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Saturday, October 29, 2022

Characters Not Like Me

Copy of my mother's well-loved book

It’s wonderful that more and more books are being written by American authors across a wide range of racial and ethnic, ability and gender identities, books in which children who don’t fit the 1950s “Dick and Jane and Sally” mode can recognize themselves, maybe for the first time. I also hope, however, that children who do fit the “Dick and Jane and Sally” mode will explore and enjoy books with characters who come from backgrounds different from their own, because that’s what made the world richer and more complex for me when I was growing up.


My mother loved Anne of Green Gables. Anne was an orphan; I was not. Anne was Canadian; I was not. Anne's lifetime came well before mine in history. Anne was red-haired, outgoing, and had an impulsive temper, whereas I was a quiet, brown-haired, painfully shy child, but reading a book that featured a main character so different from myself gave me insights into what it might be like to be a another kind of person, someone whose responses to situations were very unlike my own. 


The book Janitor’s Girl, by Frieda Friedman, introduced me to urban apartment living and a family of immigrants in New York City, a neighborhood and characters and living situation nothing like my own suburban life. Again, I lived that urban immigrant life vicariously while reading the book. How dull my childhood would have been if I had read only books with characters whose lives were like mine!


The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley, was a favorite book of mine for many years, and there weren’t any girls in it at all. (Funny that girls will read books with a boy as the main character, but boys shy away from books in which the main character is a girl.) A boy and a horse, shipwrecked on an uninhabited island? How would they survive? In my imagination, I lived that story over and over as if it were my own life.


I was 12 years old, about Anne’s age, when I read the much more serious The Diary of Anne Frank, and the effect on my heart and mind was profound. A Jewish girl, forced into hiding with her family, their circumstances horribly and unimaginably constrained during the Nazi Occupation of Holland. But there – reading it, I did imagine and was horrified and wanted so much for that little girl to survive and be my friend! These days some people don’t want young people Anne’s age to read her story, and that breaks my heart all over again for her. She wanted to be a writer. She was a writer, young as she was, and although she died, she left her diary for us, the story of a real girl with hopes and dreams and feelings and ambitions. Everyone should read her diary!


Mildred Taylor is not all that much older than I am, so she had not yet written her books when I was a schoolgirl, but discovering them in adulthood has opened new worlds to me. The first Taylor novel I read was The Land – again, a book I wish every American would read. Click here for a review that will give you reasons. 


My mother loved the novels of Gene Stratton-Porter, but only in recent years did I finally read Freckles, astonished to learn that the main character had only one arm! Yet the author hardly dwelled on what the young man lacked: the emphasis was on what he had and could do. Although this author was as popular in her day as J. K. Rowling is in ours, her stories are very different from today’s popular literature for young people. They are unabashedly “wholesome” and sentimental. Still, the freedom and beauty of the natural outdoor settings remains.


My friend the author Ellen Airgood has written two books for young people, Prairie Evers and The Education of Ivy Blake. Ivy appears as Prairie’s friend in the first book and takes center stage in the second. Ivy’s mother probably should never have had a child, but we don’t choose our parents, and it is Airgood’s gift to show us Ivy finding her way without ever sugar-coating or sentimentalizing her discoveries or stooping to unbelievable miracles. 


Well-written stories of difficult lives and challenging life situations help stretch our imaginations and expand our circle of empathy. They let us travel outside and beyond the limits of our own skins. This is a good thing! 


Today – Saturday, October 29th -- is the last day of my Dog Ears Books 2022 season, but I will keep in touch via this blog throughout my winter seasonal retirement, and my bookstore will re-open in the spring of 2023 for its 30th anniversary year! Can you believe it? It’s amazing to me.


Were there books you read as a young person that opened your eyes to lives very different from your own? What were they? What are you reading now, and what do you look forward to reading over the winter? 

Last day of 2022 season is today!

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

"We're living on borrowed time." Those were his very words.

Glorious Sunday morning sunlight!

That’s what the cashier at the little grocery store observed to a tourist during their short exchange about our glorious weather of the past weekend, when the “gales of November” that arrived in October backed off for three days, and the sun shone as if there would be no tomorrow. But there was a tomorrow, and then another – Friday, Saturday, Sunday, all glorious with balmy air, glowing fall colors, and clear blue skies. “Locals’ summer,” a phrase I learned only this year, might be expected more reliably in September, but for three consecutive days this month locals and visitors alike gleefully shrugged off jackets and sweaters.


“Bother fall housekeeping!” I said aloud impatiently (well, I might have, you know), translating the Mole’s utterance (WITW) from spring to autumn, because when life gives us heavenly days on earth, it would be wrong to spend all those hours indoors. I enjoyed a long walk with my dog, then a bit of botanizing in the meadow with downstate visitors,  and continued my now almost-finished apple harvest. Finally, reluctantly, after putting away some of summer's outdoor furniture, I spent some “indoor” time, preparing apples for applesauce, but spent it on the front porch with the door open, after which Sunny and I had a play session in the yard with tennis balls. 

Come late afternoon, I was ready to collapse on the porch with a book when I saw a text on my phone from good friend Laura, inviting me to enjoy the sunset at Good Harbor with her! I was so tired! But there is never enough time with friends, and “locals’ summer” could end any day now. Besides, how many times have I been on the beach at Lake Michigan this year? (Only once!) So of course I was up for a picnic supper and sunset!

A couple of Northport neighbors had walked farther down the beach for sunset, and as sky colors faded they walked back our way, and we visited a while, luxuriating in the softness of the breeze. Nearby a couple of small children ran in and out of the water. Lake Michigan! After sunset! In late October! Can you believe it?

Monday was an early morning for Sunny and me, our last agility session together until spring, and the day was cloudy, but the colors went on singing, and they sang again in the Tuesday's rain, also, a poignant tune, that, in which I imagined wailing Parisian accordion notes between the falling leaves.

Books Read Since Last Posted List

105.  Cozzens, James Gould. The Just and the Unjust (fiction)

106. Kresge Foundation (various authors). The Culture Keeper: Olayami Dables’ Grand Vision (nonfiction)

107. Wheeler, Jacob. Angel of the Garbage Dump: How Hanley Denning Changed the World One Child at a Time (nonfiction)

108. Gibbon, Lewis Grassic. Sunset Song (fiction)

109. Jance, J.A. Partner in Crime (fiction)

110. Gwynne, S.C. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History(nonfiction)

111. Fuselier, David. A Fog on Spirit Island (fiction)

And now --

Sing, colors, leaves, friends, rain or shine! Borrowed time is all we ever have, so let’s make the most of it!

Singin' in the rain

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Reflections and Shadows

Our world of light and shadow --

-- and reflections in autumn pond

Is a shadow the opposite of a reflection? Can reflections bring on shadows? Can a shadow generate a reflection? Think of these questions as pertaining to metaphors, rather than inquiries into the physics of light. And yet, there are memories that bring light, just as there are those that cast shadows.

Shadows on the side of the house

When a bookstore customer on Saturday bought Grief’s Country, by Gail Griffin, I wondered if the book had special meaning for her. (The meaning I found in it appears in this post.) With an untroubled smile, at least as I read her face, she said she had read a bit of it and found the language poetic, and it was that which appealed to her. Grief’s Country is memoir, but Griffin is a poet, also, and has a new book of poetry due out in spring of 2023, which I look forward to with a sense of confident anticipation. For me, though, the memoir was essential reading, and not for its language alone.


Since grief-stricken myself early in the present year, I have, with little or no effort on my part, received confidences from others struggling with grief, and their reflections on the subject bear witness once again to the truth that we all experience the loss of loved ones differently. It isn’t surprising that losing a child or losing a partner suddenly and unexpectedly with no opportunity for goodbys, would be excruciating. “You never get over it,” one man who lost his son eight years before told me. “It’s always with you,” said another mourner. Then there was: “I couldn’t say his name for two years.” 


Reflect on other people’s experiences as long as we might, however, there is no having of any experience besides our own, no comparing ours to anyone else’s to say which is "worse," the unexpected or the anticipated, drawn-out suffering or a quick, painless death. As another author put it (in the book Widowland, which I wrote about in this earlier post), grief isn’t a contest -- and if it were, who would want to win?


Everyone’s personal experience -- the only experience any of us ever has -- is absolute.

I’ve written about this before, but the biggest surprise to me, even when my grief was as fresh and overwhelming as an avalanche, was how much gratitude I felt in the very midst it. I was grateful for all the years I had had with my love, for the happiness we had known and never taken for granted (having lost it for a while and thinking then that we had lost it forever), for his success as an artist and for all the ways we had been able to work side by side – hanging paintings, transporting boxes of books, backing vehicles onto trailers, consoling each other for the loss of beloved friends and pets, and just everything else that life in a partnership brought, events both memorable and mundane. Grateful for the wonderful travels we had taken together, within Michigan, to the Far West, down to Florida, up into Canada, and – thank heaven we made that dream come true! – to France. Immensely grateful for the support of friends and family, for all the love that came my way when he died, which felt like a harvest of all the years of attention my love had paid to others, making them feel seen, as he did me. 


Something else for which I am grateful, something I haven’t written about here before, is the opportunity I have had – so many opportunities! – to speak of and write of the Artist since he has been gone. If I had not been able to talk about him, to remember and write about our life together, to hear other people’s stories of him, I don’t know how I would have gotten through the past months at all. One first-time bookstore customer over the summer, who lost his wife the same month my husband died, wrote to tell me that our conversation made his time in Leelanau “a little easier.” If I can make use of my own grief to help others with theirs, the pain of it is somewhat lessened. 

Sunny with her bear -- they have the same coloring.

Waking in the morning is the hardest time of the day for me, and only the presence of the puppy makes it bearable. “I’m glad you’re here,” I tell Sunny Juliet, and her wiggles and kisses make me laugh, pulling me out of dark doldrums. I don’t want the light of my reflected memories to fade, but the fading of shadows I don’t mind.


Life without the Artist’s physical presence – his smile, his laugh, our far-reaching conversations and frequent shared silliness, the way we would point out things in the landscape to each other and share thoughts and ideas – can never be what it was with him. Beautiful fall colors in the rain are as lovely as ever but don’t touch me as deeply. Rather, they bring memories of all the autumns we shared, and so, myriad reminders of loss. Someone I happened to see by chance the other day said he wished he had spent more time with David. “Yes,” I responded, “life with him sparkled.” 


The world is still beautiful, though, and life is a gift. As I said to a geographically distant, emotionally close friend on the phone just last night, though life doesn’t sparkle for me these days, sometimes for a moment the sun comes out from behind the clouds, and the world glows. 


Monday, October 17, 2022

The World of Men and Women

New-mown hayfield, Leelanau County, Michigan

The classic Scottish novel, Sunset Song, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, is one I had never heard of before, so if I’d gone into a bookstore asking for some specific book, it wouldn’t have been this one, and if whatever book I’d asked for wasn’t in stock and I’d left without a serious browsing session, serendipity wouldn’t have had a chance. But as chance determines the large majority of books I read, good fortune had it that this one came into my hands. The cover was attractive. It was called on that cover “The Scottish Masterpiece.” The introduction by Nicola Sturgeon left me no alternative but to turn another page and begin to read the novel.


The story begins in 1911, with a prelude that introduces us to the fictional farming hamlet of Kinraddie and all its folk, a small place of nine households with land leased to farmers carved out of a larger estate. Not on a railroad line or very near a large town, its red clay soil not the easiest to farm, Kinraddie, surrounded by woods and guarded by the nearby Grampian Mountains, has honeysuckle and rabbits and birds, and its fields are worked with teams of horses, wagons of grain then taken to the local mill. The outside world seems so far away it might be on another planet. 


Young Chris Guthrie is the novel’s central character. The Guthrie family, John and Jean and their six children, leave the country up by Aberdeen when John loses the lease on his land due to an outbreak of temper against a member of “the gentry,” and the family comes to Blawearie in Kinraddie. Between John and Will, his eldest, whom he drives like a beast, there is no love lost. The girl Chris, Will’s sister (quean is the old Scottish word for girl, used throughout the novel, as a “full-grown, responsible male” is called a childe), discovers the world of books at school and for a while has ambitions to become a teacher and escape Kinraddie, but her dreamy side is also captured by her surroundings, the fields and woods and neighbors and the old standing stones, so that she feels herself two different people.


Though her mother's own life hardly seems enviable, Jean tells the girl there is more to life than books. The life the mother loved and misses, however, was the brief period of freedom between childhood and motherhood – “the countryside your own, you its, in the days when you’re neither bairn nor woman.” And so Chris Guthrie finds it, after first her mother dies and then her father and she hires a woman to do the indoor work while she herself works in the fields.


Then one New Year’s Eve she becomes Chris Tavendale, wife of Ewan.


So that was her marriage, not like waking from a dream was marrying, but like going into one, rather, she wasn’t sure, not for days, what things they had dreamt and what actually done—she and this farmer of Blawearie who could stir of a morning at the jangle of the clock and creep from bed, the great cat, and be down the stairs to light the fire and put on the kettle. She’d never be far behind him, though, she loved even the bitterness of those frozen mornings, and a bitter winter it was, every crack and joint of the old house played a spray of cold wind across the rooms. He’d be gone to the byre and stable as she came down and sought out the porridge meal and put it to boil, Blawearie’s own meal, fine rounded stuff that Ewan so liked. She’d leave it to hotter there on the fire and then bring the pails from the dairy and open the kitchen door on the close and gasp in the bite of the wind, seeing a grey world on the edge of morning, the bare stubble of the ley riding quick on the close, peering between the shapes of the stacks, the lights of the lanterns shining in byre and stable and barn as Ewan feeded and mucked and tended horses and kye.


-      Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song


Contented and even joyous these two were, working side by side and making love besides.


The times, however, as always, bring change. More and more machines appear, on the roads and in the fields. The “Great War” comes, at first something far away that barely seems to concern Kinraddie, but then pushing and pulling on even their quiet rural lives and drawing men away to be killed in faraway France. Rumors of war atrocities and urgings to patriotism pit neighbor against neighbor. Even the appearance of the countryside changes, as to feed the war and the machines the woods are all cut down. New trees will be planted, but no one alive in the second decade of the twentieth century will live to see those trees as a two-hundred-year-old mature forest.


Alongside changes, though, some things stay the same, and one of the abiding facts of life is that lovemaking leads to babies. John Guthrie had ever loved his quean’s golden hair, and Ewan and Chris loved each other bodies, too, but without any means of contraception other than abstinence, men’s and women’s choices put them between a rock and a hard place – “nothing but a wife you hardly dared touch in case you put her in the family way….” And so Jean Guthrie ends her own life and that her of last-born, the twins, with poison … and John Guthrie is tempted by the body of his own daughter … and Ewan Tavendale, home on leave from the army and become a coarse stranger to Chris, tells her he might better have stayed in town and spent the night with a “tart.” Some of his anger and hatred came from the war, yes, but between Chris and Ewan also came the hardship of abstinence. It was not to abstain that they had married, after all!


Not work in the house or in the fields it was that starved these couples of love but the impossibility of limiting their families. This is not at all a “theme” of the novel or one of its overriding “messages,” so it’s nothing a literary critic would point out, but as a reader in 2022 when reproductive rights are being seriously challenged in the United States, as elsewhere, I see the tragedy of these couples’ lives standing out sharp and clear. 


Men and women. The marriage bond. Children can strengthen the bond, if children are desired. Children can also drive apart two people brought together by desire if those children come too fast or too many or before the lovers are ready for them or after they feel their family is complete. 


Both couples in this novel came together in love and began married life in love, but the facts of life conspired to make enemies of them. Alternatives were not available to them in the early twentieth century. Are we now to make alternatives once again unavailable and once again turn too many marriages to battlegrounds? My own happy life with the Artist would never have survived six children!


Of course there is much more to the novel than pregnancy vs. abstinence. There are the charming place names, Peesie’s Knapp one of my favorites. There are the eccentric locals, from the “dafties” that board with Mistress Munro to the philandering minister of the kirk to the atheist and pacifist, Rob of the Mill. And there is the countryside itself, the beauty of the land that Ewan and Chris both so love.


So she went down to the shore, the tide was out, thundering among the rocks, not a soul on the beach but herself, gulls flying and crying, the sun strong and warm. She sat on a seat in the glow of it and shut her eyes and was happy. Below her feet the ground drummed and tremled with reverberations from that far-off siege of the rocks that the sea was making out there by the point of the bay, it was strange to feel it and be of it, maybe folk there were who felt for the sea as last night she had felt in the rain-drenched fields of Kinraddie. But to her it seemed restless, awaiting and abiding nowither, not fine like the glens that nestled and listened high up in the coarse country, or the parks sun-heavy with clover that awaited your feet at evening.


Chance. Happenstance. Serendipity. My reading comes as much by these means as any others, and I am glad of it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022


Tunnel, teeter-totter, and hurdles that Sunny is learning to master

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.


-      William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night


This particular truth of Shakespeare’s is so often quoted out of context (almost always!) that we easily forget its role in the play and poor Malvolio as the victim of a humiliating practical joke, but just so, in the usual fashion, I too intend to shove Malvolio offstage and use Shakespeare’s words to introduce my own topic:


Some challenges we choose, others are thrust upon us.


I’ll begin with myself (since this is my blog). In my own quite ordinary life, a new puppy was a challenge I chose (not anticipating quite how much of a challenge she would be, but that’s a common story, too, I’m sure), while being transported to Widowland was a challenge life thrust upon me, for sure. Certain aspects of this truth doubtless apply to your life, as well, in that some challenges you would have avoided if possible, and others you probably went out of your way to embrace.


Some human beings are born into the world challenged, with physical handicaps or poverty thrust upon them from the very beginning. I can’t say I was “born on third base,” but I was born in the United States, broadly speaking into the middle class, of educated parents, and all that was a head start that I didn’t have to earn.




All these thoughts ran through my mind this morning as I was reading Jacob Wheeler’s new nonfiction book, Angel of the Garbage Dump: How Hanley Denning Changed the World One Child at a Time. Hanley Denning was a young woman from a comfortable American background whose life trajectory changed dramatically when she saw children living in extreme poverty in a garbage dump outside Guatemala City. Hearing the subject of this book, you might shudder and want to back away, fearing it would be too “depressing” to read, but such is far from the case, because Hanley’s determination to help the children was matched by her love for them and her ability to connect not only with children in Guatemala but with wealthy American donors to make a difference. Given all that, the story of the growth of Hanley’s nonprofit, Camino Seguro, or Safe Passage, is inspiring and uplifting. As I read this book, my head and heart are filled with images of children – and their parents – who find safety, joy, love, and learning in their challenging present, as well as hope for a better future. A wonderful story, well told by the publisher of Leelanau County’s Glen Arbor Sun.

An inspiring story!

Hanley Denning chose early on in life on the challenge of long-distance running, and she went on to choose the almost superhuman challenges of changing the lives of some of the poorest children in the Western hemisphere. Most of our lives are much tamer, but no life is immune to challenging situations.


Anne-Marie Ooman’s book, As Long As I Know You: The Mom Book, recounts challenges of a different kind. For most of Anne-Marie’s life, her own mother’s example was one she was determined not to follow. With five children born in six and a half years, both Oomen parents had to work hard to feed and clothe them all in rural northern Michigan, and the children had to work, too. Anne-Marie wanted a different kind of life -- and she wanted it away from the farm. Signing up for a college semester abroad, against her mother’s wishes, was one early blow she struck for her own freedom, determined to become a writer, not a housewife. While writing, however, was something Oomen chose, different challenges awaited her with the coming of her widowed mother’s old age. 

We can all learn from Anne-Marie's honest true tale.


When a parent can no longer live alone safely, how do adult children deal with the problem? Where does the money come from for increasing levels of care? What kinds of conversation are possible between unhappy aged parents and confused, guilt-ridden adult children? Are there ways to avoid the unhappy feelings of the two generations?


No one chooses old age. Inevitable it is, however, for those who live long -- the price of long life -- and however well prepared we may try to be, it cannot be otherwise than challenging. 


Where Jacob Wheeler’s book about Hanley Denning is inspiring for the enormous challenges his subject took upon herself, Anne-Marie Oomen writes of challenges more of us are likely to face, whether we want to or not. We can learn, though, from both books. From Wheeler’s, we see the enormous difference that one very other-directed person can make in the world. Yes, it can be done! From Oomen’s, looking ahead to very probable situations in our own lives, we can perhaps avoid some -- not all! -- of the problems she and her mother and siblings experienced, profiting by what the author would have liked to know and understand earlier. 


We will not all move to Guatemala, after all, but we are all getting older every day of our lives. 




One of the many wonderful things about dogs is that they don’t compare the lives they have to other possible lives. When a dog is sick or hurt, the dog doesn’t cry, “Why me?” and in a household with only one often boring adult, the dog doesn’t say, “I never asked to be born! I wish I had a different family!” I am the one who chose the challenges of learning agility work for Sunny Juliet, not Sunny herself, but she is responding whole-heartedly! The work exercises her mind along with her muscles. It requires her full attention, and her attention channels otherwise wild energy into focused energy. The payoff (besides generous treats throughout the exercises) is that after a lesson she and her classmate get to run around and play off-leash. Social time! Happy dogs! 


May we all meet the challenges of the day with courage and cheerful spirits --.