had another book party in early December.

Jerry Dennis on left

Glenn Wolff on right

John Mitchell
John Mitchell’s best-selling Grand Traverse: The Civil War Era has been around since 2011, but when John offered to come in for a couple of hours two days before Christmas and sign books for customers, I was not about to turn him down. There are still people in our own township who have not yet read the book, and a couple of them came for signed copies. I think the woman who made a 325-mile round trip, though, may have been the most excited about the opportunity. She had called the previous week to ask my hours for Christmas week and mentioned John’s book. When I told her that he would be at the bookstore in person, her resolve to make the journey strengthened. It was her first visit to Northport, but something tells me it won’t be her last.

My own special treat was conversation with John about his most recent research trip to Cuba and Trinidad for his next book. We even had time before customers arrived for a quick tour through his fascinating travel photographs, as I never turn down a chance for vicarious travel, either.

The Year to Come

Dog Ears Books will be 22 years old this coming year and while my main focus as 2014 winds down is on winter sabbatical, I’ve also been working with authors to put together the 2015 bookstore event schedule. Already the summer calendar looks full! Here’s how it’s shaping up --

In June we’ll have Holly Wren Spaulding, a Hopwood award-winning poet, reading from and signing her new collection of poems and offering a hands-on workshop in short poetic forms. In July we’ll host Loreen Niewenhuis, with her third Great Lakes adventure book, A 1,000-Mile Great Lakes Island Adventure. World War II is the theme for August, with Barbara Stark-Nemon and her novel, Even in Darkness, and Luisa Lang Owen, whose memoir is entitled Casualty of War: A Childhood Remembered.

We hope to schedule a visit from our dear friend and author Ellen Airgood from the Upper Peninsula early in the summer. Her new YA novel, The Education of Ivy Blake, a sequel to Prairie Evers, is due for release in June, so she’ll be putting tour dates together before then. We also hope to meet author David Greenwald (finally!) and introduce him to Northport. The third title in Greenwald’s “Jenny-Dog and the Son of Light” trilogy (first two titles were Frozen Moon and Cody) will appear in 2015. And of course there’s that third, as-yet-untitled “wonders-of-nature” book of essays by Jerry Dennis, with beautiful illustrations by Glenn Wolff. Jerry and Glenn will be in Northport again, for sure.

It looks great, doesn’t it? I’m so excited about all these writers and their books! I look forward to welcoming the authors (and artist!) to Northport, again or for the first time, and to welcoming my customer friends to meet these special guests. Into another year, together we will celebrate printed words and images linking minds across distance and time.

May your new year be happy and healthy, peaceful and prosperous, and may it always be filled with the magic of books.

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Pleasant, Quiet Holiday

Christmas Day Landscape, Leelanau

We did not have a white Christmas this year. On the other hand (the more positive view), the roads were handily ice-free, and the threatened storm and power outages did not arrive, so it was an easy day for most of us in northern lower Michigan. We were not traveling and had no holiday guests ourselves (our holiday visiting was all by phone), but it was good not to have to worry about others, either. 

Lack of snow also made the painter in our household very happy. He loves the tawny colors and "bare bones" look of November, which is just what we had (a month later) and which tempted us outdoors for a country drive and dog walk between late breakfast and early holiday dinner. 

Sarah had no presents to open and did not think much of my holiday plan to trim her toenails with a new clipper (which she would never have regarded in the light of a present), but she was on board 100% for a ride and a run. I couldn't help finding it lovely to walk so easily and comfortably, without ice or sleet or bone-chilling wind. David drank in the browns of the landscape greedily. We all enjoyed our holiday outing. 

One tree in the woods stood out so sharply that I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it before. I wonder what its life story could be.

Our dinner for two was simple, leaving me lots of reading time during the day. I enjoyed A School for My Village: A Promise to the Orphans of Nyaka, by Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, with Susan Urbanek Linville, and the opportunity it gave me to spend time vicariously in Uganda, where days are twelve hours long twelve months of the year. David also read out loud to me bits from a book I'd given him about the painter Russell Chatham.

Shortly after dark (Michigan), our neighbors came to the door bearing Christmas treats. Cheesecake! My dinner plan hadn't included dessert, so this surprise topped off the day perfectly. 


Monday, December 22, 2014

Is Everyone Ready?

It’s Monday of the biggest holiday week of the year, with Wednesday both Christmas Eve and the last day of Hanukkah, so today is my day of last-minute items on the to-do list, including a cookie-baking session at a friend’s house.

Then, here’s my plan for the next couple of days:

Tuesday, December 23, author John Mitchell will be at Dog Ears Books from noon to 2 p.m. to sign copies of his prize-winning bestseller, Grand Traverse: The Civil War Era. John’s work in progress is a book on Cuba, so I’m eager to hear how he’s taking recent developments in American-Cuban relations. And if all goes as planned today, I’ll have cookies at the bookstore tomorrow. Stop in if you get the chance.

We’ll also be open Wednesday until at least 3 p.m., but later than that I am not promising! I will have, as long as it lasts, a bit of wrapping paper for last-minute shoppers on Wednesday.

Thursday – CLOSED!!! Happy Hanukkah!!! Merry Christmas!!! We wish you joy and peace and love (and, always, lots of books).

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Were there Young Adult Novels in the Nineteen-Sixties?

Recent chatter online has suggested that young adult novels are a new phenomenon, something “we didn’t have back when I was young,” as Linda Bernstein writes in the Huffington Post. She and other writers point to Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird as YA forerunners. I take exception on both counts.

For starters, the J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee novels were not marketed to and probably not written for teens. That we read them when we were young is another matter. Back in the Sixties, in high school, we teens read Salinger surreptitiously (almost as surreptitiously as we read Peyton Place). We read Harper Lee for different reasons: because her book is an American classic and because we were ready for adult novels. Teenagers aspired to be recognized and treated as adults then and were eager  – even impatient! – to be initiated into adult life. We hungered for independence, in reading as well as in living. This hunger explains why so many young people in the Sixties lived together in groups or married young -- lingering in parental homes until age 30 for the sake of laundry facilities and technological luxuries was for later generations, not ours – but that is another story altogether....

A novel with a young protagonist is not necessarily a young adult novel. Here's where a lot of confusion seems to come in nowadays. Maggie Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, for example, opens when Francie is a very young girl going about the streets of Brooklyn with her little brother, and the focus is on the girl throughout the novel, rather than on her father, a singing waiter with an alcohol problem, or her mother, a scrubwoman for the apartment buildings in which they live (moving to a new one each time Johnny comes home drunk and causes an embarrassing disturbance). Social and political change, war, the mysteries of sex and death, are all seen by the reader through Francie’s eyes as she grows from a child into a young woman. And yet, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was not intended or thought of at the time as a book for girls teen Francie’s age (as she is later in the book). On the contrary. Many adults found episodes in it “shocking,” or “shockingly frank,” but the publisher noted on the cover of an early paperback edition that “mature readers” would understand such passages as necessary in the context of the story.

The plain fact is that most of us who remain voracious readers today were reading adult novels in our high school years. It was books we read in junior high that were shelved in the children’s section of the library and marked in the library as Y rather than J for “juvenile.” They were the bridge between children’s books and adult fiction. This is still how I think of YA literature, regardless of its content. 

So what were the young adult novels of the mid-twentieth century, books aimed at kids in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade? What did (or do) you read at that transitional stage of life?

My motivation was probably mixed, but I remember discovering in junior high, in anticipation of the driver’s license still four years in my future, Henry Gregor Felsen and a whole new, exciting world of cars. Books like Hot Rod were written neither for children nor adults. The content and concerns of Felson’s automotive fiction was definitely aimed at a YA audience. Today I’m intrigued by a Wikipedia entry that claims Felsen explored “the evils of drugs, sexism and racism.”  Have I forgotten that much of what I read in seventh grade?

One YA classic that’s been around since 1953 is The Light in the Forest, by Conrad Richter, in which a 15-year-old white boy who has lived for 11 years as an Indian, adopted by a great warrior, must return to his birth family and learn white ways. There were, of course, many exciting true life adventure stories and biographies aimed at the junior high audience, but I'm sticking to fiction for now.

For boys and girls, there were heaps of mystery novels, going way beyond the earlier Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, and there were also stories of children growing up in families, with a first book with young children and sequels with older children as the readers of the original grew older. The two older children of Elizabeth Enright's The Four Story Mistake thus became teenagers in The Saturdays, with all four venturing out on independent adventures in the latter book, in much the same way that Anne of Anne of Green Gables, a much earlier, turn-of-the-last-century girls’ story, grows to adulthood and begins her own family in later books in L. M. Montgomery series. Maud Hart Lovelace’s stories of three little girls in Minneapolis, beginning with Betsy-Tacy, also followed those girls as they grew to college age, launched themselves in careers, and eventually married. Montgomery's and Lovelace's books were not written in the 1960s, but they were still read then and continue to be popular today.
I’ve saved Sixties girls’ stories for last, because there were so many of them! Here’s a little sample, with one male protagonist thrown in, a 15-year-old country boy, so plagued all his life that he’s determined to quit school as soon as he turns 16 (legal quitting at the time). I still vividly remember certain scenes in The Pink Dress, but not all YA girls’ novels were about popularity in the suburbs. Another I recall had an immigrant family living in a New York apartment house. The girl, Magda (?), wore old, unfashionable clothes and spoke with a strong European accent. (Does anyone recognize the story from my description? I’d love to read this book again.) Maureen Daly’s story of teenage love, Seventeenth Summer, originally published in 1942, because of the protagonist's struggles over propriety and depictions of underage smoking and drinking, is claimed by some (according to a Wikipedia contributor) to have kicked off the YA phenomenon – but I’ve already argued that it began longer ago. Then there are the ones that came later, such as the books of Mildred D. Taylor; because she  wasn’t publishing until the 1970s, I was an adult before I discovered her work.

Death was not unknown to YA novels of the Sixties. We had books whose main characters were orphans and foster children and immigrant kids and kids struggling with physical handicaps, serious illness, and minority status. Poverty or reverses of fortune made appearances, too. I wish I had a list of all the books I read between the ages of 11 and 14, but really, it almost seems the phrase ‘problem fiction’ is redundant, doesn’t it? I mean, where is the story unless the main character faces a serious challenge or conflict? Isn’t junior high itself an enormous and difficult challenge?

One theme very important in decades leading up to the Sixties and through that decade that doesn’t seem as strong today is that of young people striving for financial independence. First jobs were landmarks in life and occasions of great pride. Perhaps the absence of focus on wage-earning in today’s YA literature is the other side of the dystopic coin, a despair seeming to dictate that only larger-than-life characters can rise above as they take on global forces of evil. Or maybe it’s as simple as economic reality, with the current YA audience realizing it will never achieve the material abundance of its grandparents.

(One mother told me there was no point in college kids working part-time jobs any more, since they would still not be able to afford daily lattes. Lattes? What happened to vending machine instant? That’s what we drank in our dorm late at night! Ah, yes, and my “poor grandfather,” as he told me with a big fake sigh and a twinkle in his eye, “had to ride a pony to school!” I’d sure have chosen a pony over a daily caffe latte, but that’s just me, I guess.)

I wonder. Adolescence has always been a difficult time of life. The transition from childhood to adulthood is confusing -- no less confusing as teenagers begin to realize that adults are often confused, too, and we all need heroic characters once in a while. Dystopic novels, though, paint an awfully grim and unappealing picture of “adult” life. If it’s that bad, what can one do other than rebel? And after rebellion, then what? Wading full-tilt into adult ambiguity, dealing with well-meaning individuals who disagree on means to an end, sorting out the well-meaning from the deceptively self-serving – this is the reality that awaits young people with the courage to engage with the world as it is. It sure isn’t easy – but then, it never has been, for anyone, at any time in history.

YA novels can be so compellingly written that they find a large adult audience, in addition to younger readers. Some are realistic, others fantastic. Can they be divided into escape and thought-provoking along the same lines? Probably not.

Do you read new YA fiction? What are your favorites? Or if you’re older, what were your favorites when you were a preteen and/or young teen?

Whatever your age, from ten to 100, the good news for my readers is that a new YA novel by Ellen Airgood, The Education of Ivy Blake, a sequel to her delightful Prairie Evers, is due for release in early June 2015. Chances look good, too, for a bookstore visit from our favorite U.P. author, so if you haven't read Prairie yet, do that this winter to increase your anticipation for Ivy, a worthy successor.

Monday, December 15, 2014

It's the Party Time of the Year

As the event planner, publicist, hostess, and bookseller at Dog Ears Books, I frequently don't get time to do as thorough a job as photographer as I'd like. Such was the case on Saturday, when Jerry Dennis and Glenn Wolff came out to Northport from Traverse City with their brand-new, updated and revised,  "Indie Bookstore Editions" of It's Raining Frogs and Fishes and The Bird in the Waterfall. The refreshment table was set up next door in David Grath's art gallery, with books stacked on the sales counter and Jerry and Glenn sitting at big desks in the front of the bookshop where customer-friends, fans, and bookstore supporters (the assembled multitude admirably filled all those roles) could visit at leisure with our guests while having purchases inscribed and signed. It wasn't until quite late in the event that my camera claimed me for a few minutes, and I was able to catch Glenn in serious conversation with Laura from Lake Leelanau and Jerry sharing stories and laughs with Dan from Omena.

Northport, Leland, and Cedar also sent "representatives," and we felt it was a good turnout for Jerry and Glenn and for Big Maple Press. Once again, I neglected to get a picture of myself, the invisible bookseller, with my deservedly visible guests. Oh, well! The goals of fun and good times and bookselling were all met.

Artist and writer and bookseller stayed on past the end of the event, visiting with a late arrival. An interesting conversation, with the drop-in speculating about the future for virtual books while we other three nearly lapsed into temporary shock, which I warded off by reminding our visionary, "You're talking to material people here. We are not 'virtual' people! Paper, canvas, paint, ink!" Good-natured laughter ensued. But seriously, I take Big Maple Press, with its Indie Bookstore Editions,  as a visionary endeavor -- innovative and downright radical.

Traditional publishers, small and large, are all heroes in this bookseller's personal book, but don't look for Big Maple books on the online behemoth's site or at big box or chain stores. The place you will find them is at real bookstores -- and if your local real bookstore doesn't yet carry them, consider becoming an advocate. Advocate for independence!

A Few Miles Away

Because of our own event at Dog Ears Books (and because it was, after all, Saturday), we missed the Grand Re-Opening of Landmark Books in Building 50 at the Grand Traverse Commons, but we made up for that on Sunday with a trip into town.

Bookcases in the hallway alert you to the new location of Landmark Books -- and what a great spot it is! With almost double the floor space, in a series of small rooms connected by lovely old brick arches bookseller Paul Stebleton has created attractive displays and cozy corners. It's beautiful! Paul's typewriters and publicity posters add further personal touches to the space. He really has the gift, and I hope all my friends living in or visiting Traverse City will take the time to seek him out.

Holiday Shopping Reminder

And remember, if you haven't finished your holiday shopping -- give adventure, ideas, knowledge, laughter -- give books! Books are not "just stuff"!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Surprises of the Season

Winter Weather

Weather can be counted on to surprise us. Monday morning began inauspiciously, with sneet. What else to call it? Not quite sleet but certainly not plain rain or pretty snow. It was kind of spitting when Sarah and I first went outdoors. Ugh!

As the morning went on, however, the sneet turned to snow, beautiful snow, and the snowflakes seemed to grow larger and fluffier by the minute, falling more and more thickly, filling the air and floating gently to earth. I accomplished my Leland, Lake Leelanau, and Suttons Bay errands at a leisurely pace, glad I didn’t have to race along at the speed limit on slippery roads or fight crowds of shoppers. The entire day had the peacefulness of a silent snow globe.


Tuesday morning in Northport began at the library, where I made copies of the poster for Saturday’s bookstore event with guests Jerry Dennis and Glenn Wolff. The writer and artist have recently turned publisher, with Gail Dennis as their Creative Director. An even bigger surprise is their brainchild, Indie Bookstore Editions. (Glenn designed the little red logo.) These Big Maple Press books will be available only in indies, not from the online behemoth and not in big box stores. Why would people just starting out in publishing impose such a limitation on their business venture? Not to set up what is most likely a false dilemma, but is this a market-driven decision or crazy, quixotic idealism?

I e-mailed my question to Jerry Dennis, and he, generous soul that he is, sent back a lengthy reply, but since much of it will appear in a blog on the Partners Book Distributing site shortly (it's there now) and a longer version in Jerry’s blog, I’ll just hit a few high points he presented:

Jerry Dennis and Glenn Wolff wanted some of their older books back in print but not in disappointing POD paperbacks. They wanted “editions that we were proud of and that booksellers would be pleased to have on their shelves.” They love books and wanted to experience every aspect of making them but also wanted to be able to stay small. They’ve seen small indie presses come and go, destroyed by huge orders and subsequent returns from large chains and distributors. And, Jerry wrote, “Because we don’t like bullies.”*

So there – or here, rather -- you have it: homegrown books, locally written, illustrated, produced, and offered through homegrown, one-of-a-kind, local bookstores. We are all counting on you!

Looking Ahead, Another Signing

Then, just when I thought Jerry and Glenn would be my last special guests of the year, along came another author opportunity for the holiday season. John Mitchell, whose award-winning Grand Traverse: The Civil War Era is still going strong, will be in Northport just two days before Christmas, on December 23, from noon to 2 p.m., at Dog Ears Books to sign copies of his book and include special inscriptions upon customer request. 

(Did someone say there should be cookies then, too?)

And Still More Surprises to Come

I have a couple more announcements up my sleeve, having to do with the end of the year and plans for 2015, including bookstore events with authors, but they will keep for another day. In quiet moments today, I’m reading a paperback novel by adman-turned-author-turned-bookstore hero, James Patterson.

(“Describe yourself as a reader.” My reading is eclectic, catholic, adventurous, wide-ranging. How about yours?)

*P.S. from Jerry Dennis: “I forgot to add another very important reason: Because Glenn and I owe our careers to independent booksellers who championed our work from the beginning, back when the big chains wouldn’t bother with us. It seems only right at this stage of our careers that we should publish special editions that can be purchased only in indie stores.”

Thanks, Jerry and Glenn and Gail! We love you, too!

Monday's snow

Friday, December 5, 2014

Near at Hand, Serendipity Awaits

 Serendipity. That’s one of my pet names for Sarah, along with Sarasota, Serafina, and Triceratops. I remember first learning the word ‘serendipity’ as a young adolescent and being utterly charmed by the idea, the word itself something delightful I’d come upon by accident. Since we found our Sarah at the Cherryland Humane Society, much to our good fortune, the name she already had then, Sarah, has come to mean much more to us over the years, layered over with new meanings as our time together accumulates.

But where is serendipity to be found? The dictionary I’m consulting (an enormous, heavy thing it is, too, but I do not wish it abridged or shrunken or digitized!) gives “good fortune; luck” as the second meaning of the word, while the first, I’m intrigued to learn, is “an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident” (Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Fully Revised and Updated, 1996). In this first meaning, serendipity is a faculty possessed by a person, such as musical talent or being good at solving puzzles. So you or I or someone else might already “have” serendipity. Or maybe you think you don’t?

My hunch is that serendipity, like so many other abilities, can always be improved with practice and that practicing to improve serendipity involves nothing more than keeping one’s eyes and ears and attention open to the world and perhaps venturing down a different path from time to time. Here I think of what my friend said about people “taking orders” from GPS and failing to see the big picture or realize how many choices are available to readers of maps.

Certainly it must help, to be serendipitous, never to think of any situation or place or event that you’ve “been there and done that,” because it might be different this time around. Aren’t you an older and wiser person? Maybe more relaxed – or more confident – or more adventurous? And even if you think you haven’t changed a bit, circumstances themselves are never exactly the same from one occasion to the next, are they?

 As I typed the first draft of these sentences, a woman had come into my bookstore and was taking her time browsing the aisles. I was delighted! How often, it seems, people don’t take time to browse. They may buy a book they already wanted, but the rest of my treasures lie undiscovered, not buried at all but right out in plain sight, and this is true not only of the used books but even the new ones.

Here are a few treasures awaiting the adventurous and serendipitous browser at Dog Ears Books this first week of December 2014. I would write more, but I need to open one of these books....


Monday, December 1, 2014


Casualty of War: A Childhood Remembered, by
Luisa Lang Owen
College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press (2003)

The early chapters of Luisa Lang Owen’s memoir are an idyllic pastorale. The writing, rich with sensuous detail, transports a reader to a rural village in pre-war -- pre-WWII, that is -- Yugoslavia, Potiski Sven Nikola, as the name appears in one of its many spellings, depending on the language used to give the name. (I select this one to use because it is easiest to manage with the alphabet of my native English.) The story of Luisa’s childhood begins with an early memory of her mother, moving out from there to other family members, and finally taking in the greater village, for the village was as much a casualty of war as the author’s childhood.

Several pages in the beginning of her story dwell lovingly on trees – the sour cherry tree in grandfather’s garden, the blue plum tree, a sweet cherry tree in a neighbor’s garden, the sweet apple, the apricot, the mulberry – each one an individual.
Our plum tree not only had a collective identity; it was itself and not interchangeable with any other trees of its kind. It was something larger than its name or anything one could say about it. Like every tree in the garden, that which it was could not fit into a name.
There were also in the village “misplaced” trees, trees that “did not know how to belong,” those we would now call non-native species, but such were rare. Most trees in the village belonged, as did every inhabitant in the child’s eyes, regardless of ethnicity or religion, all of the villagers rooted in the earth, or what the author calls the “sacred ground.” Owen begins by describing the trees, using them as an introduction to the people and their larger surroundings.
[The trees] were part of our lives. Around them children would play games until late at night, and under them people would sit on benches and talk late into the night.
“I was aware of a feeling I could not name,” she writes, “which felt like belonging.”

Owen’s family were ethnic Germans, but the little girl learned to greet everyone in her village according to their own language.
In conversations with people from different ethnic groups one accommodated according to the language skills of others. Simple words and gestures expressed our shared experiences quite well even among those who did not speak each other’s languages.
There were Catholic and Serb Orthodox churches in the village and a small house that served as the Lutheran prayer house. While there was no synagogue in the village, there were a few Jewish families (the “lady pharmacist” was Jewish), along with Hungarians, Germans, Serbs, Slovaks and Gypsies. No one was a stranger. In this the people were better integrated than the trees, it seems, for the child does not recognize any of the human inhabitants as “misplaced” during the early years of her own life.

Nearly everyone within its orbit lived in the village, even those who farmed or worked on the farms.
In summer people left the village hours before dawn so that the early morning light might find them at their destination ready to work. The wagons returned late in the evening, bringing the smell of hay with them and raising the dust on the road.
That dust on the roads and on the village streets! Like the people themselves, “[t]he earth was at home in the village.” In the streets it was “soft warm powder, ankle-deep, so friendly to bare feet.”

I had a very visceral and personal feeling for these early pages, for the soft dust and fruit trees and gardens that brought back my own grandmother’s poor suburban homestead on the edge of Springfield, Ohio. I recall vividly, even now, the soft grey dust of my grandparents’ road that felt as gentle as talcum powder to my bare feet, and I relive again my joyous delight in being allowed to spend every day barefoot in that poor neighborhood where many of the other children had no shoes and where I was permitted to climb, like a monkey, all the fruit trees in the backyard and ordered to come down only when an oncoming storm began to throw the branches about, quite deliciously, tossing me as if I were on a boat at sea. My grandmother’s chickens and my feeding and egg-collecting tasks; an old outhouse surrounded by hollyhocks, reached by means of a grapevine-covered brick path, the bricks laid in a herringbone pattern; a ragged pony belonging to neighbor children; dogs friendly and otherwise.... 

Eighty pages into Owen's story the tranquil cocoon of her rural village life begins to unravel, never to be mended. Before getting into disruption, nightmare, and tragedy, however, I want to pause to remark on what gives this book such power.

The author’s story, however it were told, would be interesting, even compelling, but the way she tells it is fascinating, riveting and, despite the nightmare chapters, in many places quite magical. We see the village as it was in the 1930s, described through the eyes of a child. Owen’s remarkable memory for detail is central to her enterprise, but her writing goes beyond objective factual description, recalling for us how that lost world felt and smelled and tasted to her, and then she goes beyond that, as well, animating the whole. Trees, for example, have as much personality as human beings. One sweet cherry tree is noted for its “generosity,” while another is “pinched and proud.” Houses, rooms, and the least small object are presented with feelings and attitudes and personalities of their own. A chocolate rooster wrapped in foil is “conscious of being watched.” When the little girl gives in to temptation and eats the chocolate rooster, experiencing immediate sadness for its absence, the rooster’s mate, the foil-wrapped chocolate hen, “shifted her position and turned her head from side to side as if to get a better look at the cause of my dismay.” A large corner house in the neighborhood “extended its familiar look like an invitation.” The animation of an entire life-world continues throughout the book, but in the beginning it is particularly effective because it draws a reader immediately into the child’s perspective, into her sense of herself at the center of her world.

Then one spring adults lower their voices and begin speaking in hushed tones of war. Tension builds in families and between ethnic groups.
I soon noticed that people changed and became distant; some were unfriendly. They did not smile and they greeted grudgingly. Instead of being themselves, they suddenly became Serb, German, Hungarian, Slovak, Jew, and Gypsy.
They put on, she says, “the mask of generality,” which I read as an impersonal, distant facial expression. The girl wonders if the people with those faces, avoiding eye contact with others, have not already lost themselves. Certainly, they have lost their feeling of belonging together, the feeling of village integrity, and in that greater loss it is inevitable that the child will eventually lose her innocence. Is it possible to be innocent and to feel one does not belong?

Soon men are called up for the armed services, Jewish families disappear overnight, and a little girl who always greeted her in Hungarian vanishes along with the others.
Her empty house, turned inward, like all the other abandoned houses, bore a reflection of the missing. But such houses were no longer part of anyone’s home, and not even the carelessly drawn star could claim them. Like accusing monuments to the violence that diminished us, they recalled the lost integrity of the village.
Luisa’s parents argue. Rationing goes into effect. An uncle disappears, captured and tortured for a month, escapes and returns home, crying out every afternoon, as if from a nightmare, from the pain of his frostbitten feet. In the fall of 1944 ethnic Germans receive warnings to flee, and half of them do, but no one really has any idea what to expect, whether it is better to stay in familiar surroundings or flee before invading soldiers. Luisa’s father, a blacksmith, was conscripted long before to shoe horses for the German army, and no one has heard from him.

Outsiders are in control. Russians come first, invading the village as conquerors. Women are afraid to sleep in their own beds and seek overnight hiding places with their children. Radios are confiscated, as is livestock. Then the fearful Russians depart, leaving Serbs in control of the village. Luisa’s family, as ethnic Germans, lose all rights to citizenship and property. There are public executions. Finally, in January 1945, when the girl is nine years old, her family and other ethnic Germans remaining in the village are ordered into farm wagons for deportation. They have no idea where they will be taken or what fate awaits them.

Luisa’s mother and grandmother, grandfather, great-uncle and –aunt struggle to remain together. It is the beginning of a three-year nightmare, lasting until 1948, an experience of brutality, forced labor, starvation, and – for many – death. Luisa’s ability to speak the language of their captors comes to the family’s aid more than once, as does her knowledge of Serbian folk songs, but straw on the floor of an empty, unheated building makes a poor bed, and a single piece of bread begged from a house with plenty does not go far to feed five people. Whenever groups of people are separated and moved, as happens several times, there is terror greater than that of starvation. At one point her mother becomes ill, seems ready to die, and refuses to open her eyes or leave her bed for days, but somehow during that speechless time the strong woman regained her resolve and went on, doing everything she could to keep her family alive.

I will not attempt to cover here the three years in the concentration camp so vividly described in Luisa Owen’s book. As in the earlier chapters, those nightmare years, too, are recalled from the perspective of the young child the author was at the time. With a child’s instinctive hunger for information, all the greater in this situation where survival depends on it, the girl observes everything and everyone around her. She has lost her innocence, her sense of belonging, her village, and any possible feeling of safety and security, but she and her family are determined to out-wait the nightmare, hopeful (if not sure) that it cannot last forever.

Any story of survival, because the teller has obviously survived, is positive in that it is an escape from death. The author of Casualty of War eventually came to America, achieved university degrees, became a professor of art education, raised a son, and now delights in grandchildren. These sources of happiness were surely not dreamed of by a little girl in a concentration camp under Tito’s reign of terror.

And yet, the losses always remain, as much a part of life as everything gained.
Longings for the past would often emerge unexpectedly. On weekend rides in the country, for instance, I would want us to stop at a farmhouse; I wanted to meet “real” people, and I was convinced they would have sheep cheese and yogurt for sale. On late autumn days, the crisp air would conjure familiar scents, the excitement of a diszn√≥tor [pig slaughtering, followed by sausage making]. Though such memories were comforting, invigorating, they informed, at the same time, that the feeling of home was elsewhere and far away.
Reading this book, I had a strong, painful sense not only of a world lost but of similar thefts of childhood being exacted throughout our world today. Owen’s writing ensures that whatever she describes will have great impact. It is also true, however, that the context in which one reads a book affects one’s reception of it, and the splintering of one integrated Yugoslavian village into religious and ethnic groups who can no longer trust each other – to me, sadly, that reads like a microcosm of much of our world of 2014.

Does it, or does it not, “take a village to raise a child”? The child in this book survives years of unspeakable brutality and horror, thanks to her immediate family, but the secure feeling of belonging, of being part of a meaningful whole, is never regained. In our own small village of Northport, there are those who feel secure in their belonging, those who hold apart, and those who feel “misplaced,” despite their best efforts. I don’t know what the answer is. I do know that we are immeasurably fortunate to be here.

[Note: the author is the mother of Erik Owen of Northport.]