Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bookshelf Revelations

(click on images for larger view)

Last week The Millions ran an interesting article, “In Our Parents’ Bookshelves” by Kevin Hartnett, about the effect E-readers will have on the books people buy in hard copy vs. electronic version and how that will have an impact on what we see on personal bookshelves. Hartnett realized while watching his young son play with a pile of books that “the clunky objects he was playing with seemed like relics.” Bookshelf contents reveal much about their owner. After examining the books on the shelf in his mother’s bedroom at the house where she’d grown up, Hartnett describes them as resembling “a type of monument.” He writes, “I got the clearest glimpse I ever had of my mother as a person who existed before me and apart from me, and whose inner life was as bottomless as I knew my own to be.”

I do not yet own an E-reader, but I imagine that day is not far off. I already buy Kindle downloads for my iPod Touch. I downloaded the free app for iPods last year while recovering from hand surgery, during a time when it was difficult for me to hold a book. I read my first Kindle books holding the iPod in my good hand while my other hand was immersed in the fluidotherapy machine at physical therapy.

I’m not an earlier adopter of gadgets, however, simply because I don’t have the discretionary income to be one. My budget tells me I have to wait to see what the best option will be, and it’s still too early to tell. I want an E-reader that will allow me to make annotations onto the page as the Kindle does, yet I’m reluctant to buy a Kindle simply because I’m leery of having a bookseller as powerful as Amazon have that much control over what is published and how it is stored (and considering how Amazon went about removing Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles last year – copies which the Kindle owners had purchased – that is a serious concern). I was counting on Apple to come up with an E-reader that would dazzle me, but the iPad seems not much more than I already have with my iPod. In fact it even looks like a big iPod – maybe too big. I want an E-reader that is light in weight that will fit in my purse, something about the size of a trade paperback.

One reason an E-reader appeals to me is simply that I’m running out of space for more bookshelves. We’re at a point in our lives where we should be downsizing, but if we bring many more books home we’re going to need to build on an addition just for books. I’m thinking of attaching a silo as a circular library equipped with a very tall ladder. Seriously. I once saw a photograph of one and immediately asked Kevin, “Can we get one? Huh? Huh? Can we get one this weekend?”

I’ve loved books since I was a very young girl. My grandmother had a bookcase in her living room filled with Book of the Month Club editions, which I now realize must have been a huge luxury considering my grandparents’ income. They lived in a very small town in the mountains where the nearest library was twenty miles away. Before I could read, I used to take books from Grandma’s bookcase and turn the pages, amazed that those black markings on the page were words that held a story – knowing that someday I would be able to read them myself. Grandma had grown up in a house with a library room, which I remember well from visits to my great-grandmother’s house. The library table from her house is now in my own home. I used it for many years as a desk, but now keep it in the guest bedroom where the bottom shelf of that table is filled with stacks of books I haven’t found shelf space for yet.

In the small house where I grew up, my parents didn’t have many books of their own. They subscribed to Life and Look, though, and I suspect that looking at the photographs in those glossy magazines had an influence on me wanting to study photography later. After my dad’s retirement he had more leisure time to read, and he then bought books on history and religion which began to accumulate in their house.

The first bookshelf of my very own was built into the headboard of my bed, and I gradually filled it with books from the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden series, as well as paperbacks from Scholastic Books which were available for students to buy through our school. But most of the books I read as a pre-teen were borrowed from the local library, which my mom drove me to during the summer months when I couldn’t get books from my school library.

When I was a teenager, my dad built a pine bookcase for me which I quickly filled with paperback copies of favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and The Yearling among them – as well as more popular best sellers of the time such as Love Story, which all the girls at school were reading. Someone searching through my bookshelves back then would’ve seen a mind trying to figure out her place in the larger world – moving from fashion and advice in magazines such as IngĂ©nue and Seventeen, to the novels of Hemingway and the Bronte sisters, and back to teen idol magazines such as Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine (hello David Cassidy) until I outgrew and replaced them with Rollingstone Magazine (hello James Taylor and Jackson Browne).

College friendships were formed in part by seeing what LPs (those were the final vinyl days) and books were on someone’s shelves and determining what interests we shared, and by seeing what new books and music their interests opened up to us. Now, books are about to go the way of LPs and CDs. Have you noticed how small the music section is getting at stores lately? No? Perhaps you’ve stopped browsing and shopping there too, just as happy to purchase and download the files from iTunes for your iPod.

When Kevin and I first joined our lives together and were barely eking out a living in San Francisco back in the late 1970s, one of the first pieces of furniture we purchased was a bookcase. This was not a bookcase we bought in a store, but rather one that Kevin built after borrowing tools to cut and sand the planks of pine we carried home from the lumber store. We didn’t have a car back then, but somehow managed to get the lumber home on a Muni bus – the 38 Geary, to be exact. Those were the days! Our other furniture had been borrowed from his sisters, but that bookcase was ours. We filled it with used paperbacks we bought for about a quarter apiece at Green Apple Books, which I’m happy to say is still in business and still in the same location on Clement Street.

What my bookshelves reveal about me today would depend on which bookcase you were inspecting. We have books in nearly every room of the house, including the basement. In the study, which Kevin and I share and is the room where we spend most of our time, there are three long bookshelves above our desks. The bottom shelf is filled with reference books and books on writing craft, the upper shelves filled with novels. Lining the top of the credenza are oversized volumes, mostly photography books. In the living room is an oak bookcase with glass doors containing the signed and inscribed books we’ve acquired, many of them by West Virginia writers. That bookcase also holds most of our Beat writer collection, as well as numerous talismans related to the imagery in the novel I’m working on – a miner’s head lamp and coal mine core samples, a mastodon tooth (which can be seen on the shelf in front of the Kerouac books) and various other fossils too fragile to keep on my desk.

Kevin Hartnett closes his article by saying, “It remains to be seen how many more generations will have the adventure of getting to know their parents this way. . . To the extent that bookshelves persist, it will be in self-conscious form, as display cases filled with only the books we valued enough to acquire and preserve in hard copy. The more interesting story, however, the open-ended, undirected progressions of a life defined by books will surely be lost to a digital world in which there is no such thing as time at all.”

What do your bookshelves reveal about you? In what ways do you think the new digital book technology will change how you read and acquire books?

Around the Blogosphere:

A Conversation with Irene McKinney
Watch Kate Long’s wonderful interview with West Virginia poet laureate Irene McKinney on YouTube (WV public broadcasting). Part 1 is here. I love hearing these two distinctive regional West Virginia accents as they discuss McKinney’s work and the discoveries which come out of the writing process itself. More than twenty years ago after earning her PhD, McKinney returned to her home place in West Virginia to finish two books of poetry while on a six-month sabbatical from the university where she was teaching in New York. She ended up moving back to West Virginia permanently. From the window of her home, she can see the house and barn that were her home place. The house she built is filled with books, which you can see in parts 2 and 3 of the interview (note to self: stop worrying about space for additional bookshelves, just start stacking them on the floor). I’ve long admired McKinney’s poetry, and have mentioned Kate Long’s radio series In Their Own Country (which includes an interview with McKinney) in previous posts here at In This Light. McKinney reads several of her poems in the interview and speaks of the memoir she is writing, which she calls “a memoir of place” because she believes describing the region and people she comes from is the best way to say who she is. (link via Meredith Sue Willis)

Literature and the Web
Meredith Sue Willis has launched a new blog, Literature and the Web, and the latest edition of her Books for Readers is now posted online. Information on upcoming appearances and her two new books, Out of the Mountains: Appalachian Stories from Ohio University Press, and Ten Strategies to Start Your Novel from Montemayor Press, both to be released in summer 2010 can be found here.
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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Contact Sheets: Visual Poems and Stories

Dory's Contact Sheet and Negatives

“Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem out of America onto film, taking rank among the poets of the world.”
~ Jack Kerouac, excerpt from his introduction to The Americans

One of my favorite things about Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans” – Expanded Edition is that it includes 81 pages of his contact sheets. There were hundreds of contact sheets from his project, but these were the ones which contained the 83 images he chose for his book. Frank spent two years editing 760 rolls of film and 27,000 individual images down to the 83 photographs selected for The Americans. From his contact sheets he chose 1000 images to make into work prints, and then he narrowed those down to the final 83 for his book

Contact sheets are rapidly becoming relics of the past as photography shifts from film to a digital format. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories those tiny images tell. Made by placing the strips of negatives directly onto a piece of photographic paper, the images are the same size as the negatives, but appear as positives through the developing process of the paper. Typically the first thing a photographer would make after developing the film, a contact sheet served as the first look at the positive images captured. It also served as a reference index for filing purposes to minimize the handling of negatives, which can be easily scratched and damaged.

Looking at another photographer’s contact sheets brings out the voyeur in me (seriously, every photographer and writer has a voyeuristic side – it’s the drive that compels us to pick up a camera or pen, it’s what makes us watchers and observers). I got out my magnifying glass to examine the progression of images on those contact sheets, fascinated by how he approached his subjects.

Contact sheets impose a sort of history on our days and weeks by showing the order in which frames were shot on any given roll of film. Mine include family shots squeezed in between more serious documentary work. Sometimes I am amazed by how many different things are on a single contact sheet – California beaches, an Amish sale in Pennsylvania, my parents’ silver wedding anniversary, and a train ride with friends and family in Pittsburgh. The contact sheet and corresponding negatives shown in the photograph at the top of this post are from a trip across Lake Michigan on a steam-powered ferry that carried passengers and their automobiles. Deep in the belly of the boat were also dozens of Chessie System railroad cars. My contact sheet from this particular roll contains some family shots of our young nephew who had accompanied us on that trip, which included a stop at the Baraboo Circus Museum in Wisconsin.

Today, digital frames are downloaded and filed in a more individual way which breaks up and divides the chronology. Individual shots are easily deleted now. With the click of a button they’re gone. But back then, those old contact sheets told it all when the only way to delete images was to snip them out of the film strip or cross them out on the proof sheet.

Several of Robert Frank’s contact sheets were of particularly interest to me. The first contains the photograph used for the cover of the new expanded edition of The Americans, an image of an American Flag obscuring the faces of people looking out the window, in the photograph titled “Parade – Hoboken, NJ 1955.” The sequence of shots show parade dignitaries and politicians, faces in the crowd lining the sidewalks to watch the parade, then a few frames of the people at the window above the street where an American flag hangs – a scene which he returns to four separate times over three rolls of film seen on three contact sheets.

In contrast is the contact sheet containing the photograph titled “Trolley – New Orleans, 1955” which was the original cover image for the 1959 Grove Press edition (The Americans was first published in Paris in 1958, then in the United States the following year). There is only a single shot of the trolley, that famous image of the riders framed in the open windows and divided by race with white riders to the front, abstract reflections mirrored in the glass of the raised windows above their heads.

Another contact sheet of a highway accident is surprising for the number of images taken of a single scene. The photograph “Car Accident – U.S. 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona, 1955” had always seemed isolated and desolate to me. Four witnesses stand alongside a remote section of highway, the unmistakable figure of a body shrouded by a blanket at their feet in the foreground. But the contact sheet shows more of the overall scene and reveals far more onlookers, cars waiting in line on the blocked highway, as well as an ambulance and police at the scene.

In all, Frank made three trips across the country between 1955 and 1957 for his project, funded by a Guggenheim fellowship (Walker Evans helped him polish the application). Frank’s wife Mary and young children, Andrea and Pablo, traveled with him on portions of the journey, and they are the figures in the car at the side of the highway in the final image of The Americans.

The original edition of The Americans was a slim volume containing no text beyond an introduction written by Jack Kerouac and the titles of the photographs. I’ve only begun to savor all the extras included in this new expanded edition – essays, maps, letters, work prints and contact sheets, as well as the 83 photographs from original exhibit and book. Expect more in a future post about this gorgeous, heavy, 500+ page monster of a book.

“When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”
~ Robert Frank

Around the Blogosphere:

The latest round for National Public Radio’s Three Minute Fiction Contest is based on the challenge of writing a very short story (estimated at around 600 words maximum) which takes three minutes or less to read aloud. The photograph and official rules are posted on the NPR website. Deadline is February 28th, 2010 and the judge is NPR book critic Alan Cheuse.

Check out Edd Fuller’s new blog Photography In Place, which I discovered last week when a Google Alert for my name led me to his post about The Photographers’ Railroad Page and my short essay there “Visions Shared.” I’ve added Photography In Place to my list of favorite blogs and websites in the sidebar at the right of the screen.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

"The Pale Light of Sunset: Scattershots and Hallucinations in an Imagined Life" by Lee Maynard

Lee Maynard’s latest book is his best yet. Described as “autobiographical fiction” by West Virginia University Press, it is a road trip that is part interior journey and part physical exploration of the landscape – West Virginia’s hills and hollers, the Sea of Cortez, the desert of New Mexico, and the arctic tundra. Opening with Maynard’s birth in 1936 in the parlor of his grandmother’s home, very short chapters polished like gems cover most of his lifetime between 1941 and 2005.

I immediately connected with the childhood chapters, feeling a kinship in the way that I do with so many Appalachian writers – and those from West Virginia in particular. The best writers have a way of making us think about our own lives through their stories, and the early chapters of The Pale Light of Sunset had me thinking about my own growing up on Jacks Mountain in central Pennsylvania. Maynard’s chapters are short in length, but long on thought – for both the writer and the reader.

Fellow West Virginia writers give The Pale Light of Sunset high praise. Ann Pancake describes the chapters “Arrow in the Light” and “A Death in the Mountains” as “miniature masterpieces” that “chilled my skin in awe.” Richard Currey describes the stories as “infused with a wanderer’s soul” and calls the book a “narrative of the mind and spirit for our own time.” Meredith Sue Willis describes the book as a “fictional memoir – a kind of heightened and imagined life” and says “Lee Maynard writes better than anyone else I know about how a boy is infused with the rules of American manhood.”

I had the good luck of hearing Lee Maynard read in 2003 at the Quiet Storm in Pittsburgh, as he and friend Chuck Kinder set out on their “Outlaw Writers Tour” along with the alt-country band The Deliberate Strangers. Both had new books out: Maynard’s Screaming with the Cannibals and Kinder’s The Last Mountain Dancer.

Maynard had already achieved notoriety with his first book, Crum, which was pretty much banned in his home state of West Virginia. In fact, Tamarack slapped “Adult Content” stickers on two of my favorite books which I bought there after finding them shelved low and in a very dark corner: Chuck Kinder’s Mountain Dancer and Keith Maillard’s Gloria. When I met Keith Maillard a few years back and asked him to sign that copy, he was startled by the neon green adult content sticker slapped on the cover, and gasped “What’s this?” I explained about where I’d bought it and told him not to worry because he was in very good company on that bottom corner bookshelf. When I asked Chuck if he was offended by Tamarack’s actions, he said he’d be offended if they hadn’t put a sticker on his book.

But back to Lee Maynard’s new book. The foreword “I’m still here, Lowen
stein, you son of a bitch” intrigued me and by the end of the first chapter “The Parlor” which was barely three pages long, he’d totally hooked me. At times I wanted to savor a particular chapter by putting the book aside and losing myself in thoughts about it, but the momentum of the story propelled me to the next chapter and I could not put the book down for long. I connected most with the early childhood chapters and the later chapters. The rowdy and bawdy young manhood years were interesting and surreal with film noir shadings, and they worked well to make the later chapters all the more poignant. By the end – all the rivers crossed, all the running away from and toward something, all the small details as simple and significant as a treasured button – all those short chapters covering a lifetime of decades add up to one hell of a story.

One of my favorite chapters, “1948: My Mother’s Coat” is about grasping the sense of loss. After running away for the day, Maynard returns home in the evening to find his mother gone: “I charge through the small rooms, breathing the scent of her, knowing that she has been here, waiting for me. There is no fire in the stove and the house is chilled. She is gone. Without her, the house has no meaning.” Another favorite chapter late in the book, “2003: Where I’m From,” is about the images that come to mind as the essence of the West Virginia landscape.

On the page following the dedication, there is a wonderful quote by Lee’s good friend Chuck Kinder: “All Stories are true, if they are well written. The question is what they are telling the truth about.” The stories in The Pale Light of Sunset are truths that I will carry with me for a very long time.

Additional Links:

You can see and hear Lee Maynard talk about The Pale Light of Sunset in this WVU Press podcast.

Cat Pleska interviews Lee Maynard at West Virginia Writers, Inc. which is also available as a podcast.

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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Favorite Bookstores: Visible Voice Books, Cleveland

Visible Voice Books, Cleveland (copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon)

We traveled to Cleveland last weekend so that I could interview Bill Scheele, a fascinating man who has led an enviable life working as the equipment and stage manager for The Band from 1969-1976 before returning to his hometown of Cleveland where he has had a long career in the arts which is his first love. Scheele owns Kokoon Arts Gallery, located at the 78th Street Studios – an arts center located in the former American Greetings Creative Studios building at the edge of Cleveland’s Gordon Square Arts District. A bonus stop on the way was a visit to Visible Voice Books in the nearby Tremont area, where Scheele’s photographs were on exhibit through the end of January.

It was a jam-packed day for us, one of those memorable days where everything clicks and expectations are not disappointing. I’d wanted to catch Bill’s photography exhibit, “Look Out Cleveland: Bob Dylan and The Band,” at Visible Voice before we drove over to meet Bill at Kokoon. I’d confirmed with Dave Ferrante, owner of Visible Voice Books, that Bill’s photographs would still be on display, and we planned to stop in at noon when the store opened. That gave us the morning for Kevin to do some industrial photography – a bitter cold morning, I might add (I bravely stood beside Kevin in the face-numbing breeze until tears came to my eyes and my nose turned a deep scarlet shade before I retreated to the warmth of the truck where the heater was blowing full blast).

I wasn’t expecting to be so charmed by the bookstore. If I hadn’t had an appointment to meet Bill, I would’ve spent all afternoon there browsing. I was immediately smitten by the painted image of Jack Kerouac on the entry window before I even stepped inside. Across the threshold I found a warm and welcoming setting.

Interior and Bill Scheele photographs at Visible Voice Books
(copyright 2010 by Dory Adams)

Visible Voice Books offers a great selection of new and used books, focusing on fiction, Beat writers, poetry, art and music. Tables and chairs, comfy arm chairs, and benches are placed among the rows of shelves for an optimal browsing experience – and browse we did. We ended up buying two used photography books in excellent condition at bargain prices: John Vachon’s America and Teenie Harris’ One Shot.

Visible Voice Books is located at 1023 Kenilworth Avenue in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. Hours are posted on their website, including wine bar hours. They are part of the monthly Tremont Art Walk, the next one taking place Friday, February 12th at 7:00 p.m. Look for Kerouac’s face in the window and the sign out front: Resist Much. Obey Little.

Interior at Visible Voice Books (copyright 2010 by Dory Adams)

Visible Voice Books will celebrate its third anniversary on February 14th and they will be having a 10% off sale on Saturday, February 13th and Sunday, February 14th as well as some giveaways. Congratulations to owner Dave Ferrante and his staff for creating a bookstore that’s not just a stop-on-the-way, but a destination in itself.

Expect future posts with excerpts from the Bill Scheele interview – I’m still transcribing tapes. March will take us on a long wished for road trip to Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, New York for a Midnight Ramble. Our house is filled with Levon’s solo music from Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, as well as music from The Band and Dylan, and I’ve begun reading This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band.

Photo Credits:
Top: Exterior of Visible Voice Books, copyright © 2010 by Kevin Scanlon.
Middle: Interior front area at Visible Voice Books, copyright © 2010 by Dory Adams
Bottom: Interior back area at Visible Voice Books, copyright © 2010 by Dory Adams

From the Blogosphere:
Be sure to read Dani Shapiro’s essay "A Writing Career Becomes Harder to Scale" in today’s LA Times about the importance of persistence and endurance in the writing life and as personal and artistic triumphs in the face of the new bottom line in publishing. (Link via Sirenland – Thanks!)

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