Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sunday Sundries, 132

1. AOTW: No one in particular this week. There were some in traffic who flirted with the award, but other than the guy who has taken to riding "my" bike at the health club at the very time I want to use it, nothing too notable--or ignominious. So ...

2. Last night, Joyce and I continued our journey through the films of the Coen Bros. We watched (via Netflix) The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), a black-and-white film featuring Billy Bob Thornton as a laconic, phlegmatic small-town barber whose vague wish for more financial substance leads him into a scheme that turns deadly. Great minor roles by the late James Gandolfini, by Frances McDormand, and by the very young Scarlett Johannson (a teen?!), who makes a very surprising move in the final half-hour. A film about greed, about language and silence--with some shots at a hotshot defense attorney, at our all-too-prevalent cultural ignorance, about, well, sex and its consequences.

I love the look of the thing. The Coens can set up shots about as well as anyone--from the stunning image of a barber pole, spinning, at the beginning to "shocking" scene in prison near the end.

BTW: Thornton must have smoked 6000 cigarettes in the film--and I don't think I saw him blink a single time. Link to film trailer.

3. I finished several books this week--three were from my "Night Stack," books I read slowly most nights, ten pages or so at a time. Just so happened I finished two this week.

     - The first was Selected Essays by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), pretty much a contemporary of Shakespeare (1564-1616). The essays are similar in format: a single theme ("Of Travel," "Of Seeming Wise," etc.), brevity. I blogged a bit about the book a couple of days ago, but today just a few quotations I really liked:

          * from "Of Wisdom for a Man's Self": "An ant is a wise creature for itself, but is a shrewd thing in an orchard or garden. And certainly men that are great lovers of themselves waste the public" (39).

          * from "Of Discourse": "As for jest, there be certain things which ought to be privileged from it; namely religion, matters of state, great persons, any man's present business of importance, and in any case that deserveth pity" (56). [Well, that would leave much to joke about, would it?!?!]

          * from "Of Youth and Age": "Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success" (76).  [Ouch.]

     - John Grisham's most recent novel, The Whistler (2016). I like the first part of it a lot. It's a case involving the investigation of a corrupt judge, and how the story gets going is fun--and deadly. But the last, oh, thirty pages contain basically a re-hash of the relevant arrests, etc., and it seemed to me that Grisham just got tired of the damn thing and just published his notes on what should happen. Disappointment, finally.

     * Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World in Me (2015), an epistolary monograph about race in today's America (with some flashbacks to his own youth), is an eye-opener. Coates writes to his young son, telling him what it's like to be black in America--and warning him about how he ought to behave. It bubbles with rage at times (and why not?!?) but also contains piercing insights about what it's like to be black today, insights that it would benefit every "white" person to read. I like how Coates continually refers to people who think they're white (for, after all, we all come from African ancestors). There is some hope in the book--why write a book otherwise?--but in my view it has well earned the numerous awards it collected for the author (who's a national correspondent for The Atlantic now), including the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

     - Finally (in more ways than one), I finished the most recent book by Richard Ford (I've now read them all!), which is also is final (?maybe not?) book about his most engaging character, Frank Bascombe, who has appeared (and narrated) The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995), The Lay of the Land 2006), and, now, Let Me Be Frank with You (2014), a trio of novellas.

Like the previous Bascombe fiction, this one takes place at holiday time--Christmas this time. And--although I found only one sly allusion to Dickens, Frank is being haunted in all three tales by the Ghost of Christmas Past--or, at least, the Ghost of the Past. In all the fiction, Frank has ruminated about the past--but here it is most prominent. He is sixty-eight years old now and has seen himself evolve from a promising writer of fiction to a fairly successful sportswriter for a national magazine to a fairly successful real estate agent in New Jersey.

It's the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and we see how that vicious storm affected not just people but communities, markets, etc. Frank's own beach house, which he sold before the storm arrived, has been destroyed--as have homes all up and down the beach. He and his wife, Sally (who is not a major presence here--well, a bit), now live back in Haddam, back in the same house where he'd lived years before.

I like how Ford takes a phrase from the end of one novella to use as the title of the next one. Clever. And, of course, I loved an allusion to Billy the Kid on pp. 15-16--Copland's ballet). Frank's allusions are often very literary--vestiges of his past as a writer and teacher. So we get mentions of Naipaul, Auden, Emerson, Henry James, Anthony Trollope, and others.

Frank retains, as well, his sardonic humor--and Ford retains his mastery of the English sentence. "I look at life in terms of failures survived" (189); "He's a thought that might become an act" (243). And on and on.

Well, I have completed my literary journey in my Ford, and I know he has a memoir coming out early this May (so promises Amazon, anyhow), but I hope he is not finished with Frank. I need him; we need him.

4. Final word: A word I liked this week from my various online word-of-the-day providers:

     - from wordsmith.org
codswallop (KODZ-wol-uhp)
noun: Nonsense.
ETYMOLOGY: Of unknown origin. According to a popular story, a fellow named Hiram Codd came up with the design of a soft-drink bottle with a marble in its neck to keep the fizz. Wallop was slang for beer and those who preferred alcoholic drinks dismissively referred to the soft-drink as Codd’s Wallop. This story is unproven. Earliest documented use: 1959.
“And to think that there are people out there -- including some I used to vaguely respect -- who actually buy into and believe that kind of codswallop.”

Jesus, St John, and Mahatma Gandhi need YOU; Malta Today (San Gwann); Jan 19, 2017.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Clutter, Clutter, Mutter, Mutter

February 25, 2017
After a bit you don't even notice it anymore, right? Clutter, that is. I wish I didn't notice it. I just took a gander* over in the corner of my study, to my left as I type this, and notice a disaster my mother would not have tolerated for a second--not in her study, and certainly not in my room. (Not that I ever had a room that was all that great--but let's not get into that sibling rivalry stuff, okay?)

The only neat things are on the wall: prints (L to R) of an old issue of The Youth's Companion (it contains a short story by Jack London--July 1902),,an image of the "Jack London Cabin" in the Yukon (where he lived a bit in the winter of 1897-98 while looking for gold), and another image of Jack London surrounded by things he loved (ships and boats).

Otherwise, the area is a mess, a Convocation of Clutter. You wouldn't dare open the file cabinets, stuffed with miscellany (and madness?). Atop the cabinet is a digital clock, an external CD/DVD drive, some books about Shakespeare, some audio cassettes, some pictures (Joyce, my dad and older brother, me as a kid), and a little stuffed dog that I bought for my dad when he was dying because I thought it looked a little like Sooner, our favorite family dog. There are a couple of file boxes there, too. Not sure what's in them.

The top two shelves of the bookcase are jammed with books about and by Edgar Poe and his times (1809-49). Above them are piled old yearbooks from my school days and from my teaching career. Some replacement cartridges for my printer. Some stuff I can't even identify from here (from my desk chair). There appears to be a bunch of stuff in a plastic bag. No idea.

The lower shelves are even more worthy of ... disgust? disdain? disapprobation? opprobrium? whatever? I see a couple of more Poe things, some boxes that contain small DVDs that used to fit in an earlier-generation digital camera, a notebook (what's in it?), and, in a white box at the far right, a 16mm print of a movie called Secret of Treasure Mountain (1956), a forgettable film starring Raymond Burr (TV's Perry Mason!) and (the reason I bought it), Valerie French, an actress I had a crush on in junior high school. I was writing about her in a memoir--honest!--when I decided I needed to see all her films, and this one I could find only in 16mm. Renting a projector was an issue--but I found one, watched the film, wondered why on earth I'd ever yearned for her ... Now, I see, the whole damn thing is available on YouTube. Link.
Most of the bottom shelf I can't even see from here because it's blocked by piles of notebooks stuffed with doggerel, my journals, my blogs (printed), and other documents of enduring importance to ... no one.

And last, at the right, another shameful bookcase full of things--mostly oversized books about the Shelleys, Jack London, and Heaven-knows-what-else. I'm afraid to go look. So I won't.

On the very bottom shelf (you can just see a sliver of it) is a pink file crate jammed with folders about my public-school teaching career (about the business of it--contracts, newspaper clippings, etc.; the subject-matter folders are crammed in the very file cabinets you can see in the photo).

Also piled on that bottom shelf (though out of sight in the photo) are datebooks dating back decades.

I do not have the energy to do a damn thing about any of it. I know I should (and I can hear Mom's voice issuing some dire orders), but ... I just can't bring myself to do anything.

A couple of years ago, Joyce and I resolved to get rid of one thing apiece, every day. And we did it for quite a while--until we reached things that were no longer easy to dispose of. So ... we conveniently forgot about it.

Still, I know that One of These Days we're going to have to do something about it. Or--just wait until we can't and let our son worry about it?

*gander: Merriam-Webster has this to say about the origin of this expression:

probably from gander; from the outstretched neck of a person craning to look at something

First Known Use: circa 1914

Thursday, February 23, 2017

I Finally Read It--About 55 Years Late

The book you see is mine. And thereby hangs a tale ...

In the spring of 1962, when Hiram College accepted me into its freshman class, I was excited. Though not overly so. My dad taught there. Hiram was the only place I'd applied. I figured if I didn't get in (was that even possible?), I'd just, you know, be the catcher for the Cleveland Indians for a coupla decades.

Not long after the acceptance letter, another one from the college arrived: It contained a list of books that incoming freshmen ought to have read. Implication; If you haven't read these, you'd better get cracking.

There were a few problems. I'd never heard of most of the writers. We didn't have many of the titles around the house, but my mom, who at the time was working on her Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh (100 miles away!), took the list with her and returned one day with a box stuffed with the books. She'd been to the Pitt bookstore, and if you enlarge the image above, you'll see that the little volume cost her 45¢ at that venue.

I was very grateful for that pile of books--but deeply daunted, too. I knew myself. I knew I was incapable, at age 17, of reading them. So ... I flipped through the pile and found Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. I read it. Loved it. Maybe even wept at the end.

Maybe these won't be so bad, I began to think.

I found another novel (I can't remember what it was), but when Mom saw me reading it, she suggested I take on some of the other titles first. Like, you know, Essays by Francis Bacon. I'm not sure what my reply to her was (I doubt that it was civil), but I didn't read much more--not until the fall was upon me, and I had to read three other books for freshman orientation. I remember two of them: James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. (Was the other Dürrenmatt's play The Physicists? Possible. It was published in Feb. 1962.)

I read at least two of those three--but no more of the recommended list for all incoming frosh. (Oh, how I wish I had a copy of it!)

Anyway, a number of those books have remained on my shelf, year after year, decade after decade. They share only one thing: I haven't read them.

Then--as some of you know--we began cataloging our books for sale on ABE, an online book-selling site. (Here's a link to our list--crass, I know; deal with it.) And Essays came off the shelf, had considerable dust blown from its surfaces, and reappeared in my consciousness. Joyce put it on our site, listing it for $18. (Here's a link to that page.) Inflation!

Then Mr. Guilt appeared, once again. And I thought I kinda oughta read it, you know? So I put it among those books I read in bed in the evening--ten pp a night or so. I read just 5/night of the Bacon, though. A bit dense. Full of quotations from the ancients, etc. And, possibly, I was hoping someone would buy the damn thing so I wouldn't have to finish it?

But no. So I finished it. And learned more than a few things--noted some quotations I wanted to remember--some of which I'll share on my blog this coming Sunday--"Sunday Sundries."

I think some more titles from Mom's old Pittsburgh shopping trip remain on our shelves, covered with dust and neglect. When they appear, I'll try to read them. But in some ways I'm no different from that snotty adolescent in the spring/summer of 1962. I want to do only what I want to, dammit! And if things don't work out, if I don't read those books, well, maybe the Tribe could use a back-up catcher?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Frankenstein Sundae, 288

Anyway, Mary’s decision is interesting—to set a scene in her novel Lodore at Niagara Falls, which, of course, she had never seen. She would never visit America—though, as I’ve written earlier, she came close (well, not too close) when the amazing social reformer Fanny Wright, in the fall of 1828, invited Mary to join her in Tennessee to try to make a go of it at Nashoba, her settlement near Memphis (where, coincidentally—very coincidentally—Joyce and I spent the second night of our honeymoon journey in December 1969, our drive from Akron, Ohio, where we were married, to New Orleans, a destination we’d picked because neither of us had ever been there)—Nashoba, where Fanny Wright was trying to set up a model settlement, a place to train former slaves for productive lives on the “outside.” The experiment failed (for reasons I discussed earlier), but that, as far as we know, was the only offer Mary entertained (and rejected) concerning a visit to the United States.
So … what did she know about Niagara Falls? And when did she know it? (To steal from Sen. Sam Ervin in the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings.)
Even in Mary’s day the Falls was a popular tourist destination—though, of course, it was a much more rigorous and stressful journey than it is today—although I can testify that traffic on I-90 and I-190 in and around Buffalo, New York, can be what we now call A Major Pain. Slow, tedious, even a bit worrisome when you get to the international border with Canada. (What will they ask me? Am I busted?—foolish worries for a Good Little Boy like me, but still ….)
So Mary had surely read about the Falls somewhere—or seen the many images available in books and newspapers and periodicals. But there is a more interesting possibility, a possibility involving her old friend and sometime-annoyance Edward John Trelawny—the man who’d endeared himself to Bysshe and Byron in that fatal summer of 1822, the man who would travel with Byron to Greece (where Bryon died of illness in Missolonghi, April 19, 1824), the man who, with Mary’s help, published a book of rarely accurate memoirs, the man who would write repeatedly about his association with the Shelley-Byron circle (and create ever more extravagant exaggerations), the man who, in 1833, visited Niagara Falls, a man who was still, during the early 1830s, writing to Mary and her step-sister, Claire Clairmont, the young woman who had fled with Mary and Bysshe when they eloped in 1814.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Word Anniversary

journal of Wm. Godwin, about his first meeting with
Mary Wollstonecraft--at a dinner with Thomas Paine,
Nov. 13, 1791; they would later marry and have
a daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley,
author of Frankenstein

I recently let an anniversary slip by, unnoticed--no, not that one. Earlier this month was the twentieth anniversary of the birth of ... my journal.

February 1997. I had recently retired from pubic-school teaching (mid-January 1997), and I was working pretty much full-time on a YA biography of Mary Shelley (The Mother of the Monster: The Life and Times of Mary Shelley--available from Kindle Direct--link), a book that took me quite a few years to research and write. I decided to publish it directly when I got some  cancer news, figuring I didn't have a lot of time to fuss with agents and publishers, who tend to go by clocks that run very, very slowly. My clock was ticking much more quickly.

Anyway, I was working on that book--entirely in the research phase--when I realized I should keep track of what I was doing.

And so I did.

In those days I was still using WordPerfect (a program I still prefer to Word), and, at first, I used a calendar template available on WP--which allowed just the briefest entries.

And I should add this: I got the idea to keep that file window open all day, enabling me to add things as I thought of them--or as they occurred. And that idea I got from Mary Shelley's father, novelist and philosopher William Godwin, who kept his diary open on his desk all day, adding things as the days went along. He wrote in it every day, practically to the day he died. He kept it for forty-eight years, filled thirty-two notebooks.

So ... the scan below shows you February 1997--with my first entry on the 8th. (Lightly edited for embarrassment's sake.)

It's readily apparent that using the little calendar boxes for each day's entry was not exactly working out. Too much going on. So by April 1997 I'd switched to a regular text diary/journal; using a smallish font, I filled five pages in April.

Time went one. Years. Decades. And now each month's diary entries consume much more space. Last month for example, (January 2017) I filled thirty-four pages.

So what happened?

Well, for one thing, I started pasting into my journal the letters I had written during the week (several), and I waxed rather than waned during each entry. Mind you, my journal is a record of what I've been doing more than a record of what I've been thinking--although there is some of that. Mostly, I want to have a record of where I've been and what I've done.

This has proved essential in my other writing. Being able to find--quickly--when I last saw Melville's house "Arrowhead," when I saw a certain movie, a play--what Joyce and I gave each other for our wedding anniversary--when I read Infinite Jest--what plays we saw at the Stratford Festival--etc.--all of this is somehow crucial to me now and then.

For example: When I was working on my memoir about reading and my dad (Turning Pages: A Memoir of Books and Libraries and Loss--also on Kindle Direct: link), I was able to be very specific about the events leading up to my father's death in November 1999. I had recorded some of the last things he did and said--to me and to others.

A digital diary also allows a big advantage: Unlike Godwin, who had, back in the 1820s, to do a seek-and-find operation by turning pages, I can do a computer search and find in seconds what I want and need..

I very, very rarely miss a day now--when I do, it's mostly due to illness or travel (though I can keep up by adding to the document on my iPhone or other smart-device).

I print out each month's entries and keep them all in fat notebooks. And I've got numerous online and other digital backups. (Paranoia strikes deep, as Buffalo Springfield once sang.)

Our grandson Logan turned 12 last week, and I read to him from my journal about the day he was born. About what I felt and saw and experienced.

Over the years, I had kept journals--always too briefly--for a variety of reason (one big one: I assigned my students to do it--so I did it, too). But nothing very long-lasting. Joyce has a little diary from her girlhood (it's pink!), and, oh, do I wish I had some writing from my boyhood! What I would give ... in a blue diary?

I now have in the house the diary my great-grandfather Addison Clark Dyer kept during his travels to the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898-99. Priceless--especially when I was "into" Jack LondonLand and when I twice traveled to the region. My son and I found, in 1986, the vicinity of his old gold claim on Bonanza Creek. (It's in other hands now--still active, by the way.)

So ... I'm more than glad that I've been keeping this record. I'm ecstatic, actually. And, like Godwin, I intend to keep doing it until I can't.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Frankenstein Sundae, 287

So what happens at Niagara Falls in Mary’s penultimate novel, Lodore? Not much. Because Lodore is not exactly prominent and/or pervasive in the publishing world these days, I’m going to offer you Mary’s entire paragraph—with a minor cut (nothing significant) indicated by the ellipses, which are mine, not Mary’s
One day … he stood watching that vast and celebrated cataract, whose everlasting and impetuous flow mirrored the dauntless but rash energy of his own soul. A vague desire of plunging into the whirl of waters agitated him. His existence appeared to be a blot in the creation; his hopes, and fears, and resolves, a worthless web of ill-assorted ideas, best swept away at once from the creation. Suddenly his eye caught the little figure of Fanny Derham, standing on a rock not far distant, her meaning eyes fixed on him. The thunder of the waters prevented speech; but as he drew near her, he saw that she had a paper in her hand. She held it out to him; a blush mantled over her usually pale countenance as he took it; and she sprung away up the rocky pathway.[1]
Fanny Derham, 14, is the daughter of an old school friend; he encountered her in New York and agreed to accompany/chaperone her on her return to London. The paper in her hand is a letter from her father.
But … I want to focus on the Falls here. Note that Lodore feels that (quite common, it seems) urge to leap into the Niagara River and surrender to the power of the Falls. (I have actually felt it myself each time I’ve stood by that waterfall; however, I remain dry—and alive.)
In his story “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845) Edgar Poe talks about this compulsion at some length. He says because our reason violently deters it from the brink, therefore, do we the more impetuously approach it.[2] Not surprisingly (this is Poe, after all!), the narrator is not considering a leap over/into a cataract but a murder, which he in fact commits, for which he escapes detection, until … read it yourself! (Link to story.)

[1] Ibid., 81.
[2] Tales and Sketches, Vol. 2: 1843–1849, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2000), 1223.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Sundries, 131

1. AOTW: There were two winners this week of this prestigious award; oddly, both occurred in virtually the same place (see map below showing area of Hudson very near our home on Church St.):

  • The first was a woman driver. I was heading west on Church St. (our street), about to turn left, south, on E. Main. Here came a woman going north on E. Main, but ... problem: E. Main is one-way south at this point, so we nearly had a head-on collision. She smiled--one of those "I-know-I'm-the-AOTW" smiles. And squeezed by me.
  • The second, a male pedestrian. I was heading north on Main Street, about to turn east into Church Street. Then ... I saw AOTW 2 walking across Main, west to east, ignoring the crosswalk about fifty feet north of him. He was a dumb guy on a smart phone. Ignoring traffic (me) and heading onto Church St., east-bound, the same way I was going. He continued walking on Church, talking earnestly on his phone, right down the middle of the street while I crept along behind him, my homicidal thoughts flaring brightly in my imagination.

2. Joyce and I started streaming a new detective/cop series via Acorn TV--a Brit show called Suspects. We watched only the first episode (there are many to follow), and we decided, for the nonce at least, that this would be our new addiction. IMDB tells me there are five seasons, making us 5x more happy (I hope). Link to trailer for episode 1. We haven't learned much yet about the principal characters (we mostly just saw them in action, not in reflection or repose!), so I'm not sure about their personalities, etc. But we'll see ...

3. I spent much of the week reading Paul Auster's new novel, 4 3 2 1, which, I see in today's New York Times Book Review, is Bestseller #13 in Fiction. Hard to believe--not because it's undeserving (it's a wonderful novel), but because it is long--nearly 900 pages--900 large pages. But I hardly noticed as I was turning them.

The novel tells about the boyhood and young manhood of Archibald (Archie) Ferguson, b. 1947. The young man resembles Auster himself in some fundamental ways (as readers of Auster's memoirs--his great memoirs--will recognize): He's obsessed with books, with learning; he loves French literature and France itself; he adores sports--especially baseball and basketball (he's a good, not great, player).


Instead of telling a single story, Auster elects to tell four versions of Ferguson's young life. It's sort of a what-if? novel. What if this happened to his parents? What if Ferguson made that decision instead of this one? What if people's sexuality were different? And on and on. So ... we get four versions of the life, versions that are interwoven rather than told in four discrete segments. We follow Ferguson 1 for a bit, then move to 2 and 3 and 4. (And, yes, there's a quick allusion to "The Road Not Taken.")

The novel had a special resonance for me, principally because Auster is about my age--and leans leftward (as I do). So ... we go through the 60s again--the turbulent 60s. He even has a little bit about Kent State, May 4, 1970--Joyce and I were both attending KSU at the time. All the political things he deals with, the cultural things, the athletic things--all of these were as familiar to me as, well, as today. The Attica riots. The riots at Columbia Univ. Vietnam. The assassinations of JFK and MLK. And on and on.

The emotional power of each version is stunning. He makes us care deeply for each Ferguson--and for the characters around him (parents, friends, relatives). I have to say that I wept freely a few times, right there in the coffee shop where I was reading--reading this book I did not want to end.

I've read Auster for a long, long time--his novels, his memoirs. (Reviewed a couple of them, too.) All good. All remarkable, really. But this, in my view, is a masterwork. One of the greatest novels I've ever read.

4. Final Words: A couple of words I liked this week from my various online word-of-the-day providers.

     - from dictionary.com

oscitant adjective [OS-i-tuh nt]
1. drowsy or inattentive.
2. yawning, as with drowsiness; gaping.
I dread the arrival of the delivery man, who will be even more oscitant than this man at the take-out phone.
-- J. D. Landis, Lying in Bed, 1995

The Latin verb ōscitāre means “to yawn, gape (of animals)”; “to turn toward the sun (of plants)”; and by extension “to be listless drowsy, inactive, half asleep.” The word entered English in the early 17th century.

     - from dictionary.com

whiffler \HWIF-ler, WIF-\
1. a person who frequently shifts opinions, attitudes, interests, etc.
2. a person who is vacillating or evasive in an argument.
Ay, ay; he's a whiffler, but a good man on a sea-elephant.
-- James Fenimore Cooper, The Sea Lions; or, The Lost Sealers, 1849
Origin of whiffler
Whiffler has a sense that is now sadly obsolete, “one who smokes tobacco,” dating from the early 17th century. Its current sense dates from the mid-17th century.