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Monday, January 11, 2016

Launching Into Another Year’s Reading

Dog Ears Books will reopen on Wednesday, January 13 – weather permitting!!! – and will be open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week. We will, however, be closed on Saturday the 16th, which I know is bizarre beyond words, but a simulcast of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” is being shown at the State Theatre in Traverse City that day, and of all the operas ever written, it is this one I have most longed to see and hear. So that’s where I’ll be. Then, back the following Wednesday and open Wednesday through Saturday for the remainder of the winter, weather permitting, and unless otherwise announced. Sound complicated? It really isn’t.

Meanwhile, during my time off, in addition to fun with David, outdoor time with Sarah, kitchen adventures, ubiquitous laundry, and the horror of deep-cleaning my desk and catching up with business bookkeeping (I’ll spare readers the discouraging details that task revealed), I’ve indulged in quite a bit of reading, a report of which follows.

Poetry is the perfect bridge from one year to the next, and Jim Harrison’s new book of poems, Dead Man’s Float, arrived before the end of the year. At last! I took the book up with the feeling of deep gratitude I feel for every new book of Jim’s poetry. There is a lot about pain in this collection and a lot about birds, too. A small book, in which most of the poems fit on a single page. Once many, many years ago now, when I dragged my IBM Selectric typewriter up from Kalamazoo to Lake Leelanau to work alongside Jim in transcribing a sheaf of new poems he’d written for a new book, on the way from the house to the granary where he worked I became as shy as if we’d never met before. “I feel as if I’ve been reading your diaries,” I told him. He replied matter-of-factly, “You have.” Some people believe that modern poetry differs from prose only in the line breaks. I continue to maintain that the best poems differ from prose in being exquisite distillations. Most modern poetry is also very intimate. Exquisite, intimate distillations of one man’s vision of life. Thanks again, Jim. I’ll be taking this book up again and again....

Losing My Mind: An Intimate Look at Life with Alzheimer’s, by Thomas DeBaggio, is as terrifying as the title suggests. Once I got into the rhythm I speed-read through it, but I must say that getting into the rhythm was initially difficult. Three different strands – memories of his life from childhood on; facts about Alzheimer’s; and observations of his own deteriorating mental condition – appear in turn, and the jumps from one to the other had me questioning my own mental processing. Bits of what might be called a fourth strand, some of the author’s brief specific insights or thoughts, are set off in italics, but the three major strands are all in the same typeface, so although long passages of quoted factual material are indented, it wasn’t as easy to distinguish at first glance the author’s present writing from his childhood memories. Another odd difficulty is that the book is so coherent. What I mean is that the book’s cognitive coherence, along with perfect sentences and perfectly spelled words, is so at odds with what the author writes about his difficulties with spelling, remembering words and events, even reading his own handwriting, that often it feels more like reading fiction than memoir. We read and feel deep sympathy, and yet it’s hard to believe the man is “losing his mind.” How can he express the mounting losses so clearly? (Just how much editing was necessary?) And yet, a reader does believe. DeBaggio accomplished what he set out to accomplish, leaving a stunning personal account of his own loss of identity.

I mentioned the Paris book in December when it first came in. The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs, by Elaine Sciolino, could not fail to interest me, as that market street in the 9th arrondissement is one I know fairly well. Not, I hasten to say, as intimately as Sciolino knows it. I did not, as she did, develop friendships with the vendors whose shops I visited daily. Astonishingly (and as someone who generally haunted the churches of Paris every time I was there, I cannot account for this omission), I don’t believe I was ever inside Notre Dame de Lorette, the church at the base of la rue étroite qui monte au Sacré Coeur. And so Sciolino gave me inside glimpses and historic background of many buildings outwardly familiar to me. Now I am more than curious to learn how someone unfamiliar with the street will respond to the book. Ed? How did it strike you? And don’t tell me you haven’t started reading it yet!

Having heard on NPR of a new book about the life and work of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., I felt moved to give his fiction another try. I don’t remember which novel I tried to read years ago before deciding I just was not a Vonnegut fan, but this winter I elected to read Cat’s Cradle. What a lively writer! What a romp through the dark landscape of deadly 20th-century American ideas and inventions! How on-the-nose the definitions of the wise Bokonon! (Ah, yes, the granfalloon! I’ve been welcomed into a few of those in my time, and surely you have been, too.) I laughed aloud many times while reading, and once, in the car, laughed just recalling a bit of dialogue from the book. The final disaster I saw coming, so no surprise there, but the final image I had not foreseen. Thus there were many laughs along the way but no laughs in closing the book. A dark vision, indeed. But worth reading. I’m glad I gave him another try.

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser: I’ve read it before and will read again, and I quoted it here in Books in Northport on my previous post. Often, listing to news on the radio, I can’t help editing what I’m hearing, eliminating clutter as Zinsser prescribes. What, for instance, is with the words ‘happen’ and ‘happening,’ which now seems to creep into every report? “The event is scheduled to happen on Saturday at 2 p.m.”? Why not simply “The event is scheduled for Saturday at 2 p.m.”? But that is just me being crabby. More importantly, as a writer criticizing my own prose, I value Zinsser’s directives. Where I fail, the fault is, obviously, mine own.

I continue reading the Japanese classic, The Tale of Genji, and should finish it by spring, despite myriad distracting temptations along the way, the most recent being M.F.K. Fisher: Her Life in Letters. I fell in love with MFKF when I happened, long before I ever went to France, upon her Map of Another Town. Now I read her letters and realize that in her books she created a persona, so that the writer we meet in the books on Aix-in-Provence and Marseilles is not the Mary Frances we meet in her letters. This is not criticism! I am not disappointed! I am fascinated both by the solitary, mysterious MFKF and by the warm, approachable, letter-writing Mary Frances. And in reading the letters, I feel a new point of sympathy when she writes to a friend that she is (I must paraphrase to save myself hunting through pages for a direct quote) a letter-writer in the same way some people are alcoholics or “Benzedrine-boys.” I too am a letter-writer in that way, though my pen-and-paper correspondents have dwindled terribly over the years. From time to time I think about arranging to print out voluminous e-mail correspondence with various friends but doubt I ever will. Letters on paper are precious keepsakes, their value rising – for me, anyway -- as they become increasingly rare in our world.

P.S. In addition to today’s new post on my kitchen blog, I’ve gone back and added a couple of photos to the preceding post, pictures of Sarah waiting for her special treats. Not to be missed! 


Edmund said...

Mea culpa! I have not started reading it, yet. It's next on my list! I am in France in my mind, though. Reading another book set there.--Ed

P. J. Grath said...

No culpa intended, Ed. Chacun à son gout et à sa vitesse!