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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Do We Romanticize the Lives of Others?

Bookstore dream come true
It’s happened more than once, and I’ve written about it before. Someone walks into my bookstore, realizes the art gallery next door is my husband’s, and exclaims, “You’re living my dream!” (Pretty funny coincidence: I hadn't looked over yet my draft of this post before uploading it when a woman from New Jersey, who yesterday bought Nuts to You, by Lynne Rae Perkins, came back today for Criss Cross and told me, "This is my dream!" I told her I'd just been writing about that for my blog.)

Gallery dream come true
I’ve also said – again, more than once – that having a dream is very different from living it, the difference one between pleasant, idle daydreaming and making something happen and working year after year to keep it alive. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t a dream come true, only that it didn’t come about with a lottery ticket or because a fairy godmother waved a magic wand. Of course I have my own unrealized dream lives, the selves I call my “inner cowgirl” and my “inner farmer” -- sigh -- but it’s hard to live more than one life at a time. I guess many of us have "roads not taken" in the progress of our lives.

Hurry! Time to make hay before it rains!
A friend whose parents moved the family to a 120-acre farm when she, the friend, was about 12 years old commented to me recently, “I don’t romanticize farming. It’s hard work! I couldn’t wait to leave the farm! I felt like the farm was my prison.” I told her that in my younger years I held a series of low-level office positions, and those offices definitely felt like prison cells to me. On a farm, there are seasonal demands and the unpredictability of nature – not to make light of them, but they are impersonal constraints. The real nightmare, to my mind, would be clashes with threatening and unreasonable authorities, encounters such as the growers in the documentary film “Farmageddon” suffered. (Surprise!) I don’t have the energy I had even five years ago, but I still enjoy working hard outdoors.

Well, instead I spend hours indoors in my bookstore (and often long to be outdoors at home), but it is my bookstore, and I am the boss! so it is not the prison those deadly old offices were. I drive myself pretty hard sometimes but am not subject to the arbitrary will of another, one of the most difficult features of clerical work. Lots of responsibility coupled with little if any authority is not a recipe for happiness! Nowadays I have both the authority and the responsibility, and the one makes the other much more pleasant.

I don’t think I romanticize farming, any more than I romanticize my own life, but sometimes I do romanticize the life David and I lead -- in a sense -- and I’m the first to admit it. (As I like to say, if I don't romanticize my life, who will? Oh, wait! I just said many people do. Hmm.) That doesn't mean, however, that I'm just daydreaming about a hazy possibility and seeing it in a rosy, soft-focus glow. I live the reality along with the dream. The bookseller’s life? More than just sitting around reading books! The artist’s life? Not all wine and roses, either! Hard work and financial sacrifice, like farming. Also, like farming, unpredictable income. Not everyone would choose to live as we do. Where the romantic part comes in, for me, is not in an avoidance of hard work, not in living the life of Riley or counting on "easy money," but in loving one’s work and being grateful not to be working against one's own nature. So I like to think if I'd taken a different road that I would feel the same way about farming. But who knows, right?

Well, when a friend had a garden business some years back -- design, installation, maintenance -- I worked with her on the installation and maintenance, and we worked hard! But we enjoyed working outdoors, enjoyed working together, and were happy to be strong and healthy enough (in late middle age) to engage in hard physical labor. Also, she was her own boss and treated me, her employee, like a respected colleague (though some of her clients saw me as the "yard girl"). So we were both happy.

And yes, David and I, the artist and the bookseller, are happy now in our hardworking life. Isn’t it romantic? Not every single minute, but often!

They are weeds, but I adore them!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Nature, Art, and Artifact

Last Sunday was what will have been my last Sunday away from the bookstore for the next two months. I used to begin my 7-day-a-week schedule with Memorial Day weekend, but June Sundays in Northport are quiet, (this was true even last year, when the post-Memorial Day dropoff in visitors did not occur, for the first time in my memory), and I decided I needed the time at home. Grass will not be growing as fast in July and August. 

Okay, decision taken. But on my last Sunday at home I didn’t stay home all day.

We had to attend the annual St. Wenceslaus rummage sale, for one thing, and I found several things I really needed – pint canning jars, wooden clothespins (one never has too many), and a nice, big laundry basket. I also bought five or six books, for us and for the shop. Then there were the indulgences – two (yes, two) cheese graters (sturdier than the ones I had at home), an irresistible set of four table napkins, and some other small item that escapes my mind at the moment. (Oh, a steamer basket.)

After the sale, we continued to Lake Leelanau for coffee and so I could pick up a bag of sugar at NJ’s. But then, home ... for lunch outdoors ... and to hang laundry on the line. I’d made a commitment, though, to attend the artist-in-residence lecture at 1:30 in Leland, so down the highway I went. Indoors. On a beautiful, sunny June Sunday. And I was glad to be there.

Holly Wren Spaulding is the first nonvisual artist to be awarded the artist-in-residency at Leland’s Old Art School since the program’s inception. My husband was the first artist-in-residence a decade ago, and most of those selected have been painters. But Holly Wren Spaulding is a poet. Words are her medium. Spaulding’s exhibit at the Old Art Building is a group of poems, the whole entitled “Lost Lexicon.”

Her inspiration for these poems was learning that roughly fifty words were to be cut from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, largely words having to do with nature and the outdoors, to make room for words children hear more frequently, many having to do with new technologies. It is in this context that Spaulding sees her work as a poet to be one of conservation.

The poet knew she wanted these poems done on letterpress, and initially she thought to hire someone to do the printing.
The letterpress artist (‘operator’ as a noun felt all wrong there!) contacted, however, offered instead to teach the poet her craft. And so Holly composed lines of type – actual, physical letters of poured lead – and impressed her words on sheets of handmade paper. The paper used is no longer available, the company that made it out of business. There was a display with a few lines of type and a little sign saying, “Please touch.” I did -- and felt suddenly near tears. Am I overly attached to words? To the physical world? Perhaps both, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Holly’s chosen words were names of plants and animals. On the walls where paintings are usually shown, small poems on sheets of handmade paper were presented to visitors. It was all (as an acquaintance said years ago when she became the mother of twins) very physical – natural objects, physical artifacts, material art.

The “Lost Lexicon” poem cycle may be available in future as a book. For now we still have Pilgrim, Spaulding’s 2014 work published by Alice Green & Co., and in that small, sweet book you will find the same poetic sensibility and feel the same gratitude at being able to hold the poet’s work in your hands, the book a physical object. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mornings on the Porch

Awake before sunrise (when clouds permit its eventual witness), I pad barefoot to the front porch for a novel left unfinished the evening before. But first there must be fresh coffee made, and while it brews I step outside to scatter yesterday’s grounds on rain-damp soil around iris and feverfew. One of the very satisfying aspects of late June is this effortless passing from indoors to enclosed porch to outdoors, as if all were one continuous living space.

Then, window open to birdsong, first cup of hot coffee at hand, dog at my feet, I settle in happily with my book, and when the last page has been reached (or what my dad always called “a good stopping place”), the dog and I go out for our first walk of the day. She takes careful inventory of new aromas on dewy grass, and I collect a handful of wildflowers, a.k.a. weeds – purple vetch, white bladder campion, yellow cinquefoil – for a little glass pitcher on the porch table. It is not a flower arrangement, only a higgledy-piggledy gathering.

From an old bookcase newly installed at the reading end of the porch (one end is for reading, one for dining, and both for sociable conversation, as the hour and occasion suggest) I pull the June 2010 issue of Poetry magazine but must confess it was letters to the editor that first capture my attention. Each letter presents its writer’s personality so clearly, with an entire range of attitudes and values, that I can almost see the men and women who were moved to write to the editor.

Work break: Load up the washing machine.

Now with a second cup of coffee, a thick volume of essays by Isaiah Berlin comes to hand, and I am wide awake, brain buzzing. Berlin is such a congenial thinker – congenial to my way of thought, of course that is. I’ve read that he was a lively and fascinating dinner companion, too. Much like David Hume, perhaps? (Le bon David, the latter was called.) It is lovely to be lost in philosophical debate and communing with a brilliant mind as morning light filters through the leaves outside the window.

Porch time does not last forever, of course. When silence from the laundry room tells me that the moment has come to hang wash out on the line, I rise from my couch of leisure. The sun is fully up.

But what is that, out on the hill? The dog and I spy something from the porch door and freeze, as does a lovely doe, big ears horizontal and wary. Sarah gives a faint, low woof, and the doe leaps away, tiny fawn close behind. And in the backyard, while I am busy with wet laundry and clothespins, Sarah sniffs around in the rhubarb where surely a bunny must be hiding. She is enjoying her morning, too.

Another morning, sometime after my 5 a.m. rising, a thunderstorm bursts out, and rain pours down on the porch roof. Not only am I cozy inside with today’s pre-dawn book (Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley), but weather precludes laundry, which is good because I have extra-early errands today in Suttons Bay.

And so, soon my dog and I will be on our way, first to do errands and then for a day in the bookstore, and we will enjoy our hours in the public world, too. But oh, the morning on the porch! How it fuels my spirit!

"When do you find time to read?" This is part of my answer.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Can You Help Staci, Too?

Moving a bookstore is very hard work. Dog Ears Books has been in its present location for over a decade now, but I still remember every move we ever made – from Waukazoo Street in Northport (photo above) to Union Street in Traverse City; from Traverse City back to Northport; from the corner of Mill and Nagonaba to the building next door on Nagonaba (you wouldn’t think moving to a neighboring building would be so much work, but it is); and finally from Nagonaba back to Waukazoo Street. Lots of volunteers stepped in for that last move, and I don’t think David and I could have done it without them. We wouldn’t have had the courage.

Last week I shared a story on Facebook from my daily Shelf Awareness newsletter about booksellers whose move resulted in tragedy. Jim and Staci Stuart bought the former Books and More from Dorothy Dickerson in April of this year and closed for renovations, planning to re-open as Books and Brew on May 1. (That’s in Albion, Michigan, just down the pike a way.) Two days before their opening, they were moving a bookcase – and it fell on Staci, as a result now paralyzed from the waist down.

To make matters worse, because Jim had changed jobs there was a two-day lapse in their health insurance, so most of Staci’s hospital bills, totaling $177,000, are not covered by insurance.

I’ve said before that having a dream (such as owning a bookstore) is a lot easier than making that dream come true and keeping it alive, but I cannot even begin to imagine what Staci Stuart is going through, now in a wheelchair, getting ready to open her bookstore on the 4th of July after she completes rehab and returns home this Wednesday, June 21st.

There’s no trust fund or retirement pension behind my own bookstore’s year-to-year continued existence, but I have to send a check to this bookseller in Albion, facing challenges far greater than my own. It’s little enough and all I can manage from this distance. If you can help out, too, follow this link to see how to do it. 

Staci, an independent bookseller is never alone. We are colleagues in a mutually supportive community. It's just one more aspect of this life that makes the dream worthwhile.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

In Which We Visit the Past, Near Home

This is nothing to do with books.

David and I were coming back from a morning trip to Traverse City (Bruce was taking care of business for me in Northport) when we saw signs along Eagle Highway for an estate sale. Following the signs, we turned onto Alpers Road and found ourselves at an old farmhouse where we’d had dinner back in the early 1980s, when friends from Australia lived there and raised sheep. I didn’t remember the porch, and the dining room didn’t seem familiar, but when we walked into the kitchen the memories came flooding back.

Old “Pops”! On long visits to his son and daughter-in-law, Pops would hold court at the kitchen table. Mention a place anywhere in the world, and Pops would exclaim, proudly and with a big smile, “Oy bin theah!” His hobby was working on clocks, and he was happy to show them off. He was also renowned for his limericks, but I won’t share any of those here.

Before they moved to this farmhouse, our Australian friends had lived off another road, uphill from Lake Leelanau, and I remember another dinner party there, featuring fresh venison. “You’re eating Bambi,” a friend (not the hostess) told me with a meaningful look, but she was eating Bambi, too, and Bambi was delicious. Then she handed me a bottle of wine and an opener and told me to open the bottle. I said, “I don’t know how,” and without missing a beat she said, “Then it’s time you learned.” I think of Linda saying those things every time I drive past Les and Marina’s old house on Lake Leelanau Drive, so I think of her often.

At the Alpers Road farmhouse, however, apart from memories of Pops, what was clearest in my mind was going out to the barn to see the sheep. It was winter, and the sheep were crowded together like fish in a school, their breath rising in little white puffs as they bleated and baa-ed, each sheep voice with its own distinctive register and tone. I remember sinking my fingers into the wool on one animal’s back, straight down, all the way to the knuckles.

Besides memories, what I loved most at the sale were the old orchard ladders. There were so many of them, and they made such interesting compositions in front of and against the old barn. They are also mute testament to hard work. I'm trying to remember what the pay was for picking cherries back in 1970, when I first came to live in Traverse City. Seems to me it was 95 cents a lug for tarts and $1.15 a lug for sweets? Maybe the other way around. If anyone remembers, let me know.

Well, I didn't find a peening jig and hammer and whetstone (let me know if you have a source for those items, too), and there was nothing in the few books that I had to have, but David carried home a small garden tractor battery, and we agreed it had been pleasant to stroll around the grounds and through the old house again and relive memories of old friends -- an altogether lovely interlude.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Managing My Blood Pressure

Warning: My post today may be like a confusing tennis match, back and forth between economics and poetry, my blood pressure rising perilously and being brought back to the level. But if you can't be dragged kicking and screaming into a discussion on economics, just scroll past those parts and take in the poetry breaks. They are the real meat, anyway.

The Perils of Economic Realism

Not for the world would I give up reading serious nonfiction, but sometimes the difficulty is as much -- or more -- in the effect of the reading on my nerves, shall we say, as in comprehending the ideas. For instance, recently I’ve been reading a book that sends my blood pressure soaring. It was published in 2012, and I can only imagine what the author, Hedrick Smith, would say if he were writing Who Stole the American Dream today. What do YOU think is responsible for the enormous and widening chasm between the growing pool of Americans in poverty and the hyper-rich at the top of the heap? Is it simply the result of technological growth and “progress,” the “Invisible Hand” of classical economics at work? Do differences in education across socioeconomic strata account for the gap? How about financial irresponsibility at the bottom and deep wisdom at the apex of the social pyramid?

Hedrick Smith believes it’s none of the above. He points to 1978 as the turning point, for it was then, he says, that large corporations across America joined forces and began their own very interested political activism, pouring money into campaigns and subsequently, with their successes, reversing the growth of the middle class seen in the previous three decades. A secondary cause, in Hedrick’s view, was a new corporate ethos. No longer were business and workers seen as having common interests. Now a CEO was focused (and continues to focus) almost exclusively on short-term gains for shareholders. In the glorification of predatory capitalism, ruthlessness is admired as strength, and it pays off in CEO pay, bonuses, and “golden parachutes.”

It makes sense that a CEO would be compensated at a higher rate than a worker on the line. Of course. The boss gets paid the most. Who would argue? From 1978 to 2013, however, inflation-adjusted compensation for CEOs increased 937 percent, double the gains in the stock market for the same period and in marked contrast to wages, which gained only 10.2 percent. Contrast this to 1965, when the CEO to worker pay ratio stood at 20:1.

The standard argument for colossal CEO compensation packages is that a CEO is responsible for the growth and success of his or her (usually his) corporation. Nonsense, says Hedrick Smith. First of all, they receive the same compensation whether they succeed or fail to enhance the price of stock. Second, compensation packages are awarded by boards generally composed of other CEOs and former CEOs. Third, every company wants to look good, and if their CEO’s pay is below average, they believe their company image will suffer, so for corporate image’s sake a CEO must be richly rewarded. Cutting jobs, closing plants, shipping those jobs and facilities overseas where costs are lower – all cut costs in the short term and fuel the vicious cycle of increased unemployment and poverty at the bottom of the pyramid at the same time that the apex ascends ever higher.

Take a Break for Poetry!

But I can only read a few pages at a time and take some sketchy notes before I need a break. It is just so discouraging, the power of money to pound everyone else into the ground! I spent Sunday like an invalid, relaxing with a couple of totally “fluffy” novels (between yard work sessions) but began the new week stronger, with poems and essays of Philip Levine, Detroit native and U.S. poet laureate in 2011. Oh, heaven, this Michigan voice! I stretch out on the front porch after supper with The Last Shift and read and breathe. And it is enough.

Nose Back to the Grindstone

Okay, but what about tax cuts for the wealthy? What do you make of the claim that such tax cuts will translate into business investment and new startups, creating jobs and lifting all boats? Experience, history, and numerous economic studies fail to support the claim. More money left in the pockets of the rich does not trickle down. Hedrick cites analysts who agree that “high concentrations of wealth correlate with poor economic performance in the long run,” and he writes of the years “2009 to 2012 as evidence that offering low tax rates to promote investment did not work.”
Even former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan was moved to comment in 2011 that Corporate America was sitting on nearly $2 trillion in idle capital. Greenspan asserted that the reluctance of business leaders to spend on new plants and equipment and on hiring more workers “accounted for almost all of the rise in unemployment” from 2007 to 2011.
Go back and re-read that quote above, after reminding yourself that Alan Greenspan was the darling economist of Ayn Rand, hardly a friend to taxes on wealth. There is a radio announcement these days for a firm specializing in “wealth management.” The firm promises to keep and grow your family wealth, and whenever I hear it, I think of the old ads for Stop-Leak. Know what I mean? Why would the wealthy want their fortunes trickling down?

A Poet’s Life

Time for another cooling-down period. Reading an entire volume of Philip Levine’s poetry, cover to cover, I knew I would be coming back to it in quiet moments and savoring more slowly the individual poems, but for now, my busy season of the year heating up faster than expected (and my blood pressure soaring from that economics reading), I turn to Levine’s memoir essays, My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry. The first line of the title essay, for me, instantly stops the rush of time. “I composed my first poems in the dark.” Isn’t that wonderful? That sentence is a poem. I smile and breathe and continue.

The poet-to-be was fourteen years old, a Detroit boy, son of immigrants, and he did not yet know poetry, but it had already found him.
In truth I never thought of these early compositions as poems: I never thought of them as anything but what they were: secret little speeches addressed to the moon when the moon was visible and when the moon was not visible to all those parts of creation that crowded around and above me as well as those parts that eluded me, the parts I had no name for, no notion of except for the fact they were listening.
What Levine writes of his first attempts at writing poetry, without having a name to give to his “speeches addressed to the moon,” instantly made me think of another Michigan poet, Diane Seuss. She too – and this was years ago, long before My Lost Poets would be published – said that she didn’t know, when young, that the pieces she was writing were poems. She had no name for them, either. It’s a different way of coming to poetry, very different from growing up in a home filled with serious literature and wanting to do what the writers in those books did.

A high school teacher introduced Philip Levine to “Arms and the Boy,” by Wilfrid Owen and loaned him a collection of Owen’s work.
I could lie and say those poems changed my attitude toward and my understanding of the importance of poetry. No, what it changed was my attitude toward myself.
And isn’t that a great and important gift to receive from poetry, a gift from a poet who had more to give than his own reflection?

At the first poetry reading young Philip Levine attended, in Webster Hall at Wayne University [not yet called Wayne State], he was bowled over by the first line read by a fellow student, Bernard Strempek. Strempek was one of Levine’s “lost poets” in that he died young, leaving only “enough poetry for one tiny, posthumous collection of satiric, hard-edged poems....”The line that so dazzled Levine on that first reading, “When in a mirror love redeems my eyes,” did not appear in the posthumous volume and may “live now only in this essay.” Stop and think what that means: a young, aspiring poet reads his work to a small audience, and another young, aspiring poet is so struck by the first line that he never forgets it, and later, in an essay, he shares the line with the world, crediting the friend of his youth, now deceased, whose name we would not otherwise know.

Shakespeare wrote, “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” How much more fitting for a poet than a graveyard tombstone, to be immortalized in the written word!

Gathering Up My Courage Again...

The picture of a CEO sending manufacturing jobs overseas (while his own personal wealth skyrockets) is already a somewhat old-fashioned figure, because today’s American economy is not all that focused on making anything. Financial markets are the big thing now, finance overtaking manufacturing in the late 1980s, its profits accounting for 46 percent of total U.S. corporate profits in 2005. And this making of money is built on – can you guess? Debt. There are huge profits to be made by servicing debt, as we are all becoming more and more aware. Glass-Steagall (the Banking Act of 1933, inspired by the Crash of 1929) was repealed in 1999. We all know what happened in 2008. Now Congress is poised to repeal the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. It seems our memories grow ever shorter as time goes on....

Better Late Than Never to Meet a Poet

My husband knew poet Philip Levine slightly. I wish I’d known him. From what little I’ve read, he sounds like a wonderful guy. A Michigan poet, Detroit native, poet laureate (2011), and David knew – how could I have missed reading him for so long, only to “discover” him now, after his death?

It’s all right. Many a reader is unknown to a poet whose works the reader loves, and many a time it is just that, the time, when a poet’s work enters one’s life that matters deeply. And poetry, my friends, is the real world, too. The money runs out, the poets and the financiers die, but the poems live on.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Michigan Country Village Life in the "Old Days"

To my grandsons,
and to my granddaughters,
who can never know the joys of country living,
this book is tenderly dedicated

Millbrook was published in 1938 by Little, Brown and Company of Boston. Its author was Della T. Lutes. Born in 1872, Lutes tells in Millbrook the story of childhood as she knew it, growing up in a small southern Michigan country village outside Jackson, Michigan. 

The town of Millbrook was on a north-south railway line and also on the turnpike running east-west between Chicago and Detroit. It boasted two churches, Methodist and Universalist, and one resident atheist, a hired man who worked on a farm on the edge of town. There was a school, of course, drygoods store, meat market, drugstore, barber shop, blacksmith shop, and one tavern. The depot, of course. Small as the town was, however, only men might loiter on Main Street.
...Women and girls, in that day, didn’t loiter along the street – even little girls. If you had business at the stores, you transacted it speedily and left. If an errand led you along Main Street, you went decorously past all public institutions, -- even including Lyde Peters’s notion store, where news was dispensed as well as necessities, -- your eyes frozen to the path your feet must follow.
Imagine, then, the curiosity of a little girl newly moved to town from the country, with a new town friend her own age! And imagine the embarrassment of the two little girls when Cory’s new, wild and brash sister-in-law from Detroit leads them not into one store after another but actually into the barbershop!
We hung back. In our most curious moments we had never dreamed of entering the barbershop. Women never went into the barbershop. It was a rendezvous for men – sacred to their masculine needs.
But headstrong Clara knew no restraint, natural or inculcated by family. Why ever had William married her? And why had she married a farmer, when she hated farm smells and the unexciting life of the country? No one could understand it!

Delly and Cory learn about life by hanging quietly on the edges of adult conversation whenever they can avoid being noticed. Perpetual debate over the character of Quint Sharp, the Atheist, for instance, enlivened many a gathering of village women. Was he a danger to himself and others or a better man than many a nominal Christian? Opinion differed. Sex came into local gossip only rarely, but when it did –
My mother drew back, shocked, startled, dismayed, mingled fear and disgust on her face. 
“Hush!” she said sharply. “Can’t you see Delly’s here? 
Clara looked at me, surprised, evidently quite unaware of my presence up to now.  
 “Well,” she said, rather sullenly, “she’ll hear of it.”

When Della Lutes was young “Delly,” there were no automobiles, not even bicycles or telephones, and yet news traveled around town fast.
About the middle of March, a postcard came from Gaby to Adelaide, addressed from Chicago, Lyde Peters [the postmistress] read it first and went out on the street and told every man in sight. Nell [Lyde’s daughter] threw a shawl over her head and ran to the drugstore to tell Ed Calkins. Ed said if Nell would go over and get Freda to come and tend the store he’d take the card right out to Adelaide. And by the time Adelaide had got her card the whole town knew its contents by heart.

Unlike citified Clara, Della and Cory found excitement plentiful in Millbrook. Spelling bees, pageants, picnics, visits from relatives, haying time, and the county fair were high points, but simple walks together and visits to neighbors provided interest enough for ordinary days. Berry-picking and meals were reliable pleasures. Della’s father took great pride in his strawberries, the best in town (though not quite up to those he had raised before on his larger farm). Chicken was the only thing to serve company, even though everyone had poultry of their own, and Thanksgiving wasn’t Thanksgiving without turkey, any more than dinner in general was dinner without pie for dessert.

The story of Millbrook opens with a description of the village (also given in visual form as map endpapers to which a reader can refer), and Lutes recounts the way she and her mother would sit out on the front stoop in the evening, looking down a gentle slope to the town to watch the lights come on, naming the houses as the lamps were lit.
Then, “That’s Miz’ Babcock’s,” we would say as the house on the corner mellowed with light. “There’s Adelaide’s” -- happily, as if a distant hand had waved a greeting.

Joy is mixed with sorrow and anxiety in Millbrook, as everywhere. There is William’s unseemly and unaccountable marriage to the dreadful Clara, when everyone expected him to marry Jenny Myers, the blacksmith’s daughter, with whom he had “kept company” nearly all his life. Even happy events produce a bit of tension, as when Della’s maternal grandmother comes from Detroit for what seems almost a state visit. But the shocking news that Nell Peters has been “knocked up” and is claiming Gabey Reed is her baby’s father sets the whole town on its ears. Gabey’s leaving town suddenly is the next shock. When an old woman is murdered with an axe by the young man she has taken in and formally adopted, it seems the last straw.
Nobody had died except old folks and nobody had got married unless maybe one or two couples that had just got married and nothing to it. There hadn’t even been any special visitors to anybody’s house for a long time. The town had just run along like any country town and then all of a sudden everything happened at once.

A reader is drawn in gradually to the life of the town and its families, eagerly following all these exciting developments as the memoir almost seems to turn into a novel, and yet it is the quiet tenor of the life of that period that remains the foreground. Work in the fields, a night hawk swooping at dusk, grass cut with a scythe, biscuits and gravy and mashed potatoes, fresh berry jam, all kinds of pickles, and picnics with real cloths spread on plank tables improvised for the occasion – sights and sounds and aromas and tastes are all here, lovingly remembered and recounted. The women sit and sew and talk –
... in their tight-fitting basques with many buttons, their full long skirts protected by full white aprons, their high-topped shoes, their ruches, brooches, breast pins, and thin old-fashioned wedding rings ...
and over and over, in chapter after chapter, Gran’ma Reed mourns the disappearance of her husband Gab’erl’s “Ledger,” in which he wrote every day’s happenings on their farm, beginning with the old log house built in 1835.

How will it all end? Well, of course it won’t, it didn’t, and it doesn’t. Generations of the families go on, and the land remains, despite changes wrought upon it. But what a gift it is, to have these memories of Della Lutes written down and published to allow us to visit life in lower Michigan over a hundred years ago!

Bookseller’s postscript: The morning I wrote this I also did a load of wash and hung it out on the line, cut rhubarb, watered plants, and hauled brush from major tree pruning my husband and I had undertaken the preceding evening. We have electricity, a telephone, cars (too many--don't ask!), and my business is in the village, but we live continue to live a country life, and for that I am deeply grateful – and never more so than on a calm, sunny, green and lovely morning in June.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Interweaving of Books and Life

I have just finished reading the advance reading copy of a transporting book, found it deeply meaningful, and am now flailing around, mentally and emotionally, trying to find a way to write about it here. Every book is more than a description of it can ever be, but that truth seems particularly striking and poignant to me in this case.

She Read To Us In the Late Afternoons: A Life in Novels, by Kathleen Hill, takes its title from the author’s memory of her mother’s reading to her and her brother, one winter, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Years later, she recalls her mother’s inflections and tone when she herself is reading Proust one afternoon a week to an aging friend and realizing the importance of a reader’s voice and the intimate space created by sharing what is more often experienced in solitary fashion.

Although she has surely read thousands of books, only six are featured in this beautiful literary memoir. (I first wrote that sentence to say she had “chosen” only six, but does one choose the pieces of one’s life that make the deepest memories?) I have read all but the first mentioned, Lucy Gayheart; however, readers who have read fewer or even none of those that resonate so strongly in the author’s life – readers, that is: those who sometimes wonder if they are perhaps too involved in books, reading instead of living – should still find this book resonating in their own.

One of the reasons I am having such a difficult time finding a way to write about this book is that it did for me what I know it will do for others whose lives sometimes focus on books to the near-exclusion of world events or even family and friends. In each essay (they are chronologically arranged), Kathleen Hill writes not only of the novel important to her in that period of her life but also gives biographical details – where she was living, how she came to be there, what else was happening in her life and how she felt and responded. And so, while I was very much engrossed in her stories, I also found myself drifting off into my own memories and books I read in circumstances forever associated, for me, with the book then read – all of which has nothing to do with this particular book, only with my experience of it. But then, what Hill writes of is exactly that -- the experience of her readings of the six novels.

And so reading this book brings back to me some of my own reading memories....

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One summer in Barry County, Michigan, I read Moscow Farewell, by George Feifer, and the closer I got to the end of the book, the more carefully I rationed the remaining pages, so I recognized from my own life Hill’s report of doing the same with her listening friend, Diana Trilling, when they were reading Proust -- not wanting a book to end, not wanting to close the cover on the last page, because to do so is the closest experience a modern reader has to being ejected from the Garden of Eden. I can explain it no other way, though surely Proust’s vision of his friends growing old and unrecognizable, like the desperate, dysfunctional Moscow of the Soviet era, can hardly be called an Eden. It isn’t that the world of the book is idyllic but that we are living so fully in its world that leaving it is a little death, a bereavement in the midst of our own life.

I had a vegetable garden behind our old farmhouse that summer, and after reading a page or two, trying to read slowly, savoring every word, I would close the book, take a deep breath, and plunge outdoors to weed for a while. And as Kathleen did when reading aloud to Diana, I rationed myself to shorter and shorter bits as the remaining pages grew fewer. Outdoors there was a song sparrow that sang on the fencepost behind my garden, and I remember also a beautiful spotted salamander we found in the well pit, the breeze through sweet-smelling hay stacked in the barn, butterflies my little son and I lured to the driveway by filling holes with water from the hose, spittlebugs we discovered on weeds in the unmowed “side yard” (a.k.a. meadow on the other side of the drive), and the discouraging state of our kitchen floor, with its old linoleum torn up to reveal the hardwood boards underneath almost irremediably (though I’m sure they have been remediated by now) gunked up with old black tar – all are connected to my reading of Moscow Farewell. I could have spent every waking minute that summer scraping away at the tar on the kitchen floor, but instead I fled to Moscow and to my garden and to the fields. My son and I climbed a small rise we called “Mulberry Hill,” accompanied by our large dog and our feisty little tiger cat. The cat led the little parade, her waving tail in tall grasses showing us the way. Years later I would sometimes call another dog, Nikki, by love names inspired by Feifer’s book: Nikita, Nikitushka.

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being I read in Paris, taking the Metro almost every day from the bustling 9th arrondissement to the serene 8th, trading commercial traffic and narrow pavement for the cool, verdant, peaceful atmosphere of the Parc Monceau. I would change my seat several times during each day’s reading, moving now into, now out of the sun, and taking the occasional turn around waters and “ruins” when tired of sitting. I lived inside that first Kundera novel (later I read several more, loving some and absolutely hating others, something that has never happened to me with any other author), though not always in the way the author could have foreseen. Reading it in French (L’insoutenable légerté de l’être – magic name!), I sometimes mistook the meaning of a word, and so for quite a while I envisioned the chapeau melon not as black but the color of a cantaloupe. I know, I know! But that’s how I saw it, day after day, for many chapters. Living those hours in Prague, however, barely conscious for long stretches of time of the city around me, when I looked up and rose from my seat and walked to a new one, somehow I felt I belonged in Paris and in the Parc Monceau more securely for having entered Kundera’s world in translation, through my own second language. Kundera gave me Prague, and Prague gave me entry to Paris.

As readers, we can be stubborn and prejudiced, and for years I took perverse pride in saying that life was too short to read Proust. It seemed such a clever thing to say, proving my independence from the canon. Then one summer, somehow, I fell into Combray.

Of everything described in this beginning of Remembrance of Things Past, it was the hawthornes that became my obsession. David and I would go for a drive in the summer evening, and my eyes searched roadsides and fields for hawthornes, wanting that tangible connection to my reading and nearly blind to everything else. But no, not blind. I did see what was there, but it was what I did not see that filled my mind, and this recalls Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and a section of a paper I wrote on that work, in which “Pierre’s dog” can see nothing in the cafe but the absence of Pierre. How much do we miss in each present moment because our minds are filled with what is not there? Well, I read the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past again and again, became bored with and laid aside the second, but at last, a few years back, leaped ahead to read The Past Recaptured. Wonderful, wonderful!

And now, searching Books in Northport for “hawthornes” (I know I did a post of them once), I find instead a post on books I lived, and there is one left out of this current post, One Hundred Years of SolitudeYes, I remember, that summer I was reading Marquez I wanted nothing more than escape from what my own life had then become: hours in a windowless office, surrounded by tall file cabinets holding “history” I felt had no place in a university and yet for which I was responsible. How I mourned the erasure of the old Department of Agriculture, in one of the original ivy-covered buildings on the hill, and how I missed the green, humid world of its greenhouse!

*  *  *

If I seem to have digressed egregiously from the task at hand, it is my way of telling you that you will do the same in the intervals when you put Kathleen Hill’s book aside. You will enter her reading worlds eagerly and be enchanted by their variety and depth, and you will follow the threads weaving together the books she was reading to the life she was living at the same time and her later reflections on those connections. You will be at times astonished at her candor, for she does not spare herself or hide her shortcomings or failures, whether telling of a schoolmate abandoned to his lonely fate, acceptance of social hierarchy in Nigeria, or loneliness in a French village, where for week after week she and her husband somehow could not connect with the world around them. And then when you put the book down to change your seat or return to the demands of your own life, you will recall, because you are a reader, too, those books in whose worlds you lived and also the world that surrounded you at the time of those readings, and so your experience of this book will add to all those other weavings and layers of memory that are your life.

Does a reader, “nose buried in a book,” miss life while turning pages, eyes following lines of print? If it is life, is it a bizarre way to live?

Hill’s answer to the question comes at last in her final essay. Between Hill and her friend Diana Trilling, there is a 20-year age difference, and when Diana speaks of her failing eyesight and her regret that she will not, because of it, be able to re-read Proust, Hill quickly offers to come one afternoon a week to read aloud from Remembrance of Things Past, a project that takes the two women six years to complete. Naturally, there is conversation as well as reading during those afternoons, but that is all I am going to say. No description, no preview. You must read that essay for yourself, and you must read the preceding essays first, in order. I am sorry to tell you that She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons will not be released until mid-autumn, but I will tell you that it deserves your anticipation. As a reader, you will not want to miss this experience.

She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons: A Life in Novels
by Kathleen Hill
Encino, CA: Delphinium Books, October 24, 2017