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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Time, Youth, and Beauty

Young people seem not to know that they are going to get old, but older people know that they are not going to become young again. 
- Jim Harrison, Off to the Side: A Memoir
“Oh, to slow it all down!” writes a friend — but of course we can’t. Recent babies are already toddlers, schoolchildren are out of college and getting married and moving to Chicago, New York, Austin, and L.A. Sometimes we lose track of which acquaintances are still among the living, whereas close friends lost to the Reaper — always too soon! — remain in our everyday thoughts. 

If ever I did earlier in life (I can’t remember now), I certainly don’t envy the young any longer. The second half of the twentieth century strikes me as a satisfying time to have been alive in midwestern America, which is lucky, as I’ve never had a yen for time travel. One thing I think about often lately, though, is how my response to beauty has changed. In the presence of beauty I feel now, at the same time, both more detached and more joyful. There is no longer much of anything like desire in it and certainly nothing of envy. A beautiful young woman or handsome young man, like the wise face of an elder or a baby’s happy smile, simply makes me happy. And if in a particular face I catch glimpses of a beloved generation past, my cup overfloweth.

Our reading circle will be meeting next week to talk about Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. One thing that struck me most forcibly about Woolf’s novel was that she seemed to present suicide as a response not to the unbearable pain of life but to its unbearable beauty. I’ll find out, I guess, if others read the book as I did. For the present, anyway, I cannot wish for a single moment’s lessening of beauty, nor can I imagine hurrying to take leave of it. Instead my heart cries out with my friend, “Oh, to slow it all down!”

Saturday, August 24, 2019

One Season Follows Another....

Canada geese are a-gathering already in flocks, though heaven knows most of them won’t be starting south any time soon. Do wild geese and turkeys seek the company of other adults once their season’s young are raised? Does the empty nest give them freedom to socialize with their own age group again, or is it simply preparation for the togetherness of those long flights to warmer climes?

Is it still summer now, as the end of August approaches? Mornings and evenings are crisp and cool, and every day, it seems, someone comes to say good-by, to urge us to have a “good winter,” and to assure us that they will see us again next summer. Some exclaim, “Oh, no!” when they hear the word “September” uttered, but the truth is that September can be summer-warm, just as June can be spring-cool or August fall-nippy. Not only do Michigan seasons interpenetrate (making it impossible to fix a particular, precise day when one ends and another begins), but they frequently vacillate, also, with uncertain inching or lurching back and forth. 

We see the passage of time more clearly when we focus on the length of light each day (diminishing now) and mark the progress of the seasons by where the sun appears and disappears each day on our eastern and western horizons. And our community social calendars are clearcut, also. The 4th of July, fly-in at Woolsey Airport, Northport Dog Parade, wine festivals in various venues, and Peshawbestown Pow-wow — all are behind us for 2019. Leelanau Uncaged, Northport’s wonderful street fair of art, dance, food, crafts, and music — that still lies ahead, of course. And between events past and events to come is Labor Day weekend, the latterday traditional bookend of summer, signaling the end of what began with Memorial Day, whatever the weather or calendar try to persuade us to believe.

Summer for this Northport bookseller, my 26th bookstore summer, was a good one. For the first time, I decided to keep the bookstore “dark” on Sundays, even in July. It was hard at first not to keep second-guessing the decision, haunted as I was at first by visions of disappointed tourists outside the shop, but the other side of the coin was the wonderful holiday feeling of carefree summer Sundays. Even if the Artist and I spent a good part of the day doing laundry and mowing grass, it felt good to be off the clock. On Sundays, we were on vacation!

Another good decision from the standpoint of sanity was to limit my Thursday Evening Author events to five and to schedule them every other week. Compared to having TEA every week for 11 consecutive weeks, as I did in 2018 for my bookstore’s 25th anniversary year — a frantic pace! — this year, with an off-week between every two events, I was much better able to relax and enjoy more fully each author’s visit, from Kalamazoo poet Jennifer Clark to Leelanau essayist and seer Kathleen Stocking, on to fiction with Detroit writers Dorene O’Brien and Michael Zadoorian, and wrapping up with former journalist and university prof Charles Eisendrath.

And now, with only one week of August remaining, even my reading has taken on a more relaxed feel. Our little reading circle, convened lo these many years ago now to wrestle together through James Joyce’s Ulysses, will get together post-Labor Day to discuss Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Not altogether, I’m thinking as I read, a complete departure from Ulysses, both the unwinding of both stories limited to a single day, with characters’ stream-of-consciousness thoughts enriching the passing hours and swelling them to a fullness most of us experience in our own lives only infrequently. 

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Back From the Brink of Extinction

Schafer illustrations of "vanished" Michigan mammals
The fisher, also called pekan, is remarkable for its size — length about two feet, plus another foot of tail.
The quote above is from Michigan Wildlife Sketches: The Native Mammals of Michigan’s Forests, Fields and Marshes, with text by G.W. Bradt and illustrations by Charles E. Schafer, published in September 1972 by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. It goes on to describe the fisher (Martes pennanti) as “just a big marten, living more on the ground than in the trees,” and weighing from eight up to eighteen pounds. Reading on, we learn that a fisher can and will attack a porcupine — successfully! That is impressive! But next, for someone seeking to make a positive identification of the stranger chased by her dog on an otherwise calm and quiet Sunday morning, come more discouraging words: 
Fishers formerly were found over most of Michigan, retreating before the axe and trap until they probably disappeared entirely, although there was the possibility a few stragglers might still be present in remote parts of the Upper Peninsula. 
In fact, however, a few fishers were imported from Minnesota and released in Ontonagon County in 1961, so might some have reached the lower peninsula by now? That is, are they "vanished," or aren't they? I asked around among friends, and several reported fisher sightings here in northern Leelanau Township in the last few years.

I consulted another reference, Michigan Mammals, by Rollin H. Baker, published in 1983 by Michigan State University. Baker notes that the fisher was reported in the late 1920s by the Michigan Department of Conservation as “nearly exterminated, with no chance to make a ‘comeback,” then as “practically extinct” in the department's 1933-34 report. Both trapping and habitat destruction combined to bring about the devastation of the Michigan fisher population until the U.S. Forest Service helped in the rehabilitation of their populations, desirable as a check on porcupine numbers.

Baker calls the fisher’s life “rather antisocial,” the males solitary except during courtship and mating. (Is the fisher’s life also “brutish and short”? One wonders.) “There is some evidence that fisher may associate with gray wolves” (scavenging wolf kills is the extent of their “associating”), but the fisher seems to have found interesting primarily for its role as a killer of porcupines:
Most noteworthy is the predator-prey association developed between the fisher and the porcupine. In fact, Powell and Brander (1977) suggest that their adaptive relationships have been environmentally selected in order that successful coexistence occurs, with depressed porcupine populations causing fisher to depend on other food sources….
Meat forms most of the diet of this “formidable … woodland carnivore.” And any mammal that can tackle and kill a porcupine definitely deserves to be called “formidable,” we can probably all agree.

Schafer shows fisher with its eye on a porcupine

My fisher sighting was startling, as the large, dark grey mammal streaked across open ground with my old dog in hot pursuit. (Luckily, Sarah obeys very well the “Leave it!” command. I would not want her tangling with a fisher! ) I didn’t get a good look at the stranger’s face but had time to take in the size of the animal and its beautiful coat — “thick, luxuriant, glossy but fairly coarse compared to that of the marten,” according to Baker. But no photograph! I was sitting quietly with morning coffee and book when fisher and dog hove into view. 

So there it was — my first and possibly only lifetime sighting of a fisher in the wild, exciting enough that a coyote in the driveway six days later seems barely worth mentioning. But now the Artist proposes a name for a character, one I envision as a meat-eating loner detective: Martin Fischer. I mean, we have to disguise the name a little bit, don’t we?

As for my old reference books, they may underestimate today's fisher population, but they still offer a wealth of information. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Who Is Regional, and Who Is American?

She swung her horse about and cantered him to where Johnny waited. When she came up, he grinned at her. “What do you think?” 
“I think,” she said, “you would either die miserably in this place or learn to love it very much.” 
His face sobered and he searched her eyes. Then he smiled. “You won’t die.” 
She smiled back at him. “No, I won’t die.”
The lines above come near the end of Voyage to Santa Fe, by Janice Holt Giles, published in 1962. How have I missed this wonderful American novelist for so long, only now stumbling on her (serendipity again!) and looking forward eagerly to reading much more of her work? The headstone on her grave reads “Kentucky Writer,” although three of her novels have the great American West as their setting, and others are set in her native Arkansas. 

It’s odd, I think, that her Western novels did not break Giles out of the “regional” category. They did it for Jim Harrison. As long as his stories had Michigan for their setting, his work was considered regional, but when Jim and his novels moved out to Montana he became “American.” Is Montana more American than Michigan? The West more American than the Midwest? But even if the West is so all-American, so much more American than the Midwest (which I deny accept momentarily for the sake of argument), why did Voyage to Santa Fe, the story of an epic wagon train traveling from Three Forks in the Arkansas Territory to Santa Fe, a city in Mexico only just freed from Spanish dominion, not establish an already popular novelist as an American writer?

(Is it more difficult for a woman than a man to break out of the regional category? Knowing male writers who have chafed being geographically segregated, I’m not sure. The question was raised by one of my bookstore customers, who cited the case of Willa Cather, but we agreed that in recent decades that writer’s work has become much more highly regarded and widely known.) 

New York, Boston, Baltimore … Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle … New Orleans, Savannah — among American cities, these have their shining places in national literature, while the Midwest and Great Plains seem, with the exception of Chicago, to present themselves to literary criticism as one large, blank expanse, with here and there a small regional twinkle. Ah, yes, Detroit! St. Louis! Kansas City! But the small towns, the woods and farms and lakes and prairies? Where are they? Are they not as much America as places fronting Atlantic, Pacific, or Gulf of Mexico?

Nor is the question of literary regionalism limited to fiction. Essayists — whether working in large themes or small; with nature, human nature, or the inevitable combination  of the two — are also hampered not by a glass ceiling but by glass walls that keep them within their own geographical regions. Eastern, Western, and Southern writers seem to break through. No one would think Wendell Berry’s work applicable only to Kentucky or that of Edward Abbey only to Utah. Kathleen Norris has brought Dakota to national awareness, and Terry Tempest Williams has done the same for the Great Salt Lake. But of all the Great Lakes writers, fiction and nonfiction, writing here today in America’s heartland, how many names are recognized on the East and West coasts? 

It is baffling (and frustrating) to me. Does not the best writing take us out of ourselves and usher us into a different world, and to do this must it not provide all manner of sensual detail — sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and textures? In other words, is not the specific place where a story is set as important as the characters living there? After all, we are shaped as much by the places we inhabit as by our times.

What do you think?

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Speeding Blur That Is Summer

When I reply to the “How’s summer” question with my standard answer — “It’s a blur!” — many of my friends nod in ready agreement. Business owners, workers, locals entertaining family visitors, and hosts of volunteers staging events are all feeling the pressure as the second week of August nips at our heels.

My next-to-last Thursday Evening Author event was an absolute delight. We had an excellent turnout for Michael Zadoorian, and he won over the audience completely, including the Artist, who is immersed at present in Second Hand (Zadoorian’s first novel) and eager to read all of the author’s work. Now, only one more TEA to go this season, Charles Eisendrath on August 22nd. Seems only yesterday I was lining up the season's guest list of authors….

Spring and early summer rains have dried up, and thirsty gardens are panting in the sun. Cherry festival is a month past, tart cherry harvest finally underway. Very late this year. Ah, the relentless festival season! It sometimes seems that everything is happening at once, but the Northport Wine and Craft Beverage Festival, formerly (as Leelanau Food and Wine Festival) held the same Saturday as Northport’s dog parade, has been moved to the following week. Seems like a good idea — one weekend much more family-oriented than the other. See township event calendar for dates. 

Even in the most blurred, most swiftly flying days of late summer, by neglecting certain household and yard chores I am managing to carve out some morning and evening reading time. Top of the stack at present is the late Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: “He closed his eyes and threw his arm over his face to keep the light from overexposing his thoughts.” How did she do it? Genius.

And oh, yes, don't forget to look for meteors in the sky this coming Sunday and Monday nights. 

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Lines From Life and Lines From Fiction

The sandhill crane stalks, strides, runs, flies. Fawns are dropped and, granted good fortune, grow. Garden delphinium blooms, goes to seed; bee balm flowers and fades. Coreopsis gives way to black-eyed Susans. August is here. “Summer’s almost over!” a cashier in town exclaims. During the midafternoon lull at the bookstore, I pick up a novel and begin to read.
…[A]nd the two occupants of the subdued little room managed the slight grimace of politeness that Canadians reserve for moments when they cannot, realistically, go on pretending they are not in the company of another human being.

Day after summer day, keys, glasses, and phones are each in their turn misplaced and eventually rediscovered, right where they were left. The grass grows, we mow the grass.

He wondered idly, as he had always idly wondered at Sunday school, what Abraham and Isaac could have talked about on their way home. 

People ask, “How is your summer going?” I tell them, It’s a blur. But once in a while there are quiet, still, sunlit moments. A moment in which to watch a chipmunk that is watching back with shining, bright-dark eyes.

It wasn’t the objects. It wasn’t Northern style. It was the way memory curved back through time, the way hope reached forward, that made summer seem enduring. It was the steady accumulation of summers past and summers yet to come that saved the present from being over as soon as it began.

The lines in black are from my life. Those in blue are from Summer Gone, a novel by David MacFarlane. 

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Who Doesn't Love a Bestseller?

A poet and fiction writer in the Upper Peninsula, Ron Riekki, collects from Michigan booksellers every month their lists of top-selling titles by Michigan authors and then puts it all together for the state as a whole. It’s been interesting for me over the past three years to keep track of and contribute, month by month, my bestselling titles from Dog Ears Books in Northport. So it occurred to me this morning that other people might find it interesting, too, and here's the result -- July's hot books out here at the tip of the Leelanau peninsula!

Note: Not all books are pictured because they are on re-order.

Leading the pack once again — no surprise — is Kathleen Stocking’s From the Place of the Gathering Light: Leelanau Pieces. Gathering Light is Stocking’s fourth book but the first since her Letters From the Leelanau (1990) that stays right here at home, with the people and places of our home county. Themes of geologic time and democracy on the ground are the threads with which these pieces are woven. I’ve sold 37 copies of this book in July, almost 70 since May 15, and there’s no end in sight, which makes sense because — truly — if you haven’t read Kathleen Stocking, you don’t know Leelanau.

It’s no surprise, either, to find Hard Cider, by Barbara Stark-Nemon, in the #2 position on my July list. The numbers for this title would have been higher still if we hadn’t sold out of available copies at her library event and if the book hadn’t been out of stock at my distributor’s warehouse. (I hope to have more copies soon.) This book seems to be catching fire elsewhere, too (hence the wait for restocking!), but it’s especially popular here because Northport and Leelanau Township are the setting. Locals and visitors alike will recognize familiar places (and a few people, e.g., Sally at Dolls and More) in this engaging novel featuring a mature woman reinventing herself as a cider maker in northern Michigan. Family complications and secrets add suspense to the plot.

The Trails of M-22, by Jim DuFresne, certainly deserves its third-place position on my July bestseller list in Northport. As I’ve mentioned before when writing about this book, the author did not simply loop around the highway south of Northport but made it clear to the tip of Leelanau Township (M-22 and Beyond?). Each trail in the book is shown with a detailed map, with level of difficulty clearly indicated, so beginning hikers can enjoy choosing their first trails, while I’ve heard a couple of avid and dedicated couples say they plan to hike every trail in the book. 

And fourth place goes to Dorene O’Brien, my Thursday Evening Author from July 25, with her short story collection, What It Might Feel Like to Hope. I’ve often remarked that most short stories seem darker in tone than most novels, and that was the case with O’Brien’s first collection, but this new book, while still introducing us to characters with difficult lives, does seem to offer hope on the horizon. Dorene’s bookstore presentation was delightful, too, giving us what one audience member later called “a magical evening.” More people should try reading short stories. I enjoyed this collection so much I've already read it twice this year!

Fifth place was a tie between Stark-Nemon’s Even in Darkness and Jim Harrison: The Essential Poems. I’m happy that Barbara’s first novel continues to find new readers and that the lovely small new Harrison anthology of poetry (posthumous) by the late Jim Harrison is also selling well. Since many of the early collections from which these poems have been selected are now out of print, Jim Harrison: The Essential Poems belongs in the library of long-time Harrison aficionados, as well as with readers only now discovering his work. A few of Jim’s novels were made into movies, his essays on food were published widely during his lifetime, but at heart Jim was always, first and foremost, a poet, and I believe his poetry will be his most enduring legacy. 

Finally, another tie for sixth place: The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne, and Beautiful Music, by Michael Zadoorian. Translated into twenty-five foreign languages, with a movie now in development, The Marsh King’s Daughter, set in Michigan’s wild Upper Peninsula, has taken the world by storm. Who would have predicted it? The author’s deep knowledge of northern natural terrain is what drew me to the novel. Readers unfamiliar with Michigan, off in Sweden or Korea, may read it more simply for the thrilling suspense. And I anticipate Zadoorian’s Beautiful Music to soar this month, with the author’s guest appearance as my Thursday Evening Author on August 8. A coming-of-age novel set in 1970s Detroit, Beautiful Music tells a story of a loner adolescent who finds salvation in rock-n-roll. Yeah!!! I have also restocked Zadoorian’s previous novel, The Leisure Seeker (made into a movie with Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren) as well as his dynamite collection of short stories, The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit

And there you have it — just a few of the “must” reads of summer 2019 in Northport, Michigan. Time to get started, if you haven’t already! And please join us on Thursday, August 8, 7 p.m. to hear and meet Michael Zadoorian!