Category Archives: Books, Etc.

Former Luddite Goes Cyber; Sort of Likes It

With two new websites, an electronic newsletter, and a Facebook page churning away via mysterious processes it seems I’ve parachuted into a futuristic cyber age powered by steam engines and magic. What’s next, a Tweeter account?

Yes, if the wizards at Chelsea Bay Design and Maue Design have their way. In recent months Chelsea and Jon have used trickery and perhaps hypnosis to nudge me in directions that seem suspiciously close to what my friends and I used to refer to sneeringly as “self promotion.” We didn’t say those words, we hissed them. Sometimes we spit them out with righteous force. Promoting oneself was what politicians did. It was undignified. It reeked of ego. It was driven by terrible greed.

Besides, “marketing” is what the publicity department gets paid to do. They do it so we authors don’t have to get our hands icky. It works nicely that way. We go on book tour and promote the crap out of our book and tell everyone we have no choice in the matter. It’s in the contract. And the evil publicist is cracking the whip. Do you think we would go on all those radio talk shows and drink beer until three in the morning with Jon Stewart if we didn’t have to?

But times have changed. The publicity department’s budget got slashed again. Or so they claim. The truth is, according to my friend Wally, who’s better informed than I, Publicity is under orders from The Suits to promote only authors who are already billionaires. The rest of us, the mere millionaires and ten-millionaires, are lowly “midlist authors.” That was once an honorable category. The frontlist made most of the money, but the midlist was where all the interesting books were found. If you couldn’t be rich, at least you could be respected.

Now we’ve lost even the respect. Back in the day, when we walked into the offices of HarperCollins the staff came running with champagne and caviar and unrolled a purple velvet runner so our shoes wouldn’t have to touch the carpet. Now everyone stampedes screaming from the building. Wally says it’s like we’ve come down with a literary form of leprosy. Or worse. It might be as bad as Proteus Syndrome. It could even rival Epidermodysplasia Verruciformis. (OMG, don’t look it up. It’s hideous.)

So that’s why I’m here, in this strange new world with its many powerful gadgets. I’d rather be crafting deathless prose in my tower, surrounded by fans camped on the plains as far as I can see, waiting breathlessly for the next typewritten page to glide from my window. Those days are over, alas. But I’m okay with it. Kind of relieved, even. I was getting tired of autographing women’s breasts and endorsing all those royalty checks (talk about writer’s cramp!). And I was real damned tired of composing my books on the same manual Royal my parents gave me when I graduated from high school. This Commodore PET is amazing. Can you believe it? It can store an entire book – nearly 300 pages! – on only ten floppy disks.

The Moment When a Book is Born

PictureSometimes you can pinpoint the moment exactly.

Glenn Wolff and I remember the genesis of our first collaboration, It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes, which was originally published in 1992. It began when our mutual friend, the artist Bernie Knox, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me to the telephone in her house. She placed the receiver in my hand and said, “Say hello to Glenn Wolff. He just moved back from New York. You guys need to meet.” Of course I knew who Glenn was. We were a year apart in high school, where he was the star of the art department, and for years I’d been enjoying his illustrations in the New York Times and elsewhere. Lately our work had begun showing up at the same time in Sports Afield and a few other magazines. I remember saying something like, “Hi Glenn.  I guess we’d better have lunch.”

During that lunch, at Stacey’s Restaurant  in downtown Traverse City, Michigan, we began to brainstorm and during the next couple hours outlined an idea for a series of books about wonders of nature. Glenn still has those original notes and sketches (see below). We decided to begin the series with wonders of the sky, with water and earth to follow, and over the next few days began developing the idea and outlining chapters. Next we arranged a meeting with a literary agent and made the pitch to her. With her encouragement we wrote a proposal and a sample chapter with illustrations. Then we sat back to see what would happen.

What happened exceeded our wildest dreams. The book went to auction, with three major publishers bidding on it. We chose HarperCollins, flew to New York to meet our editor, the wonderful Hugh Van Dusen, and the rest of the Harper team, then dove in and worked closely with copy editors, designers, and publicists to launch the book into the world. It went on to become a national bestseller (though it never quite cracked the top ten of the Times list). It was “the surprise hit” at the Frankfurt Book Fair, according to Hugh Van Dusen, who told us that the Japanese delegation stayed up all night to read it and made a generous offer for translation rights the next morning; in time it was translated into Japanese, Chinese, German, Portuguese, and Czech. It was a main selection of the Nature Society Book Club (who paired it with my next book, A Place on the Water, on the inside front cover of their monthly newsletter). It was featured on a wild and wildly popular Japanese game show that flashed the word “Power!” on the screen every time an amazing fact was quoted from the book — making that expression a permanent part of my family’s lexicon.

Now, after all these years, we’ve produced an updated edition, available now as an ebook, with a paperback coming soon. And today Barnes and Noble is featuring it as a Nook First and promoting it across an array of platforms in the e-world. It’s enough to make a father blush with pride.


Making Art Along the Cedar River


Among my greatest pleasures in a long and pleasurable career has been collaborating with artists Glenn Wolff and Chad Pastotnik. Working together in the hemlock and cedar woods along the Cedar River at Chad’s  Deep Wood Press, we’ve done three projects together:  a limited-edition book (Winter Walks) and, now, our second limited-edition broadside.

This broadside, “The Trout in Winter,” is actually a second edition, with some significant changes. The first edition, published in a signed and numbered edition of 60 in December 2000, sold out soon after it was released and has grown steadily in value ever since.  Glenn’s magnificent image of a brown trout against a cosmic river bottom is  the same engraving on the same copper plate  but with the addition of an exquisite stonefly nymph in the lower right corner. Chad made some interesting changes as well. He re-inked caps with gold ink, tightened up the line and letter spacing, and made a few other tweaks to produce an even lovelier presentation of my words. We’ve kept the words as they appeared in the first edition, including the emergency edit that changed the text slightly from the way I originally drafted it. As we were setting type we realized that Chad was running short of lowercase “e’s,” creating an interesting dilemma. We could have reset the type in a different font but we had fallen in love with the Baskerville 24 pt Chad had selected.  So instead we reset some of the words and lines in italic, creating visual interest and variations in tone and emphasis that I now consider essential to the meaning of the text. To save a few additional “e’s” I also edited the poem slightly. I’ll never forget the three of us cheering spontaneously when we saved two “e’s” by changing the last word  from “leave” to “go.”

So here it is, in a new edition of 65, signed and numbered. Price is $225 plus shipping. Anyone interested should drop me an email at jcdennis(at)charter(dot)net.

And, yes, this is the final edition: Glenn plans to coat the copper plate in varnish and mount it for permanent archiving.



Sherwood Anderson


Winesburg, Ohio might be the most haunting book I’ve read this year. A nice surprise, considering that I last read it 30 years ago and remembered only that it contained vivid sketches of quirky people. But it is, of course, much more than that. The “quirkiness” turns out to be the peculiarities of people who live in constant awareness of how uncertain and strange life is. I’ve assembled a few sentences into a pastiche that illustrates some of the existential questioning at the heart of the book:

It seemed to him that the world was full of meaningless people saying words. A wind began to blow and he shivered. He thought how strange it was that he knew that life was meaningless, and yet his love for life was so powerful that it brought tears to his eyes. He stands perplexed on the crest of his life. Thinks, the body is stronger than I knew. An immense pressure comes over him. He cannot move without dislodging the weight of centuries. I am a native of this place, he thinks, but the land is not mine.

THE FRIDAY LIST this week is dedicated to Sherwood Anderson, born September 13, 1876, died March 8, 1941:

(according to Roget’s Thesaurus, first entry, page 1):

NO JOKE, existence,
entity, subsistence,
quiddity, reality,
actuality, fact,
matter of fact,
sober reality, actual
existence, coexistence,
stubborn fact,
substance, essence,
hypostasis, aseity,
ontology [Science of existence],


Favorite Books

Now and then I’m asked to list my favorite authors and books. The answer’s always tricky because the list is quite long and, besides, often changes. To narrow it down for the most recent request (five favorite books for the Horizon Books website) I went to my bookshelves looking for the books that I’ve most often re-read. Immediately it became clear that they share certain qualities. They’re big. They’re complex. They’re original and daring. They impart a seemingly limitless store of learning. They’re bursting with love of life and language. Perhaps most tellingly, although they are not all novels they are all outstanding examples of the quality by which Jane Smiley defines a great novel: one that gives the reader “the feeling of abundance.” (This from an interview with Smiley in The Boston Globe, September 15, 2005.)

One surprise is that no books by women make the list. It turns out that favorite books and favorite authors are different categories. Authors I cherish for their humanity, the magnitude of their worldviews, their voices, their writerly gifts include Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf (and male authors such as Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, Don DeLillo, Michael Ondaatje, Nicholson Baker, Evan S. Connell, Jose Saramago). Their bodies of work are essential to me. I read everything they’ve published, but  no single book makes my short-list of favorites.

Here, then, are the books I most often return to. That I would wish to have with me if I were shipwrecked alone on an island. That I can’t imagine living without.

(Oh, and I can’t make myself limit the list to five.)

1. Ulysses, James Joyce. Every reading is new. Surprises arrive on every page. And it is surely the wettest of the Great Books: “They are coming, waves. The whitemaned seahorses, champing, brightwindbridled…”

2. The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow. My choice for the greatest American novel of the 20th century. Endlessly rewarding.

3. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee. I love the heartbreaking elegies, the mad (and sometimes maddening) rushes of language, the razorsharp portraits of people, the lists and inventories, the jazzlike riffs of philosophy that lift us from heartbreak to hope.

4. Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy. Refuses to stay on shelves. Must be anchored to the earth with cables.

5. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. I sometimes think I’ll outgrow Hemingway. Hasn’t happened yet. Every time I read the stories my admiration deepens.

6. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy. Creates not only the abundance feeling, but the feeling that you are inhabiting a whole world. Often I return to it just to savor the amazing hay-cutting scenes, where in losing himself in the work, Levin finds himself.

7. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville. The original Modernist novel, with natural history and fiction blended into a new genre entirely.

8. Walden, Henry David Thoreau. Who can resist the bold assertions, the wild rambles, the uninhibited proclamations of love for the earth? Even when wrong-headed and disingenuous, Henry was charming. My all-time favorite reading on snow days.

Now it’s your turn. Which books do you return to year after year? Which have most enriched your life?


More of the Harmoniously Random

Here’s the word-drunk philosopher and novelist William Gass, in one of my favorite quirky and hard-to-classify books, On Being Blue, his single-breathed triumphant aria in celebration of every blue thing under (and in) the sky:

“There’s the blue skin of cold, contusion, sickness, fear… absent air, morbidity, the venereals, blue pox…gloom…

“…whole schools of fish, clumps of trees, flocks of birds, bouquets of flowers:  blue channel cats, the ash, beech, birch, bluegills, breams, and bass, Andalusian fowl, acaras, angels in decorative tanks, the bluebill, bluecap, and blue billy (a petrel of the southern seas), anemone, bindweed, bur, bell, mullet, salmon, trout, cod, daisy, and a blue leaved and flowered mountain plant called the blue beardtongue because of its conspicuous yellow-bearded sterile stamens.”

And again: “The blue lucy is a healing plant. Blue john is skim milk. Blue backs are Confederate bills. Blue bellies are Yankee boys. Mercurial ointment, used for the destruction of parasites, is called blue butter, although that greenish-blue fungus we’ve seen cover bread is named blue-mold instead.”

And: “Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear… the blue they say that diamonds have, deep holes in the ocean… afflictions of the spirit – dumps, mopes, Mondays – all that’s dismal – low-down gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach; the rare blue dahlia like that blue moon shrewd things happen only once in…”

The brilliance of Gass’s catalog of blues, and the reason it is so pleasurable to read seems to be its ameliorative linking of apparently unrelated items. This is not the same as a random or purely miscellaneous listing of items, though it might aspire to give the impression of randomness.Those of us who find it appealing might find a similar appeal (as we’ve discussed before) in the artfully random arrangements of rocks in Japanese gardens. But there’s more. The things of the earth throw light into the shadows of our isolation. An ecology of matter is an existential gasp: alone and adrift in an indifferent universe, what hope is there? Making connections is our only hope and our only solace.


Encyclopedias of Everything, Part 2
Taking inventory is not only an act of organization, but an acquisition. Listing the multiplicity of things in the world makes them our own, and we own the list as well. Taken to its extreme such a project naturally presents logistical problems. Where do we draw the line? At what point do we abandon our efforts to catalog the world and just hold up the world itself? A complete encyclopedia of everything would have to be a book precisely the size of the universe.

Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Borges, the Argentinean story writer, poet, and scholar, addressed this problem in his brilliant, strange, and wickedly playful story, “The Aleph.” The Aleph is a tiny point of space in the cellar of a house owned by an ostentatious poet named Carlos Argentino Daneri who is writing an epic poem in which he plans to encompass everything in the world. The source of his inspiration is the Aleph, an iridescent sphere measuring about an inch in diameter, that Daneri discovers  hovering beneath the stairs in the cellar of his family’s house. He gradually realizes that this tiny ball of light contains all space and time as well as every object in the universe and every event that has occurred and will occur. It is infinity in a nutshell. (The famous lines from Hamlet are the story’s epigraph: “Oh God! I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a King of infinite space…”)

The narrator is an acquaintance of Daneri’s named “Borges” who finally convinces the poet to show him the source of his inspiration. When he is led into the cellar and confronts the Aleph hovering in the darkness, he looks deeply into it. To his astonishment he sees, “the teeming sea…daybreak and nightfall…the multitudes of America… a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid…a splintered labyrinth (it was London)…bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam…convex equatorial deserts and each of their grains of sand…a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, the cancer in her breast…a summer house in Adrogue and a copy of the first English translation of Pliny… I saw my empty bedroom; I saw in a closet in Alkmaar a terrestrial globe between two mirrors that multiplied it endlessly; I saw horses with flowing manes on a shore of the Caspian Sea at dawn…the delicate bone structure of a hand…the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards…the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor…tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies…all the ants on the planet…a Persian astrolabe… the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon – the unimaginable universe.”

That the only book “Borges” noticed was Pliny’s is fitting, since Pliny undertook his monumental Natural History with the intention of fitting between its covers everything that was known about the world in first century Rome. Thus it is a kind of Aleph itself…


Encyclopedias of Everything
Lately I’ve been dipping into the great encyclopedias, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never be the same. Last week I revisited two old favorites, Aristotle’s History of Animals and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Yesterday I spent seven hours reading from Alexander von Humboldt’s magnum opus, Cosmos. By the end of the day, having plowed ahead to page 100 of the first volume and jumped around in a few chapters of the second, it was clear that the only suitable response was awed silence or a discussion so lengthy that it would rival Cosmos itself in length. I’ll take the coward’s path, for now, and maintain an awed silence.

Not completely silent, though, because I have to wonder: why is this work that was so influential to Darwin, Thoreau, and other 19th century thinkers so little known today? And, also: what in the world possessed Humboldt to think he could write it?

Like encyclopedic writers before him, Humboldt’s ambition was to produce nothing less than a detailed catalog of everything known about the physical universe in his time (he was born in 1769 and died in 1859). He had “the crazy idea,” as he wrote in a letter in 1834, “to represent in one work the entire material universe, everything we know today of the phenomena in the celestial spaces and of life on earth, from the stars in the nebulae to the geography of mosses and gigantic rocks, in a vivid language that will stimulate the imagination.” Unlike most of his predecessors, however, Humboldt did not include hearsay, superstition, folklore, or other information that could not be supported with objective evidence. His scientific integrity made the task more daunting, for he could not report what others had written without first investigating their veracity. To add to the difficulty, he was determined to find unity in nature’s complexity, or, as he wrote in the introduction to the first volume, “the Common and Intimately-connected in all terrestrial phenomena.” No wonder many scholars consider Humboldt a precursor to the modern science of ecology.

The result was four large volumes published at intervals from 1845 to 1858 (a fragment of a fifth was published after his death). To present some idea of the scope of the project, here is a portion of the contents included in Volume 1, which he called “the domain of objects” in the universe:

table of contents

Table of Contents, Volume 2

Volume 2 represents the “domain of sensations,” and includes detailed discussions of how nature was described by writers from the time of the Ancients to Goethe; a history of landscape painting; a guide to the cultivation of tropical plants and an analysis of Western and Eastern traditions of landscape gardening; events in human history that influenced our views of the universe; astronomical discoveries made possible by the invention of the telescope; and a general survey of advancements in various sciences.

The three remaining volumes are, according to Wikipedia, elaborations on the subjects introduced in the first two volumes. I’ve been unable to find downloadable editions on Google Books or Project Gutenberg, and the few hard copies available are  beyond my budget, so I have to take Wikipedia’s word for it.

table of contents cont

Table of Contents, Volume 2 (con’t)

Speaking of Wikipedia… Everybody probably already knows this or could guess it, but this vast online compendium is now officially the greatest encyclopedia the world has ever known. With 3,597,344 articles published (as of today, March 29, 2011) and more than one billion words, it easily surpasses the old record-holder, the Yongle Encyclopedia of ancient China, which is estimated to have contained up to 770 million words. Commissioned by the emperor Yongle in 1403 and finished in 1408, it was the work of 2,000 scholars who compiled 8,000 texts covering everything written up to that time in China about history, philosophy, religion, technology, agriculture, astronomy, geology, medicine, drama, and art. Only two copies were made, and only a few fragments have survived.



Donald Barthelme

There are certain authors I can’t read at night because their fountains of language induce an electrically charged insomnia. Whitman, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Beckett, Cormac McCarthy, and others have cost me many nights’ sleep and thousands of dollars in lost income. My attorney is looking into a class-action suit.

Another writer in that category is Donald Barthelme, who was born  April 7, 1931 and died in 1989. Barthelme sometimes described his stories and novels as “slumgullions” – referring to the stews that 19th century gold miners threw together out of vegetables, potatoes, meat and anything else on hand. In book after book, from Come Back, Dr. Caligari in 1964 to Forty Stories in 1987  Barthelme created a Collier-Brothers’ accumulation of stories, sketches, word-collages, and bricolage assembled from the artifacts of American culture. He seemed to believe that every ingredient in a good slumgullion is necessary and essential, and, more importantly, that it is all sustenance. The result is a body of work that celebrates both the abundance of the world and the author’s own creativity (there is perhaps no distinction between them). Barthelme’s singular genius was in manipulating in fresh, startling, meaningful, sometimes poignant, and often hilarious ways what he described (in his essay “Not-Knowing) as the “combinatory agility of words.”

sixty storiesThat agility is on brilliant display in story after story. To take an example almost at random: In “The Indian Uprising,” a modern city is threatened by invading Comanches. The narrator, while awaiting the attack, studies the composition of a barricade constructed from objects gathered from the city, and found “…two ashtrays, ceramic, one dark brown and one dark brown with an orange blur at the lip; a tin frying pan; two-liter bottles of red wine; three-quarter liter bottles of Black & White, aquavit, cognac, vodka, gin, Fad #6 sherry; a hollow-core door in birch veneer on black wrought-iron legs; a blanket, red-orange with faint blue stripes; a red pillow and a blue pillow; a woven straw wastebasket; two glass jars for flowers; corkscrews and can openers; two plates and two cups, ceramic, dark brown; a yellow-and-purple poster; a Yugoslavian carved flute, wood, dark brown; and other items. I decided I knew nothing.”

The narrator’s appraisal of his own lack of knowledge is soon confirmed by an “unorthodox” teacher, Miss R., who says, “You know nothing… you feel nothing, you are locked in a most savage and terrible ignorance…”

She continues: “’The only form of discourse of which I approve… is the litany. I believe our masters and teachers as well as plain citizens should confine themselves to what can safely be said. Thus when I hear the words pewter, snake, tea, Fad #6 sherry, serviette, fenestration, crown, blue coming from the mouth of some public official, or some raw youth, I am not disappointed… Some people…run to conceits or wisdom but I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word. I might point out that there is enough aesthetic excitement here to satisfy anyone but a damned fool.”

Here’s to the hard, brown, nutlike word!


With spring about to bust loose around us, it’s hard to get away from  birdsong. Here’s another look at the subject, adapted from “Reading Nature at Pine Hollow,” a chapter in my forthcoming book about winter on the Great Lakes:

Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, Mahler, Ravel, and other classical composers were inspired to incorporate birdsong into their music, but usually it plays a minor role and amounts to little more than what music historian Christopher Dingle calls “stylized babbling.” Birds had a far more profound effect on the twentieth-century French composer Olivier Messiaen, whose life with birds was a true artistic partnership. Dingle notes in The Life of Messiaen that bird song forms a “sonic aviary” in the composer’s work, and was an ingredient in virtually everything he composed for forty years. His long and complex suites were based upon a lifetime of careful observations, audio recordings, and notations of avian songs he collected during much of his life, in many locations around the world. Among his major works, “Reveil des Oiseaux” (“Dawn Chorus,” 1953), “Oiseaux Exotiques” (“Exotic Birds,” 1955-56) and “Catalog D’Oseaux” (“Bird Catalog,” 1956-58) are notable for making bird songs prominent templates for his piano and orchestral flights.

But don’t assume that this is bluebird music. There is nothing sweet or innocent about it. Unlike the pastoral, lyrical melodies of his bird-inspired predecessors, Messiaen’s bird songs are the foundation of a powerful, dissonant, and deeply affecting response to the brutalities of the twentieth century. As a soldier in World War Two he was captured and held in a German prison camp and witnessed firsthand appalling violence and suffering. His music is bold, original, and unsentimental, modeled upon the structures of birdsong, but more reminiscent of the industrial clamor of steel mills and armament factories than of wood thrushes and nightingales. It is as if an army of Nietzschean warrior birds were on the march, keeping cadence by slamming their swords against their shields. Many of the compositions are for piano, but could be performed with hammers on trashcans. It jars us out of any lingering romance about songbirds and sunsets, and demonstrates that our usual emotional responses to nature are painfully limited. Once and for ever it obliterates the self-flattering fiction that birds sing for our enjoyment. Birds sing for their own reasons – as did Messiaen.

Go HERE for samples of the music. Click on the “right” button to listen to short songs of  the prairie chicken, wood thrush, lazuli bunting, Baltimore oriole, and cardinal — then click on the “left” for Messiaen’s interpretations.

Finally, here is a glimpse into Messiaen’s creative process, or at least what he heard in birdsong (this and the music above are taken from a website that serves as a clearinghouse of Messiaen miscellany:

18th March 1991
Dear Nicholas Armfelt,

Thank you with all my heart for your cassette of New Zealand birdsongs. I have listened to it several times, with joy. The Kokako is very original, with its sliding descending notes, and its deep note that swells in a cescendo up to a high shrill sound. I like the glissando trembling in a cascade, like cascading water, of the Kea. The Tui utters sounds that are sometimes flutelike, at other times grating, absolutely extraordinary. I also like the Bellbird, the Nototnis, the Riroriro, the strange and primitive calls of the North Island Kiwi, the cretic rhythms and cooings of the Yellowhead, the deep boom of the Kakapo. The cries of the seabirds are also very interesting.

Thank you again for this third present, which has given me great pleasure. I assure you of my warm and grateful best wishes.

Olivier Messiaen.