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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Bedtime Books

Iris time


May and June are when those of us who make our living chiefly thanks to summer tourism are gearing up for July and August, and at the same time we are busy at home – outdoors, that is – mowing grass and putting in and tending gardens, because this is the time it must be done. I can put off painting a hallway but cannot put off planting my summer garden.

Not looking like much so far,

but I hope there will be a lot to see a month from now.

So for me right now it’s gardening and errands in the morning, bookstore during the day, more gardening and mowing grass in the evening, dog work and play morning and evening – and who has time (or inclination) for housework? Come the end of the day, it's time to collapse into bed with a book. 

Morning: between errands


During the day in my bookstore, between customers, I’ve been reading a couple of very unsettling books. One by Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, contains much that I knew in vague outline but with nightmare details and repetitions and seemingly endless repercussions throughout the world, all so infuriating that I can only read a few pages at a time before I need to set the book aside to protect my blood pressure. The other is Diane Foley’s story, told by Colum McCann and titled American Mother. Seven years after her journalist son, Jim Foley, was kidnapped, held, tortured, and finally beheaded by ISIS, his mother had an opportunity to meet with and have conversations with one of the men convicted of Jim’s murder. (Reading The Shock Doctrine has influenced the way I read or hear any world news, and it had affects how I’m reading American Mother, too.) Both Klein’s and Foley/McCann’s are important books for anyone who cares what the U.S. does in the name of American citizens; I don’t think I need to explain, though, why I do not consider them “bedtime books” and why I wouldn’t want to read either of them right before falling asleep.


So last night I opened A Place on the Water: An Angler’s Reflections on Home, by Jerry Dennis, a copy signed by both Dennis and his illustrator, the wonderful Glenn Wolff, a copy I had given the Artist (a.k.a. the River Rat) for Christmas in 1993. Do not trust Publisher’s Weekly when they say that “home” for Jerry Dennis is the Upper Peninsula. It is not. Dennis grew up in the greater Traverse City region. Take Macmillan’s word for it, however, that this book published under their St. Martin’s Press imprint is “a passionate and eloquent exploration" of the natural world. It had been years since I’d read it, but the first page satisfied me that I had chosen the perfect bedtime book after a long evening of mowing and dog play.

"Can we go outside again? It isn't dark yet!"

This morning, reflecting with satisfaction on my reading of the night before, I thought about different categories of what I consider bedtime books. There are light or genre fiction novels (genre conventions can be soothing, even with dead bodies, as long as the story doesn’t get too graphic); books of serious literature so familiar to the reader that they can be opened anywhere and re-read over and over (Jane Austen; James Joyce's Ulysses; Thoreau; Proust); memoirs and travel books (other people’s lives and explorations); and, for me, essays, that last group often overlapping with the second, as with A Place on the Water.


How do you feel about essays, or are you put off by the name of the category? If you haven’t fallen in love with them already, try a few. Here are a few wholehearted recommendations from yours truly: 


High Tide in Tucson, by Barbara Kingsolver (Arizona)

Mountain Time: A Field Guide to Astonishment, by Renata Golden (Arizona)

Anything by Adam Gopnik (New York; Paris)

Anything by Kathleen Stocking (Michigan and beyond)

Anything by Jerry Dennis (Michigan)

Anything by Fleda Brown (Michigan)

Flesh and Stones: Field Notes from a Finite World and Slow Learner: Essays, by Jan Shoemaker (Michigan)


That’s only a starter. Maybe some of you have suggestions?

Roadside splash of color

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Nothing to Say


Memorial Day Saturday and Sunday were busy at the bookstore. Memorial Day itself was rainy, and I stayed home, pretty sure that most weekenders would be getting an early start on returning home themselves. And mine this time was a true day off – no mowing, no weeding, no hauling bricks (for an ongoing project, most mornings six bricks at a time, in two buckets, uphill), and only short walks with Sunny Juliet. Relaxing, writing, reading. When I reached the last page of a classic noir novel, In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes, I turned for relief to Harlan Hubbard’s Payne Hollow


Noir fiction: dark, nihilistic, and violent. My question: Why does art bother to imitate this kind of life, when we have more than enough real-life dark, nihilistic violence? Oh, don’t bother to answer. It’s a challenge trying to get into the mind of compulsive murders, etc., etc., blah-blah-blah. I’ll take Dostoevsky, thanks.


I’m rambling because I truly have nothing to say. My head is full of dark thoughts about the future of the world, and I don’t want to encourage myself in that direction. Better to think about the season’s first blooming buttercups (think: 'little frogs') and the progress I’m making with that brick project at home (think: the brick walk to my grandparents' outhouse, roofed by grape trellis along its length).

Northern Michigan is as lush and green as a jungle these days. (Don’t think of ticks.)

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Notes on Wildflowers


My Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers, Eastern Region, has a copyright date of 1979, and no doubt I purchased it in that year. I know that it came from Leelanau Books in Leland, back when Prudy Meade had the shop she herself had established, and I remember that Prudy died in the summer of 1993, the first year of my bookstore in Northport. She had been very supportive earlier that year when I was starting out in bookselling, and I will never forget her or all the time David and I spent in her Leland shop.

I pulled the wildflower guide from the shelf on Tuesday to refamiliarize myself with the blossoms of baneberry, blooming now in a wild edge off to the side of my mowed yard, in company with false Solomon’s seal and wild ginger. As I have always done with field guides, as I turned the pages I looked at other photographs and wildflower names, not only what I went to the guide looking for. Such a practice often allows me to identify wildflowers (or birds, similarly) for the first time when encountering them outdoors. This time nodding ladies’ tresses caught my eye, and when I turned to the later pages in the book to read a description of this lovely orchid I found my own notation there in ballpoint pen: “Eagle River, Keweenaw Co., 8/20/92.” That would have been my first summer back in Leelanau following the second time the Artist and I married each other (Paris, Illinois, April 14), and obviously we had made an August trip to the U.P.

The description, habitat, and flowering dates for the nodding ladies’ tresses are on page 662 of the 1979 Audubon edition. A few pages back, on page 653, next to the showy lady’s slipper description, I found a notation reading “Lonesome Point, G.M. [Grand Marais], 6/9/92,” which tells me that we had made an earlier trip to the U.P. in June of that same summer, and a memory came back of the Artist improvising on harmonica while driving at the slowest possible pace on an unpaved northwoods road, the two of us hardly able to believe we were together again in the beloved territory of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Fox River, for which Hemingway used the name of another river.

There is a later notation on that same page that reads: “Johnson Rd., 6/24/96,” and on the opposite page, next to yellow lady’s slipper, I see “Between Hessel and Cedarville, 6/11/92.” So I know, as surely as if reading a diary entry, that we went east from the Mackinac Bridge, along the top of Lake Huron, before circling back to the west along Lake Superior. 

Beginning in 1993, we made our annual pilgrimages in September.

What I have always remembered from that summer of 1992 was how cold and rainy it was. I was without paid employment that summer, for the only time between 1965 and today, and there was hardly a beach day all summer. Instead it was jacket weather, my feet were always wet and cold in my shoes, and the Artist and I spent a lot of time in the car, idly cruising, but I still recall vividly that our happiness that summer knew no bounds.

Old notes: earth star found in Kalamazoo, only identified years later

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Where did we go? What did we do? Whom did we see?

Do you know where Sunny Juliet was on Monday?

First, a little book stuff --


My Sunday evening bedtime book was America for Beginners, by Leah Franqui, a fairly light-hearted fictional tale of multicultural America that manages to address some heavy themes in an entertaining manner. It is a make-you-laugh, make-you-cry novel with a road trip as its centerpiecer, and what could be better to read the night before I embarked (“Sunny, stop that barking!”) on an ambitious one-day road trip of my own? I came back to it Monday evening, at home again, and reached the last page Tuesday morning. I loved the book, the characters, and the way they learned about each other almost in spite of themselves.


Here's the thing: Unless it is a review that leads me to a book, I don’t read reviews until after reading the book and forming my own opinion. Then sometimes I’m curious and wonder if other people found the same delights or food for thought or glaring faux pas – whatever I found in a particular book – that I did, and that’s when I search out reviews.


From Goodreads, I more or less expect mostly personal and subjective responses, although at times there is a deeper take, but whatever different readers have to say, it’s always interesting to see what they liked and disliked, what they found to admire or criticize. If a review is badly written there, I take it with a grain of salt, not having had high expectations.


It's different when I look to Kirkus reviews. Kirkus has been around since 1933 and has always had a high reputation. If you look up ‘Kirkus’ on your phone, you’ll see a list of questions “People also ask” about it, one of them “Is Kirkus reputable?” The online answer is “Kirkus is a credible, industry-renowned resource among authors, publishers, the media, booksellers, and readers.” A Kirkus review is a Very Big Deal for an author.


Since 2005 Kirkus has been reviewing self-published books but only if paid by the author to do so. Established publishing houses that send books to be reviewed do not pay a fee. Neither the paid nor the unpaid reviews are guaranteed to be positive. Well, sure – they wouldn’t be reviews otherwise.


The Kirkus review of this book I found delightful was not itself delightful at all. The reviewer had not been charmed, as I had been by the novel. Fair enough. But why? The reviewer called the book “tolerable, if not utterly original,” certainly deserving some kind of “damning with faint praise” award. -- But was the reviewer saying the book is “utterly original”? I doubt that was the intention, and yet the effect points in that direction, so my suspicions were aroused by the reviewer's misuse of "if not." The author is accused of “road trip-novel cliches.” Such as? An example is given for the criticism that the author over-explains characters’ inner lives. Okay, I guess the reviewer and I simply disagree on that one. 


Let me be clear. My big problem with the Kirkus review wasn’t that the reviewer and I disagreed. It was that the review itself seemed amateurishly written, no better than anything any random reader might post on Goodreads and not as good as some to be found there. This is a Kirkus review? I read a few more Kirkus reviews of other books and found all too many of them disappointingly brief and lacking textual support for opinions rendered. 


Foreword magazine, published nearby in Traverse City, Michigan, also reviews books, many from small presses, some by self-published authors. Reviewers’ names are attached to the reviews, which are generally longer and, I find, more in-depth than what I’m seeing on Kirkus these days. While applauding Foreword (and yes, I do know the publishers), I have to wonder if anyone else has noticed a decline in the quality of Kirkus reviews. Is something going on there? I asked a published author this morning (Wednesday) what he thought of Kirkus reviews, and his answer was, "Not much." 


The foregoing discussion, you will have noted, is more a review of reviews than of the novel that kicked off my musings, but feel free to comment on either. For myself, I am eager to read more of Leah Franqui. 


So yes, Sunny Juliet and I went on a road trip.

I hope you recognize this.


Somewhere near the approach to the Mackinac Bridge from the south is a big billboard that reads, “Same state. Different state of mind.” Rarely have I driven across the Mackinac Bridge without the Artist, and almost always there was a dog with us. First Nikki, then Sarah, except for that one post-Nikki, pre-Sarah trip when we took the ferry from St. Ignace to Mackinac Island. All of which is only to say that the entire U.P. is as saturated with memories for me as Leelanau County, where I live. 

A MUST stop for me

Sunny's first visit


A pause along U.S. 2...

...for sharing time.

The pickle barrel! Grand Marais!

I parked Sunny in the shade in Grand Marais and quickly took care of my town errand, then drove us out to Coast Guard Point, where I let my girl get her paws wet in Lake Superior water while I relived memories of picnics, naps, reading, and conversations in our folding chairs -- days of contentment the Artist and I shared with first-Nikki-then-Sarah at that dear spot. 

Some things in Grand Marais are the same, others different. The Lickety-Split ice cream place is now the Sherpa Shack, but Arbutus is still where it was the last time the Artist walked around it, dreaming boat dreams.

Then it was east on H-58, past the old two-track (entrance now so grown over!) to Jim Harrison’s writing cabin on the Sucker River, past the old fisheries building on the other side of the road, past School Forest, past this, past that…. Reaching the end of the pavement, I was surprised not to encounter washboard. Ellen had told me the road was “pretty good” (my next destination was the Uglyfish Baking Company, latest joint endeavor of author Ellen Airgood and her husband, Rick Guth, both formerly of the West Bay Diner in Grand Marais and before that, for Rick, as the Earl of Sandwich), and indeed the drive had never been so easy, but I wasn’t sure what to make of that. It didn’t feel or look familiar at all. Like the paved portion west to Munising, road long more of a safari track than anything else, this segment to the east now seemed almost – to me – dismayingly civilized.

Can this be H58?

Ah, yes!

THIS is the U.P.!

You can't miss it!

I had no trouble at all spotting Ellen and Rick’s little trailers on the other side of Muskallonge Lake State ParkHow wonderful to see these dear people and to catch up on each other’s lives! Other than being much too short (there is never enough time with friends!), our visit was lovely, and I was very glad to have made the quick trip north. It’s good to talk Michigan, talk outdoor life, talk books and business, even to talk ticks with good friends.


Remembering the beginning: the Earl of Sandwich!

Today's kitchen

Me and Rick, photographed by Ellen

My new cap!

Note to readers: If you find yourself north of the bridge and west of Newberry, stop for coffee and a brownie with Ellen and Rick. Visit the gift shop in the smaller of the two trailers (the larger is the Uglyfish kitchen) and buy a mug, t-shirt, billed or knitted cap to take home with a bag of cookies and jar of maple syrup. And Ellen’s books, for sure – for yourself, if you haven’t had the treat of reading them yet, otherwise for someone you love. Ellen will be happy to write a dedication to you or your favorite reader.

Life Up North

Back home in Leelanau well before dark, I was happy to see my little apple trees blossoming. Same state, different state of mind. Two beautiful peninsulas. Michigan! Isn’t it wonderful?

My little blooming apple tree at home

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

April Was a Long Month

I'm still not accustomed to listing my "Books Read" monthly, so April is a little late, but here are 2024 "Books Read" #63-78, interspersed with some scenes from spring Up North for your viewing pleasure. (I removed the numbers from the list to avoid formatting problems.) We have truly been having some perfect days. No offense, Shakespeare, but May in Leelanau gives June a run for its money, in my opinion.

Sedaris, David. When You Are Engulfed in Flames (nonfiction). In parts hilarious and then terrifying, typical Sedaris. A book for those the world counts as adults, it seemed the perfect choice to begin my second quarter’s reading on April Fools’ Day.

Rich, Simon. Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations (nonfiction). Very short pieces, very small books, lots of laughs and shocks of recognition. This would have been an equally good choice to finish on April 1, but I’d left it at the bookstore.

Parkman, Francis. The Oregon Trail (nonfiction). Vividly written and an important title in Americana, this is a book every American should read -- but not one I will keep on my shelf to re-read. The Indians (many tribes encountered) were on the frontier because it was their home (some pushed west from prior homes); trappers and traders were there to make their livings; “emigrants” (pioneers, we call them now) were traveling west to make new homes for themselves, for a variety of reasons; and soldiers – rag-tag and undisciplined as they often were – had been sent by the government. Parkman and Shaw went as tourists, for sports and spectacle. Parkman in particular (he is the one who writes the account, at least) wants to see tribal preparations for war and then warfare itself. He is disappointed when peace is made, saving lives. His passion for killing buffalo becomes mind-numbing the longer it continues, because most of the time he isn’t killing for food but only, it seems, for something to do, because he doesn’t pretend it was a real challenge, describing the animals as “stupid” and emphasizing that there is very little danger involved for the hunter. One doesn’t think of a young man taking on arduous frontier travel in the years before the Civil War as a “tourist,” but that was the impression I came away with in the end, glad to reach the last page.

Lesley, Craig. River Song (fiction). This is a sequel to Lesley’s Winterkill, which I haven’t read. (I start an author’s work with whatever title first comes to hand.) River Song moves along at its own pace, most of the time without the bloody conflicts that seem always below the surface, but violent acts of the past surface in the visions of Nez Perce protagonist Danny Kachiah and must be laid to rest if he is to find peace, and there are threats to the Native people’s way of life in the present, as well.

Hillerman, Tony. Talking God (fiction). The Navajo culture is fascinating, glimpses into museum culture eye-opening, and the interweaving of apparently unconnected plots was beautifully done, but what I cared about most was detective Joe Leaphorn and the way he goes about his life in the face of terrible loss.

McGuane, Thomas. Keep the Change (fiction). The novel really got underway for me when Joe Starling stole his girlfriend’s car to drive cross-country to his home state of Montana. All the Montana landscapes and ranching details put me right in the scene. I couldn’t help wondering, though – did no one give him grief over driving a pink convertible? There were no remarks made at all? Hard to believe. Also, this novel deserved a better title, in my opinion. (And I still prefer his nonfiction book, Some Horses.)

Lin, Amy. Here After (nonfiction). For me, memoirs come in subgenres. One such that I enjoy is the travel memoir; another that I have been reading compulsively for the last two years is the grief memoir. Amy Lin’s is the second kind. It is very raw, very true. “We shared a language that was all our own. I am now the last speaker of it.” There is a puppy. “I thought Kurtis and I would love the puppy together. Without him, I feel entirely unable. I do not say a word out loud, but I do not feel anything for the puppy at all.” There is more, much more. She keeps going, and eventually she realizes she loves the puppy, and then at last she writes a book. Her husband always told her she was a writer.

Raban, Jonathan. Bad Land: An American Romance (nonfiction). The 20th century was underway when a wave of would-be homesteaders from Minnesota and as far east as Europe were persuaded by Milwaukee Road brochures that Eden was theirs for the taking, if only they would claim free land in eastern Montana. Raban begins his explorations with a grandson of one homesteading couple, and from there he explores shells of ghostly former towns and follows the fortunes of those who stayed and those who left. His descriptions of the bleak, spare landscape are as haunting as the stories he finds.

Pferdehirt, Julia. More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Michigan Women (nonfiction). Brief biographies of truly remarkable women, many but not all of whom were familiar names to me. Though I had no idea of all the Michigan connections before reading this book, I found all the stories fascinating and would even without the Michigan roots and branches. A book for women, men, and young people, as well.

Krueger, William Kent. Windigo Island (fiction). Set in northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin, the landscapes of this novel are familiar, and there is a lot in the way of indigenous culture, along with the challenges indigenous peoples still face today. Not really escape reading. I will be interested to meet the author when he comes to Northport in May with his new book, The River We Remember.

Krueger, William Kent. The River We Remember (fiction). As was true of Windigo Island, there is a mystery element to The River We Remember, also, but there is more to it than who-done-it. A major theme of the book seems to be how the past – and especially its violent chapters, such as wars – continues to haunt the present. Land and the love of it also play strong roles. Of course, with a dead body right at the start, not everything is what it seems.

Leelanau Township Library will hold a discussion this evening, Wednesday, May 8, 7 p.m., on William Kent Krueger’s The River We Remember. The author will give a county-wide Leelanau Reads presentation at the auditorium in Northport and sign books afterward for purchasers on Saturday evening, May 18. Both events are free, but if you want to attend the May 18 event, please have your name added to the list at your respective county library. 

Varawa, Joana McIntyre. Changes in Latitude: An Uncommon Anthropology (nonfiction). Is this book travel? Memoir? Anthropology? Often the “uncategorizable” book is the most interesting kind. In this one, the founding president of Project Jonah, a save-the-whales organization, decides at the age of 54 to travel to Figi and eventually marries a much younger Fijian fisherman, becoming part of his family in a small native island community. The author lived to age 84, but what happened to her and her husband between the end of this book and the end of her life, I have no idea. 

Penny, Louise. Still Life (fiction). This is the third mystery I’ve read of the Three Pines books, but it is the first in the series and takes place before Inspector Gamache and his wife move to the rural village. I know many people have to read a series in order, but I have always begun with whatever came to hand. It was interesting, as I read this first book, to see how the author introduced her characters (already familiar to me) the first time around.

Yamazaki, Paul. Reading the Room: A Bookseller’s Tale* (nonfiction). Yamazaki’s tale takes the form of an interview in which he answers questions before, during, and following an event at City Lights in San Francisco, a store for which he has been the principal book buyer for half a century. City Lights does not carry most bestsellers (“not consistent with our values”) but encourages browsing, discovery, and – above all – joy. Says Yamazaki, “I think that’s the point of being a bookseller and the point of reading –and, really, the point of life.” Though unknown to this legendary bookseller, I am proud to be among his colleagues in the hinterlands.

Theroux, Paul. The Happy Isles of Oceania (nonfiction). I thought I had read this book before, but now I don’t think so. In this book, he is grieving the breakup of his marriage but otherwise has a pretty decent time in the South Pacific. I think he went back later, with a cell phone and all that paraphernalia, and did not enjoy himself much at all, but that’s a different book. Read this one instead. Time travel in your armchair!

Golden, Renata. Mountain Time: A Field Guide to Astonishment (nonfiction). I was expecting a completely Chiricahua-focused book, and this collection of essays ranged more widely than that, but anyone who loves history and nature and mountains and dogs and life will appreciate Golden’s thoughts and the way she expresses them. Her Chiricahua Glossary is priceless! Highly recommended.

When City Lights bookseller Paul Yamazaki was asked, “What to you constitutes a meaningful life?” here is how he answered the question: 

“The point of justice, to me, is that everyone has an equal shot at joy, but joy is much more than just being so-called ‘happy.’ Joy is the enhancement of happiness through knowledge. We as booksellers have more of an opportunity to spread that joy through the books we present and those we find meaningful. Books are still, in my mind, one of the great technologies. For the transference of imagination, there is nothing better, to my mind. For the broad expanse of sharing and the interplay of imagination, it’s hard to think what could be better.” 

Yamazaki sees dialogue with books as increasing the possibility of joy and says, “I think that’s the point of being a bookseller and the point of reading — and, really, the point of life.”

Yamazaki and the fictional Roger Mifflin, different as they were as individuals and as booksellers, would have been entertained by each other, I’m thinking. There would also have been deep mutual respect.