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Monday, January 30, 2023

Let’s See Where We Are

Still in the ghost town in Cochise County. Still moving through grief by getting outdoors every day with the puppy and otherwise feeding my book addiction, notes here picking up where I left off the last time:


4. Irving, Washington. A Tour on the Prairies (nonfiction)


Often my bedtime books are more serious in nature, in part because if I am all wound up in a novel, it’s easy for me to stay awake reading all night. Not that Washington Irving’s 19th-century horseback travels on the Great Plains were dull, by any means. In fact, it seems he was quite the eager, adventure-loving companion, it seems. Not a sleepy Rip Van Winkle guy at all!


5. Swan, Walter. How to Be a Better Me (nonfiction)

Walter Swan (from the 10-cent sidewalk table outside the Friendly Bookstore in Willcox) had plenty of lessons to impart and decided to put them between the covers of a book. Homespun Western commonsense.


6. Maxwell, Gavin. A Reed Shaken by the Wind (nonfiction)

7. Ferber, Edna. Show Boat (fiction)

8. Simeti, Mary Taylor. On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal (nonfiction – uncorr. proofs, 1986)


I wrote quite a bit about the Maxwell book before I’d finished reading it, and that “quite a bit” can be found here. The same is true for Edna Ferber’s Show Boat and Mary Taylor Simeti’s On Persephone’s Island. The next book on my list, number 9, was sent by a friend back in Michigan. (Thank you, Laurie!) I’d seen the book before and not been drawn to it by the title, but my interest was piqued by looking more closely and seeing that the author was the creator of “Downton Abbey.” There are no heroes or villains here -- every character is a mix of admirable and repulsive qualities, and Fellowes is at his best when speculating on complicated motives. The Keillor novel is exactly what you would expect from the storyteller from Lake Woebegone.


9. Fellowes, Julian. Snobs (fiction)

10. Keillor, Garrison. Pontoon (fiction)

I include an image here (above) of book endpapers to illustrate why I was drawn to the light novel that spawned the 1950s Debbie Reynolds movie. The girl in the story was raised on a houseboat on the Mississippi River, so it is a book for my little houseboat book collection, and the story is innocent and charming, if thoroughly predictable.

11. Sumner, Cid Ricketts. Tammy Out of Time (fiction)

12. Jance, J.A. Unfinished Business (fiction)

13. Jance, J.A. Until Proven Guilty (fiction)

14. Abels, Harriette. Mystery on the Delta (fiction – YA)


Next came a mini-binge, as I devoured two murder mysteries back-to-back, followed by a YA mystery that was a cinch to solve early on, but, again, it was a story with a houseboat theme.


Then this past weekend I read two more serious nonfiction books, both of which moved me deeply. Kirkus Reviews thought Harlem is Nowhere, by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, “suffered” from not fitting clearly into one particular genre, being neither strictly academic nor strictly popular. (What was that reviewer thinking? Sounds like marketing talk to me.) From my point of view, the genre-bending, genre-overlapping qualities of the book made it a rich reading experience from a very gifted writer. I was transported in time and place and felt as if I had been there, with Rhodes-Pitts as both a well-informed guide and my personal friend.

She had some surprising nuggets for a bookseller, too. While I knew most of the names of important Harlem people mentioned, a new one to me was book collector Arthur Schomburg, whose collection of black history, literature, art, etc. was eventually bought by New York Public Library with a Carnegie Foundation grant. The collection included “more than 5,000 books, 3,000 rare manuscripts, 2,000 etchings and portraits, clippings albums, and several thousand pamphlets.” Rhodes-Pitts spent many hours in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which she calls “as much a community center as a library, and a little bit of home. Highly recommended. 


Finally, a new friend back in Michigan sent me a copy of her memoir in manuscript, the story of finding and losing all too soon, to cancer, the love of her life – and going on from there, as one must following loss. Much familiar territory for me, but new ground, also, and Mary Robertson is a lovely writer, with a frankness and, perhaps surprisingly, a sense of humor that brought me to both tears and laughter, often at the same time.


15. Rhodes-Pitts, Sharifa. Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (nonfiction)

16. Robertson, Mary E. I’m Sorry For Your Loss: One Woman’s Journey Through Love, Loss & Recovery (nonfiction – ms.)


So now the question is, what book will I finish next? It probably won’t be my current bedtime volume, Anthony Trollope’s North America. Trollope gives us a fascinating window into American life during the Civil War away from the battlefields; however, he gets carried away on many long, detailed digressions into earlier American and Canadian history that occasionally try my patience. I am most entertained when he describes cities and towns in his time that I have known in my own, and I was very sympathetic to his disappointment at not seeing the real “prairie” he hoped to see, for all the cornfields that had taken the place of those seas of grass. I felt the same way years ago in southwest Michigan after reading James Fennimore’s Oak Openings: I so wished I could go back in time to see that prairie as it was before clearing and cultivation, before houses and barns and electric and telephone poles and lines. Just as it would be thrilling to see the West without barbed wire everywhere! But this is one of the glories of reading -- magically slipping away into a past we never saw with our own eyes.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

I say, “To hell with it!”


I call this cozy and inviting.

To hell with minimalism, I'm saying. You can have it. Just be sure it's what you want.


Books and websites selling “the new minimalism,” often simply called “decluttering” and “simplifying,” like to tell us we can’t buy happiness. Let’s think about that. Okay. You can’t buy happiness, neither can I, but — think about this with me, please — I believe it's possible to throw happiness away and regret it later.

These things speak to me daily.

Follow the link here and look at the top image on this internet site. If that looks like a cozy, restful, snug and happy refuge from the world to you, read no further in my post today. On the other hand, if you are an inveterate hoarder — that’s another whole ball of wax — then you should go back to that link and follow the steps to clean up your act, because no one wants to have friends or family members living in absolute squalor. Hoarding is a sickness. Heal thyself!


Coming back from my digression, though, don’t we all know that hoarding vs. minimalism is a false dilemma? Collecting is not hoarding. And while most of us, I’m guessing, are not serious, committed collectors, with homes that could be mistaken for museums, neither are our homes junkyards, simply because we prefer more visual stimulation and activity than minimalism offers. 

Colorful tins, that's all.

Found objects

Little things

I bought him the box; he bought me the cow.

As for me, I look at bare, minimalist-“decorated” rooms and wonder if lives are being lived there at all. As I have written before on this blog, the Artist and I together were never minimalists. Our life together was rich, although that life, as well as the one I have now, could well be called a simple life“Too many books”? To me, that sounds like “too much art,” i.e., an oxymoron of the first order. 

Yes to books!

Yes to art!

When my sisters and I had to clear out our mother’s house, we did think she had “too many clothes,” it's true, but none of us were sorry she had kept boxes of photographs, letters, and other personal mementoes, some of which we had never seen before. I wrote about that and about how much it meant to see a scrapbook my mother had started back when she and our father had their first date. 


I have saved old letters myself, and along with several albums of photographs I also have piles of loose photos, as did the Artist – and I am keeping all of his, along with my own. He loved his memories, and I love mine, and we shared many wonderful years. Why would I “declutter” my life by throwing out reminders of happiness when I can, through those reminders, re-live more youthful times, our years together, as well as years before we met? 

A little messy but full of life!

Paintings, prints, and photographs on the wall; books on the shelves; a beautiful, “useless” vase; perfectly shaped bowls; little collections of tins and boxes; a row of cowboy boots here and hats hung there; even the ubiquitous scattering of stones on a windowsill that all northern Michigan people seem to have (is that “in our DNA,” as people are so fond of saying nowadays?) – my surroundings are brimming with associations that tell me in a thousand ways of the richness of my life. 

Mine (need polishing)

His --

“Declutter”? You first! What happiness is left to me, I will not be so foolish as to throw away, and I can imagine people today falling for the minimalism fad and wondering on some tomorrow years from now whatever possessed them. “I’d give anything if only I still had my mother’s high school ring ... my father's letters ... that sketchbook from our trip to Paris!” 

Obligatory photo of Sunny Juliet!

Monday, January 23, 2023

Another Exhilarating, Exhausting Mountain Adventure!

Bonita Creek at visitors center parking lot, 1/22/23

My hiking partner wanted to introduce her new puppy to the Chiricahua National Monument and invited me to come along. We would hike a short trail, the one between Faraway Ranch and the visitors center, a trail that more or less follows Bonita Creek, does not involve climbing, and where dogs on-leash are allowed – in short, an easy trail that shouldn’t give a three-month-old puppy any trouble at all.


Over the years following our first introduction to the place, the Artist and I made countless visits to the CNM, an easy drive from the ghost town, down one of the most beautiful Cochise County roads. We picnicked along rocky Bonita Creek (bone-dry in December of 2021) and explored lovely Faraway Ranch and its history. We had walked about a mile of the trail beginning at the other end, too; however, although the trail between its two end points is only 1.2 miles, I had never walked the entire length at one go. 


My friend and I, having decided to begin our round-trip walk at the visitors center end, were delighted to see water in the creek. Not just a thin trickle, either. The park is a treasure even when the creek is dry, but running water, in Arizona, is always exciting and adds to outdoor experience.

Creek below, peak above

We stopped often, pointing out to each other particular stunning vistas and giving the puppy a chance to explore with her nose. My appreciation of the trail’s beauty was somewhat tempered by sorrow that the Artist was no longer with me, as memories of being there together came at every turn. But it was a beautiful day, and I was glad to be in the mountains. 

This is the trail???

My first challenge came when our trail, familiar to me in this stretch, took on a very unfamiliar look: I had never seen this much water in the creek that crossed the trail at right angles. My friend picked her puppy up in her arms and stepped bravely from rock to rock. I tried, but the necessary steps between rocks were too long for me to take them in stride, as it were. As I saw it, I had two choices: 


Wading the creek: The water was icy cold, and my boots not water-proof. My feet would get wet and cold. 


On the other hand –


Taking the rock route: If I slipped and fell, more than my feet would get wet, and falling on rocks could mean getting a lot more than wet. What if I slipped and fell and hit my head? No cell phone signal! Very few people on the trail that day. (The whole time we were on the trail, we saw only four other people, one couple from each direction, and all turned back from what was for us the third creek crossing.)


So I scouted out the shallowest path I could see, hiked up my jeans, and waded across. Yes, it was very cold!

Having taken the plunge already, our second creek challenge was easier for me. The creek was wider and shallower there. Again, my friend carried her puppy.

Does not look challenging You are not looking at it with cold, wet feet.

We were hoping to see coati, and those hopes were not realized on Sunday, but approaching Silver Spur meadow we saw deer and stopped to watch their lovely, easy, flowing trot across our path and up into the woods. As you might guess, the puppy was mesmerized by the sight. My year-old puppy would have barked, had she been with us.

Farther along came Challenge #3. Intrepid wader by now, I crossed pretty much with the submerged path, while my friend explored downstream for solid rocks, and a couple who had caught up with us on the trail explored upstream. The other people turned back, but my friend made a daring and successfully dry crossing while I held my breath, praying that she would not lose her footing. 

Exploring upstream before turning back


My fearless friend!

Pup in arms!

Still high and dry!

On dry land once more, we came to one of my friend’s favorite trees. It turns out she is, literally, a tree hugger! The puppy found greater interest in a trunk hollowed out by fire, as we humans admired the grain of its wood.

Oops! Puppy moved out of shot....

Now we had gone beyond my former explorings, and soon we came to something I had never seen before: the Stafford Cabin. Sweet! You can read about its history and the family who lived in the cabin here.

From there it was an easy walk to beloved Faraway Ranch, where we walked around the old house, renewed familiarity with its history, and visited with a group of people from Alaska before turning back in the direction of the visitors center, taking a slight detour from the house to go by a ranger’s cabin. One of the things I always think about at Chiricahua is how one of the grandsons, a forester with experience in public works forestry, would love the place. In my mind’s eye, I can see him here, living in this cabin and enjoying the views. 

Ranger cabin

Looking back at Faraway Ranch

Savannah-like open area

The biggest surprise of the day was manzanita in bloom – in January! 

Manzanita flowers

There were, of course, three more crossings of Bonita Creek to make on our way back – three more times for me to wade through icy water in boots and socks already soaked through, three more times for my friend to negotiate a dry, rocky crossing with puppy I her arms. End of tale: I was wet halfway up to my knees, my friend slipped and got one foot wet, the puppy managed to get into fresh, black mud, but otherwise all three of us did just fine. 


Being on the trail Sunday was definitely worth wet feet. I thought of Washington Irving on his expedition through Oklahoma territory (A Tour on the Prairies) and how important it was for their party to find a camping spot near water each night. By contrast, I would soon be back in my comfortable, warm cabin, where I could put on dry socks and relax with my own puppy. But to have seen so much water in the creek, sparkling in the sunlight, was a thrill. 

Reaching home, tired but contented, I went out for a ramble with Sunny Juliet before even changing my footwear, because my puppy needed some fun in the sun, too! -- You’re probably wondering why Sunny Juliet was not included on the adventure. She and Yogi have met each other and have compatible energy levels and play styles, so we anticipate they will be great pals soon, but Yogi is so little right now that my friend and I don’t want to stress her out too much or take a chance that she will be hurt accidentally by a rowdy, much bigger dog. The good news is that Yogi will be bigger every week, and we look forward to playtime together with the two of them. As for trail hikes with the two of them, two excited puppies on-leash, that might be more than I could handle, even with dry feet.

My girl on Big Rock (one of them)!

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

What on earth can I possibly say?


I’ve been writing this blog since 2007, and odds are I’ll keep going for the foreseeable future. Why do I do it? 


The truth is, Books in Northport does not have a huge readership. None of its posts has ever “gone viral.” Occasionally (and the occasions are rare) someone struck by a certain thought or story of mine here will share a post with a friend or put a link on Facebook, but my readers are more generally content to enjoy for themselves, quietly. Even comments to any particular post are uncommon.


And when I look at my stats (which no, I am not going to share publicly, thank you very much), I see that 2017 was the high-water readership mark for this blog. (Six years ago. Should that make me sad?) The statistics give only numbers and a jagged line climbing to a sharp peak before falling again – no indication why more people were reading me in that year than any other. 

What did I write about in 2017? I did a lot of book reviews that year. There were adventures in the Southwest. (But I still do book reviews and recount adventures, when I have any to recount.) There was the launch of Sarah Shoemaker’s novel, Mr. Rochester, a lot of my personal musings (examples here and here), topics literary, historical, social and political pleas (here's an example of that kind of thing), and small personal and local observations here and there, as snippets of my small-town bookselling life dog-paddled furiously to survive in a stormy sea of national chaos. Because that's how I remember 2017 -- as a plunge into national chaos.

Did readers find my questions similar to ones they were asking themselves that year, or were they seeking refuge from disturbing questions in books and in someone else’s life?


Because maybe, I’m thinking, it wasn’t my writing or subject matter that caused the spike at all but simply a new kind of chaos that drove more people that year to online forums in general. And now, maybe we have gradually become accustomed to chaos and have given up any attempt either to escape fully or to understand. Maybe recipes and dogs and word puzzles and jigsaw puzzles on Facebook are more tranquilizing, and therefore more appealing, than anything I could possibly write. Whatever!

Numerous suggestions for increasing website audience can be found online, if marketing is your aim or popularity (numbers) your goal. I had a professional group “reach out” to me a few years back, offering to provide more exciting “content” to my blog than I had come up with myself. Unlike the Queen, I was amused, because while my bookstore often appears on this site, as do books, I’m not writing advertising copy. Most simply put, this is my life I'm sharing – certain aspects of it, anyway: books read, travels enjoyed, adventures undertaken, thoughts entertained, questions that plague me, as well as (to steal from Carl Jung) memories, dreams, reflections -- regardless of how many or how few friends or strangers may be interested.


Poet Fleda Brown, on her blog, "The Wobbly Bicycle," writes that she has not been writing poems lately but a diary instead, which she approaches as a literary project, in hopes that it will eventually be published. Another writer whose work I admire told me at one point that he felt I had found my “form” in blog posts, and more than one friend (both writers and nonwriters) suggests now and again that Books in Northport could be turned into a book. Is it motivation I lack or energy or something else? Others have done it, so the idea itself is not absurd. -- But a bound volume of my originally digital words without accompanying images (related or unrelated, today's being the latter) and embedded links? It would be, I’m thinking, more hole than cloth.


There’s no Big Question here today. No plan for the future. No sudden epiphany. Idle speculation, merely, after four housebound days of clouds and rain and wind and a few snow flurries and a dead car battery, so, as always, take it or leave it. 

Monday, January 16, 2023

Back When the Stage First Struck Me

So many choices! How to decide!


No, I'm not going to be writing about “Tea and Sympathy.” It’s just that this past Sunday was a dreadfully cold, windy, rainy, dark day that cried out for tea, and since I have no photographs to illustrate today’s opening story from my teenage years, you might as well have pictures of tea.


My story begins in the fall of my freshman year of high school. Only fourteen years old, never before had I been on a date with a boy old enough to have his driver’s license. We didn’t have to have a parent deliver us to the high school to see the senior class play, and it wasn’t a double date, either! In both ways, then, that date was a first for me -- and you might expect that having my date as the driver would have been the most important aspect of the evening, then and in memory, but no --. 


As it turned out -- I had no way of knowing ahead of time that this would be the case -- the play was the thing. A live stage play: another first for me. 


“The Curious Savage,” it was. When that final curtain came down (after the curtain calls, which I loved!), I didn’t want to leave the auditorium, didn’t even want to get up from my seat or speak to my date or have him speak to me (though he was a perfectly nice boy). Given a vision of another world, I was riveted. Spellbound. Indeed, stage-struck.

Crunch to go with sips

Every year our high school also produced what we called an “operetta,” and the production of the spring following my fall evening with “The Curious Savage” was “Show Boat,” but for the operetta my seat was in the orchestra pit, where I was section leader of the second violins, which meant that I attended the show (as it were) over and over, intimately connected to it, part of it, through the course of rehearsals I could only wish would never come to an end. 


My music stand partner and I were as close to the stage apron as possible, squeezed in practically under the very edge, so we could see the actors only when the action onstage was directly above us. The first violins, on the outside closer to the audience, had the better view of the stage. All violinists, however, were facing stage left, on the conductor’s left hand, and so when the soloist stood at stage left, at the very edge of the apron, to deliver the haunting, unforgettable “Ol’ Man River,” we missed none of it. That young man could have been on Broadway, I felt sure! 


A brief comic moment from the show has always remained in my mind, as well. The owner and captain of the showboat, desperate to fill the unexpectedly vacant position of juvenile lead in time for the next performance, asks Gaylord Ravenal (what a name!) if he is a quick study – that is, can he learn lines quickly. Ravenal, who has just seen the captain’s daughter on the deck and been told that she is the ingenue he would be playing opposite, responds, his eyes on young Magnolia, “Lightning!” Or rather, as I recall it from that high school production, “Lightnin’!”


As a member of the pit orchestra, required to be at every rehearsal, eventually I knew every line of the play by heart. Now the spoken lines are gone from my memory, but song lyrics remain, along with melodies. 

Honey first --

“Show Boat” was a ground-breaking event when first staged in 1927, “The first Broadway score ever to have a coherent plot and integrated songs.” (See here for more details.) That is, the show had a story, and the songs amplified the story. Before "Show Boat," a stage musical was a series of unrelated, spectacular, highly choreographed musical numbers featuring young women prancing about to music in scanty, feathered outfits and high heels. But “Show Boat” went beyond just having a story, presenting onstage “two unhappy marriages, alcoholism, the harsh realities of life for Southern Blacks, and the delicate subject of miscegenation.” (See here for more details.) Eventually, musicals with real stories, i.e., plays with music, became the American norm, something we take for granted, but “West Side Story” would not have been possible without the trend “Show Boat” started.


Very few people probably care that Edna Ferber was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan (on Burdick Street, I believe), but since I learned that fact, I have always remembered it, having lived in Kalamazoo myself for a number of years. Yet somehow, as far as I recall, I had never read any of her novels. Then, there it was, just the other day -- Show Boat, the book that gave birth to the musical stage show I had loved with such a deep passion at age fourteen, the book available to me as a public library-bound discard priced at one dollar. So on a dreadfully cold, windy, rainy, dark Sunday that cried out for tea, having finished another book the night before and looking for one to go with comforting hot tea, how could I hope for a better choice?


Edna Ferber’s novel was written in 1926, with a story beginning (in flashbacks) after the Civil War, shortly before railroads usurped the place of riverboats for carrying passengers and goods throughout America. Although a riverboat such as the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre was much more than a “houseboat,” it was home to the owner and his family and the cast of players, and as in our old household favorite, Shantyboat, the Mississippi River lends its strong, unconquerable, fluid character to the story, which made me decide immediately that Show Boat needed to be housed in my Michigan farmhouse with all our other 19th- and 20th-century books, fiction and nonfiction, featuring life on American rivers, despite the novel’s cringe-worthy casual racist dialogue and commentary. It is a picture of its time, and like any time in history (including our own), there was both beauty and ugliness in it, and, in my opinion, we need to recognize and acknowledge both for what they were. The musical certainly did that, and I think the book does, too.


But best of all Magnolia loved the bright, gay, glass-enclosed pilot house high above the rest of the boat and reached by the ultimate flight of steep narrow stairs. From this vantage point you saw the turbulent flood of the Mississippi, a vast yellow expanse, spread before you and all around you; for ever rushing ahead of you, no matter how fast you travelled; sometimes whirling about in its own tracks to turn and taunt you with your unwieldy ponderosity; then leaping on again. Sometimes the waters widened like a sea so that one could not discern the dim shadow of the farther shore; again they narrowed, snake-like, crawling so craftily that the side-wheeler boomed through the chutes with the willows brushing the decks. You never knew what lay ahead of you – that is, Magnolia never knew. That was part of the fascination of it. … But her father knew. And Mr. Pepper, the chief pilot, always knew. You wouldn’t believe that it was possible….