The Ann Arbor Chronicle » books it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Charlton near Montgomery Sun, 29 Jun 2014 21:21:43 +0000 Mary Morgan A well-stocked Little Free Library by the sidewalk. [photo] [photo]

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In it for the Money: Your Public Library Wed, 26 Mar 2014 01:11:25 +0000 David Erik Nelson Editor’s Note: At the Ann Arbor city council’s March 17, 2014 meeting, Ann Arbor District Library Director Josie Parker told councilmembers that heroin sale and use takes place at the downtown location of the AADL. The council was debating a resolution about reserving as a public park an area of the surface of the city-owned parking structure adjacent to the downtown AADL.

In rejecting the idea that the problems are caused by the homeless, Parker also told the council that “some of the most obnoxious behavior exhibited at the public library in Ann Arbor is done by persons who are very well housed, very well fed, and very well educated. It is not about those things. It is just about simply behavior.”

Chronicle columnist David Erik Nelson is a frequent visitor to the public library. He drafted this column before Parker made her comments. And he’s still an enthusiastic library patron. From Parker’s March 17 comments: “We manage it and you don’t know about it … and you’re generally as safe as you can be in the public library, and that makes it successful.”

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Say a precocious child – like Glenn Beck, for example – asks you how much the library costs. The library is, after all, readily confused with a bookstore (because it is full of books) or NetFlix (because they let you have stuff for a while, but expect it returned in good condition).

What’s your answer?

Probably the first thing that comes out of your mouth is that it’s free – which makes sense to the child (and, evidently, Glenn Beck). After all, the kid never sees you pay anyone there, and (assuming your household finances are like mine) it is also likely often a place you go to have fun and get stuff after you’ve explained that you can’t buy this or pay to visit that on account “We don’t have the money for it.”

But we’re all grow-ups here – even Glenn Beck – and we certainly know that the library costs something [1], we just don’t know how much (or, evidently, who foots the bill). If pressed, we’d wave our hands and say that the library is probably funded (note that passive voice!) by some sub-portion of a portion of our property taxes, plus a little Lotto money and tobacco settlement, multiplied by the inverse of some arcane coefficient known only to God and the taxman, or something – yet another inscrutable exercise in opaque bureaucracy.

But it’s not that way at all.

In contrast to pretty much all other public services – which are funded by an exceedingly hard-to-parse melange of federal, state, local, and “other” revenue streams – more than 90% of the Ann Arbor District Library’s budget comes from local property taxes. The amount you pay for it is written out on your tax bill.

At first glance, it’s probably more than you would have guessed: The average Ann Arborite has a $155 annual library bill. That’s sorta pricey for something that’s “free.”

But upon even brief reflection, it’s pretty clear that the library is much better than free.

The Cost of Everything

So, here’s my summer tax bill (which is when you pay your library bill – in the summertime). Check out line six.

The author's summer tax bill from 2013.

The author’s summer tax bill from 2013.

This year’s library bill was exactly $128.56. [2]

So, that’s about $11 per month. But is that a good deal?

Your average new trade paperback sells for $15 to $20. Even if Amazon knocks off 30%, I’m still looking at at least $10.50 per book (plus shipping). So, if I borrow one book per month from the AADL, I’m doing OK. [3]

I live in a four-person household; the baby (who turned two at the beginning of this month) doesn’t take out books yet (we’re trying to restrict her destruction to private property), but I don’t think my wife and 7-year-old son have ever returned from the library with fewer than three books each. So, just between those two, we often make back our entire annual contribution each month. If an investment consistently pays off at 10% annually – which is to say you start the year with $1 and end it with $1.10 – that’s a great investment. How do you even describe an investment that annually pays off 1,100%?!

Forget BitCoin; put your money in libraries, kids!

But “book rental” isn’t really a thing these days. A much more straightforward comparison would be a commercial endeavor like NetFlix – which is a pretty reasonable comparison, given that about half of the AADL’s annual circulation is “A/V materials” (predominantly DVDs).

NetFlix’s lowest pricing tier for service that includes a physical DVD (rather than streaming only) is $7.99 per month, for which you get one DVD at a time. My experience is that the turnaround time on a DVD is at least three days, and usually we don’t get around to watching a DVD for a day or two. (Remember: two working people, two kids, and we’ve got all those damn library books to read!) So, figure we watch four DVDs per month. Maybe you are a happy single person with few demands on your time. Given the limitations of NetFlix’s shipping schedule, the USPS, and the calendar, you still likely max out at around 7 DVDs per month on this plan.

Meanwhile, the AADL lets you take out an unlimited number of items simultaneously and has an average fulfillment time on requests of one to two days. Also, you’ve already paid for your library, and they offer a lot more than just “Nacho Libre” and “Eight is Enough” on DVD.

A Value Multiplier

As AADL Associate Director Eli Neiburger eagerly pointed out over cookies and coffee one Friday morning, “The library is very unique among taxing entities, in that you pay a flat fee up front, and then the value you receive from it is in direct proportion to how much you choose to use it, with no additional cost required.”

If you don’t feel like you’re getting a good value for your 1.55 mill tax [4], then there is a bone-headedly easy remedy: Borrow more books. Don’t like books? Then borrow movies and music. Don’t like any of the library’s 434,729 items? Then ask for something you do like.

In the same month that I glanced at my summer tax bill and wondered whether $128 was a good deal, the AADL loaned me a pair of digital oscilloscopes – $500 in gear, delivered to within a mile of my house, and free for me to use basically until someone else needs it. If that was the only thing I got from the library in four years, I’d still break even.

You’re likely wondering why the library (an institution named for the books that are its raison d’être) had one – let alone two – oscilloscopes to lend out to me. [5]

And, the short answer is: They had it because I asked for it.

The Most Responsive Entity

I don’t mean to imply that the AADL bought these scopes just because some big important local newspaper columnist asked. Mine was only one of a small handful of patron requests for oscilloscopes. But chatting with staff over email, I was given the distinct impression that even a single sufficiently impassioned request might well have triggered the purchase. That’s because there was already a strong sense from within the library that an oscilloscope might be something their patrons would want, if they knew it was there for the asking.

“We’re here to meet patron demand.” Eli says, with that “we” clearly meaning libraries in general, not just the AADL. “Typically libraries get in trouble when their vision of patron demand drifts from the actual patron demand. [...] What our users want is what we want to get. That’s the mission of the library: To get people the stuff they want. If anything, the 21st century’s biggest problem for libraries has been a ‘faster horse’ problem [6], that they [patrons] may not know what they want.”

Eli was quick to clarify that he wasn’t implying that the AADL should be a nanny telling patrons what they should want, but that any library is constantly bumping up against the limitations imposed by having libro embedded in their name.

According to Eli, “libraries were never in the book business, that was just the cheapest and easiest way of distributing information. To me, the value of the library has always been that it aggregates the buying power of the community and it purchases shared access to things [for private use]. There are no other institutions that have a mission like that.”

Do you want free music? Then the library wants you to have it. [7] Do you want a telescope? Come and grab one! Wanna rock out on a drool-worthy array of synths? BOOM!

“The pressure from the taxpayers helps keep it focused, in that [they ask] ‘Are you adding value for my money?’ – and because the central conceit of the library [...] is you buy it once and you use it many times.”

Libraries and the Creation of Stuff

So, that’s the most obvious bang for my buck: My annual payment of something-like-$128 goes to buying several hundred dollars in oscilloscopes – or whatever other reasonably useful things patrons might think to want. But the library isn’t just an aggregator of stuff. Check out the usage chart. (In case you want a little more context, that slide is drawn from this deck, prepared by the AADL.)

Ann Arbor District Library usage trends from 2004 through 2013.

Ann Arbor District Library usage trends from 2004 through 2013.

What do we see here? Well, since 2006 most of what the library does has held steady: Circulation (i.e., “checkouts,” which number around 9 million annually), folks visiting the library (“door count”), and event attendance are steady.

But “web” (that is, views of AADL web pages) has quadrupled. Why are so many people visiting the AADL web site? Isn’t it basically just a digitized card catalogue?

No. Check it out: “One of the best things we can do with the public money is cause new things to exist on the web that never would have existed otherwise, for which there is no commercial use case,” Eli said.

Eli rattled off several examples – including digitization of the Ann Arbor News archives, which amounts to salvaging, preserving, and disseminating 174-years of small-town history that just happens to coincide with the entire history of Michigan as a state and the growth and flourishing of one of the world’s preeminent research universities.

Or consider the AADL’s partnership with the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. Here’s how Eli describes it:

Once or twice a month we set up our equipment and we record an interview where a member of the museum interviews a member of the community and we put the entire unedited video up online with a clickable transcript and professionally done meta-data. There’s not a world in which that makes business sense. The library has an opportunity to make things happen that otherwise would not have happened without the library’s resources. And those things, they don’t just have value now or next week or next month, we seriously think about some of the things we produce having value in hundreds of years.

It’s ludicrous to think that something you upload to Facebook is going to be available to a scholar 500 years from now. But something that you put in the library’s corpus just might be. Of course, there’s a lot of zombies and barbarians and alien invasions between here and there, but, you know, we honestly think about [that] when we put up our infrastructure – we don’t say we want to ‘put it in the cloud and host it on a server.’

We need to know where it is, we need to know how it’s formatted, we need to be responsible for making sure that the data survives catastrophic events and that it can be recovered by people far in the future who we can’t imagine what their tools are. Now, that’s a very serious role, it’s an important part of a community, but it’s a very small part of what the library does, both in terms of hours and in terms of dollars. But does our copy of “Nacho Libre” have long term value to the community? No, it has short term value to the community. But our copy of an interview that would not have otherwise existed, and which we’re pledging to keep on the Internet for as long as we exist and as long as the Internet exists, that has enduring value.

In other words, the library has become a somewhat unconventional publisher – and it only takes a tiny sliver of your $130-ish per month to fund that quixotic endeavor.

Later in our chat Eli characterized it like this: “The 20th Century library brought the world to its community; the 21st Century library brings its community to the world” – which nicely brings us around to the last major thing the library does for us.

Soft Diplomacy

Let’s face it: As a nation, we don’t necessarily have a super-great reputation throughout the world. So, there’s obvious value in putting a little effort into telling the world about ourselves and how we live, lest they somehow get the impression that we’re mostly uneducated, unemployable queer-bashing gun nuts.

A little less obvious is what the existence of an endeavor like this tells the world about our commitment to our nation’s core values. “Free” public libraries – that is, those that are entirely and only funded by local taxes, with no additional “use fee” – are a rarity in the developed world, and libraries of any sort are rare as hen teeth in the developing world.

A project like the AADL says nice things about us, because it highlights our attention and commitment to recording, preserving, and disseminating truths about ourselves that may not be entirely flattering. The First Amendment is effectively meaningless if you have the freedom to speak, but no capacity to do so in a way anyone will get to hear. When we fund the library, we are putting tools in the hands of every member of the community, so that they can be heard. It’s us making good on the promises we’ve made to ourselves. In a world where the most common place to see “MADE IN THE USA” is stamped on the side of the tear-gas canister your government’s secret police just shot into a crowd of school children, it’s nice to have a counter example.

But these are edge cases, because even if the mission of the 21st Century library is to bring our community to the world, I’ve still gotta say that our libraries do a pretty good job of bringing the world to us.

The AADL branch that I frequent is the Malletts Creek branch. I can’t speak to the user mix elsewhere in the system, but Malletts Creek is heavily used by new immigrants and resident aliens, who come there not just for CDs and movies and books, but also for the tot time and Internet access and to receive language tutoring and literacy training. Some of these folks are in it for the long haul – political and economic refugees – and others are here for a few years while they or their spouses attend the University of Michigan. In any event, all of them seem to make occasional sojourns overseas, and to maintain connections with their countrymen.

I very much like knowing that, when someone has a bone to pick with America and the things we cause to happen around the world, these folks I meet at the library have enjoyed the fruits of our system, and are thus more inclined to say, “I hear what you’re saying, but you haven’t been to the United States, and I have, and let me tell you: They aren’t like that. They all chip in without batting an eye – even the blowhard jerkwads on talk radio – to make sure that everyone who sets foot on their soil can learn the language, get online, and get their hands on the stuff that it takes to make rich lives. They are as real about their First Amendment as they are about the Second.”


When my first book came out I did a few events at the AADL’s downtown location. I was making small talk with the guy helping me set-up, and said something to the effect of, “I really appreciate you guys putting on so many free events” and he stopped me and corrected me: “It’s not free,” he said, “You already paid for it.”

And it’s money well spent.


[1] Here’s Jon Stewart’s classic bit on this. The library gag comes in at 2:20. For the Glenn Beck apologists out there who might wanna claim that Beck just slipped up and misspoke that one time, you’ll note that the two clips I’ve shared are from different events; this “libraries are free” malarky was a standard applause line for Beck about three years ago.

[2] Our house – a lovely 1,000-square-foot ranch with 3 bedrooms, 1.5 baths, hardwood floors, and a finished basement – is about 80% of the median home value for Ann Arbor, so we’re paying a bit less than your average Ann Arborite, whose annual library bill is probably closer to $155. It should thus come as no surprise that a non-resident library card costs $150 per year.

[3] There are obviously some assumptions here as to how one uses those books; buying and borrowing are only the same if you are primarily interested in the book as a word-transmission and transport system. I’m not taking into account those books that I mark up and meditate on over time, books that I need to reference repeatedly, or recovering some of a book’s initial purchase price either directly through resale (for which I rely on the excellent Books by Chance), or karmically through trade or gift-giving.

[4] Currently, each property holder annually pays $1.55 per $1,000 taxable value of their home. The taxable value of an Ann Arbor home is around 40% of its market value. So, if you have an “average” Ann Arbor home – the median home value being something around $250,000 – then your taxable value is probably around $100,000, and your annual library bill roughly $155.

[5] It’s not unreasonable for rational readers to wonder why I needed the damn things: I’m working on my second DIY book. (Here’s my first.) This new book is all musical instruments and noise-toys, many of them electronic. Having a digital oscilloscope on my bench has made it an order of magnitude easier to debug and refine my homebrew (and not terribly electronically rigorous) oscillator and filter designs.

[6] Henry Ford apocryphally quipped: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

[7] I was particularly enjoying this album while drafting this column.

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Ashley & Washington Wed, 12 Jun 2013 01:48:58 +0000 Mary Morgan Always fun to run into John U. Bacon in the wild – this time with a manuscript of his upcoming book, “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football.” He’d been taking a final red pen to it – the book will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013. [photo]

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Column: Saying Goodbye to Borders Fri, 12 Aug 2011 12:33:20 +0000 John U. Bacon It’s tough for any sports writer to get a book published – but it was a lot easier with a friendly bookstore on your side, from start to finish.

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

It wasn’t that long ago that if you wanted to buy a book, there was no Kindle or Nook or – or the Internet. There weren’t even big-chain bookstores. You had to go to one of those narrow stores in mini-malls that sold paperback best-sellers and thrillers and romance novels.

But then the Borders brothers changed all that. They decided to go big, opening a two-story shop on State Street in Ann Arbor. They stocked almost everything, they gave customers room to relax and read, and they hired people who weren’t just clerks, but readers.

When I applied for a job there in college, they didn’t just hand me an application, but a test on literature – which I failed.

But if they wouldn’t let me sell books there, they still let me buy them, so perhaps it was just as well. I bought everything from Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad” to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.” Typically, I’d walk in for one book, and walk out with four – an hour later. I spent over a thousand dollars a year there, then a few hundred more on book shelves.

When Borders became a national chain, we Ann Arborites took an unearned pride in seeing the rest of the country love it as much as we did.

But Borders conceded the Internet to, then seemed to embark on a strategy designed not to create a stirring comeback, but a slow retreat. Finally, Borders announced it was going out of business this summer.

This week I visited my local Border’s store, Number #1, right downtown, one last time. I toured my favorite sections, literature and history, but also stopped by the children’s department, where I bought Dr. Seuss books for my nieces years ago, one of whom is now in college. I visited the travel stacks, where I planned trips to Turkey and Thailand, Spain and South America. I also picked up books to teach me just enough of those languages to get me in trouble, but not quite enough to get me out of it. I must have bought the cheaper ones.

But I didn’t need to get on a plane to go places. Pick up a good book – completely portable, no plugs or batteries needed – and you can go anywhere you want, even back in time, in just minutes.

In 1989, at the original store’s reference section, I picked up a copy of “Writer’s Market,” because my teacher told me it was the bible for freelance writers. I saved it. In the back pages I listed all the publications where I sent my articles, and which ones rejected them. That first year, all but one did. Thank you, Motor Trend. I bought 10 copies of that issue at Borders, too.

But I kept buying “Writer’s Market”and sending out my stories. After a decade, I published my first book. I wrote my second book in Borders café, where I also listened to readings by my friends, and the famous.

A few years ago the Borders in downtown Ann Arbor sold more copies of my last book, on Bo Schembechler, than any store in the country. I spent hours signing them, and the staff became colleagues, even friends.

During my last visit, one of them said, “Hey John, can I help you find anything?”

“No, thanks,” I said, then waved my hand over the entire store. “I just came to say goodbye to an old friend.”

I shook his hand. “Thanks for everything.”

He nodded, but kept a stiff upper lip, and walked off to help someone else.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the upcoming “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football,” due out Oct. 25. You can pre-order the book from Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor or on

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

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Common Language Speaks Out Tue, 23 Jun 2009 14:42:04 +0000 Mary Morgan Martin and Keith Orr

Martin Contreras and Keith Orr, co-owners of Common Language Bookshore, also own the aut BAR, located next door. (Photo by the writer.)

Less than two weeks after Shaman Drum Bookshop announced plans to close, the owners of another independent Ann Arbor bookstore are saying they could be next.

On Friday, Keith Orr – co-owner of Common Language Bookstore – sent an email to customers laying out the situation that his business faces: “There is no easy way to say this,” he wrote. “Common Language is not making enough sales to support itself. Its very existence is in peril.”

After a Chronicle reader forwarded the email to us on Monday, we went over to the store in Kerrytown’s Braun Court to talk with Orr. Sitting in the shaded courtyard in front of the shop he owns with partner Martin Contreras, Orr spoke about why they decided to reach out for help, and how he hopes the community will respond.

Contreras and Orr have been subsidizing the store with their personal savings and with money from another business they own, the \aut\ BAR, which is located in an adjacent building. They can’t continue that indefinitely – sales have to increase to support the store. Though there is a sense of crisis, Orr says, they aren’t planning to shut their doors next week or even next month. Yet they wanted to alert the community that they are struggling, and if they can’t find a way to make the bookstore financially sustainable, they’ll have to close.

Certainly the economy has played a role in the past year or so, Orr says. Longer term, the trend toward buying books online – specifically, the lure of low prices at – has seriously undercut the business of independent bookstores like Common Language.

If judged merely by price, then would be the clear winner, Orr says. But independent bookstores have a much larger function than just delivering product. And because of Common Language’s focus – the store sells books, CDs, DVDs and other items with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and feminist themes – “for us, it’s a matter of being a safe space,” he says.

Jerri Dodge, the bookstore's manager, talks with customer Shaun Farmer.

Jerri Dodge, the bookstore's manager, talks with customer Shaun Farmer on Monday afternoon. (Photo by the writer.)

Even in the “Ann Arbor bubble,” Orr says, if you’re a teenager starting to discover your sexuality, or if you’re 45 and married and starting to rethink your life, it’s not easy to find your way. You need a place you can go for information and, more importantly, to find a community that accepts you.

Independent bookstores serve another purpose, too. Many authors have a hard time getting published except by niche publishers, and those publishers need independent bookstores as an outlet to sell their books. Orr gives the example of Augusten Burroughs, author of “Running with Scissors,” who got his start with support from the independents. Orr estimates that 95% of the authors whose work Common Language sells fit that category.

Common Language’s support of non-mainstream authors is clear from the books that line its shelves. Equally obvious is the shop’s success in building community, like the customer who showed up Monday afternoon with a plastic cup filled with red roses that he gives to Jerri Dodge, who manages the store. That community is centered in Braun Court, where Orr and Contreras moved Common Language in 2005 – they bought the business from Lynden Kelly in 2003, when it was located a few blocks away on Fourth Avenue. They own four of the buildings in Braun Court, all built in the early 1900s. In addition to the bookstore and popular \aut\ BAR, the buildings house the SH\aut\ performance space and the nonprofit Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project, known as WRAP.

A book on the shelves of Common Language Bookstore.

A book on the shelves of Common Language Bookstore. (Photo by the writer.)

The LGBT-focused cluster is a destination spot not just for people visiting Ann Arbor. Over the years the Kerrytown area has become a “gayborhood,” Orr says – it’s included in Wikipedia’s listing of urban areas known as social centers for the gay community.

These are the kinds of things that could be diminished or lost if the bookstore closes.

Orr says they’ve cut costs and tried to find ways to increase sales. They’ve gone to LGBT conferences and festivals, and they’ve tried to capture online sales through the store’s website. They’ve run promotions connected to the \aut\BAR – 10% off an entree if you buy something that same day at the bookstore. (Orr says that while nearly everyone who goes to Common Language knows about the bar, the reverse isn’t true.)

So far, their efforts haven’t been sufficient, so now they’re reaching out. In addition to Orr’s letter of appeal, they’ll try to spread the word in other ways. On July 8, for example, Orr will be interviewed about the fate of the bookstore on Closets Are for Clothes, a talk show on 88.3 WCBN-FM that’s focused on gay issues.

Keith Orr comes through a gate that separates Common Language (on the right) from the \aut\BAR.

Keith Orr comes through a gate that separates Common Language (on the right) from the autBAR. (Photo by the writer.)

Orr has been quite clear in suggesting the kinds of concrete things that people can do to help. He’s set up an online pledge form for direct contributions. He’s encouraging folks to come to the store and buy books or any of the other products they sell – T-shirts, bumper stickers, cards, rainbow flags, pet accessories, and erotica. Getting people in the door is important: The store has a high ratio of sales to customers, Orr says – when people come in, they usually buy something. He’s also asking that people become advocates, telling their friends about the store and its website.

One thing they haven’t done is to move heavily into pornography, which Orr says is the path that many LGBT bookstores have taken. The store does sell a selection of erotica and other sexually explicit material – its second-floor “playroom” isn’t for prudes – but that section isn’t the focus of the store by any means. Orr says that even if they wanted to expand in that way, he’s not convinced it would be successful in solving their financial problems.

Since receiving Orr’s email, customers have come up with their own suggestions too. A local handyman said he can’t afford to buy books, but he’s offered to donate his services if anything in the building needs repair. Someone else said they’d help set up a Twitter account for the store, and strategize about how best to use it to bring business into the shop. Others who no longer live in this area have pledged to buy their books from Common Language online.

Their strong community ties should help, too.  Orr is a board member of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority – The Chronicle profiled him as a new member last year. The couple has long been active in fundraising – they were finalists in 2008 for the Ann Arbor News Citizen of the Year award, recognized for their contributions to local nonprofits. Just this past weekend they hosted Tree Town Pride, formerly known as PrideFest – this year, state Rep. Pam Byrnes came and spoke about recent same-sex marriage legilsation she has introduced.

Jerri Dodge, who manages the bookstore, with some flowers brought in by a customer.

Jerri Dodge, who manages the bookstore, with some flowers brought in by a customer. (Photo by the writer.)

But generating community support was a strategy that Karl Pohrt tried, too, and it wasn’t enough to save Shaman Drum. Orr says there are key differences giving him hope that Common Language will have a different fate. For one, Shaman Drum is a general interest independent, not a niche store like Common Language. Orr says general interest stores are having an even tougher fight competitively, because it’s harder to differentiate their offerings. Shaman Drum was also larger than Common Language, making it harder to adjust.

Orr also believes that people thought Pohrt had “fixed” the situation by moving to become a nonprofit. Well before the decision to close Shaman Drum, Pohrt had announced plans to form the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center – that application process with the IRS is still underway. It’s possible that the effort made customers think the financial challenges had been solved, Orr said.

So they’ll see how the summer goes, and the fall textbook season as well – like Shaman Drum, but to a lesser degree, Common Language sells books used in University of Michigan courses, primarily in women’s studies and gender studies. They’ll reassess later in the year, Orr says, to see if things have improved.

If Common Language isn’t yet self-sustaining by then, they’ll have some hard decisions to make.

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Column: Mysterious Musings Sat, 13 Jun 2009 09:00:12 +0000 Robin Agnew Robin Agnew

Robin Agnew

[Editor's note: Robin Agnew and her husband Jamie own Aunt Agatha's mystery bookstore in Ann Arbor. She also helps run the annual Kerrytown BookFest.]

“The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu” by Michael Stanley (Harper, $24.99)

As everyone knows, there is a very famous series of books set in Botswana, by Alexander McCall-Smith. McCall-Smith’s delicate prose is matched by the charm of his main character, Precious Ramotswe. Now there is a new series set in Botswana, with a slightly darker take, though the main character, Detective Kubu, would surely be friendly with Precious were they to meet.

Detective Kubu (the Botswana word for “Hippo”) is hugely fat and hugely smart. If Precious is the African Miss Marple, then Kubu is the African Nero Wolfe. Kubu and Wolfe both share a deep appreciation for the pleasures of the table, and both of them have brains that work best with their eyes closed.

The settings in the book are so gorgeously rendered you can almost see and hear them, and obviously the writers have a deep love for their subject. The mystery is in the classic vein: the scene opens at a tourist camp where two of the guests have been murdered and one of them has disappeared. Detective Kubu is put in charge of the case, which turns out to be remarkably complex and involves the horrors of the Rhodesian Civil War (there’s a note about it in the book in case you need to brush up). This is a very rich novel – rich setting, rich characters, and many of them with a complicated story that is told in a kind of laid back way. The author has his own rhythm, but if you give yourself time to adjust to it (as with a Tony Hillerman novel, for example) the pleasures are many.

Making this book even more delightful are the snippets of Kubu’s home life with his wife, Joy. (Every woman in the book has a wonderful name like “Joy” or “Pleasant” or “Beauty.”)  I think the inclusion of Kubu’s strong marriage and his weekly visits to his parents flesh out more than anything what life might be like for a normal African living in a city. While Kubu relishes his time in the bush investigating the crimes at the Jackalberry camp, he also longs for home, where a good meal and a good bottle of wine are always available.

The crimes at the camp are almost Agatha Christie-like as each member of the camp, visitor or owner, turns out to have a tie or a motive to the crimes. Even more puzzling is the character of the deceased, Goodluck Tinubu himself, who appears to be a good-hearted teacher, yet all signs point to him being a drug runner. None of the easy assumptions make sense to Kubu, who is, after all, a gifted detective in the classic mode. His determination is paired with his desire to finish a case that ends up endangering his beloved Joy, and makes him, like a charging hippo, hard to stop once he gets going. Clues are many and various and while the astute reader may pick up on some of them, plenty of them aren’t so obvious.

Detective Kubu is a gift to mystery readers – he’s an instant classic. These books are a shade darker than McCall-Smith’s, including rape, drugs, and several brutal murders, but the surroundings are just as comfortable. Somehow, only two outings in, I feel certain that Kubu will get to the bottom of everything.

“The Collaborator of Bethlehem” by Matt Beynon Rees (Mariner Books, $13.95)

“It was a mistake to think that detection was a matter of figuring out what had happened in the past and then taking revenge for it.  He understood now that it was about protecting the future from the people that committed evil and who would do so again.”

When enough customers ask you about a certain author in a short period of time, it makes you take notice. When several of my more discerning “guy” readers mentioned Matt Rees as a wonderful writer, I was intrigued enough to pick up the first book. Rees was a longtime bureau chief for Time in Jerusalem, and his familiarity with the area certainly shows. The book is set in Bethlehem, with characters that are a mix of all the peoples that crowd into this tiny area – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Palestinians. The central character, Omar Yussef, teaches at a UN Refugee school. He is a Muslim originally from Palestine, and his view of the world is out of sync with many of those around him.

He remembers with fondness a time when differences were more tolerated; the violence and suicide bombings that surround him now fill him with anger. He’s 56, an age where he teeters on retirement, and he knows his way of seeing the world – through a veil of politeness and civility – is long past, but he feels that if he can just get his message through to a few of his students, his time on earth will not have been wasted.

This is a large, rich, complex chunk to bite off and work with, and the wonder is that not only was Rees apparently a gifted journalist, he is also a gifted novelist, with a real ability to breathe life and emotion into the characters he writes about. After reading this book it’s almost upsetting to me that Omar Yussef is not actually a real person. More than that, the way he sets up the story is the work of a full blown pro. Yussef meets one of his students, George Saba, for coffee. George has recently brought his family back to Bethelehem from Chile, and he is not sure it was the right decision, even though his children can now live with, and know, their grandfather. George is also one of the students that Yussef feels was a success – George’s kindness and decency, he hopes, came about partly because of his teaching.

The second part of the set-up is the next scene, where George and his family are crouched in their apartment, hoping to avoid the sniper fire that is whizzing around them. The bullets are imbedding themselves in the walls of his apartment – over the heads of his children –and he is angry. He goes up on the roof with an antique gun (so rusted it can’t be loaded or fired) and threatens the gunmen with it, telling them to leave. Right then I was invested completely in the story, but then Rees takes it one better: next day comes the news that George has been arrested as a collaborator. Yussef is stricken – he knows his friend is innocent – but in Bethlehem innocence and guilt mean very little, something he already knows, but which is hammered home to him throughout his quest to save George from inevitable execution.

Yussef, who is able to accept and adapt to many of the vagaries of life in such a violent corner of the world, is continually frustrated in his quest to free George. His old friend Khamis Zeydan, now the frequently drunk police chief of Bethlehem, seems like he might be involved, and Yussef questions even this old friendship. The “collaborator” of the title is not only the innocent George Saba, but almost every one else who lives in and around Israel and the West Bank.

Rees is able – like the very best of novelists – to convey absolute horror without sentimentality. Some of the things that happen in this book will probably haunt you, but they also seem like things that can and do happen. The real bit of grace in the book is the way Yussef chooses to deal with what happens. He shows that even a somewhat frail 56 year old can find a reason to move ahead in the world. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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Column: Mysterious Musings Sat, 09 May 2009 09:00:20 +0000 Robin Agnew Robin Agnew

Robin Agnew

[Editor's note: Robin Agnew and her husband Jamie own Aunt Agatha's mystery bookstore in Ann Arbor. She also helps run the annual Kerrytown BookFest.] 

“The Last Child” by John Hart (Minotaur Books, $24.95)

Recently one of the VPs at St. Martin’s, Matthew Baldacci, asked if he could swing by the store with author John Hart. I had enjoyed Hart’s first book, “King of Lies,” and enthusiastically agreed – just as enthusiastically, Mathew offered to FedEx me copies of Hart’s new book, “The Last Child.” The book arrived on a Wednesday afternoon for a Thursday visit – I trundled into the store to pick it up, hoping I might get at last halfway through before Hart stopped in – and I couldn’t put it down. I was finished with the book Thursday morning, eager to have a chance to discuss it with the author.

There are few things I enjoy more about bookselling than watching an author get even better, which is the case with this book, one that is tighter that the preceeding books but at the same time is wider in scope. 2009 has only just started, and I think I have already found a contender for next year’s top 10 list. All of Hart’s books are standalones, so no need to start with the first one (though it’s well worth a read). This novel is about 13-year-old Johnny Merrimon, who is obsessed by the disappearance of his twin sister a year ago. As his family has self destructed – his father has disappeared, his mother is lost in a fog of drugs and alcohol, and dating an abusive man – Johnny is left to fend for himself, and one of the things he’s chosen to do is to get on his bike, map in hand, scouring likely neighborhoods where his sister might have vanished. There are red “x’s” all over the map, sometimes with the notation, “Bad men live here.”

As Johnny works on his guide, he’s shadowed by Detective Clyde Hunt, who is almost as haunted by Johnny’s sister as Johnny himself.  His life has taken an almost equally self-destructive turn, as he’s gotten divorced, become estranged from his teenaged son, and gotten on the thin side of legal behavior at work. While Johnny feels alone, he has an ally in both Hunt and his somewhat wayward friend Jack, who helps sometimes when Johnny is off with his map and his bike.

One of the many remarkable things about this book is the fact that though it’s told through the lens of a 13-year-old boy – and they are certainly complicated creatures – it never feels either condescending or false. Johnny is a very believable flesh-and-blood character, and often his desperation and desire to find his sister pulls you through the narrative, though you may know in your gut what the probable outcome will be. Hart manages to both maintain suspense and to describe Johnny’s landscape so fully, fleshed out with the other people and situations that surround him, that sometimes looking up from this book is almost jarring. Hart has put you in Johnny’s world that completely.

When you finish, the characters and story have a real hold on both your brain and your heart – two important things for a good writer to get ahold of, and Hart is a very good writer. He also writes beautiful prose, complete with motifs – in this book the motif is a raven (sometimes ravens plural), which adds an occasional extra note of both poetry and atmosphere. There’s really not too much more to ask for in a good book and I don’t expect to read too many finer books this year.

“The Big Dirt Nap” by Rosemary Harris (Minotaur Books, $24.95), and “Deadly Appraisal” by  Jane Cleland (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $6.99)

Rosemary Harris and Jane Cleland do many book events together, which makes perfect sense, since their books compliment each other beautifully. Harris writes about gardener Paula Holliday, and Cleland about antiques expert Josie Prescott. Both bring real world knowledge to their respective topics (Harris is herself a master gardener, and Cleland has owned an antiques and rare book business), and both women share an obvious affection for mysteries as a genre, which shows in their books. While Harris’ character doesn’t actually have a mystery paperback at her bedside, Cleland’s character usually has a prime Rex Stout title to help her fall asleep. Again, the real world creeps in – Cleland is a giant fan of Stout and Nero Wolfe in real life. The verisimilitude adds a lot to the books.

I’m going to review the books generationally, with apologies to both authors. Harris is a newcomer to the business – her first book,” Pushing Up Daisies,” came out last winter, and her character, Paula Holliday, who has given up a cool job in New York City and moved out to the burbs, is still on the hip side. She might be in her early 30s, but when she needs a “good” outfit she’s actually able to produce a pair of leather pants for the occasion. Paula occasionally becomes upset during the course of the story when various service employees call her “ma’am” or “lady” (all I can say to that is, suck it up, sister!). My point here is that she’s younger than the average mystery heroine and it makes her pretty refreshing as a main character.

In this novel, Paula has agreed to meet her best friend Lucy at the Titans Hotel for an all-expense paid weekend (Lucy still has the cool NYC job) and she’s snagged a few bucks from the local paper to write about the corpse flower the hotel has in the lobby, which is about to bloom. The flowers, which are gigantic, only bloom every seven years, and when they do they produce an odor not unlike decaying flesh (hence the name). Paula, waiting for her friend Lucy to arrive, strikes up a short conversation with a man in the hotel bar, one Nick Vigoriti. Shortly after their conversation (with Lucy still nowhere in sight) Nick turns up dead in the dumpster behind the hotel.

While the story and resolution are in the traditional mystery story mode, the threads Harris draws into her plot are not. As in the first book, the sidebar characters are strong ones: the shady hotel owner; the tormented young Russian girl, Oksana; the young woman in charge of the corpse flower (her enthusiasm seems to exceed Paula’s); even a cashier at the mini mart (he of the “ma’am” remark);  the missing and possibly shady Crawford brothers; and the cranky homicide cop heading up the investigation. The rotating and complex cast of villains, as well as the residents of the small town where the Titans Hotel is located, all add spice to the story. Lucy’s disappearance is of course tied to the central mystery, and Harris’ account of Paula finding her lost friend is a real classic. This is a light, enjoyable, and at the same time thoughtful mystery.

Cleland’s Josie Prescott is a little older than Paula Holliday – she’s been around the block a few times, but not too many. The seasoning gives her character some memorable spice. The set up for her novel truly is classic – the book opens at a Gala antiques auction, sponsored by Josie’s antiques auction house, Prescott’s, and before the night has ended one of the main organizers of the event has succumbed to cyanide poisoning, right before Josie’s very eyes. Josie, who didn’t know or especially like the dead woman, Maisey, is still traumatized by seeing her die right in front of her, and it makes her judgment of subsequent events sometimes shaky. The book actually has a central theme: are perceptions the same as reality? As Josie digs for details of the dead woman’s life, she realizes her perception of her has been all wrong.

The one person who Josie can trust, her boyfriend Ty, is out of town at the deathbed of his Aunt Trina, and isn’t around to tell Josie to snap out of it. That’s left to her practical lawyer, Max. The fact that the boyfriend is out of town downplays the romantic aspect present in the first book, and I thought it was an effective way for the author to delve more deeply into Josie’s personality. As the murder investigation proceeds, it emerges not (as often happens in mysteries) that Josie is the prime suspect, but that she might have been the intended victim. When a car tries to run her down one night, that supposition becomes cemented as fact for everyone but Josie, who still desperately wants Maisey and not herself to have been the intended victim.

Along the way Josie’s perceptions of her co-workers and friends are challenged and tested as she figures out who she can trust and who she can’t. The lesson of this book might be “go with your gut,” but the killer is still unexpected. As it turns out, Josie’s perceptions of the killer were completely off base. I also truly enjoy the detail Cleland includes about running her antiques business, as well as details of the antiques themselves. There are several objects where the provenance has to be traced and verified, and that was as interesting a mystery to me as anything else in the novel. Josie’s practical, generous and intelligent personality win the day, and that makes this series one I’d be happy to revisit.

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Column: Mysterious Musings Sat, 11 Apr 2009 09:00:48 +0000 Robin Agnew Robin Agnew

Robin Agnew

[Editor's note: Robin Agnew and her husband Jamie own Aunt Agatha's mystery bookstore in Ann Arbor. She also helps run the annual Kerrytown BookFest.]

“Liars Anonymous” by Louise Ure (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $25.95)

“When had I crossed that weathered threshold that divided the world between citizens and survivors? Between what could be and what we are in our darkest hours.”

I know I’ve really enjoyed an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) of a novel when I look back and see how many pages I’ve dog-eared, for one reason or another. In the case of Louise Ure, it’s for her use of language, which is both precise and original. Sentences like “I missed my friend Catherine like she was a country I could no longer visit,” and “Her teeth had click-clacked with nervous energy while she filled out the paperwork, like a sleeping rabbit dreaming of carrots” are so evocative, and so vivid, they stay with you. It’s not often this kind of clarity is found in a hard-boiled mystery novel, but here it is. Maybe the beauty of the language is meant to carry the reader through the story of Jessie Dancing, which is one of the darker books I’ve read in a long while.

It’s told in first person, so you as a reader see everything through Jessie’s lens, but Ure is asking you at the same time to make your own judgment about her behavior. She doesn’t make it easy. The story begins more or less simply: Jessie is an operator for an OnStar type service, and she gets a call from a man who appears to have been assaulted while she is listening. There’s of course nothing she can do – it’s too far away – but she calls the police and is questioned by them extensively as they go to look for the man and the car; both have disappeared. The man’s wife also wants to talk to her and she takes the day off from her job in Phoenix and goes back to her hometown of Tucson to talk to the man’s wife.

It’s when Jessie goes home that her back story begins to emerge. She’s recently been released from prison and is estranged from her mother; the reason for it is teased out through the story, which gathers acceleration as the pieces of the man’s disappearance begin to fit into other events. This book is solidly put together and the story is complex, but what really sets it apart are the characters, especially Jessie, and the setting, which to this Michigander is fairly exotic.

As the parts of Jessie’s past life begin to tie into the present crime, and her life circumstances begin again to disintegrate, you’re caught up in her investigation even as you want to reach through the pages and tell her to stop. The ending is both inevitable and heartbreaking, and will likely stay with you for a while after you close the book, as will the character of Jessie Dancing.

“The Forgery of Venus” by Michael Gruber (Harper, $14.99)

“I want to paint in a culture that transcends the art that expresses it. And all that’s gone.”

Some books are like a drug. Even though you know you shouldn’t, you find yourself staying up late and snatching time out of your day to read them. Michael Gruber, an author whose wonderful books I carefully ration, is such a writer, and his latest book “The Forgery of Venus” was for me practically irresistible. I kept actually hiding it so I could get work done but it called me back and I was forced (yes, forced!) into reading more and more. Gruber is an insanely original writer – he has an imagination the equivalent of writers like L. Frank Baum or J.K. Rowling – but he puts his imagination in the service of us lucky adults.

In this outing, his story concerns one Chaz Wilmont, a gifted painter who nevertheless feels he’s been born at the wrong time. The current art scene doesn’t suit his love of the old masters, masters whose technique he is able to channel. To make things more complicated, Chaz has been raised from birth to be an artist by an artist father who’s described as a “second rate Rockwell.” And while he’s exceeded his father’s talent, he hasn’t achieved the kind of acclamation and success that those around him feel he deserves. He instead cranks out a living as a highly paid magazine illustrator.

The book is framed by another narrator, one of Chaz’s roommates at Columbia, who encounters Chaz years later (where the story begins) at an auction for a newly discovered painting by Velazquez. The old roommate – who lives a staid life – thinks Chaz looks terrible, and thinks he must indeed be actually crazy when Chaz tells him that the Velazquez is a forgery. He then adds that he, Chaz, painted it himself – in 1650. As a concept for a novel this turns out to be pretty mind bending, and it’s as though we as the readers are the staid roommate who listen to the CD Chaz has pressed into his hand, making our own judgments about his outlandish story. Yet, such is Gruber’s skill as a narrative storyteller, you’re drawn gradually into Chaz’s tale. It seems almost believable.

Chaz, it seems, has decided to be part of an experimental drug study in which he takes something called Salvinorin A in a controlled environment. (The kind of thing that was actually done in the ’60s with LSD). The study is attempting to find out how the drug affects creativity. The first time Chaz takes it he has the experience of living in another time and place – and it seems absolutely real. Each time he takes it, he goes back to this same time period, and each time the result is both disorientation and a huge burst of creativity. He paints a series of paintings for a magazine of famous actresses done in the style of Velazquez, his favorite painter. The magazine rejects them as not quite what they wanted, but when he shows them to his gallery owning ex-wife, she loves them and puts them in a show. They sell out almost instantly.

None of this story sounds simple, but it’s really just a framing device for Gruber’s musings on the state of modern art, the joy and pain of creativity, the realization of mediocrity of talent, and the essential mystery of actual genius. When Chaz eventually ends up in Italy commissioned to paint a copy of a Tiepolo fresco-using Tiepolo’s original cartoons, you’re there with him. If you’ve ever in your life picked up a pencil or a brush, you’re also with him as he lays down every luscious brush stroke. There’s a real joy and mystery to the painting sequences that are almost transcendent.

There is also some real depth of thought here about perception, reality and the nature of time. As you as a reader flit between Chaz’s “actual” life and his “life” as Diego Velazquez, time becomes fluid for you as well. Gruber’s beliefs about art are passionate ones – if you love modern art, you probably won’t agree with them, but if you love old masters, and Velazquez in particular, you probably will. I dog-eared lots of pages as I read, but this quote stood out for me: “I mean, really, what is the world now? I mean visually. Image after image on screen, but the kicker is we aren’t actually allowed to see them, I mean actually study them long enough to derive meaning, it’s all quick cut and on to the next one, which essentially destroys all judgment, all reflection.” Chaz’s need for reflection and his love of museums – the sacred places where he and his ex-wife get along, and where he simply finds beauty – are ones that I happen to share. If you do too, Gruber’s book is meant for you to inhale.

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Column: Mysterious Musings Sat, 14 Mar 2009 13:42:31 +0000 Robin Agnew Robin Agnew

Robin Agnew

[Editor's note: Robin Agnew and her husband Jamie own Aunt Agatha's mystery bookstore in Ann Arbor. She also helps run the annual Kerrytown BookFest.]

“Next of Kin,” by John Boyne (Thomas Dunne Books, $15.95)

Every good book has a secret somewhere in the story – in a mystery, the secret of course is usually the identity of the killer. In John Boyne’s historical mystery, the secret is not the killer’s identity, but the killer’s very personality, his motives, and the extent of his moral depravity. This stand-alone novel is set in 1936 Britain, where one of the central issues of the day is the relationship between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Of course, we know how that turns out, but Boyne offers a possible behind-the-scenes scenario that’s very interesting.

The main portion of the book – the King and Mrs. Simpson are more of an atmospheric sidebar, though they relate to the plot – concerns one Owen Montignac, the scion of the wealthy Montignac family. When the book opens, Owen is giving the eulogy at his uncle’s funeral, the appropriateness of which is hotly debated by the guests at the after-funeral gathering. Such display of emotion is considered by some of the guests (mostly male) to be excessive; by some of the guests (mostly female) to be a welcome change. Owen himself seems oblivious.

By making Owen the central mystery of the novel, Boyne is entering Ruth Rendell territory. Her books often deal not with the “who” behind the crime but the “why,” something she can usually make the reader wonder about until the very last page. Boyne hasn’t reached the celestial heights that Ms. Rendell achieved in her long and noteworthy career, but he gives her a run for her money. Owen, it quickly becomes clear, is the “poor relation” nephew who has been raised along with his cousin Stella by his uncle, with the expectation that the wealth and land of the estate would come to him as the family has always left their estate to the male heir.

It also quickly becomes clear that Owen has a serious gambling debt, one he had hoped to repay on the death of his uncle. Like many of the other pieces of this story, each fits together, and as the story progresses, things begin to line up. 

Involved as plot cogs are the unfortunate Gareth Bentley, a lazy man about town who resists working, as his father does, in the courts; the controversial verdict Gareth’s father has recently handed down in a death penalty case; the art gallery Owen runs; and the relationship between Owen and his cousin, Stella. The outlying cogs are Edward and Wallis and their ultimate fate.

Boyne nicely sketches in the background of 1936 London, and though it’s not as evocative as writing by someone like Kate Ross or Anne Perry, it gets the job done. What he is after is a good story, and he delivers. He’s excellent at deconstructing Owen, who begins as very mysterious and becomes less so as the story moves forward. In a Rendell novel I would never have figured out the ultimate “secret,” though I did here, and it’s one that fits with the way Boyne has set up the plot and characters. With each step Owen takes to reach his ultimate goal, it becomes clear that what he’s willing to do to accomplish it is pretty horrible. This is a fairly haunting and very well told story, well worth a look.

“The Shanghai Moon,” by S.J. Rozan (Minotaur Books, $24.95)

S.J. Rozan’s series featuring, in alternating volumes, P.I.s Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, has returned after a seven-year hiatus. Since Rozan’s previous novel in the series, “Winter and Night,” won an Edgar for best novel, her publishers were willing to cut her some slack and wait for her return. It was a good decision – “The Shanghai Moon” is one of the more complex and deeply felt novels in the series, and the topic is so interesting it could definitely host its own book. It’s obviously a topic that has grabbed the author’s passionate attention. Lydia and Bill, thanks to some events in the last book, have been somewhat estranged (though it’s more a case of Bill holding Lydia at arm’s length for reasons of his own), so the case she takes on is at the request of another P.I., Joel Pilarsky.

Joel has been asked by a woman who works as a Holocaust recovery agent to try and track down some missing jewels that have recently been discovered in Shanghai. To give it historical context, Shanghai was one of only two places in the world that allowed Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis free access through its ports. Shanghai was occupied by Japan at the time, but the Japanese didn’t share Hitler’s idea of extinguishing the Jews, and in China, anti-Semitism was unknown. (Anti-European sentiment was another story). The jewels Lydia is trying to find in modern day New York City’s Chinatown long ago belonged to a young refugee, Rosalie Gilder, who fled her home with her brother at the age of 18. She ended up settling in Shanghai and eventually marrying a wealthy Chinese man – her jewels, some of them belonging to her Viennese mother, had been taken with her as security.

Rozan skillfully tells her story through the use of Rosalie’s letters home to her mother, who is waiting, with her Uncle Horst, for passage out of Austria, and also through the diaries of Rosalie’s sister-in-law. The unearthing of these documents involves a lot of detective work, and none of them come from the same source, though all of them are tied to Rosalie’s descendants, who now live in New York. When Joel is murdered and Lydia is fired by the Holocaust recovery agent – supposedly to keep her safe – she stubbornly refuses to give up on Rosalie, and it will be difficult for any reader to give up on her either. Luckily Bill decides to step back into Lydia’s life, and they work the case together.

The customs of modern day Chinatown, contrasted with the customs of an older China and the story of the Japanese occupation (where resident Jews were eventually put into a ghetto, though they were allowed to leave the ghetto to work and go to school) is seamlessly intertwined, though I won’t say I wasn’t sometimes unhappy to be wrenched away from Rosalie’s story. As it happens, the narrator of the book, Lydia Chin, feels the same way and she is just as saddened by Rosalie’s fate as I was as a reader.

When I asked the author about it, telling her how attached I had gotten to Rosalie, she described her strategy: “I thought to myself that even if she hadn’t died young she would have been dead by now.” However, she admitted it didn’t make her feel all that much better either.

The characters and the setting, as well as the historical lesson, make this novel an absolute standout, one you can enjoy without having read any others in the series.

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Open Letter 2: A Nicaraguan Interlude Fri, 06 Mar 2009 03:52:07 +0000 Karl Pohrt Karl Pohrt

Sandy Iran Canales, Rev. Bayardo Lopez Garcia and Karl Pohrt in Catarina, Nicaragua. Pohrt was part of a delegation that traveled to Catarina to celebrate the wedding anniversary and ministry of Rev. Garcia, Padre of the Church of the Remnant.

In the midst of all the sturm und drang surrounding the future of Shaman Drum Bookshop, I went to Nicaragua.

Dianne, my wife, had been teaching for the last month in Catarina, a town in the mountains south of Managua. She volunteered under the auspices of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, a small congregation in Ann Arbor of which we are both members. ECI is collaborating with the Iglesia Bautista Remanente, a Baptist church in Catarina, on projects that “will bridge the divide between wealth and impoverished countries by providing capital, employment and opportunities for cultural exchange.”

Joe Summers, our minister, is an old friend of mine – we worked together in the bookshop years ago – and ECI is an openhearted, diverse community that is serious about creating a better world. Although I’ve been mostly engaged with Buddhism in my adult life, I was attracted to this church because of the willingness of Joe and the congregation to struggle together around difficult issues. And I still enjoy a good sermon.

I hadn’t had much of a chance to talk with Dianne about the state of the bookshop given that our telephone and internet connections were short and infrequent. The experience teaching in Catarina was transformative and very positive for her, but living conditions were difficult. She asked me to come. I traded my frequent flyer miles for a ticket to Nicaragua.

I traveled to Nicaragua with a delegation of eight members from the church. There were many moments during the trip when these good people made me feel that it might still be possible to fix (or at least patch up) this broken world. The delegation came to Catarina to celebrate the wedding anniversary and the ministry of Bayardo Lopez Garcia, Padre of the Church of the Remnant.

After Haiti, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, according to Joe. The U.S. State Department says it is “prone to a wide variety of natural disasters, including earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions.” The country, situated on two converging tectonic plates, is a “Belt of Fire.”

Nicaraguan history has been every bit as volatile as its geography. From 1853 until the Great Depression, the U.S. Marines landed there seven times and occupied the country for twenty one years. In 1937, General Anastasio Somoza seized control of Nicaragua. He and two subsequent Somozas robbed and thugged the country blind until 1979, when Tachito Somoza was overthrown by the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional), named after Augusto Sandino who led an armed insurrection against U.S. interests in 1937.

From 1981 to 1990, the C.I.A. ran a secret operation to topple the government, mining harbors and financing the Contras, who fought a vicious civil war against the Sandinistas.

The current government is led by Daniel Ortega and is a coalition of the Sandinistas and the Liberal Party. Ortega is widely believed to have stolen the last election, and his leftist posture is seen as a rhetorical cover to rob the country. I’m told he requires his staff to address him as El Commandante.

Catarina is a windy town of eight thousand souls perched on the lip of an extinct volcano, which is now a lake. During a recent earthquake, people reported that the water in the lake sloshed around like it was boiling. The town is paved with flagstones and you can still see men on small, fast horses galloping up the steep streets.

Just inside the cemetery at the edge of Catarina is the grave of Benjamin Zeledon, leader of a 1912 uprising against a puppet government installed by the United States. He was killed by government troops, who then dragged his body through town. Augusto Sandino, a teenager at the time, witnessed the desecration of Zeledon’s body, which led to his radicalization.

I stayed at the Hotel Jaaris. Rooms there rent for ten dollars a night. Water was only sporadically available, and there has been a serious shortage in the area, which set off a noisy protest demonstration in Catarina a week before I arrived. The hotel did not have hot water.

The walls in our room didn’t meet the corrugated metal ceiling, so you could hear what was going on in the other rooms. The metal roof created an almost perfect interior acoustic bounce. Some nights it was difficult to sleep.


The poet-activist Ernesto Cardenal (back row, center) with the Ann Arbor delegation from the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation to Catarina.

No matter. The vibe was positive. The hotel had a pet bird and a barking dog. There were lots of clucking chickens and crowing roosters in the next building. And the people of Catarina were extraordinary. Near the end of our stay a number of them said they would pray for us. I’m not used to having people speak to me this way. I always felt it was my responsibility to cultivate Great Doubt – as the Buddhists say – around religious claims, but it became increasingly obvious to me during this trip that people living in such impermanent economic, political and geographical circumstances just might know some things I didn’t.

I replied gracias when people said they would keep me in their prayers.

I had the good luck during the trip to meet the poet-activist Ernesto Cardenal. One morning we drove to the Galeria casa de los Mundos in Managua to look at Nicaraguan folk paintings from the Primitive Painting School. The building is also Cardenal’s residence, and he was in his office. At eighty four he is still very active and spry. He greeted us warmly, signed autographs and posed for pictures.

Cardenal was Minister of Culture in the Sandinista government following the revolution, but he has dissociated himself from Daniel Ortega. Ortega has countered by freezing all of Cardenal’s assets. Although he is obviously beleaguered, he seems at peace with his situation.

Cardenal’s poetry is direct and accessible, and it is clear that North American Beat poets influenced him stylistically. His books have been widely translated and are available in the U.S. from City Lights Publishers, New Directions and Curbstone Press. He is the most important living poet in Nicaragua, which is a country that values its poets. The great Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario’s picture graces the Nicaraguan currency.

Cardenal is also a Catholic priest and was a friend of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. In the early 1970s he founded a lay religious community on one of the islands in the Solentiname archipelago in Lake Nicaragua. Among various other community projects, he read the Bible with a small group of campesinos. Cardenal asked them to respond from their own lived experience. He recorded the conversations and eventually published them as “The Gospel in Solentiname” in four volumes. They are among my favorite books. They were published in the U.S. by Orbis Books, and I’m afraid are now out of print.

At the Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor the congregation is invited to reflect on the sermon immediately after it is given. This is modeled on base communities like Cardenal’s that were developed by Latin American Liberation Theologians in the 1970s. They exemplify a radically democratic hermeneutic.

Joe told me, paraphrasing Martin Luther, that “the scriptures become the Word of God in the hearing of the believer. This is a wonderfully nuanced view; very different from saying the scriptures are the Word of God. It becomes an active, dynamic process – it’s what is meant when we say this is the living Word of God.”

Christianity offers its adherents a rich and vibrant set of symbols and stories – as do all the major religions – and it provides a context in which people can structure their experience and give meaning to their lives. At its best, it is a powerful force for social change, a counter-cultural critique of the dominant society. Cardenal represents this form of religious culture.

And politics are another context. We spent a remarkable evening talking with five Catarinians about local and national politics in Nicaragua. Four of them were former Sandinista companeros. (Joe told me he preferred companeros to comrades because its etymology implies “to break bread with.”) These men, now middle aged, had all been active in the 1979 revolution.

Near the end of the night I asked what it was like to participate in a revolution and then see its ideals eroded, compromised and betrayed. Perhaps it was impertinent of me to ask this question because it implied assumptions I had no right to make, but they welcomed the opportunity to reflect on their experience.

Ariel Perez Olivas, a former Sandinista political analyst, said, “It makes me homesick when I think of the ideals and goals of the revolution in the early days. All our resources were used up in the war with the Contras. Now we have to deal with the problem of an entrenched political class that is focused on its own interests.”

Sandy Iran Canales, who still carries fragments of a bullet in his chest from a wound he received in 1979, told us, “When I was young I was moved to fight against the National Guards. All the people were so excited by the revolution, but then lands were stolen and money was misused.”

One of the men said, “Our revolution has become a rob-olution.”

Erving Sanchez, the former mayor of Catarina, said, “The government wants to politicize everything. They show favoritism. When I was mayor, we sat down together to support the people who really needed it. We need to form a culture of resistance against the national leadership. To me, Sandinista means simply to find a way to help the poor.”

Joe ended the evening with a riff on Kierkegaard. “We begin in the land of the aesthetic, which is a place of endless choices. Then we grow into the ethical life. We make commitments. At a certain point we fail at them. This will lead you to the life of faith or you can chose to return to the aesthetic life. Faith begins when what you’ve given your life to betrays you.”


On the drive back to Catarina following a visit to a Spanish School I start to nod off, but it is difficult because I’m sitting between Joe and Bayardo, who are having a spirited discussion in Spanish with Sandy, our driver. After a few minutes Joe translates.


Jennifer Reyes Rosa and Rev. Joe Summers

He says Bayardo and Sandy are talking about the Sandinista Literacy Campaign in 1981 when High School seniors went into the countryside to teach the campesinos to read.

In two years illiteracy was cut in half in Nicaragua, despite the murder and rape of many students by the Contras.

Bayardo tells us he hid books underneath his poncho as he moved on horseback around the countryside.

“We carried lanterns with us so we could teach people at night. I was teaching in a relatively sparsely populated area filled with Contra soldiers. There were spies all around and I had to move from house to house fairly quickly or I would be betrayed.”

“I was very frightened,” he says and then laughs.

Then he and Sandy break into song. They sing the anthem of the Sandinista Literacy Campaign:

Avancemos brigadistas
Muchos siglos de incultura caerán
Levantemos barricadas
De cuadernos y pizarras
Vamos a la insurrección cultural.

Jennifer Reyes Rosales translated the lyrics:

Let's advance brigadistas
Many centuries of illiteracy will fall
Let's build up barricades
Of notebooks and blackboards
All the people to the Cultural Revolution.

So there you have it. I’m riding down the road with two men who are laughing and singing together after they recall risking their lives thirty years ago to teach people to read.

These men speak about what happened with … a great lightness. To speak any other way about these things would not be appropriate, but what they are saying is simply so far outside of my own experience that it is unimaginable to me.

It strikes me that this is why I came to Nicaragua. I was meant to hear this shocking and moving testimony.

If these men were willing to risk their lives to teach people to read, the least I can do is to try to keep the bookshop going. Despite the downturn in the economy and all the trash talk about the “death of the book,” I intend to do just that.

Life is very strange. When I left Ann Arbor I felt it was the most inappropriate time in my life to leave town. By the end of the trip my opinion had changed. It was the perfect moment.

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