Search This Blog

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Two Very Different Topics: First, A Trend I Despise; Then, Advice to Aspiring Novelists

Tuesday afternoon, 2/27/24, 64 degrees and sunny -- like a day in May!


First, online sellers:


An increasing common trend on multiple-dealer book sites has to do with the so-called “descriptions” some dealers are attaching to books they offer for sale. For example, for one title I searched, a copy offered was graded as Good, the so-called “description” reading as follows:


Missing dust jacket; Pages can have notes/highlighting. Spine may show signs of wear. 


I have italicized the words ‘can’ and ‘may’ to indicate my objection: The seller is simply giving a (partial) generic description to accompany the grade “good,” without reference to the particular copy beyond saying that it lacks a dust jacket. I don’t want to buy a book with highlighting! Has someone defaced the pages with highlighting or not? I understand that a book graded as “good” may show wear on the spine ends, but does this copy have worn ends, and if so, how bad are they?


By contrast, here is what can truly be called a description:


Clean and unmarked anywhere; front gutter cracked but binding firm; lovely engravings by author; unfaded green boards with gilt lettering and ornamentation on red patches well protected by pictorial dj that has chipping at edges, but protected from further wear by Brodart cover. Good in unclipped dj, plus Brodart jacket.


Both online dealers offer books for sale, but I would dignify only the second with the title ‘bookseller.’ Notice that both sellers have graded their copies (of the same title) as Good. Which copy would you feel more confident purchasing?

I am very happy with the copy I bought.


Here is a general guideline for grading collectible books, with grades ranging from Very Fine (VG) down to Good (G). In general, used books not attractive to collectors but still desirable to readers or other book dealers may be given lower grades than Good, such as Fair; Poor; Binding Copy; or Reading Copy. Guides explain how to assign a grade, but only the seller can provide the specific information to explain how s/he arrived at that grade for a particular copy. Saying a copy “can” or “may” have such and such a flaw is not a description. It is a sign of unprofessionalism and laziness. 


I stopped listing books for sale online when the site I listed with was bought by the behemoth and a different format put in place for uploading titles, as my old lists could not simply be transferred to the new format, and there was no one “at the other end” to help. Add to that my reality as a one-person operation, a “Mom&Pop” that was and is (even more so now) just “Mom.” With no second person on-site who could devote fulltime to uploading titles to be sold online, and then factoring in the “race to the bottom” for prices (one dealer would list a book for $15, the next would list the same book for $12, and so on down to $1.99), it wasn’t worth my time.


Given that race to the bottom on prices asked, along with the fact that processing an order for a $4 book is NO less time-consuming than processing an order for a $40 book (listing, delisting, packaging, shipping, and sometimes communicating with the buyer), you can see why sellers without traditional bookman standards would cut corners with their descriptions, but that's not the way I do business, and I prefer to deal with honest-to-goodness booksellers – preferably with open shops – who adhere to my standards. I don’t care to waste my time buying something I’ll be disappointed to receive – and that I wouldn’t want to sell to my own bookstore customers.



Now, to change the subject. I was going to add the notes below at the end of my February Books Read list, since three different books I read this month prompted these thoughts, but I decided to post them separately today and get it out of the way. Words to the wise!



Advice to Novelists and Wannabes


Beginning the novel: Beginning fiction writers often have a problem with getting their novels started, wanting to include too much backstory on every character. A good editor will tell them, “You need to know all that about your character, but your readers don’t.” A good model for filling in backstory with a sentence here and there is Walter Mosley. He is a master. Most editors coaching an otherwise wonderful novelist will help the writer overcome this problem, because the truth is, you can begin a story anywhere, and wherever you start will be the beginning.

This author is a great model for how to incorporate backstory.

Ending the novel: A different problem is the unsatisfactory finish, because even readers who may persist hopefully through slow initial pages want a story that builds a strong narrative arc, reaches some sort of climax or epiphany or decisive moment – but doesn’t stop there, with the author suddenly slamming the door with a bang, whether or not on a tangle of loose ends! Ouch! Rats! Take the time to give us a metaphorical literary hug and murmur sweet nothings or at least wave goodbye, for heaven’s sake, before sauntering thoughtfully down the road. We don’t want to be dumped unceremoniously at the curb after spending all this time with you! That is very unkind! A comic novel, a tragic novel, a mystery will each have a different kind of denouement, but some kind each must have, if the reader is not to feel cheated.

Wednesday: Be ready for a whiteout without warning! Dress for wind chill!

Thursday, February 22, 2024

It's Travel Time

WHAT month is it???

In northern Michigan there are, besides weekend tourists and short-term vacationers, summer people and “year-round” people. The year-rounders who can afford to make a getaway in late winter or early spring, though, are not shy about doing so, and who can blame them? Some take February or March in Florida or Mexico or the Caribbean. For years, before and between the Florida and Arizona winters, the Artist and I made more modest forays to Lake Huron on early spring weekends when March rolled around, because cabin fever isn’t just about getting to an exotic location. It’s more about seeing different scenery and different people. 


“But we didn’t even have winter this year.” 


“We had a month of winter (January).” 


“No, we had ten days. That’s all!”


Okay, and now February, typically the coldest month in northern Michigan, has been bringing us daytime temperatures in the 40s! Along with many others, I feel a lot of ambivalence about this month’s weather. It isn’t right, isn’t normal, it bodes ill for the future – and yet, in the present, it makes life easier and certainly (because of lower fuel bills and no plow bills at all) less expensive, which is hard not to appreciate. And who can complain about blue skies? Besides that, for me (and I know I’m not the only one) this time of year is a minefield of associations. Anniversaries after loss are ambushes along life’s road, in that you know they’re coming – looming inexorably -- but not the moment or hour or the manner they will hit. So with all of the financial and emotional possibilities threatening, I found unseasonable February warmth and sunshine more than helpful.  

While we still had snow --

Blue view --

Thanks to books, I’ve also been spending a lot of time in Ireland and Scotland, France and Italy, some of it over a hundred years ago and some in more recent times. Fiction, nonfiction – one is as dreamy as the other, when it comes to exploring mountain villages, river sources, stone ruins, and local stories from local folks in faraway places. When March arrives, I’ll post my “Books Read” list for the month of February, with enough annotation to give an idea of each title’s contents for anyone who might be curious.


Leelanau County itself, though, provided me with antidotes to cabin fever. Monday, Presidents Day, was a bank holiday, so I had to go to Traverse City on Tuesday instead to take care of banking errands. By noon, though, I was already zipping out of town when the beautiful sunshine inspired me to detour to Good Harbor Bay, where Sunny and I walked on the beach! As close as I live to Lake Michigan, you would think beach-walking would be a frequent life activity for me, but somehow, unless I have company, time just seems to slip away. Well, not that day! I seized it!

Good Harbor, Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Again, the following day, Wednesday, the Artist’s birthday (he would have been 87, if still living), when I felt the need to do something special, Good Harbor was my choice. I'd first contemplated a stop at the Happy Hour for a beer on the way home, maybe even buying for whoever might happen to be sitting at the bar in the middle of the afternoon, but there was no way to include Sunny Juliet in that plan. And as it had on Tuesday, the sun was shining, the sky blue, so with sunset later and later every day, Sunny J. and I had plenty of time after I closed the bookstore at 3 o’clock to drive down to Good Harbor again, scenes of many memories and associations over the years.

Lake Michigan, Wednesday afternoon

Calm water

This is how I am traveling in February now. Books take me to other countries, and I take mini-vacations close to home with my dog, because, as the Artist loved to say, so often, “We live in a beautiful place,” and whatever the weather, every road of my county is saturated with memories, making it all the more beautiful. Travel time in my home county is any time, and any county drive is also time travel, my present brimming over with the past. 

Thursday morning fog -- beautiful!


Today’s postscript:


If audiobooks are your thing, please consider signing up to get yours from – and choose Dog Ears Books as your bookstore. Your audiobooks won’t cost any more than they do if you buy from the online behemoth, but you will be supporting a small indie bookstore in northern Michigan. Thank you! And special thanks to those of you already ordering from via Dog Ears Books!!!

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Bogged Down

That pond on Alpers Road


 …Northwest Indiana’s Kankakee was an extensive swamp-marsh of more than 500,000 acres on a sandy dune outwash plain, in retrospect [emphasis added] called “one of the great freshwater wetland ecosystems of the world….” 


      The Kankakee River snaked its 250-mile way through the swamp in two thousand twists and bends, a slow absorbent river punctuated with bayous and edged by riverine forests.


-      Annie Proulx, Fen, Bog and Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis (Scribner, 2022)


When I was a girl growing up on the Illinois prairie in the 1950s, the term ‘wetland’ was not part of our Midwestern vocabulary, and my fascination with any ‘swamp’-like area that caught my eye was not generally shared by family or friends, but our postwar neighborhood outside the city limits of Joliet, Illinois, was filling in with houses on every 40-ft. lot, and while I appreciated -- for their expansive views of sunset and thunderstorms -- fields of soybeans or corn (in alternating years) across the road from my parents’ older home on the westernmost street of the subdivision, it was wildness I craved. 

What we called “the slough,” down the street, was semi-wild but also stinky and, sadly, forbidden – though if it hadn’t been stinky, its water except in flood barely moving and topped with scum and patches of iridescent oil, I’m sure the prohibition would not have been nearly as effective. As it was, however, most of my hunger for wild wetlands had to be satisfied with sightings from car and train windows. 

Every autumn our mother would take us along on expeditions to gather cattails, milkweed pods and bittersweet for indoor fall arrangements (cattails, common as they are in my northern Michigan life, still hold dreamlike associations for me), and on a long train ride to Florida one spring, unable to stop gazing out the window at the romantic scenery flowing by, I made up a story, mile by mile, to accompany the moving panorama, peopling every hummock with strange, dangerous characters that my sister told me years later had given her nightmares.


A memorable high school biology field trip involved wading in a creek and discovering and collecting caddisfly larvae, but visits to the Kankakee River were an annual occasion for years, with church choir picnics held at the river shack as they called it, belonging to the choir director and his wife. I didn’t know then that the original 250-mile river had once boasted 2,000 “twists and bends” before, beginning in 1902, being dredged and channeled into straight-line segments, such that its length was reduced to 90 miles. I had no idea the Kankakee Marsh, before its trees had been felled and land drained for farmland, had once been called “the Everglades of the North.” Stop and think for a moment: reduced from 250 to 90 miles in length, stripped of its trees (“oaks, walnuts, elms, sycamores”), and natural flood-absorbing marshes filled in to become farm fields.


My strongest memory of the river that flowed past the shack was the sucking, silty, clayey mud that had to be slogged through to reach water deep enough for swimming. When we climbed the ladder to the floating raft, our legs were coated up over the knees in that clinging mud. The water was thick and brown, too, and at the time, and given my age then, I never wondered if the river might once have been different. Now, bit by bit, parcel by parcel, efforts are underway to restore at least pieces of the once extensive wildlife area. Read this to learn more.

In Leelanau

“It is, of course, possible to love a swamp,” writes Proulx, recalling a larch swamp in Vermont that she loved in her early years. And while the fen and bog sections of her book have more to do with peatland destruction, it is the section on swamps that whispers more seductively to my personal experience. Swamp is sometimes a transition zone between higher land and fen or bog, the key difference being that swampland supports trees. There are trees in the Everglades and in the waterlogged wilds along the Suwanee River in Florida, and there are wetlands in northern Michigan where the Artist and I found beavers at work, spied cardinal flower in bloom, or hushed to watch a heron stalking fish or a raccoon washing its hands -- or where a friend and I waded slowly, reverently, into a wonderland of sunlight filtering down through the branches of yet-leafless trees where grassy hummocks held blooming lady’s-slippers as far as our wondering eyes could see. 


Scandinavia and Canada are rich in bogs. Proulx tells us that the word ‘muskeg’ comes from Algonkian and Ojibway words, ‘maskek’ and ‘mashkig.’


Fen peat forms in groundwater locations where reeds, sedges, cattails, rushes and bog beans grow in mineral soils. The plants around the edge and in the water grow, then perish, season after season, gradually filling up the fen with partially decayed vegetable matter that over thousands of years [emphasis added] becomes fen peat. 


-      Proulx, ibid


In the Yoop

On Saturday evening I pulled a comfort book from the shelf at home (for there are comfort books just as there is comfort food – surely, as a reader, you have favorite comfort books of your own?), Lovely Is the Lee, by the same Robert Gibbings whose Coming Down the Seine I so recently enjoyed, and only a few miles inland from Galway, Gibbings is exploring moorland and bogs, where “Black bullocks munch the heather” and “Wild geese rise from the bog.” The year is 1945, and the old ways are still practiced. Turf, Gibbings tells us, 


…is cut with a slane, a narrow spade with an ear at right angles to the blade so that two sides of the sod are cut at the same time from the stepped face of the bog. Each newly cut sod is like a large brick, dark and oily.


-      Gibbings, Robert, Lovely Is the Lee (Dutton, 1945


An experienced slanesman could cut four tons of raw turf in a single day, which then had to be spread to dry, stacked, and finally thatched with straw “against the weather.” Gibbings, as does Proulx, notes that much material culture of previous ages is uncovered in the cutting of bog turf: bronze and obsidian implements, wooden dishes, canoes and paddles, clothing made from wool, skin, or leather. 


The title for today’s post came to me, however, in addition to my reading, by way of a figure of speech. We say we are “bogged down” when we are stuck, as in mire, unable to move forward. The Cambridge dictionary gives examples as examples using the expression “Let’s not get bogged down with individual complaints” and “Try not to get too bogged down in the details.” A related figure of speech is “swamped,” meaning overwhelmed, as if one is flooded. There is also the Slough of Despond, which Proulx mentions, from the classic Pilgrim’s Progress. All felt appropriate in this shortest month of the year.

Because February is a difficult month for me, with day-by-day anniversaries of the Artist’s final weeks of hospitalizations and surgeries, the emotional gamut we ran from confident hope to his final days, his last birthday. Images and sentences and remembered feelings from that time swamp my dreams and solitary hours. I don’t want to say I am permanently bogged down, only that --- what? I don’t want to profane it by trying to put it into words.


As you know, though, I have a dog, and there is no crawling into a hole and playing dead when one has a dog. No, the dog has to go outdoors, and so the dog momma has to get dressed and go out, too, and this discipline my companion imposes on me is a life-saver. 


"Let's get the day started!"

Following springlike days, we had a heavy, wet snow that quickly became slush, only to harden to cement when the temperature dropped. Then the temperature dropped further, and more snow came overnight Friday, this time the light, fluffy stuff beloved of cross-country skiers. Single-digit wind chill. And Sunny Juliet discovered something new in her Michigan world: ice on our little no-name creek. She tried it, but it was not strong enough to hold her weight. Luckily, the creek is shallow. Only her feet got wet. And the dog momma didn’t want to stay outdoors for an hour in the cold wind, anyway.

Sunny exploring frozen creek...

...where she broke through the ice

And yet we went out again in the afternoon and again the next morning and again the following day, morning and afternoon, because this is our life, and it’s what we do. We wake up and get on our feet and go out into the world.

And now, did I write myself out of the swamp? Or was it my HappyLight that did the trick? The patches of blue sky and beautiful cumulus clouds we had before grey skies returned? Or my lovely little companion, always so happy be outdoors with me, whatever the weather, always full of energy and enthusiasm even when I might be short on both? Maybe all of those contributed to an afternoon happier than the dark morning had been. There is no way we can live two different lives at the same time, in some kind of sci-fi controlled experiment, and know for certain which is preferable or better or more true. One life, each moment of it a gift to do with as we will….

She says, "Be happy! We have each other!"

Monday, February 12, 2024

Back For More

February 9 seems early, even for hellebore.

(Always) More Garden Thoughts


Other than a few remnant patches here and there, our snow melted and evaporated, leaving bare, squashed grass, weeds, and last autumn’s fallen leaves, a tired palette not at all brightened by a string of grey, overcast days. Cold wind didn’t help, either. During an unseasonably warm spell, my sturdy hellebore dared to put forth blossoms. Will they survive, now that the temperature has gone back below freezing at night?


Friday was busy in the bookstore, Saturday not, but a cheery surprise awaited me at the post office: my seed order had arrived! 

Small packages hold big dreams.

It may not look like much, but my kitchen garden is small, so I tried not to get carried away, because besides these packets I’ll be starting tomatoes from seed and, as usual, buying other plants as my budget permits. Oh, frabjus joy! Another year of gardening! More planting and weeding and watering and pruning and moving things around in the endless search for the right placement for all -- the doing as rewarding as the results, if not more so.


Seeds to start indoors --

Six weeks from last frost date. As I see it, that means it will be mid-April when I’ll have to rearrange my home office to make way for seed trays and pots in the big south-facing window. Meanwhile, at the bookstore, the big pot of parsley continues to thrive, as do geraniums, asparagus fern, and citronella. Citronella has small pink blossoms! Not showy, but still, it’s cheery and encouraging at this time of year to see any kind of blooms. The citronella will go back outdoors for the summer, but perhaps I should break off some leaves now to take home and deploy as mouse repellant? Because a couple of those little devils made uninvited indoor appearances recently....



More Book Thoughts


Since my last blog post (which was shorter than usual, with not a single picture of my dog), I’ve continued to think about Bonnie Jo Campbell’s novel, The Waters, in connection with Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated. A novel is fiction, a memoir nonfiction, so that’s an important difference, not to be forgotten, and there are others. For example, The Waters puts a woman in the driver’s seat, as it were: Hermine Zook, the healer, dominates the island as well as the hearts and minds of her daughters and granddaughter. Westover, on the other hand, despite relationships with her mother and sisters, is ruled over (as are the mother and sisters and brothers) by her father in more ways than one. Her brothers play major roles in her life, as well -- for better or for worse.


As for similarities, here I’ll quote what I wrote a few days ago: “Yet in both stories, unlike as they are in so many ways, there is a family isolated from its own surrounding community, as well as from the larger world; a young girl, hungry to learn, who is kept out of school; a mother who knows herbs and how to take care of babies; and violence, an omnipresent threat, that breaks out from time to time without warning.”


Continuing to think about both stories, the fictional and the actual, has led me to watch several interviews each with authors Campbell and Westover. (I’ve linked two here, and you can find many others by searching online yourself.) One thought since my last post (this came from the linked interview with Campbell) is how important choice is to the women we meet in both stories. As in life, much happens that was not chosen by Tara or Hermine or Rose Thorn or Donkey, but in other moments and situations they did make choices, sometimes considered for a long while beforehand, but not always. Sometimes impulse gave voice to feelings that had been simmering unrecognized beneath the surface until the moment they burst through. 


Tara’s father made many choices for her before she became strong enough to know what she wanted for herself, and the same was true of Donkey, with her mother and grandmother deciding her fate for years. Is personal growth is a paradox or a feedback loop? It is only by making choices that we become ourselves, and at the same time we have to gain knowledge of ourselves in order to be strong enough to make choices that we need to make.


(Campbell seems to be having a wonderful time with her book tour travels and visits, and she has certainly earned every bit of the attention she’s getting. Also, as she herself notes, it doesn’t make sense to spend years working on a book and then not do everything possible to get it into readers’ hands. Westover’s memoir was a sensation when it first appeared in 2018, and she was a national phenomenon, appearing everywhere, so if she has chosen to disappear from the public eye for a while, as it seems is the case, one can hardly wonder at that decision.) 


The question of home, like that of choice, looms large for Tara in the memoir and for the women of M’sauga Island in the novel. Molly and Prim have left the island to live elsewhere, and Molly wants her mother and Donkey to move off the island, too, but Hermine would not be at home anywhere else, and the four adult women are “more themselves” when there, together, the author tells us, even when they are at odds with each other. For Hermine and Donkey, the relationship to the natural world in which they live is as important as Rose Cottage. But Donkey needs a larger world, one that includes school – and boys and men.


Tara Westover had to leave her mountain home to go to school, and she wanted to go much more than she wanted to stay, and yet the mountain pulled her back over and over again. In “the end” -- of the memoir, that is, which isn’t “the end” of her story, of course, since she and family members are all still alive -- she had to lose half her family, including both parents, in order to be true to herself. It was interesting, however, that in one of her appearances (on a podcast called “Mormon Stories”), two of her aunts and a cousin showed up to support the decisions she had made.


Q. If Tara Westover were to read The Waters (and I hope she will), would she think Campbell romanticized rural isolation and the life of a child kept out of school and away from doctors, despite the violent incidents that take place in the novel?


Q. If Bonnie Jo Campbell were to read Educated (and perhaps she has), I’m sure she would point out differences between the Westover family and the Zooks, but would she also see parallels in the strength that both Tara and Donkey needed to make their own way in a larger world?


I keep searching out interviews with both authors and will continue to think about their stories, I’m sure, for a long time to come.



More Dog Reports and Thoughts 


Two years ago I often called her "Tiny Girl."

Sunny and I have been to the dog park in Northport a couple times in the past weeks, and she has made some new friends, human and canine. The last time we were there, she was one of four dogs (about an ideal number, as far as I’m concerned, at one time), the others a hound named Gilbert (who chases soap bubbles) and two Labrador retrievers, but Sunny Juliet was the only one of the four with any interest in chasing tennis balls. I thought of my sister saying that their Labs have never been big on chasing balls, and for the first time it occurred to me that while Labs are “retrievers,” they are bird dogs, and the hunter does not throw a bird for the dog to bring back! Ah, but then I remember a friend’s golden retriever, who would chase and bring back tennis balls for as long as anyone could be persuaded to throw them, so – small sample, no conclusions here. Any thoughts on this burning question?


As for why a dog like Sunny, bred for herding, would care for tennis ball play, I have no explanation, and neither can I venture a guess why she behaves like a terrier – dig! dig! dig! -- whenever she senses a mouse or mole in a pile of brush or underground. 


Oh, and then there is her fascination with wild animals that take refuge in our old, ramshackle barn! Birds and feral cats and skunks, you name it. Sunday morning she had a mild skunking, what I call a "skunking-at-a-distance," i.e., not so strong as to bring tears to human eyes but still not a smell I would want on my bed, so out came the Dawn detergent (2 T), hydrogen peroxide (1 quart), and baking soda (1/4 cup) for a deskunking bath (need to renew those important supplies), plus a strip of bacon to lure her into the bathtub. She was not eager but didn’t make a big fuss, thank heaven. Important note: The deskunking mixture must not be mixed up ahead of time and/or ever stored in a closed container! But if you have a dog, it’s a good idea to have the ingredients and recipe on hand.


Afterward, she was full of smiles and wiggles and so much energy that I gave her three of the calming treats that would have been helpful, maybe, an hour earlier. Supplies have since been restocked, but I do have to hope that Sunny won't go back for more skunk experiences any time soon!

None the worse for her experiences!


Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Early Morning Musings

Today's books


“Early,” in this case, would not be when I woke at 4:30 a.m. but when I came back indoors at 7 after driving a red bag of garbage (“Red Bag of Courage,” the Artist used to say) out to the highway for pickup, which could only be done after the windshield and rear and front windows of my car had been scraped free of the night’s hard frost. Since my loving nighttime and morning companion (canine) is speechless and illiterate, there’s no point in sharing all my thoughts with her, especially when I’m thinking about books I’ve read, so I’ll put them out here.


The latest book I finished reading was one I’d read before but hadn’t remembered reading until about halfway through, at which point there was no stopping, because Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, is not a book you put aside before reaching the end. My recent re-reading of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s novel, The Waters, was a different kind of second reading. As the first had been only a couple of months ago, I had picked up the book again not by accident or to remind myself of what happened to the characters, but rather to luxuriate, more slowly this time, in that lush Michigan-fictional world.


Nonfiction/fiction. Mountain/waters. Brothers/sisters. Yet in both stories, unlike as they are in so many ways, there is a family isolated from its own surrounding community, as well as from the larger world; a young girl, hungry to learn, who is kept out of school; a mother who knows herbs and how to take care of babies; and violence, an omnipresent threat, that breaks out from time to time without warning. 


I wonder if BJC has read TW’s memoir and if TW has read – or will read – BJC’s novel. What would they have to say to each other about their respective lives and books? Have you read both books? What do you think?


My rural world