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Monday, November 21, 2022

Books, Grief, Hope, and Holidays

How I live now....

Desert nights are cold, already down in the 20-degree range, and for the last two nights high winds have been battering the cabin. Saturday morning was sunny, calm, still. A good morning for a walk. Sunday was a different story, with the wind continuing relentless throughout the bright daytime hours.


No one sleeps well here on windy nights, and in what my mother always called the “wee hours,” when I would turn on the light and pick up a book, Sunny would bring me a toy and nudge me to engage in play. She can be as relentless as the wind! So I would indulge her with a little gentle wrestling on the bed and tell her she’s a good girl before picking up my book again (though often I added to myself, “Not really,” if she had trouble settling down again so I could read myself back to sleep).


And now for that long-neglected topic, books. Since I haven’t given a list of the recent books I’ve read for a while, I’ll annotate today’s to help you decide whether or not you might want to read any given title.


112. Hill, Grace Livingston. The Enchanted Barn (fiction). One of my early bookstore customers, back in 1994, was a big fan of Grace Livingston Hill and told me that Hill was a Michigan writer. I have been unable to find a Michigan connection, however, and in my bookstore no longer shelve Hill in the Michigan section. While her books are generally categorized as Christian fiction or Christian romance, religion is presented gently, as are the characters’ struggles, and The Enchanted Barn is a good example. Much as did the author herself, the main character is working to support her mother and siblings (in Hill’s own life, she had children to support from two failed marriages, in addition to her mother) and struggles to keep from becoming discouraged by poverty, to find a way to a better life. Where the story will end is obvious early on, but the details of the family’s move to the country, planting gardens, and making their home in an old barn make for a charming fictional escape from modern life. The Enchanted Barn was published in 1917. 


113. Gibbon, Lewis Grassic. Cloud Howe (fiction)

and 114. Ibid. Grey Granite (fiction).

These are the second and third titles in the author’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, which I have written about previously, novels that can only be considered “escape” in the sense that one is immersed in intriguing and sometimes lovely language because, other than that, they share with most of classic literature a clear-eyed confrontation with the hardest aspects of life. Here we see poverty not simply as one family’s temporary situation but the grinding poverty of workers in general, generation after generation, as they are caught up in the social and economic forces of history, and the author provides no deus ex machina to bring about a happy ending. But these are books (along with the first of the trilogy, Sunset Song, its story beginning in 1911) that deserve to be much more widely read and known, definitely worth a reader’s time, and I would add worth reading more than once.


115. Bythell, Shaun. Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops (nonfiction). If I’m being honest – and what’s the point of being otherwise? – I have to say I was disappointed with this one. A very slim volume, it comes off more like a lengthy magazine assignment than like a continuation of the author’s delightful Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller. Perhaps it was a case of a publisher pushing a writer to take advantage of previous success by getting a new title out too soon. I don’t like to say that -- and wish my impressions of Seven Kinds had been different -- but there you are. Bob’s your uncle.


116. Deutsch, Jeff. In Praise of Good Bookstores (nonfiction). Obviously not a book rushed into print, this one is worth reading carefully and lovingly, as any lover of books and bookstores will. The bookseller-writer makes a case for bookstores as something distinct from retail business. His primary example, the unabashedly scholarly Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago, went from a cooperative model to a nonprofit model in 2019 (after many years of having paid no dividends), and Deutsch says the nonprofit model acknowledges the store’s “financial realities” and its privileging of “cultural value over financial dividends.” Browsing here is raised to a new level. 


While I would love to browse this store, I am not convinced that nonprofit status is the only way forward for bookstores. Seeing socks for sale in a bookstore bothers Deutsch. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t sell socks myself but have no problem with other booksellers who use such items to enhance their slim profit margin, as long as they are also stocking good, important books. Most of us in the used book trade realized early on in our eccentric “careers” that following our calling (because I agree with Deutsch that it is a calling) would demand certain financial sacrifices, and for us no price can be put on our independence, so I even wonder if a nonprofit model, with all the record-keeping and particular laws governing that model, might not put a crimp in my independence. But the book – yes, I do recommend it. 


117. Leiris, Antoine. You Will Not Have My Hate (nonfiction). The Eiffel tower on this book’s cover made me reach for it. It is broadly classifiable in the category of books on grief, a category in which I have read more extensively this past year than ever before – but with a difference. The author’s wife not only died suddenly but was murdered, gunned down in the terrible scene of mass violence at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris in 2015. The title of the book comes from something Leiris posted on the Internet, refusing victory to the killers. His book is a behind-the-scenes account of that night and days and nights following, as he had to go on with life for the sake of his very young, now-motherless son. 


118. Hill, Jemele. Uphill: A Memoir (nonfiction). An interview with Jemele Hill on NPR prompted me to buy this book. Careers in journalism are very different from life as a bookseller but also focus on words and writing. Hill is from Detroit, therefore a Michigan author. Perhaps the fact that she is a sportswriter made my choosing this book surprising because, in general, I could not care much less about sports, but Hill has always gone beyond sports in her career as a journalist, and her social insights and opinions fascinate me. (When asked to write an opinion column, she wondered why anyone would care about her opinions and was astonished by how deeply her readers cared.) Also, along the way, I picked up a couple of wonderful uses of contemporary Black English, one I’d seen before on a friend’s Facebook posts, the other a new word to me: “Ride or die” was the phrase; caucasity the new word I learned. Brilliant word!


119. Barry, Jane. A Time in the Sun (fiction). This one, like the nonfiction Empire of the Summer Moon, was a book that I both wanted and didn’t want to read. Western frontier history, whether fictionalized or not, is brutal – and often, to make it worse, it is inappropriately romanticized or has a political axe to grind, so wariness is my byword. Barry’s book, as it turned out, was of particular interest to me, as the story was set in southeast Arizona, from Apache Pass (between the Chiricahua and Dos Cabezas mountain ranges) up to Fort Grant and over to Tucson. It is hauntingly well written. Of course, it ends in tragedy, for the Apaches and for more than one of the white characters, but what else could you expect? It is worth reading, both for the historical perspective, diversity of characters, and for the lyrical writing.


120. Solnit, Rebecca. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (nonfiction). This book of essays is a re-issue, and re-issuing it was a good idea. Solnit’s message is that those “in love with despair” or so given over to pessimism and cynicism that they answer any bit of good news with “Yes, but –” is that there is good news, along with the bad and that it’s important to keep hope alive and celebrate victories even while continuing to fight for a better world. Hope in the Dark is a tonic, good for what ails many of us from time to time. 


And finally --

121. Penny, Louise. A Better Man (fiction). Many of my friends and bookstore customers are devoted fans of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mysteries, and yet somehow I had never gotten around to reading any of them. There it was, though, on Margaret’s counter at Readers’ Cove in Deming, New Mexico, and the time seemed right. (Note: I seldom begin to read a mystery series with the first book. Instead, whatever title comes my way is where I dive in.) And now, count me as a fan of Inspector Gamache, especially of his three questions to ask oneself before speaking: Is it true? Is it kind? Does it need to be said?


So there are the books that kept me company from Michigan to Arizona. For me, the company of books has always been essential and never more so now that my only daily companion is a very vocal but not at all verbal 11-month-old puppy. 

The Artist remembered at Source of Coffee in Willcox, AZ

This morning, doing errands in Willcox, I was struck by all the places the Artist and I used to go together. In fact, nowhere did I go that we had not gone together, and every mile of the road between the cabin and town is a mile we traveled together countless times. It was – difficult. But everywhere I went, when paying for a purchase I made a point of saying, “Happy Thanksgiving” to the cashier, because while holidays can be particularly challenging for those of us who have lost a beloved partner, whenever I think (as I so often do), There are ghosts everywhere, in Arizona as well as in Michigan, I have to stop and remind myself that there are friends in both places, too, and that I have much for which to give thanks. 


Happy Thanksgiving, friends! A what have you read lately that you want to recommend?

Also how I live -- and always will.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the recommendations. I have missed them so. Glad your travels were safe and appeared easy. Happy thanksgiving. Much love sent your way!

P. J. Grath said...

You are welcome! As for the long drive, I said last year, "Life can be hard. Driving is easy." There were only a couple of brief, hellish patches, one because I drove too long the first day and had to get to a motel in the dark, the other because I ran into a snowstorm and bad road conditions. But all's well that ends well, and Sunny and I arrived safely at our destination.

Karen Casebeer said...

The Deutsch book made me think of my favorite bookstores and immediately John Rollins in Kalamazoo came to mind. Were you there ever during the years it was in business? Extraordinary gathering place and book store.

And then your comment about diving into a mystery series with whatever title comes your way made me chuckle. Not surprisingly, I'm the opposite. I love mystery series, and I almost always start at the first one. For me, I like to start there because I can watch how the writer's craft progresses. I think of C.J. Box and William Kent Kreuger and how their first books needed so much editing, in my opinion, and how their writing improved with subsequent books. I also love getting to know the main character from the beginning with each book adding on to their life details.

P. J. Grath said...

Karen, I remember John Rollins, down on the Kalamazoo mall, very well indeed. David and I went to a poetry reading there by the wonderful poet John Woods. Very memorable place indeed!

As for beginning at the beginning, I guess I am too impatient. If I like a book randomly plucked from later in the series, however, I will go back and read most or all of the rest -- maybe not in order, but eventually I'll get the whole picture. I have done that with the J.A. Jance series set here in Cochise County, featuring Sheriff Joanna Brady. It's kind of like meeting someone and becoming friends later in life, maybe: the new friend's earlier years are revealed bit by bit, as you become acquainted. Because we can't meet all our friends when we're all infants! Does that make sense?

Karen Casebeer said...

Perfect sense! I really liked your point about meeting someone later in life and their earlier years are revealed as you become acquainted. Thanks for this new perspective.

Deborah said...

I'm currently reading a new book, The Daughter of Auschwitz by Tova Friedman and Malcolm Brabant. It's a difficult book to read because the author is one of the youngest children to endure the Holocaust at Auschwitz. Only 3 years old at the time she has spent her life telling what happened there because she feels a duty to those who were murdered and could not tell their own story. A very worthwhile read but of course so hard to read about such inhumanity and cruelty.

P. J. Grath said...

It is important not to forget. Never to forget.