Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thomas Berger, R.I.P.

I was saddened a couple of days ago when I saw the news in the New York Times that Thomas Berger had died. (Link to obituary.) For decades, Berger had been one of my favorite novelists, and as each of his books came out, I pounced--as the photo of one of our bookshelves shows (and not all of the books are visible!).

It was my classmate and friend from Hiram College, Bill Heath, who first alerted me to Berger in the mid-1960s. He told me that I had to read Berger's 1964 masterpiece, Little Big Man, a novel that I've read a half-dozen times since. Of course, I grew up in the Southwest, and as a boy I'd been a ferocious reader of biographies of Western figures--so Berger's novel was a perfect fit for me. Wild Bill Hickok, George Armstrong Custer, Crazy Horse--these and numerous others made appearances in Little Big Man. It's as if Berger had interviewed me before he wrote the book, asked me what I wanted to read, and went back into his study to create it.

Once I'd read Little Big Man, I started reading Berger's earlier novels (beginning with Crazy in Berlin, 1958, the first novel in what would become a tetralogy focusing on Carlo Reinhart, one of the most memorable characters in contemporary American fiction) and then--as I said--I bought each new one the day I saw it on the bookstore shelf and read it ASAP.

When I married Joyce in late 1969, I introduced her and her family to Berger--and she actually taught Little Big Man to some KSU frosh in the early 1970s, and her uncle Paul adored the novel as well; I think her parents read and loved it, too. I remember Uncle Paul asking me (afterwards): "You have any other books like that?" Well, no, there are no other books like that--but I felt exactly the way he did.  I want more books like that!

As far as I know, four of Berger's novels have made it to the silver screen. The most famous, of course, is Little Big Man, 1970, with Dustin Hoffman. I didn't really care for the film because it distorted one of my favorite novels so much. Another was Neighbors, 1981, with Belushi and Aykroyd (from SNL's Olympus), and I remember liking it--but saw it more than thirty years ago, so I think I'm going to have to hop online and see it again.

I learned that two other films are out there, as well--The Feud (1989--which I've ordered) and Meeting Evil (2012--which is now in my Netflix streaming queue). I'll report on them later.
When I posted the Times piece about Berger's death, I heard from a former student, Molly Young McCormick, who said she thought I had taught that novel to her middle school class back ... well, a long time ago. And that reminded me of something: I had not taught the full novel (that would have been professional suicide at the time--Berger can be ... naughty ... and violent), but I had used a passage from it. Just this moment I went to one of my (many) file drawers and found the folder labeled Comp--Conversation (LBM): Compositions--Conversation--Little Big Man. And inside I found the very worksheet I gave to my middle school students for years. (See below.) I also found an old transparency (remember them?) in that folder, one I'd also used in class for years, as well. I wanted my 7th and 8th graders to use this excerpt from Little Big Man to figure out the punctuation, capitalization, and paragraph rules for writing conversations.

In 1999, Berger published a sequel--The Return of Little Big Man. When I heard it was going to be released, I was ecstatic. It was as if a Beatles fan had just learned that a "lost" album had just appeared--or a Frankenstein fan learning that Mary Shelley had written a sequel--or ... a sequel to The Return of the King ... or ... you get the picture.

But I didn't care for it--not really Berger's fault, I guess. I mean, how could anything live up to my expectations? Before I'd read it, I'd agreed to lead a discussion about Little Big Man at the local library. In prep, I re-read LBM (loving it--loving it again).

The presentation/discussion was at 10:00 a.m., June 25, 1999--part of the Hudson Library's "The Last Friday Book Talks." I see in my journal for that day that I pretty much talked the whole time--showed slides, talked about Berger's other books, etc.--typical insecure, over-prepared teacher ... didn't allow much time for discussion.

That same summer of 1999 my father was dying. I was driving back and forth to Pittsfield, Mass., where he and my mom were. He was in and out of nursing and rehab facilities as he was navigating the final stages of his long, wonderful voyage. On Father's Day that year I thought about Little Big Man, about the death of Old Lodge Skins, the Cheyenne who was the father figure for the narrator Jack Crabb. Later, I wrote about that final Father's Day, about the death of my father, in my memoir Turning Pages: A Memoir of Books and Libraries and Loss (Kindle Direct, 2012). Here's some of what I wrote there ...

In my journal that final Father’s Day of my own father’s life I noted that I had once again wept at the death of Old Lodge Skins, the Cheyenne father figure for Jack Crabb.  Knowing his time is nigh, the old man, now blind, climbs to a noble height.  Rain is falling.  Berger himself, I wrote, must have wept as he wrote those wonderful words that Old Lodge Skins cries out on the top of the mountain.
And here they are—

Then he commenced to pray to the Everywhere Spirit in the same stentorian voice, never sniveling but bold and free.
“Thank you for making me a Human Being!  Thank you for helping me become a warrior!  Thank you for all my victories and for all my defeats.  Thank you for my vision, and for the blindness in which I saw further.”

Oh, that my own father—condemned to a wheelchair on his final Father’s Day—could have climbed a high mountain to cry his gratitude to his god—and then die satisfied in a soft rain.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 38

In 1999 I was in Europe for nearly a month (from April 11–May 6), trying to visit every extant Wollstonecraft-Godwin-Shelley site—and any number of places where nothing really stands any longer but where something significant happened. For example, on Friday, April 23, I got off the train in Viareggio, Italy, and walked along the Mediterranean beach. It was there, in August 16, 1822, that Edward John Trelawny, in accordance with local law, cremated the drowned and barely recognizable body of Percy Bysshe Shelley that had washed up (he had drowned on July 8). It was there on that beach that, the cremation nearly complete, Trelawny snatched from the fire the remains of Shelley’s heart.
I’m going to write much more about my journey in subsequent chapters, but it was this trip—or my report of it, anyway—that drew Betty and me closer together. When I finally got home (and I was so ready for that!), I wrote Betty on May 10 with an account of my travels. I told her what I’d learned from my visit at Castle Frankenstein—that it was impossible (as I noted earlier) that Percy and Mary had visited it during their elopement journey down the Rhine in 1814. I also mentioned a few other key places I’d been—Field Place (the estate where Bysshe Shelley grew up), Tan-yr-allt, the Welsh house where Bysshe and his first wife had lived for a bit—and where he claimed he’d battled an assassin late one night.
And this: I will be going to the Library of Congress map room in the next few weeks; there I will try to find an early 19th century map of the Rhine to see what I can determine about the course of the river in those days. I’ll let you know if I discover anything of interest ….
Remember: The Library of Congress is in Washington, D. C. (duh); American University is in Washington, D. C.; Betty taught at American University. I can’t remember, of course, all the ulterior motives that were banging around in my head at the time I wrote to Betty, but I’m betting one of them was this: I’m letting her know I’m going to be in Washington … let’s see what happens.

Less than an hour later, Betty wrote back. She thanked me for sharing the details about the trip—agreed with my Castle Frankenstein comments and said, mysteriously, I have a different theory about the Frankenstein name … but it remains a theory. I never did find out what she meant about that.
But here was the good news: Let me know when you are in town—perhaps we can meet. … With kind regards …

And that, my friends, would turn out to be one of my life’s finest gifts.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Limo Daze

Last Saturday evening Joyce and I passed a limo on I-480 near Twinsburg. But I didn't know it was a limo, not until I pulled out to pass and saw that it was as long as the Orange Blossom Special. (For those of you who are chronologically challenged, the OBS was a train--and a song, here performed on YouTube by Johnny Cash. The train ran from New York to Miami.) Anyway, that limo was one long car, and I was glad for one of the few times in my life that I was on a divided highway--would've been impossible to pass back in the old two-lane days of my youth.

Riding in a limo was not a common thing when I was growing up. Funerals. Sometimes weddings. (Joyce and I did not have one.) Wealthy characters on TV shows and in movies. I don't recall that anyone in my high school rode in one to the proms my junior and senior year. It was costly, yes, but I think a lot of us thought it was just plain presumptuous, too. Basically unthinkable. (Hell, I could barely afford a corsage!)

Anyway, that limo the other night reminded me of one of the times I did ride in one--an event so unusual for me that I published an op-ed piece about it for our local newspaper, the Hudson Hub-Times, on July 11, 1984, almost exactly thirty years ago.

The occasion? Aurora High School had recently presented Guys and Dolls, directed by my good friend Andy Kmetz, who also worked with me on many middle school productions (and on the two high school productions I directed, as well--Grease and The Merry Wives of Windsor). Anyway, the appreciative cast gave Andy a limo ride and two tickets to see Little Shop of Horrors at the Palace Theater in downtown Cleveland. This was in the days before the major restorations on Playhouse Square, and I said this in the piece:

The Palace had not changed since the late 1950s and early 1960s when I was last there! I swear, there was a stain in the carpet and a leaf of peeling paint right where I remember them. Even the seat greeted me with a squeal of renewed acquaintanceship.

I remarked in the piece, as well, about the amenities in the limo--a bar, a TV set, a cut-glass dish of mints. And I said this: When you're riding in a limousine, you don't look at other motorists; they look at you. But I couldn't resist the temptation, and I saw expressions ranging from curiosity to envy and awe to something I can only define as rage. And although I know it's impossible, I'll swear there were some who looked at us and knew we didn't belong!

But, hey, we had a great time, though Andy informed me that the only time he'd ever been in a limo was at a funeral.

Here's the final paragraph ...

The students at Aurora High, with their gracious and thoughtful gift, freshened our vision that night. And were Andy and I, in true fairy tale fashion, granted one wish, it would be that everyone, at least once in a lifetime, could ride in a chauffeured coach, right up to a palace door, and step forth in a swirl of light and a flourish of trumpets.

I don't know that I've been in a limo since then--perhaps at a funeral or two--but I know it's a far more common occurrence today.

By the way, when I looked in my files for a copy of that limo piece, I found a business card for Elegant Limousine Service (North Royalton, Ohio); I see via Google that they're still in business--though much expanded.

And on a darker note--Andy now is in an assisted living unit in Kent, moving only with the aid of a walker. He was a fantastic dancer, and the numbers he choreographed for our shows were always the best part of the night. Joyce and I go to see him on most Wednesday evenings, and we laugh about the Old Days--the plays, the rehearsals. Next time I see him--tomorrow night--I'm going to remind him about that fantastic limo ride in 1984. The night that he and I got a glimpse of another world.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 37

I had pretty much forgotten about my original note—I mean, I’d not forgotten that I’d written to her; I just figured that she was a lot busier than I and had better things to do than to reply to a random email from a retired eighth-grade English teacher in Aurora, Ohio. She was Betty T. Bennett, after all … and I …?
But her note was kind. She apologized for taking so long (though she offered no excuse) and said it is always special to hear from someone who found her work useful.
And then she made a mistake: She asked me a couple of questions: How is your project going …? And: By the way, where are you located? Ask me questions, and you get replies.
I replied the same day—only about an hour later, in fact. I sent her a massive note, one in which I trotted out some Big Guns (my two brothers). I told her that my younger brother, Dave, had published books with the Harvard Business School Press; I told her that my older brother, Richard, was the music critic for the Boston Globe. I told her, again, about my Jack London books; I outlined for her my self-imposed deadlines—finishing the research, traveling to Europe to see the important places in Mary’s story, starting to write the text.
I wrote a thick paragraph, as well, about Joyce and her scholarly and writing interests. And in a final paragraph (a small one with a presumptuous message) I asked her something that I had no business asking—not someone of her stature, not so early in our correspondence. May I send you my bibliography, I asked, & ask if you see any glaring omissions? Anything I simply must consult before I proceed?
I think if I had been Betty Bennett, that would have ended all correspondence. And it pretty much did. She did not reply.
On March 17, 1999—three months later—I wrote again to tell her I was heading to Europe to visit Shelley sites. I asked her if she knew of any comprehensive list of the places the Shelleys had lived, places that are still standing. She wrote back the same day—told me she knew of no such list but wished me happy hunting.
I will mention here that in her first note to me she had said that she was at work on her Shelley biography for Harvard University Press. At the time, I read this as kind of a warning (Don’t try to fool me with the “YA” stuff … I’ve already got a contract with a Biggie Press), but as I re-read her note more than fifteen years later, I detect nothing of the sort. But, of course, my attitudes about Betty are now much different. At the time she first wrote to me, we didn’t know each other at all, but as the next few years passed, much would change.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Sundries, 9

1. This past week saw ... The Hudson Sidewalk Sale! Lots of people, some elbow-swinging at the popular venues (e.g., the Grey Colt), some anxiety on my part: Will I get my table at the coffee shop?

2. And suddenly I have a sore left knee, the same one I damaged hiking the Chilkoot Pass back in '93. That knee has flared over the years, then has gone back to sleep for a while. Once--about ten years ago--I actually was scheduled for knee surgery. Then ... Bell's palsy arrived. They gave me a strong steroid (thus my still-muscular physique), which killed the inflammation and pain in my knee. I canceled the surgery and have not had a problem until this week. I think I know what happened: I tripped on a throw rug in my study. Not exactly Chilkoot-ian, but it did the trick. We'll see what happens ...

3. This has been a week of backsliding, diet-wise. We hit Stoddard's Frozen Custard; we bought bags of blue corn chips ("no salt added"); we bought a massive bag of vanilla-almond granola. I say "we" in all those clauses. That's the right person for the pronoun--but not the right number. Shame on ... "us."

Garner as Jim Rockford
4. R.I.P., James Garner, a.k.a. Jim Rockford. I've blogged here before about my fondness for The Rockford Files and will do a post later this week about Garner. He was an amazing screen personality. My earliest memories of him? The Western TV show Maverick, 1957-62. He played gambler Bret Maverick, suaveness personified, the brother of Bart Maverick (Jack Kelly). Kelly later made a couple of appearances (as villains) on The Rockford Files (1974-80).

4. And--best of all--today is the birthday of Joyce Ann Coyne, who on December 20, 1969, somehow stood in Concordia Lutheran Church in Akron and spoke her wedding vows ... to me.  I had met Joyce (officially) only a few days before her birthday in 1969. We were in the same summer school class at KSU, but I had merely admired from afar for most of the weeks of the course. Our second date was her birthday dinner. Her parents took us to Iacomini's in Akron (I had prime rib, thank you--well, thank Mr. Coyne, who picked up the tab), and I must have worried her parents. I was wearing a new sport coat and slacks from Richman Bros.; the coat was electric blue; the pants were blue-and-white check. I thought I looked sophisticated (I was 24), but I must have looked like something far different to her family. If I saw someone dressed like that walk in the room right now, I'd laugh ... and then call 911.

the restaurant--I think we were at the table
in the lower left corner

I was very nervous that birthday dinner day, July 20, 1969. I so much wanted Joyce and her family to like me. (And I was still in that daze all young men in love feel: I think she likes me! ... WHY?) I don't remember much about the meal except this: Joyce accidentally spilled some sugar on my baked potato, and I quipped, If I'd wanted a sweet potato, I would have ordered one.  People laughed.  Whew.

Last night we celebrated by going to the Anatolia Cafe in Cleveland Heights, then over to the Cedar-Lee to see the film Belle.

I often think about the near-impossibility of our ever even meeting, much less ending up together for more than forty-five years now. I will give her some gifts later today ... but, as always, I know that she is the greatest gift of all.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"We Have Books on LeBron James"

Yesterday, driving over to Kent after a visit to Szalay's farm market, we passed the Stow-Munroe Falls Public Library and, as usual, took quick looks at their electric sign outside, a sign which advertises events and other features of this fine library (that sign is not visible in the photo above). Yesterday evening, I read this: We have books about LeBron James.

Well, the Snooty Me would say that if it's about LeBron James, it's not a book, and I'll confess that Snooty Me was especially Snooty in the ensuing miles we drove. I was barking things like Why not advertise that you have books by and/or about Henry James? Or William James? Or Alice James? Or even Will James!?!? And so I steamed and fussed and fizzed for quite a while. Does LeBron get to dominate everywhere? Even the library, for Melvil Dewey's sake?

Eventually, Snooty Me got tired and More Reasonable Me emerged from hiding, checking the sky to make certain no more bolts of lightning were zigzagging his way.

Yes, I'm sick of LeBron-o-mania; I'm sick, in general, of the excessive celebration of athletes we see from T-ball through the World Series (even though I benefited, moderately (very moderately), from such celebration in my own school days); I'm sick of seeing bright, scholarly kids bullied, marginalized, consigned to the school library while the athletes are enjoying yet another pep rally or bonfire or trophy presentation or any other sort of secular beatification. (Our community willingly--eagerly--spends millions on athletic facilities for kids.) I'm sick of seeing our athletes dominating entire sections of newspapers, entire clusters of channels on cable, astonishing chunks of bandwidth on the Internet, entire universities ...

Don't get me wrong. I've always loved baseball, basketball, and other sports (though I find I don't watch them anymore--but I still check the Tribe score every morning). When I taught, I used to enjoy playing with the kids at lunch (Nerf football, Frisbee, 4-Square, etc.). If you're great at sports, good for you. If you keep active throughout your life, you should enjoy many healthy decades. I'm talking about balance.

Anyway, back to Reasonable Me ...  I remembered, after I cooled down, that I did not begin my reading life with Henry James but with the equivalent of LeBron James books. One of the earliest biographies I remember reading was about Lou Gehrig--I think it was called The Iron Horse. I read piles of cruddy Westerns and sports novels.  Piles. For years. Then, gradually, I began to put away childish things. In high school--under the influence of Mr. Brunelle, whose English classes I had; in college--under the influence of Dr. Ravitz (I took seven English courses from him); in my marriage--under the influence of Joyce Dyer; in my teaching career--under the influence of thousands of students ... I began reading the great works of literary history--and continue to do so.

But it was not Henry James who drew me into the libraries of my youth (in fact, when I was younger, he would have driven me away from the library!); it was Lou Gehrig and Wild Bill Hickok and Jim Bowie and Nancy Drew (I did not let my friends know I was reading about her!) and The Kid from Tompkinsville and ... the assorted LeBron Jameses of the day ...

So, Stow-Munroe Falls: Keep the signs glowing. Get those kids in the library. Get them reading. Try to make sure they never stop, not until the light fails.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Frankenstein Sundae, 36

As I look today at my first email to Betty, I blush a little. It’s more than a little pretentious—more than a little self-serving. I should have known better. I was certainly old enough. By October 26, 1998, I was about to turn fifty-four; I had already retired from my career in the Aurora (Ohio) City Schools (in mid-January, 1997) and was already receiving lots of mail from the AARP. (I was also living on a pension and discovering the delights of that.)
There are three paragraphs in my message. The first informs Betty that I just finished reading her three-volume edition of Mary Shelley’s letters—“a stunning piece of scholarship,” I call them. I say I’ve recently published an annotated book about Jack London, so “I know what an enormous amount of work you did to produce such wonderful, meticulous annotations.” Hmmm … just a little self-congratulatory?
My middle paragraph—the longest—tells her about my recent YA biography of London (released by Scholastic Press in 1997)—and about my plans to write a YA biography of Shelley, as well. I tell her about all the Shelley and Shelley-related reading I’ve done—and about my plans to head to Europe to start seeing things as soon as the reading (or most of it) is over.
I’m surprised, as I read this over after more than fifteen years, to discover I had already read so much of Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. But at the time I was in the first flush of excitement after retirement. I was spending all day every day—seven days a week—reading and taking notes and thinking about the book I would write.
I was also negotiating with publishers, principally with Scholastic Press. I wanted them to do the Mary Shelley book, and I was certain they would go for it. After all, the London bio had sold pretty well, had earned solid reviews, won a couple of awards—the American Library Association had listed it as one of their Best Books for Young Adults for 1998. Here’s what the ALA still says on their site about it: This exciting portrait of the author of The Call of the Wild focuses on London's true-life adventures riding the rails, dogsledding during the Yukon gold rush, and sailing the South Seas.
But in 1998, Scholastic didn’t think they’d be interested—but they wondered about other writers I might do for them? But by then Mary Shelley was firmly gripping my imagination, and I just could not imagine dropping her project and turning to someone else. So I told Scholastic thanks-but-no-thanks, thereby chopping off the only live branch on my publishing tree.
In August 2002, having just finished a draft of The Mother of the Monster, I sent Scholastic a copy—along with a letter detailing the work I’d done on the volume. And I waited.
Four months later (December 12) … a kind rejection. Thank you for submitting … intrigued by the life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley … [not] right for our list … a bit too institutional … please accept our best wishes for your future success.
I was angry.
But began a long process of querying other publishers and literary agents. I have a fat file of letters to and from scores of them.
No luck. And so on March 2, 2012, I published the book myself on Kindle Direct.

And now I realize I’ve once again drifted away from Betty Bennett to talk about myself. Typical. Back to my first email to her …
My final (shortest) paragraph apologizes (genuinely? speciously?) for my talking about myself so much, then praises her again for her “scholarship” and her “devotion to MWS.”
Signed: Daniel Dyer (Dan)
I’m not sure I expected an answer (no mention of such an expectation in my journal for that day), but I know I was hopeful. After all, remember Earle Labor? And, later (as I mentioned many pages ago) Emily Sunstein, who wrote the first biography of MWS I read?

So I was surprised—thrilled—to see a reply in my inbox on January 4, 1999, more than two months after my original note.