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Monday, October 28, 2019


The novel opens with a young woman in Afghanistan daydreaming of an apricot:
…She wants the fruit. She wants her freedom. She wants to do everything she shouldn’t. She shoves back her purple headscarf and walks to the open window of her small, second-story apartment. She sticks her torso out and leans, hanging her head upside down. Her hair dangles like a black flag in the breeze. Positioned like this, she won’t have to look up the street at the remains of her family compound. She won’t have to wish she’d died in there three years ago either.  
-- Katey Schultz, Still Come Home

This morning I finished reading Katey Schultz’s new novel, Still Come Home, a story focusing on four main characters: Aaseya, the young Afghani woman in her early 20s; Rahim, her 40-year-old husband; Miller, an American second lieutenant stationed in Afghanistan; and Miller's wife, Tenley, back home in South Carolina. I don’t want to tell you very much about them, because you deserve to meet them as I did, as Schultz introduces them. Let me say only that their worlds and cultures and experiences are light-years apart from each other but that as a reader I was completely pulled into every scene, fully believing in their reality. 

This is a powerful novel. From beginning to end, there is no slackening in the tautness of either the action or dialogue. 
…A headache balls at the base of his skull. He watches the city face into shadows, block by block. Airborne particles of sand catch the sun’s rays, Mother’s Nature’s tracer fire. Within minutes, the horizon appears lit by a throbbing Armageddon. Four tours and it has come to this. The night before Miller’s last mission outside the wife, Chaffen’s voice echoing like a challenge inside Miller’s head: That’s how you’ve got to start thinking, in all directions.
Miller’s mind is fixated on responsibilities to his men and his family back home but tortured also by an earlier mission that went badly. Rahim, hungering for a future with sons of his own, has not escaped his own nightmare boyhood, and his present is confused and cruelly limited. So both men try to focus on tasks at hand and not think or plan or dream too far ahead. Their wives, too, can only meet each day’s immediate challenges and hope, dimly, that the future will be better. 

A poor, scrawny, mute, orphaned or outcast child plays a pivotal role in the story. 
…Flecks of dirt line his closed eyelids, and she can see a few fleas in his shaggy, dark hair. His lips are chapped, his earlobes bitten and red. Scuff marks fall in a line down his torso, likely from belly-crawling over rocks or wriggling through shrubs. At the bottom of his shorts, each leg pokes through the opening of fabric like a tent pole.
Such a frail and unlikely survival — so far! — in this country torn by endless war! We fear for Miller and Rahim and Aaseya but especially for Ghazél as the story’s tension amps up page by page. Does this child have a chance?

Describing the most barren landscape, Schultz’s lyrical sentences convey the love its inhabitants have for their home:
Rahim darts across the road, taking his weapon off safety, then leans his side against the embankments from shoulder to ankle, blending into the land as seamlessly as a scattering of dirt. The desert is amazing like that, the way it stretches and folds across the country like the broad, sloping belly of a giant. The way it holds almost everything a man could ever need, including his shape, until they’re practically one.

But maybe you think you don’t want to read a novel about war in the Middle East. 

Perhaps Afghanistan is the last place you think you want to envision with your mind’s eye. 

It’s too alien, too faraway, too nightmarish. 

What I’m telling you is that those “reasons” count for nothing. It is not only the American soldier and his wife back home with whom you will feel kinship but also with Aaseya (from the book’s very first page), Rahim, and Ghazél, and this story will bring home to you the truth of universal humanity like nothing else I’ve read for a long time. 

*. *. *

Katey Schultz visited Dog Ears Books in 2013 to read from her book of short and short-short stories, Flashes of War. Among her many awards, Schultz was awarded a Gold Medal from the Military Writers Society of America for that earlier work. I’ve been anticipating more from her ever since, and Still Come Home has exceeded my high expectations. Her connection to Michigan, in case you’re wondering, is through Interlochen Center for the Arts. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Where Is Your Head Today?

Sumac at the height of its glory
“Where’s your head at?” was once a sort of jeer, not a real question, a variation on “What were you thinking?” which, of course, implies that you were not thinking at all. What I intend here is a real question, translatable as: What’s occupying your thoughts? What perhaps are you obsessing over (and wish you weren’t)? Are you focused or feeling dreamy, or is your mind jumping from one thing to another like a grasshopper being chased by summer’s approaching end? Or maybe you’re fortunate enough to be taking in the natural world moment by moment, like a dog miraculously blessed with full color vision. How wonderful that would be, wouldn't it? To have the full range of color added to the marvelous range of olfactory sensations we humans can only dimly imagine!

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post. Well, for this blog, anyway. I’ve done three new posts for my photo blog, “A Shot in the Light,” and one for my catchall blog, “Lacking a Clear Focus.” I’ve also read half a dozen books (see sidebar for titles) and hosted another signing in my bookstore. My sister and her husband visited from Illinois, and our grandson and his best buddy traveled up from Kalamazoo. (Those were good visits.) And I went on active duty for a friend for three weeks while she was in hospital and then rehab, feeding her cats and declumping their litter boxes daily. 

Historian Larry Massie from the Allegan Forest

Larry's appropriately book-themed tie
Grandson Dave! Sarah's human nephew! Sarah loves company!
And all along there has been the glory of fall color, starting with the staghorn sumac (top of post) and now encompassing maples and beeches and popples and even early-turning tamarack. This past Sunday was simply glorious, but it's recorded only in my brain's fallible memory, not on my camera's digital storage card. Camera in action again today, under grey, rainy skies.

On Monday I stirred my stumps (isn't that a hideous expression?) and got busy with long-delayed kitchen and food-related projects -- retrieved rhubarb from the freezer to turn into rhubarb chutney; picked apples from an overloaded tree (only recently I learned that apple trees can be "overpollinated"); defrosted strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries destined for jam before another day escapes. 

Home harvest
Things keep happening, though. The world doesn't hold still for a moment. So I paused to remember Bill Milliken and to say a prayer of thanksgiving and hope for full recovery for Jimmy Carter. I read newspapers, rationing each day's intake (in the interest of sanity) and wondering where the hell we are going as a nation and a world. My head was here, my head was there. Sometimes it just wanted to be under the covers, fast asleep.

Fleeing deer!
Thank heaven for books! Books on geology and history put current events in perspective, and old volumes that have survived from a century or more ago reassure me that bound, printed material has staying power and that what I do for a living is worth doing and may last beyond the current insanity. In more optimistic hours, I like to think so. But then, my head is not staying in one place very long these days. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Finding Treasure -- in Northport!

The book I was so excited to find at a sale recently doesn’t look like all that much at first glance. Unfortunately, the dust jacket is missing. The spine ends are somewhat, though not horribly, bumped. Slight fraying starting to appear at the ends, too. But I was excited, because the title is one I remember from my girlhood and have never forgotten, though this is the first copy of the book I’ve seen since the library copy I read in the 1950s. 
The flying sand and salt spray were in her eyes, in her mouth, in her hair. Her lips tasted of brine and her teeth felt gritty with sand. She was too occupied keeping out of reach of the roaring surf to care, and she had to jump about constantly to avoid the crawling, spreading edges of the breakers that frequently crept up on her unaware. For this was a howling northeaster on lonely Heron Shoals Beach. But Posy had no thought of its inconveniences or dangers. She was enjoying it to the full, chasing retreating waves and flying before oncoming breakers. This was life! This aroused a fire and enthusiasm that she had never known before! 
from The Vanishing Octant Mystery, by Augusta Huiell Seaman
Then Posy spots a treasure on the waves! It eludes her grasp, and she spends the rest of the book searching for it on the beach, where her family has rented a house for the summer.

I cannot recapture my feelings as a youthful, first-time reader of this novel, but I do remember that it was one of those books (like The Silver Nutmeg, by Palmer Brown) that I checked out of our grade school library to read over and over. Today I read online that Augusta Huiell Seaman’s novels for young readers predated the Nancy Drew books in offering adventures and mysteries to girl readers. I may not have read any of her other books and first read The Vanishing Octant Mystery (originally published in 1949) years after the author had died. (Not that I knew or cared about that at the time!) But Seaman was born in 1879, for heaven’s sake, and published her first book, The Boarded-Up House, in 1915, before either of my parents was born! In fact, The Vanishing Octant was her last book, appearing) in 1950, the year before her death, and by then Nancy Drew and all manner of other mystery series and stand-alone titles for young people had appeared. 

(Another favorite of mine was The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner, though I could never accept the idea of sequels to the original book — sequels I only learned about as an adult — since the entire premise at the beginning was that the children had no family and had to fend for themselves in the world, and in that first book they are reunited with their grandfather. But I digress….)

When I first read The Vanishing Octant Mystery, it transported me through time and space in more than one sense. Let’s say I must have been nine or ten years old; the girl sleuth in the story is 13. At that time in my life I had never seen the ocean, let alone studied ocean navigation. (Still have not done the latter.) But also, the instrument at the heart of the story, the octant, was originally invented around 1699 and produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries until superseded by the more familiar sextant. I’d never heard of such a thing. The description and history of the octant fascinated me. For me, then, the octant itself would have been a mystery, even had it not disappeared.

We see very little of the inner life of characters in this story — only a hint, now and then, of Posy’s thoughts, no one else’s. There are no murders, no dead bodies, no guns or knives or other weapons. No characters are involved in flirtations, let alone love affairs, doomed or otherwise. The most vivid “character,” if I may put it that way, is the ocean itself. The story opens with a foretaste of the ocean’s violence, violence that reappears, magnified, in the form of the hurricane that blows through several chapters, bringing various other characters together and the story to its surprisingly undramatic conclusion. I am tempted to summarize the finale, but that would constitute a spoiler.

Local sweet water equivalent: Lake Michigan

Many of the author’s books are now in public domain and available as cheap paperback reprints ($9-10 range). Some were published earlier in paperback by Scholastic. Note that The Vanishing Octant Mystery was published 1949, which is 70 years ago, so will it be coming into public domain this year? I don’t have an answer, but a signed first edition with worn, chipped dust jacket is offered by one bookseller for $327, and another, not signed but priced at $80 online, is described as follows: No dust jacket. Ex-library. Cover is bumped to boards on corners, spine tips are missing, spine is faded, cover is rubbed with water spots on front. Front binding is loose. When you are looking at descriptions of books online and can’t hold them in your hands to examine, it’s imperative to understand the grading system — and, if possible, to know and trust the dealer from whom you’re buying. As my copy (not ex-library) is much better than the $80 book online, I’m pricing mine at $100. 
In the story, Posy’s father explains to his housekeeper the instrument his daughter saw in the surf in these words: 

“[It’s] … an old instrument they used to have on ships, to sight the sun with at noon every day and get their positions, like they do now with a newer kind called a sextant. This one was an earlier kind called an octant. They don’t use octants any more, and they are considered rare.”
There are enough copies of The Vanishing Octant Mystery available online that I wouldn’t call it rare, but it is fairly scarce. As I say, I haven’t seen a copy since the 1950s, and since entering the book business I’ve been looking for favorite old titles in bookstores, thrift shops, and antique stores, at estate sales and garage sales. 

It’s always exciting when the wind and waves toss up something I never expected to see again. So I can’t help imagining some unsuspecting browser in my bookstore suddenly coming upon this book — or another from his or her past — and exclaiming over it in delight. It’s like finding treasure on the beach. Serendipity! That thrill of discovery is difficult to match with online searches, and I know, because I’ve done plenty of those, too, over the years. 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

We Get Each Other Through

More than one person in Northport (and you all know who you are!) has told me that my "Books in Northport" posts help them get through the winter, largely because those winter posts in recent years have originated in southeast Arizona. There the Artist and I rent a simple little one-room cabin in a mountain ghost town, where it does occasionally snow but where we need not shovel or plow. I call my unstructured time and adventures in the mountains and high desert a “seasonal retirement,” possible only because so many loyal longtime customers and adventuring new bookstore customers get me through the spring, summer, and fall in Northport. In my eighth decade of life (yes!) and with two younger sisters retired, I do not apologize for taking winters off. I have earned them.

Leelanau County winter

Cochise County winter

My old garden
My first bookstore in Northport was an uninsulated, unheated shed, fine for warm weather, that is, for summer and early fall. Next I tried a Union Street location in Traverse City and hung on for three summers and the intervening two winters, missing my Leelanau County life the whole time. So I went back once again to Northport -- closer to home -- first in yet another unheated, insulated building, but told my new landlord, “I’m in this for the long haul.” That return to Northport was in 1997, and I’ve been here ever since. Three different locations (two with my "long haul" landlord) but all right here in the village. In retrospect, the time has gone by quickly.

Winter on Waukazoo Street, 2016
For many years Dog Ears Books was open through the cold, lonely months of January, February, and March, when I had to take on part-time work elsewhere to keep the bookstore heat on. Copy-editing, book reviewing, substitute teaching, tutoring, cleaning, picking apples — my checkered supplemental employment varied from one year to the next. Over the years, also, I’ve given various answers to the question (which, by the way, I hate), “How do you stay in business?” For a while, I told people the secret was to have “low expectations,” i.e., no one goes into bookselling to get rich! Then I started saying (and it’s true) that I am a very stubborn person and don’t give up easily. 

Now, after 26 years, my answer is simpler: 

How do I stay in business? What keeps my bookstore alive from one year to the next? "I sell books." It’s that simple. There is no trust fund backing me up, no wealthy investors riding on my coattails. It’s true that I don’t expect to get rich and that I’m stubborn, but the absolute bottom line for the continued existence of Dog Ears Books is sales of books. Expanding my selection of new books, focusing more on Michigan writers, and finally making the leap into accepting credit cards have all helped, but the bottom line is still selling books.

106 Waukazoo Street
It's selling books, also, that keeps “Books in Northport” going. This blog has been around since 2007. It’s free for the reading, and I’m happy to help anyone get through the winter, whether they spend the season in Northport or flee to warmer climes. So when the locals who say I help them “get through the winter” come around in spring, summer, and fall to buy books from me, our meetings are warm and happy, whatever the weather, because they appreciate my blog and my bookstore, and I appreciate the fact that they read “Books in Northport” and purchase their books at Dog Ears Books. More than words are involved on both sides: the commitments we have made, we remake and honor one day at a time, year after year. I would be nowhere without the friends and customers who support my bookstore with their loyal patronage, and if my author events and my blog posts and the presence of my bookstore in the village are meaningful to the community, I am happy to continue doing my part.

Looking down Nagonaba to the east

Northport has come a long way from the bleak years of the late 1990s. Businesses have come and gone in that time, as one would expect anywhere, but it feels as if we’re in a pretty good place these days, still small and relatively quiet, yet vibrant and happy, and I’m happy to be part of a small town that continues to support --along with a beautiful harbor, a K-12 school, welcoming library, friendly post office, bank, and grocery store — a small but healthy smattering of restaurants and retail establishments. 

One town in our county  (Empire) recently lost its only grocery store, another (Cedar) will be losing its bank before this month is out, and I realize, once again, that the success of any small town resides in no single business or institution but is dependent on a kind of critical mass. It seems we have achieved that in Northport after years of struggle and hard work. Now the challenge will be to keep what we have, both the success and the friendly, small town atmosphere (and natural environment).

Anyway, thank you, Northport! I'm glad to have put my bookstore roots down in this welcoming community all those years ago and grateful to all of you who support Dog Ears Books, locals or visitors.

Welcome, visitors to Northport!

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Goodness in the Work of Toni Morrison

In an essay on “Goodness,” published in the September 8, 2019, issue of the New York Times Book Review, the late author Toni Morrison wrote of her search for goodness in American literature of the 19th and 20th century. She found that, generally speaking, with the exception of satirical works such as Don Quixote and Candide, it was evil that inspired writers to “vivid language” and gained for them a “blockbuster audience.” Those novels of earlier times ended, however, with redemption and the restoration of order, virtue its own reward in the triumph of the long-beleaguered protagonist. 

Twentieth-century novelists gave us very different stories. 
The movement away from happy endings or the enshrining of good over evil was rapid and stark after World War I. That catastrophe was too wide, too deep to ignore or to distort with a simplistic gesture of goodness. 

As was always true in her fiction, Morrison uses forceful, succinct, and vivid language to express her findings on good and evil in literature. “Evil grabs the intellectual platform and its energy,” she notes. 
It hogs the stage. Goodness sits in the audience and watches, assuming it even has a ticket to the show.
She finds modern novels -- again, in general — uninterested in goodness, except to expose “the frailty, the pointlessness, the comedy” of it. The conditional “in general” is important because the importance of Morrison’s own work cannot be overstated, and she herself was very interested in goodness and its role in fiction. 

Searching for definitions of goodness in philosophy and science, she finally narrowed the concept down to altruism and theories of altruism down to three: (1) learned behavior; (2) a form of narcissism; and (3) “instinct,” a genetic predisposition passed down through (genetic) evolution. She turned then to her own work and took examples illustrating the three theories from, respectively, A Mercy; The Bluest Eye; and Sula

Expressions of goodness are never trivial or incidental in my writing. In fact, I want them to have life-changing properties and to illuminate decisively the moral questions embedded in the narrative. It was important to me that none of these expressions be handled as comedy or irony. And they are seldom mute. 

What a breath of fresh air, even in the midst of the most horrible tragedies in literature (horrible because we as readers know such events took place not only in the lives of fictional characters but in our own country’s history), to find goodness given un-ironic voice! Morrison concludes her essay by telling us that “[a]llowing goodness its own speech” is crucial because it allows a character to learn something, “something vital and morally insightful….” Articulating goodness is an expression of, as well as a means to, self-knowledge. 
Such insight has nothing to do with winning, and everything to do with the acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge on display in the language of moral clarity — of goodness.

I had reached the next-to-last page of the first section of Morrison’s novel Beloved when her essay came serendipitously into my hands. I think Paul D’s words of judgment would have leaped off the page at me, anyway, but there’s no saying for sure. Anyway, Sethe is telling him that her act of violence against her children worked, in that it kept them from being returned to the plantation where she (before her escape) and others had been violated. Paul D insists she should have found some other way to save her babies. 
“There could have been a way. Some other way.”  
“What way?” 
“You got two feet, Sethe, not four,” he said, and right then a forest sprang up between them, trackless and quiet. 
Is Paul D’s articulation of a moral difference between human beings and animals without language an expression of moral clarity? Does it enlarge his self-knowledge at the time of his speaking the words?

Paul D had only come to know what Sethe had done when Stamp Paid, the self-named man who smuggled other enslaved people to freedom, showed him the story in a newspaper. Stamp showed him the paper because he believed in truth and felt Paul D should know the truth of the woman whose life he had re-entered, but afterward he had doubts. He tried to set that truth-telling, going behind Sethe’s back to Paul D, against other “sneaking” things he had done, “always for a clear and holy purpose.” He had sneaked

…runaways into hidden places, secret information to public places. Underneath his legal vegetables were the contraband humans that he ferried across the river. Even the pigs he worked in the spring served his purposes. Whole families lived on the bones and guts he distributed to them. He wrote their letters and read to them the ones they received. He knew who had dropsy and who needed stovewood; which children had a gift and which needed correction….

In other words, Stamp Paid was a good man. But was telling Paul D what Sethe had done a good thing, as he believed it was when he did it?

Afterward—not before—he considered Sethe’s feelings in the matter. And it was the lateness of this consideration that made him feel so bad. 

Motivation is what matters to Morrison, as it did to Kant, in determining goodness. Amy’s apparent kindness to Sethe in caring for her wounds, and Baby Suggs’ seemingly generous neighborhood feast — despite the gentle, effective nursing in the one instance and the joyful sharing in the second — both appear imperfect in the author’s eyes, tainted by pridefulness, illustrating the narcissistic theory of goodness. We don’t see either Amy or Baby Suggs growing in self-knowledge as a result of reflecting on their own behavior, though it seems impossible to say that what either did was not good. Certainly, neither was a bad person. And neither, certainly, was Sethe herself, though her goodness through most of the story can be seen as instinctually motivated. 

Stamp Paid looks to me like the clearest example of goodness, the character who gains the most, articulately, in self-knowledge (his author’s own definition). He not only practiced goodness as a habit (Aristotle’s definition) but reflected on his deeds and their meaning, and in questioning his own motives in revealing Sethe’s story to Paul D, he created his own opportunity for further moral growth. 

Sethe and Paul D take longer to open themselves to self-knowledge, but who can blame them? It’s a long road because they have had so much pain and are protecting themselves from more until, finally, their shared past allows them to face a future together and to see not only themselves but each other in new and important ways.

I haven’t told you anything really about the story, because that you should read for yourself. Beloved is one of the most powerful American novels ever written, Toni Morrison an outstanding American writer. And for me her literary investment in “making sure acts of goodness … produce language” is as important as her command of language itself. 

Go elsewhere for superficial cleverness or smart irony. Come to Toni Morrison’s work for clarity, truth, and fiction to help you grow your soul.